A Burning Day: Blog Rebirth Underway

Hello y’all! (nope, I haven’t moved to the South–but I did meet a charming gal at residency who is from South Carolina, and now I can’t seem to help myself :-P)

For you dedicated subscribers (all three or four of you) who have followed my blog religiously the past couple of years, I am sorry to say that the blog you have come to know and love is now on its last leg. Like the mythical phoenix, my blog will soon burst into flames so that it may be reborn from the (metaphorical) ashes.

My new baby phoenix blog will be focused more on my experiences as a writer than my experiences as a psychologist. But fear not! I will surely find ways to work psychology into some of my posts, as it is still a strong interest of mine.

However, my posts will primarily now relate to (1) my life as an MFA student (I’ve just started the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts) and (2) craft issues for writers (specifically children’s authors). I will continue to add books to the Bookshelf, and I will also continue to post links and other tidbits of information that I find interesting, even if they are not always relevant. (If you have any suggestions for my future post topics, please let me know.)  Cheers!

(Click Fawkes to visit the Harry Potter Wiki)

The Happiness Advantage

I’m reading a book entitled The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, a professor of Harvard’s famed course “Positive Psychology” and the founder of Good Think, Inc, a company that speaks to major organizations around the world on how they can improve their productivity through an emphasis on employee happiness (www.shawnachor.com).

The Happiness Advantage describes “the seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.” Its main message? Happiness is a predictor of success–not the other way around. In short, we grow up believing that we will be happy when we earn that next good grade or score that next big promotion, and so we always see happiness as something that can be attained down the road–the result of success, a reward for achievement. But scientific research has debunked this myth. Research has shown, time and again, that happiness precedes success, and Achor’s book translates the findings of scholarly articles into an interesting and easy-to-read guide to happiness and productivity for the public. While these principles are especially important for CEOs, managers, supervisors, and anyone else responsible for implementing change in the workplace, they also can be utilized by individuals seeking fulfillment as they strive toward their own personal goals.

Visit the Bookshelf (Psychology page) for a complete description of The Happiness Advantage, as well as a link to buy it at Barnes & Noble (you will not be disappointed!). In the meantime, I just wanted to include a brief excerpt that shows how some of these positive psychology principles relate to creativity:

“Extensive research has found that happiness actually has a very important evolutionary purpose, something Barbara Fredrickson has termed the ‘Broaden and Build Theory.’ Instead of narrowing our actions down to fight or flight as negative emotions do, positive ones broaden the amount of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas. For instance, individuals who are ‘primed’–meaning scientists help evoke a certain mindset or emotion before doing an experiment–to feel either amusement or contentment can think of a larger and wider array of thoughts and ideas than individuals who have been primed to feel either anxiety or anger. And when positive emotions broaden our scope of cognition and behavior in this way, they not only make us more creative, they help us build more intellectual, social, and physical resources we can rely upon in the future.” (pg. 44)

In the pages that follow, Achor describes seven key principles of positive psychology and provides concrete suggestions for capitalizing on this research. I’m about 65 pages in–reading about the second principle–and this book has already filled me with excitement, optimism, and hope. It’s becoming clear to me that Achor’s “happiness work ethic” is a tangible catalyst for huge gains in productivity and satisfaction in the workplace, and, of particular relevance to writers and artists, that this mindset can fuel creativity and originality, as well.

Happy Reading! 🙂

Art & Fear

I recently started reading the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland (it will be added to the Psychology page of the Bookshelf in the near future!). Here’s the description on the back of the book:

“What is your art really about?
Where is it going?
What stands in the way of getting it there?

These are questions that matter, questions that recur at each stage of artistic development–and they are the source for this volume of wonderfully incisive commentary.

Art & Fear explores the way art gets made, the reasons it often doesn’t get made, and the nature of the difficulties that cause so many artists to give up along the way.

This is a book about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do. It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work.”


I know my psychology colleagues would probably have a thing or two to say about the ‘Free Will’ issue, but, personally, I think that believing in Free Will is empowering for individuals, and I refuse to take the behaviorist perspective on the matter (take that, B.F. Skinner).

Regardless, I’m not reading this book to try to figure out whether my choices matter. I know they do. I’m reading this book because I know what it feels like to struggle as an artist, to doubt myself and my abilities, and to get stuck dreaming instead of writing. As Rita Mae Brown says, you should ‘never hope more than you work.’ That’s sage advice, but it’s hard to put into practice sometimes. Why is that?

I think the title is particularly intriguing–Art & Fear. For all of us creative souls, art is love, art is passion, art is self. But fear can still get in the way. Fear of what, you ask? Fear of anything–fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of ourselves and our own potential. Even when we know it’s not rational, our fear can still prevent us from being the best artists we can be.

More on these ideas later, as I continue to read. For now, I’ll leave you with the quote that starts the second chapter: “Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.” ~Stephen DeStaebler 

(Do you agree?)

Climb Up to the Treehouse: New Book Jacket Summary Added

To read about my creative works-in-progress, or for a list of cool (and kid-friendly) links to author/book series website, visit the Treehouse!

“The Writer Who Couldn’t Read”

This NPR feature is a must-see for anyone interested in the brain and its role in our creative endeavors. It tells the story of a Canadian author who woke up one day, after unknowingly having suffered a stroke in the night, and discovered that he could no longer read. Naturally, he thought his writing career was over.

