Advice of the Day

I’m reading The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb–a wonderful craft book–and this quote really resonated with me, so I thought I’d share it with you all:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” ~Annie Dillard

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)

Is Creativity Contagious?

Greetings! I’m at the 2011 New England conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and I’m looking forward to two days of keynote speakers, writing workshops, and networking. Tonight I attended the conference orientation (as well as a hilarious cabaret performance), and being surrounded by so many people who are passionate about children’s literature got me thinking–is creativity contagious? What about motivation? Inspiration? Success?

I think we all know that success isn’t contagious, or else…oops, my bad–I was just about to make an inappropriate joke about Charlie Sheen and the company he keeps. I’ll refrain.

But seriously, research has shown that smiling can be contagious, and I think most people would agree that it’s hard not to laugh when you’re surrounded by laughter, or to feel excited when the air in a room is practically humming. If mood states can be catching, I wonder if simply being in close proximity to like-minded people can help get one’s creative juices going. (I certainly hope so!)

I’ll just have to wait and see how the rest of the weekend unfolds–and although I might not be able to predict what will happen the next time my pen touches the page, one evening in the company of these fabulous authors and illustrators has already given me the itch to sit down and write. So I consider that a pretty good start. 🙂

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?)

Consciousness and Problem-Solving: Some Interesting Quotes

I’m reading an article entitled “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes” (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), and there is a section about reports on problem-solving processes that I thought might interest my creatively disposed readers…

“There is a striking uniformity in the way creative people–artists, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers–speak about the process of production and problem solving. Ghiselin (1952) has collected into one volume a number of essays on the creative process by a variety of creative workers from Poincaré to Picasso. As Ghiselin accurately described the general conclusion of these workers, ‘Production by a process of purely conscious calculation seems never to occur’ (p. 15). Instead, creative workers describe themselves almost universally as bystanders, differing from other observers only in that they are the first to witness the fruits of a problem-solving process that is almost completely hidden from conscious view. The reports of these workers are characterized by an insistence that (a) the influential stimuli are usually completely obscure–the individual has no idea what factors prompted the solution; and (b) even the fact that the process is taking place is sometimes unknown to the individual prior to the point that a solution appears in consciousness.

Some quotations from Ghiselin’s (1952) collection will serve to illustrate both these points. The mathematician Jacques Hadamard reports that ‘on being very abruptly awakened by an external noise, a solution long searched for appeared to me at once without the slightest instant of reflection on my part…and in a quite different direction from any of those which I previously tried to follow’ (p. 15). Poincaré records that ‘the changes of travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry’ (p. 37). Whitehead writes of ‘the state of imaginative muddled suspense which precedes successful inductive generalization’ (Ghiselin, 1952, p. 15), and Stephen Spender describes ‘a dim
cloud of an idea which I feel must be condensed into a shower of words’ (p. 15). Henry James speaks of his deliberate consignment of an idea to the realm of the unconscious where it can be worked upon and realized: ‘I was charmed with my idea, which would take, however, much working out; and because it had so much to give, I think, must I have dropped it for the time into the deep well of unconscious cerebration: not without the hope, doubtless, that it might eventually emerge from that reservoir, as one had already known the buried treasure to come to light, with a firm iridescent surface and a notable increase of weight’ (p. 26).” (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977, p. 240)

Can anyone relate to these experiences?

Nisbett, R. E. & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84(3), 231-259.

Six-Word Memoirs at SMITH Magazine Online

If you think writing a full-length memoir is difficult, try writing one in only six words!

Six-word memoirs have become somewhat of a craze recently–their surging popularity undoubtedly linked to how much fun they are to try to write. At SMITH magazine online, you can create your own user account for free and add your memoirs to the thousands submitted by other writers/readers. Categories for memoirs include Life, Love, Moms, Teens, Food, America, the Green Life, and there is a special tab for memoirs on Pain and Hope, devoted to the non-profit movement, To Write Love on Her Arms. Every week, SMITH compiles a list of their favorite user-submitted memoirs, so if you write something really clever/powerful/poignant, they might take notice!

If you get hooked by these succinct gems (as I have), you can also buy compendiums in print–and yes, your submissions to SMITH have a chance at being selected for a future book!  

