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Archive for the category “Writing”

can the enneagram make you a better writer?

F2G Enneagram_transparentAt a SouthWest Writers meeting several years ago, a fiction writer at my table mentioned she didn’t always know what choice her character would make when faced with a decision, an obstacle, or a fork in the road. I had no opportunity to pursue the conversation with her, but I wanted to tell her about the Enneagram and how it could help her solve that problem.

I admire her for being honest about an issue many writers struggle with. Anyone who writes character-driven stories, real or fictional, must have a basic understanding of human nature. While some aspects of being human are common to all of us, we do differ from each other, sometimes in significant ways. The ways we’re different aren’t random, however. A writer can’t just throw together a hodgepodge of attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics and hope to come up with a believable character. Discerning readers recognize poorly drawn characters, whether they are two-dimensional or too multi-dimensional.

Our characters don’t just have to be believable to our readers; they also have to be believable to us. We have to know them better than they know themselves. Yes, we need to understand what they want and what’s in their way, but we also need to know what they’re afraid of, what they resist, what their unconscious motivations are, and what internal obstacles they must overcome in order to succeed. Having a good personality typing system to work with can make that so much easier. It can also help your characters stay on track instead of swerving off the rails.

cookie-cutter characters need not apply

cookie cutter personThe primary objections writers have to typing their characters are no different from the objections many non-writers have to being typed.

Don’t box me in. Some people believe they’re unique, so being typed diminishes them somehow. They think typing puts them into a box. But typing doesn’t put people into boxes; it identifies aspects of the boxes they’re already in. It points out what’s inside the box and what’s outside, both of which are equally important.

Typing equals stereotyping. That’s true. But stereotyping is just a form of categorizing, and categorizing is a function of the kind of thinking the unconscious part of the brain does automatically. We can’t stop the brain from categorizing, which means we’re already stereotyping other people. Understanding the elements of personality can result in informed rather than uninformed categorizing by the brain.

There’s more to me (or my character) than my type. It’s true that personality type doesn’t explain everything, but that’s not a good reason to dismiss it. Humans have a capacity, called mentalization, that allows us to understand our own mental states or thought processes and—more importantly for writers—to attribute mental states to others. We can recognize that others have beliefs, intentions, fears, and desires that are different from ours. Without this ability, we wouldn’t be able to get inside the heads of our characters. The better we’re able to understand where other people (real or imaginary) are coming from, the more true-to-life our characters will be.

why choose the enneagram?

The Enneagram isn’t the only personality typing system available. What I like about it is that the surface simplicity makes the basic concepts easy to grasp. But it is also comprehensive and multifaceted, both broad and deep, which allows for plenty of subtleties and variations.

Enneagram is a Greek word that means “diagram of nine.” The symbol consists of a triangle and a hexad within a circle. The resulting nine points represent nine basic, or core, personality types, each of which has a unique perspective and approach to life. The theory of the Enneagram is that we tend to polarize at one of the nine points, overdeveloping the characteristics associated with that point, while leaving undeveloped many of the characteristics associated with the other points. So each type also represents a particular kind of imbalance.

An individual’s core personality type remains the same over the course of a lifetime, which is why having a character change too much or too abruptly, or behave totally “out of character,” usually isn’t believable. But every character has the possibility for change, either positive (growth) or negative (deterioration). Any character can learn how to moderate and overcome his or her innate predispositions or be done in by them. In fact, that’s the basic arc of just about any character-driven story.

the nine types

Very briefly, these are the nine types:

  1. The Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist. Principled and responsible, but can also be rule-bound and critical.
  2. The Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner. Compassionate and altruistic, but can also be co-dependent and manipulative.
  3. The Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, and the Status Seeker. Self-assured and accomplished, but can also be competitive and performance-driven.
  4. The Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person. Creative and inspiring, but can also be overly dramatic and fault-finding.
  5. The Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker. Perceptive and curious, but can also be cold and detached.
  6. The Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate. Organized and hard-working, but can also be indecisive and overly-vigilant.
  7. The Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast. Cheerful and multi-talented, but can also be acquisitive and thrill-seeking.
  8. The Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter. Courageous and magnanimous, but can also be combative and domineering.
  9. The Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist. Deeply receptive and serene, but can also be disengaged and inattentive.

