Writer's block, an owner's guide: NaNoWriMo: year 3
For the last two years I’ve used National Novel Writing Month as a chance to learn about how writers are motivated to be productive. 143 NaNos volunteered to answer questions during the month, and I gathered some interesting new information.
This year I’m there again. This project will be the simplest of the three. If you’re a NaNo this year, please think about being part of it. I’ll only ask you to do one thing: fill out two questionnaires in the next couple of days. At the end of November I will download your final wordcount from the NaNoWriMo server. And that’s it. Nothing is hidden from you and everyone is doing the same thing.
What I’m trying to find out is what work habits are associated with successful writing. Part of the deal is that I will let you know what I learn. I’m also taking this chance to expand my collection of reversal theory profiles.
This project is the sixth (I think) in a series of studies of the psychology of writing under the auspices of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, San Francisco.
If you are over 18 and you’d like to be part of this, please go here and do it right now. Thanks!
Published on November 3, 2007 at 8:56 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/nanowrimo-year-3.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Major post: a new look at writer’s block
I’ve been quiet on this page for a while because – well, lots of reasons but they include that I’ve been working on that research project I told you about in October.
The results are surprising and intriguing. So much so that I am nervous about telling you before I get a book written on the subject. But here it is.
My main research results are straightforward. They clearly support something not too far from the hypothesis I started with. They show the positive effect on writers of regular contact with a researcher. If you’ve studied management, you’ll recognize this as the Hawthorne Effect, but this is a sighting of it in a quite different environment: with people who are working voluntarily, not factory hands. So that’s quite interesting.
But it’s not the exciting part.
I’d also asked all my research participants to take a test based on that old Today I Write favorite, Reversal Theory. Now, that was never a key aspect of the project. I only did it as a distraction, so the control group wouldn’t notice they had nothing else to do (sorry guys). But the test results were startling.
Look: it’s well established by research that the creative personality tends to be more impulsive / playful, more non-conformist (rebellious?), and more self-centered than the average person. And my data confirm that. Ho hum.
But in my group, the writers who had those characteristics most strongly were the ones who ended up writing less than other people. Huh?
Also, last year when I was testing people every day, I found that on the most productive days writers were less likely to be in those four states.
What does this mean? Writing is some sort of rebellion or denial of our everyday personalities? On a good writing day, do we say to ourselves, “today, for a change, I’ll work and ignore tempting diversions; today, for a change, I’ll keep the agreement I made with myself at the outset; today, for a change, I’ll focus on communicating my ideas to other people”?
If a writing day is a day of deliberately doing what’s totally opposite to your everyday nature, no wonder it’s so puzzlingly difficult. No wonder we need the idea of block to explain why it’s sometimes “impossible” for an educated, highly motivated adult to do something a five year old can do.
I have a lot to say about this.
Published on January 19, 2007 at 10:00 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/major-post-a-new-look-at-writers-block.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Today I Wresearch
Last year, as reported here, I used National Novel Writing Month as an opportunity to meet tens of thousands of creative writers and to recruit a few dozen of them as research volunteers. It seemed to benefit their productivity, and it certainly benefited mine. I answered the research questions I had, including getting some surprises, and learned some other stuff too.
I’m doing it again, mostly digging deeper into one of the interesting things I discovered last time. If you’re thinking about taking part in NaNoWriMo, think also about signing up with me on this page. If you’re not, consider it. Of course you can’t write a novel in a month. But you can write a first draft.
Consider: if the draft is crap, first drafts almost always are. It’s part of the process. Some researchers recommend a deliberate two-step process: first write out all the things you want to say, without any regard for literary merit, and then go back and edit. They are two different mental processes, and trying to combine them may be one cause of blocking.
Consider also: if you don’t have an outline of your novel yet, you can still start. Saying you can’t is just a rule you made up for yourself, and you have the right to change that. Other researchers have pointed out that writers have more fun when they’re totally creating than when they’re following an outline. And exploring and having fun must be good for your productivity, mustn’t they?