An aside for fiction writers: six-word stories  are a worthy challenge, as well. Write for the pure satisfaction of condensing a beginning, middle, and ending into only six words, or submit your best to Narrative Magazine for a shot at getting your words published. (There’s a small fee to enter, but also monetary compensation if they like what they see!)

So what are you waiting for? Start experimenting today!

“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:

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:, 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…

Two Quotes: One on Writing, One on Creativity

“First, I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”

~Robert Cecil Day-Lewis

“The whole difference between construction and creation is this; that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.”

~Charles Dickens



The Association Between Creativity and Psychopathology: Part II

On “Creative Mythconceptions: A Closer Look at the Evidence for the ‘Mad Genius’ Hypothesis” by Schlesinger (2009)

            Most people believe that the link between creativity and mental illness has been scientifically “proven,” but this belief is unfounded, according to Schlesinger (2009), who says that the issue is by no means settled, and may never be settled due to the difficulties of conducting research on the topic. Schlesinger (2009) critically reviews the work of the three biggest names in the field and argues that their “landmark” studies contain serious methodological flaws that have, until now, been overlooked or underemphasized by the scientific community. She states:

Many people—including too many mental health professionals and textbook writers—continue to assume that an invariable connection between great creativity and pathology has already been proven. This conviction draws its primary strength from two sources: (a) the influential claims of psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, and (b) the lack of equally strong, visible, and recurring professional statements to the contrary. (p. 62)

            Schlesinger (2009) condemns modern researchers for citing the seminal works of Andreasen (1987), Jamison (1989; 1993), and Ludwig (1995) without critically analyzing their methodologies, and she rather pointedly insinuates that the prominent trio is often cited by researchers who haven’t actually read the original publications. Schlesinger expresses her disappointment that many authors trumpet the words of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig as if their suppositions are verified facts rather than tenuous speculations. She wryly alleges that one text had to borrow a quote from Nietzsche in order to “compensate for its lack of hard data” (p. 63). After relaying the quote—‘One must harbor chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star’—Schlesinger condenses the sentiments of her entire thesis into a single, sarcastic question: “Who needs science when we have such compelling poetry to make the case?” (p. 63).

When the “scientific” evidence of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig is scrutinized, it becomes clear that Schlesinger’s critiques—blunt and facetious though they may be—deserve serious consideration. According to Schlesinger, Andreasen’s famous study began in 1972 but was not published until 1987. After fifteen years of data collection, Andreasen only managed to amass a whopping N of 30 (27 of these were male). All experimental participants were faculty members from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Andreasen herself interviewed them about their own mental health histories as well as the pathologies of their closest relatives. Andreasen’s interview was self-constructed and lacked empirical validation, and her diagnostic criteria were only available for review upon request. Participants in the non-writer control group worked in areas such as law, administration, and social work—professions that Andreasen personally believed did not require high levels of creativity (Schlesinger, 2009).

Despite the clear flaws of this design—questionable validity of measures/constructs, high risk of experimenter bias, small sample size, and low external validity, to name a few—Andreasen’s ‘stunning’ report that 80% of the writers in her study suffered from mood disorders, compared to only 30% of the non-writers, spread quickly and soon became fodder for news stories and media dramatizations (Schlesinger, 2009). While Andreasen later acknowledged a few limitations of her study, she attempted to divert further criticism by reporting that 2 of her 30 writers eventually committed suicide. In Andreasen’s words: ‘the issues of statistical significance pale before the clinical implications of this fact’ (p. 64). Schlesinger, however, seems to think that the myriad of methodological weaknesses and dearth of significant results in Andreasen’s (1987) study have remained the key areas of concern (Schlesinger, 2009).

Similar methodological criticisms apply to the works of Kay Jamison, who has also been a great champion of the link between creativity and psychopathology, specifically focusing on mood disorders. Schlesinger (2009) notes that Jamison’s (1989) study used a small, handpicked sample; there was no control group; and all conclusions were based on self-report data, which was collected during interviews by Jamison, who apparently utilized unofficial diagnostic criteria. Despite these weaknesses, Jamison’s findings were, at first glance, even more remarkable than Andreasen’s: Jamison reported that her creative participants sought treatment for affective illness at a rate 30x greater than that of the general population. However, it does not take long for Schlesinger to add, “The 50% figure for disordered poets is equally astonishing, unless you know that it represents only nine people, news that tends to disappear when the study is quoted—along with the fact that her 12.5% total for depression-medicated visual artists refers to just one person” (Schlesinger, 2009, p. 65). Clearly, sample size was as much of a problem for Jamison as it was for Andreasen.