You can probably identify a few people—real or fictional—who might fit some of these descriptions.

getting under your characters’ skin

masks 2One of the benefits of learning how to apply the Enneagram in your writing is the ability it gives you to get under your characters’ skin so you can know them better than they know themselves. While many personality characteristics are apparent—meaning they’re expressed externally—the motivation underlying them is internal and unconscious. Your characters, like actual people, think they know why they behave as they do, but there’s a good chance they’re wrong.

The following sketches of the nine Enneagram types may give you some ideas in regard to your own characters (the ones in your imagination as well as the ones you interact with in the so-called real world).

Type 1: the Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist
Keyword: Principle. Ones are motivated to improve themselves and live the right way. They follow the rules, defend against criticism from the environment, and scan the environment for chaos or disorder to right. Sometimes they resent the fact that others seem to do as they please. Downside: They can come across as rigid, rule-bound, critical, and self-righteous. Upside: They can be highly principled and responsible with a strong sense of integrity and an ability to inspire others. Communication Style: Teaching, preaching, finding fault, admonishing. Self-talk: That’s not right. Fictional Example: Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Type 2: the Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner
Keyword: Persuasion. Twos are motivated by the need to be loved and valued and to express their positive feelings toward others. They scan the environment to see what needs to be done, keeping their own needs out of their awareness by focusing on the needs of others. Downside: They can be co-dependent, manipulative martyrs. Upside: They can be sincere, empathetic, compassionate, altruistic people who make a positive difference in others’ lives. Communication Style: Befriending, supporting, offering advice, getting personal. Self-talk: You need me. Fictional Example: Garp (The World According to Garp)

Type 3: the Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, the Status Seeker
Keyword: Performance. Threes scan the environment for approval and resist being undermined by the environment. Wanting to be well regarded, successful, productive, and efficient, they focus more on their outer appearance than on the way they feel. Downside: They can be competitive and overly concerned with performance. Upside: They can be charming, self-assured, high-spirited, and persistent, making outstanding contributions and achievements. Communication Style: Promoting, exclaiming, motivational speeches, success stories. Self-talk: Watch me shine. Fictional Example: Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)

Type 4: the Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person
Keyword: Passion. Fours scan the environment for raw material and defend against being pigeonholed or limited by the environment. They search for what life means and try to understand their feelings and to avoid being ordinary. Downside: Since they compare reality with what could be, they find fault with who they are and what they have. Upside: They can be highly creative and inspiring and have the ability to transform all their experiences into something valuable. Communication Style: Longing, lamenting, poetic turns of phrase, self-expression. Self-talk: I’m feeling…. Fictional Example: Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Type 5: the Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker
Keyword: Privacy. Fives scan the environment for information and defend against intrusion from the environment. They want to be self-sufficient, to know and understand, and to avoid feeling invaded; they enjoy being alone with their own thoughts. Downside: They can seem cold and detached, preferring their own minds to the company of others. Upside: They can be highly perceptive, insightful, curious, mentally alert, and open-minded. Communication Style: Detailed explanations, facts, precise instructions, definitions. Self-talk: I’m thinking…. Fictional Example: Sherlock Holmes

Type 6: the Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate
Keyword: Participation. Sixes scan the environment for agreement and support, defending against instability in the environment. They tend to be cautious, compliant, and dependent, but they can also be indecisive and overly vigilant. Upside: They can be great community builders, who are responsible, organized, and hardworking. Communication Style: Questioning, second-guessing, trouble-shooting, warning. Self-talk: But what if…. Fictional Example: Hamlet

Type 7: the Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast
Keyword: Pleasure. Sevens scan the environment for gratification, resisting frustration from it. They want to be happy, to contribute to the world, and to avoid pain and suffering. They suppress anxiety by making lots of plans and keeping busy. Downside: They can become acquisitive and materialistic, focused on avoiding boredom and amusing themselves. Upside: They can be resilient and cheerful, multitalented, accomplished achievers who bring people together. Communication Style: Storytelling, joking, entertaining, imagining. Self-talk: On a lighter note…. Fictional Example: Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

Type 8: the Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter
Keyword: Power. Eights scan the environment to see where the power lies and resist impact from the environment. They want to be self-reliant and strong and to have an impact on the world. They readily express their anger. Downside: They can be combative and adversarial, attempting to dominate their environment. Upside: They can be courageous and magnanimous, natural leaders who champion people and focus on achieving their vision. Communication Style: Debating, arguing, giving directions, taking aim. Self-talk: Do this my way. Fictional Example: Jo March (Little Women).

