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The psychology of writing

I have a very strong interest in psychology that goes back to when I minored in it in college. My list has been peppered with titles over the years that explore various issues in this area and I am always interested in seeing new ideas with a psychological bend.

I enjoyed this article in authormagazine.org by published author Jennifer Paros about the psychology of writing. She used her son as a jumping off point, describing how as a young teenager he decided he had an interest in writing. He was then hampered by a fear of failure, essentially. My 8 year-old has recently expressed a similar interest, so I told her the only way to become a writer is to actually write but when I ask her if she wants to, the answer is usually no. I’m  not yet sure where her reluctance is coming from, but I’m going to keep an eye on it and try to encourage her to keep working on it.

Ms. Paros talked with her son about what was holding him back to get him past his stumbling blocks and the writing became easier and more natural. Eventually the process of writing outweighed the insecurity of worrying about a possible negative reaction in sharing his work.

This is likely a common stressor for writers and everyone else. We all worry, some more than others, about what people think of us or if they will react negatively to something we’ve said or done. It’s the people who use their mental strength to overcome these fears that will likely have the most success in writing or anything else they choose to do, a topic generating a great deal of interest following my client Amy Morin’s recent piece about mentally strong people and things they avoid.

What’s your biggest fear as a writer? Have you been able to overcome your insecurities to find a successful path? Share your stories. There are lessons to be learned for all of us.

13 Responses to The psychology of writing

  1. Lynn says:

    Wow! First of all, I didn’t realize how mentally strong I was. I avoid doing 12 out of the 13 on the list! I won’t say which one I’m guilty of, but I’m well aware that it’s a personal choice to do so. Therefore, I don’t see it as a hindrance.

    As a writer, a concern I have (I wouldn’t say fear) is writing what I want to say, but at the same time being aware of the power of the written word. As for insecurities, writing is a solitary endeavor unlike a musician who interacts with other musicians and gets constant feedback from their colleagues and/or an audience.

    A writer works alone and until the WIP has been revised a number of times, the only one reading what we’ve written is ourselves and that’s not easy. We’re our own harshest critic! There are days when I read my WIP and I think, “Wow, this is great!” Other days I read it and think, “This is terrible.” I’m still on the path to success. It’s right there in front of me. One thing I avoid is #13, so I know it’s only a question of time.

    I wish your daughter well!

  2. Hillsy says:

    I quit writing – and I think highlighting the psychological side of writing is very important. When you read advice on the mental aspect (a lot of it well-meaning but essentially vapid) I tend to think it assumes a certain mindset of its audience. I also think that for certain people, like myself, writing through it ISN’T the answer. Stopping is. I haven’t quite suceeding in quitting fully – I still get cravings and a wash of melancholia when I accidentally build a sequence of plot while daydreaming – but I’m working on it.

    In my case, I can’t separate necessary from unnecessary mistakes. I’m a perfectionist (probably maladaptive) so I can normally start a project on a huge high of excitment, then as I start to link all the character and plot points….well I fall down a fractal hole of trying to fix smaller and smaller problems until it’ll take me a couple of days to write a paragraph. Editing is the same for me. I can’t accept there are mistakes in the first draft you have to make, and I can’t accept there isn’t a “perfect” way of editing a sentance. This only leads to frustration and misery.

    In short, I don’t have the right mental skills to write. Certainly not happily. Annoyingly it’s probably the thing I’m most talented at in my suite of mediocre skills. But the simple truth is people differ; we all have a vast array of mental skills that we are more or less proficient with. And like everything, writing requires you have a few of them. If you don’t, well, I’d probably say prepare to be unhappy. And probably still unpublished.

    • Lynn says:

      Hillsy, I commiserate with you. It seems you have a talent and a desire to write, but as you’ve mentioned, it also causes you to suffer psychologically. Your suffering comes through in what you have written.

      I’m not a perfectionist, but if I’m going to do something, I’ll do it as best I can or not at all. It is frustrating to write something and read it and reread it and not catch a mistake. A perfect example is what I’ve written in the comment above, “…writing is a solitary endeavor unlike a musician who interacts with other musicians and gets constant feedback from their colleagues…” It wasn’t until I posted the comment and read it again that I saw the error. Instead of “their” colleagues, I should have written “his/her” colleagues. It’s inevitable to make mistakes.

      Many artists, in all mediums, have suffered for their art. Striving for perfection is an impossible task. I know, it’s redundant to say.

      I wish you well.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hillsy,

    What if perfection isn’t possible? I don’t think I’ve read one book that hasn’t had a mistake.

    Authors aren’t perfect. I mean, no one is, right? Which makes the idea of achieving something deemed “perfect” an unobtainable goal. At best, we can write a creative mess people identify with in the common mess of life.

    What I’m trying to say is don’t hold yourself back. Enjoy being a creative mess and write on!

