Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book Review: The Midnight Disease

Flaherty, Alice W. The Midnight Disease (2004) Houghton Mifflin, 307 pages, $24.00 hardcover ISBN 0-618-23065-3

Trained as a scientist, neurologist Alice W. Flaherty always enjoyed writing. But after the birth and death of premature twin boys, she had a mental breakdown that made her write nearly constantly, a condition known as hypergraphia. She took medication and was hospitalized for her mental state; the medication curbed her compulsion to write but also took away most of her emotion and passion about life. Her purpose in this book, subtitled The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, is to examine hypergraphia, writer's block, and creativity as brain states. In looking for scientific explanations of these states she discusses the functions of different areas of the brain and the role each area plays in creativity or blocked creativity.

Most writers have experienced writer’s block at some time and know that almost everything written about overcoming writer’s block consists of exhortations and exercises to help squelch their inner critic. Yet experienced writers who have been successful in their writing before often know that an inner critic is not what’s keeping them from producing. These writers may find some new insight from Flaherty’s discussion of block as a state associated with both anxiety and depression:

Writer's block that is linked to anxiety is often also tied to procrastination--the process that leads you to suddenly clean out your basement the week before a writing deadline. Procrastination of a different sort can accompany depression. For at the most fundamental (or simplistic) level, there are perhaps only two types of writer's black, high energy and low energy. Unlike low-energy block, high-energy block may worsen as your deadline approaches; it makes you sweat, makes you sit down only to jump up again. [. . .] In low-energy block, the desire that makes you sit down to write is a dull sense of guilt. Instead of ideas, you have only sterile ruminations on how things used to be when you could write, when the world had color. (p. 135)

Although scientists are still discovering how the brain works, Flaherty does have some suggestions for summoning the muse and avoiding writer’s block. "Three ingrained cycles are important for both mood and creativity: sleep, the seasons, and hormonal cycles" (p. 125). Many people, she says, sleep later than usual on weekends, then wake up on Monday with something like jet lag. "The treatment, studies have shown, is to keep the time one rises as constant as possible. The time one goes to sleep is less important" (p. 126). About the relationship between fatigue and writer’s block she says:

A short (less than fifteen-minute) nap during such a lag may be much more effective than coffee. The length of your nap, however, is important. Naps longer than fifteen minutes usually allow you to transition into dream sleep (rapid eye movement or REM-stage sleep), and you will wake up much groggier than if you had remained in nondream sleep. [. . .] sleep deprivation itself seems to decrease creativity, rather than increasing it. (p. 129)

It’s hard not to appreciate advice from a writer who declares, "I don't write to forget what happened; I write to remember. There are worse things in life than painful desire; one of them is to have no desire" (p. 205).

© 2004 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Napping for Creativity

Prototype - We’ll Fill This Space, but First a Nap -

Creativity, in general, involves the ability to see associations or relationships between disparate objects, items, or concepts. In the mysterious process of creativity, the brain forges new neural pathways between previously unrelated things. Research now suggests that sleep may aid in the creative process, just as it improves performance, learning, and memory: "While traditional stories about sleep and creativity emphasize vivid dreams hastily transcribed upon waking, recent research highlights the importance of letting ideas marinate and percolate."

"Letting ideas marinate and percolate" refers to the characteristic step in creativity known as incubation. Traditional advice to sleep on a problem refers to allowing time for the incubation of ideas. One deterrent to creativity, paradoxically, can be thinking about something too much. Once you stop thinking about it and move on to something else, the solution or answer may come to you in one of those "Aha!" moments. New research, discussed in this article, suggests that sleep may aid in the incubation of creative ideas.

To allow employees to nurture the creative process, several companies--including Google, Cisco Systems, and Procter & Gamble--are installing Energy Pods, "leather recliners with egglike hoods that block noise and light, for employees to take naps at work."

Apparently the creative minds that thought up the notion of the Power Nap had the right idea after all.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: A Writer's Space

Maisel, Eric. A Writer's Space.

Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2008
ISBN 1-59869-460-X


In this little (5.5 in. wide by 6.25 in. tall) book Maisel, a therapist and creativity coach, uses the metaphor of space “to communicate how you can get a grip on your writing life and transform yourself from an occasional writer to a regular writer” (p. 3). All your writing space needs, he says, is “a chair, a table, silence, and a little awe” (p. 5).

Maisel divides his discussion into nine sections:

  1. physical space
  2. home space
  3. mind space
  4. emotional space
  5. reflective space
  6. imagined space
  7. public space
  8. existential space
  9. epilogue: creative space: a writing fable

This book is not about the craft or the mechanics of writing (e.g., punctuation, sentence structure). In fact, the weakest section is “imagined space,” where Maisel touches briefly on such issues of composition (probably in an effort to fill out the book’s contents a bit). No, this book is about the mind-set necessary to become a committed, productive writer.