Type 9: the Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist
Keyword: Peace. Nines scan the environment for union or merger, defending against conflict or disharmony. They are the type most likely to identify with the other types. They blend in, accommodate others, and forget their own wants and needs. Downside: They can become disengaged, unreflective, and inattentive, expressing their anger indirectly. Upside: They can be deeply receptive and trusting, stable and serene, and excellent mediators and communicators. Communication Style: Recounting sagas and epics, generalizing, daydreaming aloud, wondering. Self-talk: Nice ‘n’ easy. Fictional Example: Chauncey Gardner (Being There)

enneagram characters…in character

knitting womanUsing a personality typing system the wrong way can lead to creating stereotypical or cardboard characters.

But stereotyping results from generalizing based on a few personal characteristics of any sort, including nationality, religion, gender, race, height or weight, occupation, hobby, pet ownership, age, relationship status, or even eye or hair color.

It’s easy to turn a single (relationship status), 60-year-old (age) woman (gender) who knits (hobby) and owns a cat (pet) into a stereotype. You can probably picture her. Maybe you know someone just like her—or think you do.

Using her as a stock character is economical because the author doesn’t need to provide much additional information for readers to fill in the gaps. If this character is to play a more significant role, however, she can’t remain a stereotype. Let’s try looking at our single, 60-year-old female cat-owning knitter through the lens of the nine types of the Enneagram.

Type 1: The Critical Knitter: Fran is an intake coordinator at the local animal shelter. She always follows the policies and procedures, which is not the case for her co-workers whose mistakes she has to correct. She believes she is more qualified than her supervisor. Her tight-lipped attempts to remain composed and professional instead of telling everyone what she thinks are exhausting. In the evening, she attacks her knitting furiously, often tearing out several rows at a time because the work doesn’t meet her standard of perfection.

Type 2: The Self-Sacrificing Knitter: Marcia knits blankets, scarves, and sweaters for her siblings’ grandchildren, from whom she rarely receives a thank-you note or phone call. Even her nieces and nephews are much less grateful than they used to be. She wonders if they use the things she sends them, but it wouldn’t feel right to stop making them. So although she’d rather spend some of her knitting time reading or going out, she stays home to knit and to make sure her aging cat is comfortable.

Type 3: The Competitive Knitter: Lisa began making her own clothes in order to develop a distinctive personal style. She turned her clothing designs into a successful business which she’s currently still running. She recently took up knitting as a way to relax while being productive. But when she found out the largest yarn store in town awards prizes at an annual contest, she committed herself to besting the previous winner. Her cat is now banished to the bedroom so he won’t mess with the yarn.

Type 4: The Expressive Knitter: Olivia enjoys the various textures and colors of yarn and likes to make one-of-a-kind pieces that represent things like openness, love, or loneliness. She incorporates found objects into each one to give them added dimension. However, she tends not to follow patterns so her creations don’t always turn out the way she envisions them. That can be wonderful or utterly devastating, depending on the results. On the days she’s tempted to toss all of it into the trash, she’s sure her cat is judging her.

Type 5: The Speculative Knitter: Erin taught herself how to knit when she was 10-years-old. Having mastered the technique, she doesn’t have to think about it while she’s doing it. Instead, she uses her knitting time to ponder how to solve the world’s—and her own—problems. She enjoys thinking about things much more than she enjoys spending time with others, including her boyfriend who has become increasingly demanding of her attention. Her cat, on the other hand, has become more withdrawn. When did she last see him?

Type 6: The Anxious Knitter: Sandra has a long bus commute to work five days a week. She tried reading to pass the time but was so distracted by the scenery, overheard conversations, and passengers getting on and off that she lost track of the stories. Knitting absorbs less of her attention yet it keeps her hands occupied. That helps calm her, but it also allows her mind to ruminate about the upcoming company merger, the health of her 16-year-old cat, and the next-door neighbor she’s sure is dealing drugs.

Type 7: The Enthusiastic Knitter: Amy just learned how to knit! She loves it! In fact she’s told all her friends about it and has started a knitting circle. She carries her knitting bag everywhere so she can continue working on one of her projects. Switching back and forth keeps her from getting bored like she did with watercolor painting and photography. Last week, she had to have her cat put to sleep, but she plans to get another one at the animal shelter on Saturday.