Schlesinger was not the first to comment upon these deficiencies. In his book, Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes, Albert Rothenberg (1990) states:

Two presumably objective studies by Drs. Kay Jamison and Nancy Andreason…have been consistently discussed in popular as well as professional publications as having proven a connection between affective illness—depression, mania, or both together—and creativity, despite the fact that the first had not been published or reviewed in a scientific journal until quite recently, and the other had a flawed research methodology. The need to believe in a connection between creativity and madness appears to be so strong that affirmations are welcomed and quoted rather uncritically. (p. 150)

            Rothenberg (1990) later asserts that creative eminence is in no way associated with a particular personality type or disposition; rather, he reports that, in his own research, the only trait present in creative individuals across the board was motivation. Still, Rothenberg’s (1990) criticisms did not sway popular opinion, and, four years after Jamison’s initial study, she published a book entitled, Touched with Fire: Manic Depression and the Artistic Temperament, which became, in Schlesinger’s (2009) words, the “proverbial bible” in the creativity and mental illness debate (p. 63). Of course, the majority of evidence in Jamison’s book is anecdotal, and some of the claims are simply educated guesswork. For example, Jamison includes a table entitled ‘Probable Cyclothymia, Major Depression, or Manic-Depressive Illness’ that lists the names of 166 dead writers, artists, and composers, whom Jamison personally “diagnosed.” Never mind that archive-based, retrospective diagnoses should be viewed with caution on principle alone—the lack of a bibliography completely precludes any attempt for readers to assess the validity of Jamison’s sources and diagnostic criteria. Most concerning is that the word ‘Probable’ tends to disappear whenever the list is referenced (Schlesinger, 2009), and thus Touched with Fire only added fuel to a flame that was already spreading too quickly.

Finally, Arnold Ludwig, the author of a (1995) book entitled The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy, was heavily influenced by the writings of Jamison, and his support for the link between creativity and mental illness is no less questionable, again due to methodological flaws. Ludwig read the New York Times biographies of 1,004 famous individuals in an attempt to identify psychological commonalities that might have contributed to their achievements. Yet he treated the biographies as if they were objective sources, rather than acknowledging that the biographers must have had their own personal and professional agendas at the time of composition. In addition, he lumped military, scientific, social, and political eminence in the same category as artistic eminence; his evaluations were based upon variables that were largely undefined and subjective (e.g. ‘oddness’); he contradicted himself throughout the text regarding whether or not he actually supported a link between affective disorders and creativity; and, like Jamison, he failed to include a bibliography (Schlesinger, 2009).

Given that Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig’s investigations all contained substantial flaws and limitations, Schlesinger concludes that “there is still no clear, convincing, scientific proof that artists do, in fact, suffer more psychological problems than any other vocational group” (p. 69). We should therefore find it troublesome that our culture’s endorsement of the “mad genius” hypothesis has been based almost exclusively on the claims of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig—claims that do not hold up well under scientific scrutiny. These three figures have had an enormous influence on the rest of the field, and this reality must be acknowledged as we evaluate and interpret the findings of more recent publications.

(Search “Psychopathology” at the top of the page to find the other posts in this series!)


Schlesinger, J. (2009). Creative mythconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “mad genius” hypothesis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3(2), 62-72.

Rothenberg, A. (1990). Creativity and madness: New findings and old stereotypes. Baltimore: The John’s Hopkins University Press.


Also see:

Andreasen, N. C. (1987).  Creativity and mental illness: Prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives. American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 1288-1292.

Jamison, K. R. (1989). Mood disorders and patterns of creativity in British writers and artists. Psychiatry, 52, 125-134.

Jamison, K. R. (1993). Touched with fire: Manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament. New York: Free Press.

Ludwig, A. M. (1995). The price of greatness: Resolving the creativity and madness Controversy. New York: The Guilford Press.

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The Gulf Coast: You Can Help!

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