To Write or To Type: That Is The Question

I recently stumbled across a thought-provoking essay entitled “The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand” by Daniel Chandler.

He proposes that there are at least two different “types” of writers–Planners and Discoverers–and that these contrasting personalities might prefer different modes of expression (i.e. writing by hand vs. by word processer). In his words, “Planners tend to think of writing primarily as a means of recording or communicating ideas which they already have clear in their minds; Discoverers tend to experience writing primarily as a way of ‘discovering’ what they want to say.” He acknowledges that every writer is a bit of both–writing would be practically impossible without some planning beforehand (you must at least have the kernel of an idea to begin), and, on the flipside, it would be rare for an author to craft a story without discovering anything new along the way.

But if you had to choose, which do you identify with most strongly?

I, myself, am a Planner–I retell a story to myself over and over in my mind before I set the first words on the page. I believe this brings authenticity to my stories–they are not written until they are real–but I do not undervalue the sparks of discovery that the writing process inevitably ignites; sometimes the best moments in my stories occur when my characters take charge and do what they want, with complete indifference for my tidy outline.

The essay goes on to explore how these two orientations might differ in terms of  values, self-revision, editing, and language precision, as well as the role that writing tools (pens vs. pencils vs. word processers) play in this process. Here’s an excerpt:

“Different tools vary in the support they offer for revision, and their use tempers the experience. Writing by hand is not limited to the pen: the pencil is in some ways a quite different medium. Henry Petrosky (1989) suggests that the pencil is ‘the ephemeral medium of thinkers, planners, drafters and engineers, the medium to be erased, revised, smudged, obliterated, lost – or inked over,’ contrasting it with ink, which ‘signifies finality.’ It is a medium supportive of design. This may begin to explain why some literary writers prefer to begin in pencil. Hemingway wrote initial drafts in pencil: ‘You have to work over what you write. If you use a pencil… it keeps it fluid longer so that you can improve it easier’ (Strickland, 1989). Many writers, of course, experience a similar fluidity with the word processor. The word processor extends the malleability of the written word. Paper ‘sets’ text, but text on disc and screen is ‘wet’ and workable. Some writers enjoy this sense of fluidity. However, some report that the ease with which they can edit encourages them to be ‘sloppier’ or less critical than they feel they are with the pen or the typewriter (where words must be pre-considered). Some feel that the word processor encourages them to do too much editing, and leads to a loss of spontaneity. And as we shall see, some simply find screen-based text too ephemeral.” (Chandler)

I don’t have the time or space to summarize the entire essay (and it’s better to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, anyway–read the full text here: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/phenom.html), but, based on what you’ve just read, I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder: Do you write by hand, or by word processer? Could your choice of tool affect your creativity? What are the pros and cons of each mode of expression?

It’s been a LONG time since I’ve written by hand–I like to edit as I go, and I find that typing is a much quicker way to get my words on the page–but Chandler’s intriguing essay makes me wonder just what I might have to gain from reconnecting with the physical act of writing…

UBUNTU: My World Wildlife Fund Panda Page

Celebrate the Year of the Tiger! Visit my World Wildlife Fund Panda Page to learn more about WWF’s many conservation efforts and how you can help:  http://wwf.worldwildlife.org/goto/ubuntu

Site’s Still Active!

“The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness.” 
~Julia Ward Howe

 

Yes, dear readers, this is why it’s been ages since my last post–I’ve been deliberating, you see.

Okay, that may be a bit of a lie. I mentioned this in one of my last posts, but let me reiterate–grad school is BUSY! I barely have time to eat, sleep, and waste time on Facebook, let alone write new blog posts. But, there is good news: I’m taking a graduate course this semester entitled “Psychopathology,” and, for my final paper, I’ve chosen to write about the “mad-genius hypothesis”–the speculated link between mental disorder and creativity (think Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh). This means I will be reading a plethora of research articles on the topic and will have some very interesting new posts for you between now and the end of the semester.

For now, check out a few related  links below. Keep in mind, however, that most of these articles are based on anecdotal, rather than empirical, evidence, and even the claims grounded in research may be controversial. So put on your skeptical glasses and click away:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199901/troubled-talent

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199507/portrait-the-artist-manic-depressive

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200705/genius-and-madness

Thanks for continuing to visit the site; be sure to pass the link along to friends and family who might be interested as well, and check back soon!