Type 8: The Driven Knitter: Carla has a demanding job and volunteers at a women’s shelter. Recently, she agreed to help her neighbor with the crafts festival at her son’s school. She has little down time, so she took up knitting to relax. That backfired, though, because now she’s running a group that knits hats and scarves for women at the shelter. She’d like to get more exercise and eat healthier, but who has time? At least she takes excellent care of her cat.

Type 9: The Avoidant Knitter: Justine works in a large office. For some reason, everyone comes to her with their problems. Sometimes she’s able to help, but it’s very distressing to have to listen to them. She’d rather not get involved. Hoping to be left alone during her breaks, she started bringing her knitting to work and made a sign to hang on the wall of her cubicle. It says “Knitting in Progress” and has a picture of her cat so people will know not to be offended.

The brief sketches of these nine different knitters indicate some of the strengths and weaknesses—and opportunities for conflict—inherent within each type. The Enneagram also identifies how they are likely to act and react, their deepest fears, and the challenges they need to overcome. This information can help writers create characters that are both interesting and believable.

~

NOTE: This post was originally published as a series of articles in the SouthWest Sage, the newsletter of SouthWest Writers.

For more information on the Ennegram, please visit my Enneagram website, Nine Paths.

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celebrating short stories: fjord of Killary

fjordIt seems counterintuitive, but short stories are more difficult to writeat least to write well—than longer works. Although I’ve written all my life, short stories are a form I have yet to master. Maybe that’s why I admire and celebrate really good short stories. It takes skill to pick readers up, quickly orient them to another world, and immediately immerse them in it.

Some contemporary short stories leave me wondering what the point was, but occasionally I come across a story that sparkles all the way through the reading and lingers in my memory long afterward.

Fjord of Killary, by Kevin Barry, which was featured in The New Yorker several years ago, is one such story. I tore it out of the magazine and held onto it, which is why I still remember it.

It begins: So I bought an old hotel on the fjord of Killary. I was immediately taken by the off-hand tone, as if the narrator were relating this tale to a friend or acquaintance, perhaps in a bar. He continuesIt was set hard by the harbor wall, with Mweelrea Mountain across the water, and disgracefully gray skies above. Disgracefully gray skies are something I can relate to. I’m listening. It rained two hundred and eighty-seven days of the year, and the locals were given to magnificent mood swings. I can picture this place and its inhabitants already, just three sentences in.

On the night in question, the rain was particularly violent–it came down like handfuls of nails flung hard and fast by a seriously riled sky god. As well as being wonderfully descriptive, that sentence might very well be perfect. I was at this point eight months in the place and about convinced that it would be the death of me. End of first paragraph. We readers are set up with everything we need to know. And we know something is about to happen. If we are too dense to figure that out, though, he then says: “It’s end-of-the-fucking-world stuff out there,” I said.

One of the things I like about this story is that all the characters who speak talk the way I do when I’m not self-censoring. To wit, local funeral director, John Murphy, speaking to no one in particular, in these three successive paragraphs: “I’ll bury anythin’ that fuckin’ moves,” he said. “Bastards, suicides, tinkers,” he said. “I couldn’t give a fuckin’ monkey’s,” he said. While the casual cussing certainly isn’t the only thing I like about the story, it does make me feel comfortable. I could fit right in with those folks, at least for an evening.

And the last sentence is an absolute gem, one of those things that may not have occurred to you before, but that you realize the truth and humor of as soon as you hear (or read) it. It’s a bit of a celebration all by itself—especially for those of us of a certain age. But I won’t spoil it. Here’s the link to the complete story in The New Yorker.

kevin barryKevin Barry was born in Limerick in 1959 and now lives in Dublin. He’s published sketches, columns, and stories for a number of newspapers in Ireland, England, the U.S., and elsewhere. His short story collection, There are Little Kingdoms, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2007. His first novel, City of Bohane, about “a small and murderous West Ireland city,” was published in April 2011 and reviewed by Pete Hamil in The New York Times.

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

celebrating the desert

desertI’ve called New Mexico home for close to 14 years. The first time I visited the southwest, I was smitten with the wide-open skies, the abundant and ever-changing light, and the subtleties of the desert landscape. I even liked the heat.

The beautiful description of the desert that follows is courtesy of my friend Bob Walling, who—in addition to being a very fine writer—is also a former corporate trainer, university lecturer and British travel professional. Thank you, Bob.


