Friday, June 6, 2014

The Intersection of Psychology and Writing: The Curse of the Self

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how excited I was to have a lot of time to write (full days!) while I was in between semesters.  Unfortunately, that time is coming to a close. I only have one week before summer semester starts and I still have A LOT of work to do for my new class.  So, I decided it was a good time to pause my writing for a week or two and then come back and look at what I’d written with a fresh perspective. 

One of the reasons I thought this would be a good idea was because of how quickly I was writing over the past month. I wrote about 100 pages or 30,000 words over the last four weeks.  Now, I know that’s not NaNoWriMo level, but for me that’s an extraordinarily quick pace.  I’m so excited to have made so much progress so quickly, but the one drawback is that I started to lose my sense of the novel a bit.  Particularly as the chapters piled up, I started having a difficult time keeping everything straight and making sure the scenes were flowing.  I did take the time to outline the whole first draft, but even still it’s difficult to know if the book is making sense when you’re in the trenches. I figured the best thing I could do was take a step back, put it away, and then reread.

Okay, so this is where the psychology comes in.  Right now, I’m prepping a class focused on the “Self.”The Self is basically your subjective conception of who you are as a person. One of the premises of the class is that having this sense of self is a gift because it allows you to reflect on yourself, your past, and the future, but it can also be a curse. Because humans can self-reflect, we can create all sorts of negative emotions for themselves, imagine horrible potential futures, and relive bad memories again and again.  People also keep up a running monologue in their minds, and much of that monologue can be quite negative.  Moreover, in the class, I’m going to discuss how silencing all that self-talk can give people peace and lead to less depression and self-involvement.

Now, I love when my psychology world and writing world come together, and I think this is another great example of it.  I didn’t immediately make the connection, but then I started thinking about why I’m putting my writing away for a few weeks.  My goal is to stop obsessively thinking about it, maybe even forget it a little, so that when I read it again I can have a more objective opinion about it.  I want to see what is actually on the page instead of what I want to be on the page.  This idea reflects one of the general points of my class, which is that too much self-reflection can be harmful.  Living inside your own mind, instead of in the real world surrounding us, can either lead people to be extremely positively biased (i.e. thinking they’re the best thing since Nutella (a personal favorite)) or getting bogged down in self-criticism to the point that they find it hard to work. 

All of us have to deal with these issues, but writers can be particularly at risk because we spend so much time locked away in our own minds, struggling with plot holes and sketchy dialogue.  If we let ourselves listen to that negative monologue or keep replaying the last bad critique we got, we’re at risk of not being able to see our work realistically.  That’s why we have to put the writing away for awhile—so we can detach from it to the point where we can be critical of the work without being critical of ourselves.  That’s also why trusted readers and critique partners are so important.  Even if we can never fully detach, at least someone else can.
I know all of this is easier said than done.  Many people throughout the world spend their lives trying to fight against the noise of the self in order to achieve inner peace.  I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to shut off those inner voices, or if I’d even want to do that completely. For now I’m just going to settle for turning down the volume on myself a bit, in the hopes that I can hear my characters better.

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