Cryptomnesia

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbor’s, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” ~Voltaire

“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” ~W.H. Auden

“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” ~Samuel Johnson

*    *    *

Cryptomnesia, also referred to as unconscious or inadvertent plagiarism, describes a situation in which an individual recalls information stored in memory but believes this information to be an original idea or creation. For instance, a person might write a poem believing that the clever verses are his own, only to find out later that segments of his poem are identical to lines written by a famous poet. In this case, the individual is not intentionally trying to pass off another person’s work as his own; rather, he simply did not realize that his product was unoriginal. This memory error can generally be explained in one of two ways: (1) either the idea itself was experienced as unfamiliar when it was recalled, and therefore it was deemed to be “new” and thus original; or (2) the idea was experienced as familiar when it was recalled, but the source of the idea was misattributed (e.g. five musicians collectively brainstorm names for their new band, and, later, both the bassist and the drummer insist that the chosen name had been one of his own contributions to the master list).

In its extreme, unconscious plagiarism is presumably much rarer than the intentional kind, but there have been a few famous cases of cryptomnesia. Helen Keller, at age eleven, wrote a story for children entitled “The Frost King” that turned out to be almost identical to “The Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby, a children’s author of her time. A piece in the New Yorker about Keller’s life noted, “Margaret Canby’s tale had been spelled to Helen perhaps three years before, and lay dormant in her prodigiously retentive memory; she was entirely oblivious of reproducing phrases not her own” (you can read the full article here).  The accusations of plagiarism, however, were startling for Keller and haunted her for much of her life, which included future allegations of creative inauthenticity. Another famous case of cryptomnesia involved singer George Harrison, who was sued for having plagiarized parts of “He’s So Fine” by Ronald Mack in the composition of his song, “My Sweet Lord.” Harrison claimed the offense was ‘subconscious’ plagiarism; he admitted having heard “He’s So Fine” before, but he insisted that he had not intentionally stolen the melodies.

There has been a good amount of psychological research on the topic of cryptomnesia, and, more broadly, on the subject of source monitoring errors in memory. While I was searching for information online, I came across a recent Newsweek article on cryptomnesia and journalism that summarizes a few such studies nicely, so it’s worth checking out: http://www.newsweek.com/id/205560.

There’s one stubborn “Yes, but…” that arises in any discussion of cryptomnesia, though: despite the evidence that unconscious plagiarism can and does sometimes occur, how can you ever really know for sure that a person’s actions were unintentional? How do you separate the liars from the honest cases of source misattribution? In Harrison’s case, it didn’t matter; the judge decided that, even if the plagiarism was ‘subconscious,’ it was still plagiarism, and Harrison was held accountable for the infringement.

For writers and artists, the concept of cryptomnesia raises interesting questions about the many factors that influence our creative processes outside of conscious awareness. To what extent are my short stories my own, and to what extent are they really just amalgamations of all of the short stories that I’ve ever read? To what extent are my characters really personalities of my own creation, rather than derivatives of my favorite protagonists and villains? Can we ever really be truly “original” in our painting, our designing, our writing? Does inspiration come from within, without, or a combination of the two?

 

Our experiences shape us in more ways than we are aware. I guess that’s why I’ve always said that originality is really nothing more than careful imitation. Writers shouldn’t aim to be original–they should aim to be authentic. It’s just a sad truth that, if piece of writing is both good and original, the good parts usually aren’t original, and the original parts, well…

Huh, that’s strange. Did anyone else just experience déjà-vu?

Another good quote…

“I don’t believe in it. All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?”

~Philip Pullman (answering the question, ‘What do you do about writer’s block?’)

 

I feel like this quote is particularly relevant to my current situation. I’m on the brink of starting the sequal to my young adult fantasy novel, but I’m having a hard time getting the first words down on the page. Still, I wouldn’t say that I have writer’s block. Writing is difficult, yes…but as Pullman says, so are many other professions. Rather than sit around and wait for a flash of brilliance, we must keep our noses to the grindstone and just hope that, by some stroke of luck, we will one day fall into a groove. I’ve found that sometimes it’s best to actually sit down and make myself write, temporarily setting my worries about quality aside and reminding myself that there will be plenty of time for revision later on. Usually, what starts out feeling forced ends up morphing into a natural flow.   