April 2015

Chamisa, sage, Morman tea, rabbitbush, broombush, desert rose, paintbush, cholla, prickly pear, scruboak are names to be spoken gently in this land of wind. These inhabitants of the desert enter the eye as quietly and gently as a Navajo person entering a room. Like the Navajo entering they seek harmony with their surroundings without disturbing the air. These plants take little from the land but without adding the silver of the sage, orange-red of the paintbrush or the white of the desert rose the painter’s palette would have missed the honest colors of the desert.

The words buttes, canyons, arroyos, and barrancas, stand as linguistic witnesses to the parade of visitors to this space during the last 400 years. Modern man’s attempt to give names in his language to the violent evidence of a land in turmoil–  land of volcanoes, eruptions and earthquakes. Travelers driving, travelers towing silver bullets, travelers pulling Winnebagos nearly as large as some of the villages they are named after pass down the road, and travelers with their life’s belongings stowed in the back seat traveling 75 miles an hour gawk sideways at the evidence of this geologic violence and hurry through as if the violence might be latent and intent on occurring again. The desert, as it appears at this speed looks like a colorful crime scene of scattered eruptions, deep cuts running blood red and jagged evidence of an angry god. Older people seem to be drawn to drive across the landscape, silent observers in metal boxes to this violence thrilling the eye with color as they once thrilled the body on a rollercoaster.

coyoteIt gives up only the obvious to these visitors in its colors of reds, oranges and browns and keeps concealed the silvers, chartreuses and greens which it keeps tucked close to the land. The rushing motorists soak the eyes with colors already obtained from National Geographic.  The sun bleaches the landscape to a one dimensional panorama. The language of the desert is subtle not read easily by the person passing hurriedly to some unknown destination. The desert speaks in profiles at sunrise and shadows at sunset and the barking howl of the coyote when least expected. The coyote speaks like a desert wind, first barking like a dog and then breaking into a lonely howl which causes a tiny shiver of melancholy in us the lonely audience. The coyote is the loon of the desert, looking like a dog at a distance, just as a loon looks like a duck at a distance. It is in their calls that both establish their lonely independence.

The wind is the storyteller of the desert. The wind wraps you up in a constant conversation, sometimes gently nudging you to think about yourself here and sometimes violently telling its story with wild gusts that kick up foreign thistles across the road. Visitors huddle from the wind when it gusts, make way quickly to their cars and take flight as if the wind’s story is too harsh a tale to be heard by gentle folk. It is the wind that tells us the story of the buttes, sings songs that are deep inside us and gestures with wind language to tell us where best to walk.

Many visitors come here to find purity in a world become too complex at home. Here they hope the colors are true and primeval, but the desert is the world and it is complex. The desert is a multi-cultural experience composed of the tracks left by people and animals that weren’t there four hundred years ago like the tumbleweed from the British Isles, the Russian Olive from Europe, the sheep, horses, and cows from Spain, and the river bed of a canyon yielding the spring buds of the tamarisk. Only the orange of the buttes is native and original here.


This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

celebrating a few beloved books

BD1234-001There’s something wonderful, both comfortable and exciting, about rereading a favorite novel. I know people who claim never to read a book (or watch a movie) more than once. I believe them, but I don’t understand them at all. It’s impossible to get all there is to get from a really good book after a single reading. You might as well say you’ve heard that piece of music before so you’re never going to listen to it again. That makes no sense.

I’ve read all of these books more than once. In the case of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I’ve lost count of the number of rereadings. (But I can remember some of the physical locations I was in when I read it.) The writing still entrances. The characters still live. The story still captures my attention.

Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest. There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

—Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

Birdsong strikes up and musters in the first soft press of dawn. Starlings, sparrows, magpies, meadowlarks, blackbirds. There is the flush and shuffle of feathers. Throat tunings. The hollowing chitter of beaks. Bursts of flight. Wrens, flycatchers, cowbirds, crows. Complaint. Exultation. They work the meadow grass, the cottonwoods along the creek, the open barnloft, alive in tilting sweeps of hand-size shadows. The raptors float silently a thousand feet above, turning, spiraling atop the early-morning thermals, hunting the edge of the ebbing night.