Published on October 17, 2006 at 8:58 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/today-i-wresearch.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: NaNoWriMo research, further update
I presented my recent writer’s block research at the Saybrook research center last week, and here’s a summary of that information. And here’s a summary of the summary: on a productive writing day, people were likely to be feeling purposeful (rather than playful), and motivated by thoughts of competence, of other people and (possibly this one’s because of the unusual research setting) of complying with established rules. Some of this surprised me.
People who did not give up on their novels, while others were dropping out, scored higher on three of these four scales.
Something that surprised me was how strongly regular contact with me was linked to productive writing, and to endurance. I must start renting myself out.
Published on January 27, 2006 at 8:03 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/nanowrimo-research-further-update.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: NaNoWriMo research info (very short)
Very briefly, because it’s late at night and I have things to do tomorrow. I finally finished analyzing more than a thousand reports made by participants in that research I told you about and here are a few bullet points that I’ll spill for you from my memory:
1. productivity in writing IS correlated with the “metamotivational states” described by reversal theory, specifically with the telic, alloic, conformity and mastery states. More about this when I’m awake.
2. research participants who heard from me every day had a 50% better chance of staying the course for the whole month compared to those who didn’t.
3. research participants who heard from me every day wrote more than those who didn’t.
4. research participants wrote more than regular NaNoWriMo participants (no big surprise there but good to have it confirmed).
So what does all this mean? It means scientific support for a lot of what I’ve been suggesting here since the middle of 2004 – that some of the psychology of writing can be accounted for by the work of Apter, Deci, Amabile and the rest of ‘em, and that writers can be helped by those insights. I’ll say more about this in Today I Write.
And tonight I sleep.
Published on December 28, 2005 at 2:26 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/nanowrimo-research-info-very-short.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Sports and Creativity: the same thing?
Jock and Gordon Abra noticed that sport and creativity are alike. They’re both uniquely human activities, and they have some other similarities that we’ll get to in a moment.
Because sport and creativity are alike, the Abras suggest using sports as an analogue to help us understand creativity. They think this could help us to understand creativity (obviously they’re assuming that we know more about sport than we do about creativity, otherwise why bother?).
A couple of similarities:
- they are both uniquely human activities
- they make little sense from a rational or utilitarian point of view
Some differences between sporting activity and creative activity:
- sport is “usually” a physical activity while creativity requires imagination
- creative work generates tangible products while sporting achievement is ephemeral
- creativity is future-oriented whereas sports are largely set in the here and now
- creative people “tend to feel alienated from general society, misunderstood and unappreciated” while great athletes receive adulation and hero worship
- creators tend to be introverted and androgynous, while most athletes are emotionally stable (but this isn’t the opposite of introverted?) and score highly on measures of masculinity.
The point of all this is that sports can be used as an analogy for creativity. Here are the advantages of doing that:
- because it’s easy to identify great athletes, you can learn about creativity by looking at them instead of taking the trouble to find the people you’re really interested in.
- if you accept the sports analogy, you’re also likely to buy into the Abras�point of view on a different controversy (which we won’t go into here because why would you care?)
- the parallel between sports and creativity has allowed the Abras to develop a theory of motivation that applies to both. I’m really not sure what this theory is: my best understanding of what I’ve read (and I’m serious here) is that both activities are motivated by motivations which motivate both activities.
- knowledge gained in one domain may be applied in the other. This is true and it’s why I’m interested.
There are four shared motives for these two human activities:
- “life’s ambiguities” which are temporarily resolved by the clear boundaries of the playing field and by an activity with clear rules and outcomes.
- the need for intimacy, expressed both in cooperation and in competition.
- the need to express “vague but intense feelings that we cannot put into words” to which we can only point, using symbols such as uniforms and team logos as well as the symbolism of sporting action itself.
The importance of all this for me and for this whole writer’s block project is that, if Abra & Abra are correct and we can use sports as an analogy to help us understand creativity, then sports psychology becomes useful as a way to explain and treat the problems of creators.
I said, “then sports psychology becomes useful as a way to explain and treat the problems of creators.” Amd that’s central to what I’m doing here. To my own surprise, things that have been discovered by sports psychologists are turning out to be relevant to creative block.