One of the most useful parts of this book is chapter 14, “creative mindfulness,” in which Maisel distinguishes between traditional mindfulness--”the nonjudgmental observation and acknowledgment of our thoughts” (p. 81)--and creative mindfulness, the purpose of which is “to master mindfulness . . . and to employ that mastery in the service of deep thought, rich action, and wide-awake living” (p. 83). He identifies six principles of creative mindfulness:

  1. Fearlessly observe your own thoughts.
  2. Detach from the thoughts you are thinking.
  3. Appraise your thoughts.
  4. Restate your intentions based on your appraisal.
  5. Free your neurons, empty your mind, and ready yourself for creating.
  6. Explode into your work.

These six steps can help you bring creative mindful intention to your work, which will, in turn, make you a better and more productive writer.

Another particularly useful section of the book is chapter 16, “the weight of individuality,” in which Maisel briefly--perhaps a bit TOO briefly--addresses the common theme of the association between artistic creativity and mental instability:
Nature is not stupid. Nature makes the calculation that, for an individual to truly be individual, it had better invest him with enough power, passion, energy, and appetite to manifest that individuality. . . . It should also be clear how this extra energy and fuller appetite lead to conditions such as addiction, mania, and insatiability. (p. 99)

Fortunately, Maisel follows this chapter with another on “quick centering,” a method you can use “to center and quiet your mind and your emotions by taking ten-second pauses” (p. 103).

You’ll have to get your grammar help elsewhere. But for information on how to be in the world as a writer, check out this little book.

©2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Okay, Here’s the Deal about Writer’s Block

Several years ago I fell into an extended period of writer’s block, when I had trouble even writing in my journal. All the traditional wisdom about writer’s block says to just write, write anything. So I began that practice, both in my personal journal and in my professional writing. I’d start each writing session with something like “Okay, here’s the deal about. . .” or “Okay, here’s what’s on my mind this morning.”

And it didn’t take long before this approach began to work. It worked whether I was pounding the computer keyboard or writing with a pen in my journal. Eventually I got to the point where just putting down the word “Okay” acted as the trigger to writing. I gradually came out of my blocked period, but even now when I occasionally can’t find a way into a piece of writing I’m able to use the “Okay” trigger to get me started.

I’m not the first writer to use this writing approach, of course. In The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron tells writers to do what she calls morning pages: three pages, every morning, of just writing whatever comes to mind. Some people call this practice automatic writing, free writing, or free-association writing. The idea is to start writing and keep on writing. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write “I can’t think of anything to write” and keep writing that sentence over and over again. Keep the pen moving on the page (or your fingers moving on the keyboard) until you begin to write something else. Cameron insists on three pages because, she says, somewhere around a page and a half you’ll stop writing junk and start writing gold.

The same kind of thing often happens to beginning composition students. Starting that paper can be a formidable task, but the only way to start is just to begin writing. Often the real introduction to the paper begins somewhere in the second or third paragraph. (This is why it’s so important to edit and revise first drafts.)

Another, related, lesson I’ve learned is that I don’t always have to start at the beginning. Sometimes, when I’m getting ready to start a writing project, chunks of it will come to me that belong somewhere in the middle. Once or twice the conclusion came through first. I used to ignore these gifts, thinking that the only place to start was at the beginning. But over the years I’ve learned to accept these ideas and be grateful for them. Nowadays, if a conclusion comes to me first, I slap the heading “Conclusion” down on the computer screen and write it up. Other parts of the piece will come later, not necessarily in order, and I’m getting more comfortable with that. I can work out the interrelationships between the various parts later. (This is why it’s so important to edit and revise first drafts.)

So, when you have a problem writing, just write. Write anything. Start anywhere. Just write.

Okay, so now you can take it from here.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Daydream Believer

In the earlier post Driving on Autopilot, I talked about driving somewhere and then not remembering the trip. What were you actually doing while driving that you don't remember?

If you're like most people, you were probably daydreaming. Here's how Wikipedia describes this mental state:
Daydreaming may take the form of... a train of thought, leading the daydreamer away from being aware of his immediate surroundings, and concentrating more and more on these new directions of thought.
In his writings on creativity and the unconscious, Freud likened daydreaming to the imaginative fantasy constructions of children and to the creative state of the poet. Freud believed that people are capable of such flights of daydreaming fantasy throughout their lives. He called unsatisfied wishes the driving force behind these fantasies.

Over the years daydreaming has gotten a bad name. Freud said that daydreams fall into one of two categories: (1) ambitious wishes, serving to exalt the person creating them, or (2) erotic fantasies (a category to which, he said, women are particularly prone). Many people think of daydreaming as a waste of time and a sign of laziness.

But recent research has led to more enlightened views about daydreams. When children daydream about conquering the world or otherwise triumphing over adversity, they are imaginatively trying out various ways of existing and getting along in the world. We adults continue to do the same thing. Haven't we all daydreamed about "This is what I SHOULD have said (or done) when So-and-So insulted me. . . ."? In those instances we're imaginatively rehearsing the alternative behavior so that the next time a similar situation arises, we'll be ready. Daydreams like this also help to dissipate some of the negative emotions (anger, hurt, humiliation) we may be feeling from the incident.

So the automatic thinking that occasionally allows us to drive on autopilot isn't always bad. Sometimes it can even serve a positive, healthy function.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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