—Mark Spragg, The Fruit of Stone

The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant’s table—the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial. Some in the gallery would later say that his stillness suggested a disdain for the proceedings; others felt certain it veiled a fear of the verdict that was to come. Whichever it was, Kabuo showed nothing—not even a flicker of the eyes. He was dressed in a white shirt worn buttoned to the throat and gray, neatly pressed trousers. His figure, especially the neck and shoulders, communicated the impression of irrefutable physical strength and of precise, even imperial bearing. Kabuo’s features were smooth and angular; his hair had been cropped close to his skull in a manner that made its musculature prominent. In the face of the charge that had been leveled against him he sat with his dark eyes trained straight ahead and did not appear moved at all.

—David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions.

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.

—Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

In order to pay off an old debt that someone else had contracted, Austin King had said yes when he knew that he ought to have said no, and now at five o’clock of a July afternoon he saw the grinning face of trouble everywhere he turned. The house was full of strangers from Mississippi; within an hour the friends and neighbours he had invited to an evening party would begin ringing the doorbell; and his wife (whom he loved) was not speaking to him.

—William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It

Glorious! Now I just have to decide which one of these stories to delve into again next.

How do you feel about rereading books? Do you have favorites that you’ve reread more than once?

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

reflections on a tea-soaked madeleine

How does autobiographical memory actually work—and how reliable is it?

proust madeleineThe scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera, for example, that it just records, and it files things away in mental DVDs that we can pull down and set playing. And in a way, that’s not surprising, because we see memories as foundational for who we are. We commonly feel that we are our memories; our memories define us. So something needs to change. … Accepting that memories are not literal representations of the past as it happened doesn’t mean that we have to forget about them or start disbelieving them all. But they’re shaped by who we are now. They’re shaped by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are. (Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light)

According to neuroscientist Karim Nadar, it may be impossible to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way. Memories we replay mentally over and over or talk about a lot with others are especially susceptible to such alterations. And when you retell it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory.

What we now know is that our brains happily reconstruct memories, though we are frequently fooled into thinking that the reconstructions are seamlessly recorded recollections. … Even for the sharper memories born from strong emotions (often called flashbulb memories), time erodes the infrastructure, leaving cracks and gaps. Instead of remembering specific, perfectly accurate details, what constitutes memory over time are general impressions of events with spotty details—and the older we get, the spottier they become. (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow)

There is more than one way to lay down a memory. We’re not talking about a memory of different events, but multiple memories of the same event—as though two journalists with different personalities were jotting down notes about a single unfolding story. … The conviction that memory is one thing is an illusion. (David Eagleman, Incognito)

The world is made of stories, not of atoms.

So said poet Muriel Rukeyser. And she was correct. The world of atoms is composed of facts, details, events, objects, phenomena, information, etc. In the world of atoms, things happen (events take place).

The world of stories consists of our perceptions and interpretations of what happened, as well as the meaning we assign to it.

The things that happen to or around us and our stories or explanations about those things are not the same thing. But because of the speed with which our unconscious brain (a/k/a System 1) processes information—and the fact that we’re not aware of what it’s doing—we think that our story about what happened is what happened.

  • Something happens.
  • We pay attention to selected aspects of it. How do we decide what to pay attention to? For the most part, System 1 (our unconscious) makes that decision for us, based on the model of the world it maintains.
  • We miss most of it! We’re not capable of consciously perceiving everything that is going on around us. Our unconscious can process around 11,000,000 bits of information at a time compared to the 40 bits we can process consciously. There’s an amazing amount of filtering going on all the time.
  • We come up with an explanation for the parts we paid attention to. We have an inner interpreter/narrator whose job it is to maintain an ongoing narrative of our lives, creating order out of chaos, making cause-and-effect connections, and generally leading us to believe we understand what’s going on. Our inner narrator is a great confabulator. If it doesn’t have all the information, it will make something up. And we will almost always believe what it tells us. And we can’t stop ourselves from interpreting or explaining.

A set of brain circuits—usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish—force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. Our minds constantly struggle to extract meaning from the data rivering through our senses. … In the same way that your mind sees an abstract pattern and resolves it into a face, your imagination sees a pattern of events and resolves it into a story. If there is no story there, we are only too happy to invent one. (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal)

  • We assign meaning to our explanation of what we paid attention to or noticed. We decide the meaning of things. And we can’t stop ourselves from making meaning.
  • After the fact, we have a memory of what happened, which is really a memory of our fragmentary perception overlaid by our explanation and the meaning we attached to it. This is not a memory of what actually happened in the world of atoms. Our memory tells us stories. So what we get to keep from our experience is a story. The kinds of memories that make the best stories—and the easiest ones to recall—are of events that had a strong emotional impact.
  • Each time we tell the story (to ourselves or others), we edit it. Talking and/or writing about an experience interferes with our memory of it. We remember not what we have experienced but what we have said about what we experienced. Usually the editing is unintentional, but if you pay attention, you can catch yourself in the act of editing to suit your audience, your purpose in telling the story, the impression you’re trying to make, or even your mood.