Enough for one day.
Published on March 26, 2005 at 12:04 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/sports-and-creativity-the-same-thing.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Reversal Theory and blocking
Let’s talk about reversal theory again, because it’s at the heart of my approach to the fun part of all this: actually curing writer’s block.
Reversal Theory has been used in therapy with various problems, but it found its home in sports psychology. The key to counseling athletes has been to find the inappropriate reversals that interfere with performance, and then find ways to prevent or correct them. (Go read John Kerr’s books for yourself; there’s a new one just out; they probably won’t be reviewed in this weblog any time soon because the blog is not about sport). The question I’ve been asking myself is whether, given reversal’s theoretical relevance to the writing life (which I’ll explain tomorrow), reversal-based counseling would really be useful to writers.
To begin answering that question let’s look at how a “reversal therapist” (I just made that up right now but I like it as a job title for myself) might deal with the problems of a few writers. All of these vignettes are based on true stories.
Challenge: In high school Andrew always found creative writing was the easy option. It needed no preparation and he knew he could respond to any homework assignment and any test paper. He began writing science fiction and submitting his efforts to magazines. After years of this Andrew, now a college student, got a letter of from a prominent editor and author that was obviously personal, individual advice. At last he could see himself as a Writer, a recognized candidate member of the creative community. His response to this exciting encouragement? he didn’t write another word of science fiction for many years.
Assessment: This is a simple example of reversal from paratelic to telic. Andrew’s writing changed from a hobby to a potential paying activity. It’s relevant that this happened just as he was moving away from childish dependence on his parents and into knowing about real life.
Andrew’s challenge is that, once he defined himself as a writer, he lost sight of the pleasure of writing for its own sake.
Treatment: So he needs to reverse from telic to paratelic. This isn’t easy to control. Of the three ways to encourage reversal, satiation would be hard to induce, and by definition long-term blocked writers seem not to benefit from frustration. So contingency seems the most feasible. In short, we need to make writing fun again.
The counselor might help Andrew to see that professionalism isn’t an all or nothing choice and that people whose work is writing can also write for pleasure. The counselor might urge Andrew to try some enjoyable form of “pointless” writing such as journaling or even giving himself permission to ‘write chatty emails for a few minutes in each hour. This wouldn’t directly address his difficulty with making progress on money-making projects: and that is exactly the point of it.
Because they’re rooted in a purposeful and theory-driven strategy, these tactics might be acceptable to Andrew, and he might overcome his suspicion of morning pages and other ‘time-wasting’ activities.
Challenge: Brenda is a writer of proven ability who has successfully written some screenplays. Some of them are adaptations of historical events, others are soap-opera episodes written from outlines that the producers supply. Now she wants to create a fully original play or – an even bigger project – her first novel.
But Brenda can’t develop a plot. She works hard at thinking about this and at studying writing textbooks, but nothing helps. She knows that other people have no difficulty turning out one story after another. That doesn’t help either. She’s not willing to do what works for some of them – to start writing without really knowing where the story will go. That doesn’t suit her
Assessment: This is harder to analyze. Brenda’s state is clearly telic (that’s why she does anxiety-reducing activities like reading handbooks, which is a popular substitute for action). Perhaps like Andrew she’d do better if she could reverse that: maybe she could find ways to make story development fun (such as working with a partner) or find a way to give herself a break from the sense of urgency.
But that doesn’t seem to be what’s actually troubling Brenda. She has something else going on. By any normal standard she’s a healthily productive writer. The problem that brings her to a therapist is, really, that she’s not satisfied by her proven strengths and wants to develop additional strengths. So the issue becomes one of mastery [Note to myself: To Do: it's also a question of how to maintain flow as you grow more skilful]. The combination of the telic and mastery states is a breeding ground for guilt, shame, and the fear of being found out.
Treatment: There are two things a reversal therapist might do. One would be to discuss his analysis with Brenda and invite her to think consciously about whether she could be content with being the acknowledged productive writer that she already is. By playing to her strengths she could develop a niche market, she could write and sell many more of her historical stories and soap episodes and she could decide to accept the resulting recognition.