It wasn’t. 

Watch the video and read about his amazing story here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127745750

Motivation and Creativity

Why write? Why paint, or draw, or sculpt, or design?

Why be creative at all?


A person is said to be “intrinsically motivated” to perform an activity if there are no apparent rewards for or benefits from performing that activity other than the enjoyment that comes from the activity itself. A person is said to be “extrinsically motivated” to perform an activity if his/her actions are driven by external rewards such as money or praise. In the former case, participation is about the process. In the latter case, participation is a means to an end.

So do we write (or paint, draw, sculpt, or design) because we enjoy it, or do we write because we need to pay the bills?

The majority of writers and artists can probably cite both intrinsic AND extrinsic motivations for doing what they do. But let’s say you started writing solely because you enjoyed it (you were intrinsically motivated to write that poem or short story or novel) and then–what luck!–you started getting paid for it. What would this mean for your love of writing? Would the introduction of  external rewards decrease your intrinsic enjoyment in the activity? And would there be an effect on the quality of your creative product if it was developed as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself?

These questions are relevant  to the career plans of many budding writers and artists. “If I become a potter,” one might wonder, “and my income becomes dependent on my talents, will it take the fun out of pottery for me?” How one answers this question might mean the difference between declaring an Art major and launching a self-run business or declaring an Economics major and attending Pottery Club meetings on the weekends.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “I love to write, and I’ll love it even more if I can get a book deal.” This might be true, but let’s take a look at some of the scientific research that has been conducted on the topic…

Psychologists have been interested in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for decades. Deci’s (1971) classic study suggested that participants’ intrinsic motivation to perform an activity decreased when money was offered as a reward, but, interestingly, intrinsic motivation actually increased when the external reward was verbal praise. So, the nature of the reward may be an important factor to consider.

Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) conducted a similar study with preschool children who had reported high levels of intrinsic interest in drawing. These participants were asked to engage in a drawing activity, and they were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the “expected-award” condition, the children participated in the drawing activity in order to receive a “good player” certificate at the end. In the “unexpected-award” condition, children participated in the drawing activity without the expectation of a reward, but they still received the “good player” certificate at the end of the task. In the “no-award” condition, children participated in the drawing activity without the expectation of a reward, and they did not receive a certificate at the end. One to two weeks later, the drawing activity was reintroduced to the children in a classroom context (with no expected rewards), and measures of intrinsic interest were obtained by the researchers, who observed the children from behind a one-way mirror. As expected, children who had been in the “expected-reward” condition subsequently showed lower levels of intrinsic interest in the drawing task than children in the “unexpected-reward” condition or the “no-award” condition. The important thing to note is that the children in all three conditions had roughly equivalent levels of intrinsic interest in drawing prior to the experimental manipulation. Thus, it appears that the introduction of an external incentive resulted in a drop in intrinsic motivation for the children in the “expected-reward” condition (Lepper et al., 1973).

This finding has important implications for educational settings. Teachers typically endorse “positive reinforcement,” often rewarding children with stickers or some other prize for good behavior or a job well done. In this sense, the Lepper et al. (1973) findings might seem counterintuitive. Aren’t rewards a good thing? Oftentimes, they are–but external rewards might also have unintended effects if the child was intrinsically motivated to engage in activity/behavior in the first place–e.g. drawing quietly during free-play time or helping a classmate find a lost toy. Providing external rewards in these cases may reduce the child’s intrinsic motivation to engage in the activity/behavior in the future; the focus has shifted from the enjoyment of the activity to the reward. As Deci’s (1971) results implied, verbal praise might be more effective, in the long run, than gold stars.


So what does all this mean for creativity?

Well, for one thing, it supports the notion that, in some circumstances, a person’s enjoyment of a creative endeavor might be undermined if there is a shift from a focus on intrinsic motivation to perform the task to a focus on external rewards. In addition, Amabile (1985) actually found evidence to suggest that intrinsic motivation may be conducive to creativity, while extrinsic motivation may impair creativity. Participants wrote poems under conditions of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, and these poems were later rated by a panel of judges for their level of “creativity.” Interestingly, poems written by participants in the “extrinsic” condition were rated as less creative (on average) than poems written by participants in the “intrinsic” condition (Amabile, 1985). 

In sum, extrinsic motivation may not only result in decreased intrinsic interest in an activity, but it might also have a negative effect on a person’s overall creativity. The studies I have cited here are quite old, and research in recent years has examined the topic in more depth, focusing on relevant factors such as the type of reward and whether the reward is performance-dependent. The issue is complex, however, and there still seems to be no solid consensus as to whether external rewards consistently undermine intrinsic motivation. (See the references below, and run a Google search if you are interested in learning more!)

Regardless, the ideas raised here are certainly thought-provoking, and I think there is something to be learned from these classic studies: even if you get paid for writing or painting or sculpting, it may be important to remember why you were drawn to that creative endeavor in the first place.

Remember why you love it.





Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.

Lepper, M., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.

Amabile, T. M. (1985). Motivation and Creativity: Effects of Motivational Orientation on Creative Writers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(2), 393-399.

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