And speaking of putting something down on a blank page…I do realize that I need to make a new research blog post soon. The topic for my next post was going to be cryptomnesia, or unintentional plagarism, but now I’m wondering if it should be inaction inertia instead (which would focus on why it becomes more difficult, once we start procrastinating, to start moving again).

Any preferences, hypothetical readers? If not, I’ll let you be surprised. Check back soon.

What I’ve Learned…

Creative Writing and Psychology.

At first glance, it may seem like there isn’t an inch of overlap between these two lines of work, but I can assure you that there is. There are several ingredients for success in the world of creative writing, but my own experiences have taught me that these ingredients can be applied to other domains as well, and there are ten, in particular, that have helped me on my journey to becoming a productive psychologist:

 1. Know Your Audience.

            Just as it’s important to know your audience when starting a new writing project, it’s important to know your audience when communicating knowledge and ideas in academics. Whether I’m leading a discussion in a classroom, preparing a poster for a conference, or giving a talk to the department faculty, I’ve learned the importance of presenting the material so that it’s accessible for those on the receiving end, and this skill will serve me well both as a researcher and as a teacher.

2. Plot Carefully.

            Planning is everything, regardless of whether the focus is on the rising action of a novel or the methodology of an experiment. Attention to detail and meticulous organization at the design stage can prevent a lot of problems and save a great deal of time and effort later on. 

3. Take Charge.

            A novel won’t write itself, and theories aren’t born on their own accord. A big part of being a writer is taking responsibility for your own success, and a big part of becoming a productive researcher is being a leader among your peers and colleagues. An academic must be as willing to try something that’s never been done as a writer is willing to put those first words on a blank page.

 4. Avoid Clichés.

            A worn out phrase can ruin an otherwise beautiful sentence or paragraph, and worn out ideas have no place in psychology, a field that depends on innovation and creativity to advance our understanding of the mind and human behavior. While it’s certainly worthwhile to investigate questions that have been asked by others, sometimes it’s even more beneficial to ask a new question altogether. 

5. Be True to Your Characters.

            Authors have a responsibility to the characters they create, just as scholars have a responsibility to the populations they investigate and the minds they mold. What makes a professor stand out is the ability to conduct quality research while still making his/her students feel like the top priority. As an academic, it is important to balance these two spheres.

 6. Clarity is Key.

            Clarity of written expression is just as important for a psychologist as it is for a fiction author, because even the most groundbreaking study will be shunted aside if its core concepts are not communicated effectively. Quality writing cannot be underemphasized, so be sure to proofread and polish.       

 7. Seek Advice.

            Though it may appear a solo endeavor, the practice of writing benefits from constructive criticism, much like scientific research benefits from collaboration. Talk to others about your work–their input is invaluable.

 8. Revise, Revise, Revise.

            The work is never done, because no manuscript or article is perfect. Revision is essential.

 9. Reach People.

            In other words: publish, publish, publish. The goal of research is to contribute new information to the scholarly community, and the goal of creative writing is to establish an audience of readers. Even if it means starting small, publish and get your name out there.

 10. Tell the Story You Want to Hear.

            This is perhaps the simplest lesson of them all. I only write novels that I would want to read, and I’ve chosen to pursue a career doing memory research because therein lie the questions that I’m most interested in answering. It is important to love what you do.

 

These are just some of the ways that being a writer has helped me to become a better psychologist. But the usefulness of our experiences in creative endeavors are not limited to specific domains. Whether you are a novelist, painter, graphic designer, sculptor, or poet, you can apply the things you’ve learned as an artist to other areas of your life. And the reverse is also true: even if you have no creative experience, don’t let that stop you from trying something new. Reflect on the professional or personal knowledge you do have, and you may be surprised at how relevant it becomes when you pick up a pen or brush.

Next Newer Entries

Elephants never forget...but sometimes they do go missing.

Image © World Wildlife Fund (WWF.org)

Categories

The Gulf Coast: You Can Help!

Oops--I guess the grumpy sea turtle swam away.

Image © World Wildlife Fund