But she might decide that she still wants to work on her inability to create original stories. Then she must move out of the mastery state and into the sympathy state. Mastery of technique is important, but the mastery state, in which you get so concerned with technique that the audience becomes secondary, isn’t healthy for an entertainer. Let her recreate herself as a storyteller and entertain others. One way to let go of not knowing how to tell the story is to go tell it to someone. Another is to write it as if you were writing to a friend. Perhaps Brenda would like to envision friends sitting around a campfire, and then speak into a tape recorder.
These practices might cause a second, parallel, reversal from autic to alloic, which would help Brenda to get out of her head.
Challenge: Charles is a beginning scriptwriter, with some minor credits. One day, while he’s working at his day job, a producer calls. “I liked your spec script: I want to hear any other ideas you have for full-length productions!” He does have a great idea, but this is not a conversation he can have on his employer’s phone. He promises to get back to her. Now he says he “can’t” make the call.
Assessment: Charles’s problem is quite like Andrew’s. The producer’s call changed Charles from a wannabe to a contender. It’s one thing to submit spec scripts to anonymous editors, another to attend meetings about your own ideas. His behavior is an example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as creative people love to do.
In Charles’s case one factor was that he seems to have been in the telic state: he experienced the excitement of the phone call as anxiety. If he’d chosen to have it as positive excitment he might have Answered The Call more enthusiastically and persuasively. Maybe he’d even have come up with a creative solution to completing the conversation? So one approach to Charles’s problem would be to teach him how to access the paratelic state.
Charles wants to make the right impression in the hope of doing himself some good. In other words he is in the autic state while he’s trying to do something that would be easier in the alloic (I guess one of the advantages that established writers enjoy over people like Charles is the freedom to deal with existing and new business contacts in a relaxed, natural way that must be good for business).
Charles is also keen to demonstrate his skills as a writer and have his claim to membership of the creative community confirmed (this is an issue of mastery). The trouble is that the need to demonstrate his ability is probably what caused his paralysis. Things would go so much better if he could avoid disappointing the producer.
Treatment: Making the reversal into the alloic state would require a conscious decision to feel friendly towards an important stranger. Depending on Charles’s pre-existing skills this might be difficult.
To access the paratelic state, Charles can use broadly the same methods as Andrew. The cure could be as simple as reminding himself that every one of us can choose to experience stage-fright as anxiety or as excitement.
Charles needs to return the call at once, relate to the producer effectively, share his enthusiasm and show that he is ready to hear expert advice. He could make these tactical moves better in the sympathy state. To move him into it from his mastery state the counselor could try guided relaxation, helping him to accept the fact of his existing talent and to relate to the producer’s own needs.
I’ve deleted Vignette 4 because I couldn’t get the permission of the heavily-disguised writer I was going to tell you about. See how considerate I am?
I did check with Andrew, Brenda and Charles and they all say that my interpretations gave them surprising insight into questions that have bothered them for years, and they are positive about my ideas for changing things. This is a pretty good result for what’s basically a thought experiment.
Now, then. Nothing I’ve suggested here is novel. Other therapists might do the same things, for their own different reasons. What’s new here is the reversal framework. It gives writers a credible structure within which we can make sense of our experiences, reduce our anxiety and be more ready to try helpful responses to the challenges. And I think that is good.
Published on March 25, 2005 at 7:37 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/reversal-theory-and-blocking.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Reversal theory
What’s it been? A month? Anyway, the break is over. I’ve dealt with the projects I needed to deal with; some of them done, others reprioritized. This morning saw me starting to design my writer’s block workshop in Encino (which will happen in 5/05).
And what shall we talk about today? I know, let me share this extended version of my description of reversal theory, a useful window on the confusing picture which is writer’s block.
Reversal theory and writer’s block
I see it as a useful window on the confusing picture which is writer’s block, and a model which may help writers keep track of their own mental states. It’s the easiest explanation I’ve found for the benefit I personally get from deciding to blog rather than to write the same words in a way that would feel like work. So that’s why it keeps popping up here in Today I Write.