  4. Hillsy says:

    Lynne, Anon.

    Just wrote a massive reply then lost it when I inputted the wrong captcha. GAHH!!!

    OK to paraphrase – Lynne, thanks for replying. They differentiate between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism – one tends to be positive, the latter destructive. As in many things, a little perfectionism is probably a positive thing.

    Anon – I appreciate the sentiment, and please don’t stop being positive. Unfortunately, Your advice is quite indicative of the hyperbolic way people dispense advice. Boil it down and you’re saying “How’s the best way to deal with being a perfectionist? Don’t be a Perfectionist! Yay!” Thanks for taking the time to share a little warmth, but dealing with the dichotomy of knowing perfection is impossible, and unable to stop seeing how things might be better, is very complicated.

    The post is about the psychology of writing – my point is I think there are some elements in the psychological make up that, when to prominent, make productive writing unviable. In those situations, I believe the best option is to walk away. I’m can write reasonably well, but I’ll never be a good “writer”. And that’s mainly due to my psychology, and not to my skills. I suspect I’m not alone in any way shape or form.

    • D. C. DaCosta says:

      I ALWAYS highlight and “copy” my post before hitting the captcha. Just in case it fails, I can paste my comment in again.

  5. D. C. DaCosta says:

    My biggest fear as a writer is that I may be the only one who views the world as I do and that there will be no agent, editor, publisher, or reader who will think that I have a valid point of view.

    BTW, having read Ms. Paros’ article, I take exception to the sentence: “There are no separate selves – no “I” at the wheel honking the horn ready to leave, and another “I” refusing to get in the car.”

    I believe that if you write fiction, there MUST be separate selves.

    If you aren’t schizo to a certain degree, how do you get inside each of your characters to figure out how he thinks and what he’ll do in a particular situation? Pretending, for a half hour or so, that you are the elderly nun or the shrimp fisherman or the prince’s secretary is, in my mind, essential to proper characterization.

    • Lynn says:

      I couldn’t agree more, D.C., maybe not as far as being schizo, but you do have to get into the mind of each character to see what makes them tick.

  6. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    OK, all this is precisely why I avoid writers groups et al. like the veritable plague. The minute you start analyzing, you stop doing, and after a certain learning curve to find where the basic roadlines are you just shut up and get on with it. I do my stuff almost entirely by ear-I couldn’t diagram a sentence to save my life, and I forgot the difference between a preposition and an adverb as soon as I skipped out of 6th Grade on my way to summer camp. What I have kept up with by way of “training” is to cultivate an ear for the best in expression in writing, and not by popular acclaim-so that I see that parts of Salems Lot by Stephen King soar way beyond anything any of the so-called literary giants are known for, for instance, and I try to stay on that kind of wavelength. If my stuff passes the “Who Test”, then I put it down and leave it alone beyond an occasional cosmetic touchup. By the way, the “Who Test” is based on the fact that in ’68 or thereabouts, The Who was considered a bunch of grubby lads from the wrong side of London barely worth filling the bottom of the bill at the big TV special the Rolling Stones were filming that year. They went on, and blew the roof off the joint-even die-hard Stones fans couldn’t stop watching. The Sones were so mortified they parked their TV special in the vault for the next 30 years without ever releasing it. I try to avoid overtripping the bill like that, but it’s hard to put the brakes on once the Martian surface is coming up in the headlights, so just concentrate on an intact landing, and let somebody else quibble over the psychology of it all……… (And try to stay away from Starbucks before blog-posting to avoid tedious verbosity)

    • Lynn says:

      Another gem dispersed, I love it! (If only DGLM had a “thumbs up” or a “like” button.) I know I’m getting off topic here, but how do you know this if The Rolling Stones hid the special away? Is it available now? I love The Who and that would be great to see!

      • Kevin A. Lewis says:

        It’s called The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, and it’s been out on DVD for several years now; features a soon-to-be-dead Brian Jones and a screeching Yoko Ono at her most bizarre. The kids may be interested in the now long lost art of rock drumming, which is one of the things you seldom see on SNL these days… This video is one of the reasons I can’t listen to “The Little Drummer Boy” with a straight face anymore-the image of Keith Moon entertaining the baby Jesus by knocking over cymbals and throwing the tom-tom over the back of his head without missing a beat just overloads the circuit breaker, y’know?

  7. Stacey says:

    Thanks to all of your for your thoughtful and insightful comments. I’m glad to see this post sparked an interesting discussion as any good psychological debate should!

  8. David says:

    I had a fear of one and two star reviews. With time, I have come to understand that if you are marketing a work of fiction to the public,regardless of how well it is written, edited, plotted out, etc, about 15% to 20% of the readers will not enjoy the book. They are a different kind of reader, and it is not personal at all.

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