We have a tendency to reshape the irregular features of our world into smoother, more symmetrical forms. Inconvenient details tend to be pruned from our memories, and facts that do not fit together in a coherent way tend to be forgotten, deemphasized, or reinterpreted. The process of retelling a story in our own narrative style places certain constraints on what we recall, and these constraints guide our reconstruction of events. (Joseph T. Hallinan, Why We Make Mistakes)

  • What we are left with is the latest version of our altered recollection (and selected perception) of something that happened and what it means to us.

When you’re writing a story from a character’s point of view, you include only what that character is aware of. Unless you’re a really bad writer, you don’t include random bits of information just because you find them interesting or because you discovered them in the course of your research.

Everyone always has a point of view, in real life as well as in stories. We—and our characters—can’t help but view the world subjectively. Everything that happens happens to us.

Your P.O.V. character acts, reacts, and interprets events based on his or her model of the world the same as we do in real life. No one is a completely reliable narrator because we are all selectively paying attention to—or screening out—various things, interpreting what we pay attention to, creating cause-and-effect explanations, and assigning meaning.

Furthermore, our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a true story. A story can be more or less “truthy,” but never completely true.

for writers: use your brain to make writing a habit

(Note: This article was first published in the September issue of the SouthWest Sage newsletter.)

writing daisyYou probably already know that waiting for inspiration to strike is a sure way to get little or no writing done. If you want to produce a body of work—and be prepared to welcome inspiration when it does show up in your neck of the woods—you need to write regularly. The best way to do that is to turn the act of writing into a habit.

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration.  —John Steinbeck.

Habits are a labor-saving device for your brain, which needs all the help it can get. Your brain weighs only about three pounds, yet it consumes 20% of your body’s energy. Habits allow your brain to streamline some of its operations by powering down and switching to autopilot. Essentially you’re wired to have habits. And your brain isn’t interested in your opinion about your habits (whether you think they’re good ones or bad ones). A brain’s going to do what a brain’s wired to do.

When you perform any activity on a regular basis—brushing your teeth before going to bed, snacking in front of the TV, going to the gym after work—your brain takes note. It then “chunks” that behavior, beginning with the cue or trigger that initiates it, and turns it over to your basal ganglia. The cue could be time of day, a particular feeling such as loneliness, or even another activity. In the case of writing, it could be sitting down in front of your computer at the same time every day or with your favorite hot beverage.

engage the habit loop

Once a behavior has been chunked, each time your brain encounters the cue or trigger for it, it switches to autopilot while you go through the motions of performing the activity. After you complete that chunk of behavior, your brain turns autopilot off and powers back up.

In addition to the cue and the behavior itself, the third part of what’s called “the habit loop” is the reward. The reward is the feeling of pleasure you get during—or after—engaging in the behavior. The pleasant feelings you experience are the result of your brain’s release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that also activates emotional and learning circuits. The reward is positive reinforcement that motivates you to repeat the behavior. Although it’s a critical part of the habit loop, the reward is the part people are most likely to skip when trying to create a new habit. If you aren’t writing on a regular basis but think you ought to be able to do it without having to reward yourself, your basal ganglia beg to differ.

Until you’ve developed the habit of writing, you’re needlessly taxing your brain by forcing it to operate at full power while you debate whether, when, where, and what to write. Once you’ve turned writing into a habit, you can channel that brainpower into your actual writing.

Start by choosing a time and place to write, preferably daily. Decide on a cue so your brain knows when to switch to writing mode. Try hooking your writing habit onto an existing routine, such drinking your first cup of coffee or tea or returning home from a walk or the gym, and using that as a cue. Then choose a reward. You can give yourself a smaller reward each day or a bigger one after, say, a week. Just make sure you reward yourself often enough that your brain associates the reward with writing.