According to Apter, then, motivation isn’t a matter of seeking low or high arousal, or a balanced moderate arousal, at all times. Instead he says we are always in one of two “metamotivational” states, the telic state (where you are goal-oriented and relatively forward-thinking) and the paratelic state (where you prefer activities with an intrinsic and immediate reward).
The Greek names are appropriate but you could think of these states as “task-oriented” and “playful and in the present moment.” The difference between them is the difference between, say, a slow painful walk to work on Monday and the same person’s enthusiasm to run twenty-six miles at the weekend.
In the telic state, you experience arousal as anxiety and you try to avoid it; in this state you’d prefer relaxation, and so you’d work to get the task done and to move on. In the paratelic state, arousal feels like excitement, you look for it and you want it to continue, and when it stops you feel boredom.
And at all times we are in one or other of these states.
Six more states
A second pair of states is the conforming and the negativistic. Here again you expect to be in both states at different times, oriented towards either rule-keeping or rule-breaking. But (obviously) not both at once.
Two more pairings, which have more to do with the interpersonal situation, are the states of mastery (possibly of a task or a tool) and of sympathy for others, and the “autic” and “alloic” states (in which your own interests take precedence over, or are subordinated to, those of others).
Switching back and forth between opposite states is the “reversal” which gives the theory its name.
Reversal isn’t something you can consciously control. But it is influenced by circumstances in predictable ways. If you knew what those ways were you could change your circumstances and change your state. Want to know the ways?
Just briefly, for now, there are three. A contingency like a sudden alarming event can (obviously) change your state of mind. Frustration, when you find your approach to a situation isn’t working, can induce reversal. And satiation can cause reversal after you’ve been in a single state for a long period.
The key to counseling athletes, using this framework, is to identify inappropriate reversals that impede performance, and suggest ways to prevent or correct them. The question I’m thinking about is whether the same kind of counseling would be useful to writers.
Anyone want more of this? Anyone wondering what I think writers should actually do?
Published on October 2, 2004 at 1:36 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/reversal-theory.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Reversal theory
Now for something different; motivation theories. Established theory tells us that humans are always seeking a balance between boredom and anxiety.
Michael Apter doesn’t agree. How (he says) does that account for my excitement-seeking behaviors like sex and sky-diving, or for my enjoying doing nothing on a Malibu beach Sunday morning? Why are my actions inconsistent and why do I give different reasons for the same action at different times?
And he answers that it’s because I’m not a balance-seeking animal. I have within me opposite drives towards opposite extremes. At different times I seek high arousal and low arousal.
His Reversal Theory says that our mental states are not static, but change and fluctuate (see, what a relief, everyone’s covering up the same flakiness, and everyone’s spouse is multi-faceted. I’m serious). The most important of these reversals is between the “telic” and “paratelic” states. In the telic, you’re goal-oriented and relatively forward-thinking; in the paratelic, the activity is its own reward. The Greek names are appropriate, but it’s easier to think of these states as “task-oriented” and “playful.” The difference between them is the difference between a slow painful walk to work on Monday and the same person’s enthusiasm to run twenty-six miles at the weekend.
So to sum this up, Apter says we’re not driven to try to balance boredom and anxiety all of the time, and that we actually switch back and forth between two opposite orientations.
He describes three other pairs of states. They’re of less importance for our present purpose, but of some importance, so guess what, yes, I’ll be coming back to this too one day.
This theory has interested me for a while because I think it might provide one explanation of writer’s block. It’s been used in various areas of psychology – notably in sports psychology- but Michael Apter tells me it has not been applied to block.
How would that work? Well, just briefly, because once again I’m writing late and facing a 12-hour work day, it would explain how we switch between the excitement of beginning a project and the drudgery of continuing it. It might explain how, more than once, I’ve negotiated to get graduate school credit for things I was going to do anyway and then found I was no longer motivated to do them.
More on all this later but I think, before we do that, let’s take a look round self-determination theory.
Published on August 4, 2004 at 1:00 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/reversal-theory-2.html