There is no magic number of days it will take before sitting down to write at the designated hour becomes automatic. It varies from person to person and habit to habit. Your brain responds to consistency, however, so it will eventually get the message. In fact, once you’ve developed the habit of writing you may find it hard to resist the siren call of your writing cue, even on days when you’re sure you don’t have time to write.

If you find the blank page a daunting place to begin, avoid having to face it by stopping in the middle of a scene or a passage. By the time you get back to it the next day, you not only won’t have to think about whether or not to write, you won’t have to think about where or how to begin, either. As a bonus, you will have given your unconscious the opportunity to make connections and see patterns that may not have been evident the day before. That’s how to use your brain.

P.S.: It’s a myth that we only use 10% of our brain. We don’t use all of it all the time, but we use 100% of it during the course of a day.

To learn more about using your brain, be sure to check out Farther to Go!

Your Brain on Art, Writing, and Music

brain

 

 

Here are some recent stories about what goes on in the brain when we’re writing, making music, and appreciating art. (Originally posted on Farther to Go!)

Click on the titles to read the complete articles.

 

Our Brains Are Made for Enjoying Art

Ann Lukits (The Wall Street Journal)

Analysis suggests art appreciation is a natural biological process.

“Viewing paintings engages a number of different regions of the brain, suggesting art appreciation is a natural biological process, according to the report in the June issue of the journal Brain and Cognition. The study found that paintings activated areas of the brain involved in vision, pleasure, memory, recognition and emotions, in addition to systems that underlie the conscious processing of new information to give it meaning.”

This is Your Brain on Writing

Carl Zimmer (The New York Times)

Becoming skilled at writing may activate the same areas of the brain that are activated in people who are skilled at other things, such as sports or music. This study showed that the areas of the brain activated in novice writers were not the same as those activated in the skilled, “professionally trained,” writers.

“During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.”

It would appear that training is training is training—no matter what the training is for.

Musical Training Increases Executive Brain Function in Adults and Children

Jeremy Dean (PsyBlog)

“Both the brains and behaviour of adult and child musicians were compared with non-musicians in the study by researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital. They found that adult musicians compared to non-musicians showed enhanced performance on measures of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency. And musically trained children showed enhanced performance on measures of verbal fluency and processing speed.”

Music Changes the Way You Think

Daniel A. Yudkin and Yaacov Trope (Scientific American)

Different music encourages different frames of mind.

“Tiny, almost immeasurable features in a piece of music have the power to elicit deeply personal and specific patterns of thought and emotion in human listeners….Ponderous, resonant, unfamiliar tonalities—the proverbial “auditory forest”—cause people to construe things abstractly. By contrast, the rapid, consonant, familiar chords of the perfect fifth—the “auditory trees”—bring out the concrete mindset….That music can move us is no surprise; it’s the point of the art form, after all. What’s new here is the manner in which the researchers have quantified in fine-grained detail the cognitive ramifications of unpacked melodic compounds.”

the periodic table of storytelling

periodic-table-storytelling

Please check out the periodic table of storytelling, created by James Harris. It’s fascinating, fun, and even useful for both writers and readers.

I found this gem through Open Culture.

We Are

I just want to share these beautiful and heartfelt words with as many people as possible. Thank you, Connie.

Sorting it Out

flowers 2We are flowers, reaching, reaching, napping in the September sun, warming our skin, unwilling to say good-bye. How many more days before it has travelled too far south to impart even an ounce of warmth?

We are the moon, hanging orange and low and pregnant, keeping quiet company in the dark, waiting for birth, for daylight, whispering that you were conceived in love and brightly shining hope.

We are the wind, invisible, lonely, unable to stay in one place, unaware of our power, at times troubling, at others soothing, at others yet fanning the coals of a cooling fire.

We are cloud and rain, watering and cooling, then pooling back into ourselves.

We are bright bursts of electricity and light; we are loud unsettling rumbles of thunder. We are weeping willows and whispering pines; we are raging hurricanes and crushing surf.

We are, you and I in turn, the grandeur…

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nightlight

Moth
drawn to the light
the nightlight

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Watch…
I am drawing light
and growing;

Drawing butterfly pictures,
spectral ink blot samples
of a state of mind,
a moment in time,
a momentary rhyme,
a sign;

Tracing the sunlight
on paper
or determining the nature
of myself
of yourself,
and the world
of light flowing,
water growing,
earth shining

On this space
between places
we have found
to live in for a while.

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