Cultivating Literary Inspiration: The Hungarian Pastry Shop

Writing inspiration comes in many forms. Places I visit, people I meet, and books I read, all are muses for me. Routines, especially writing routines, are important. Dedicating pen time each day goes a long way to keep those artistic juices flowing. Yet, even the best of us lose inspiration in our daily habits. So what do you do when your creative reservoir needs a good thunderstorm? I recommend writing someplace new.

Psychology has a rather pessimistic view of geographic change leading to happiness. The truth is we tend to overestimate how a change will improve our mood. This is the basis of what is called a “focusing illusion.” Basically, “The grass always looks greener on the other side.”

Accepting that you take yourself wherever you go, micro-geographic changes may help inspire your fiction. When I get bored writing at home, I enjoy spending an afternoon at a local cafe. I’m often surprised by the surfeit of personal information shared by patrons not two feet away! Writers being natural voyeurs of life, I rarely leave disappointed.

This week, I visited Manhattan and my alma mater, Columbia University, while attending a psychiatric conference. Feeling rather uninspired in my overpriced, Upper West Side hotel room, I wandered up Amsterdam Ave., to the Hungarian Pastry Shop. Opened in the 1960s, the cafe has inspired students, professors, and writers for over half a century (see the photo of the Writer’s Wall above).

Keeping my expectations in check, I found a seat near the rear of the cafe and took a bite of my poppy seed strudel (you must try it if you can). The patrons around me were rather diverse, being comprised of students, residents, and tourists, and I quickly learned about the politics of the latest phase of the Columbia University expansion as well as the best place to buy fresh basil between 110th and 116th streets. Smiling, and raising my cup of coffee in homage to the writers who came before me, I began to write. Needless to say, the atmosphere was more inspiring than my hotel room, and before I knew it, an hour had passed, and I added a few new pages to my novel.

Maybe I should move here. 🙂

 

 

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Resilience and Writing: Cultivating the Potential to Actualize Your Writing Goals

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), resilience is the process by which a person copes with adversity. Each person comes with an innate amount of resilience. Far from a static trait, resilience can be cultivated through our actions, thoughts, and behaviors.

Do you remember the first rejection letter you received as a writer? If you’re like me, it probably stung a little, but you brushed yourself off and tried again. Then came the second rejection, and the third, and…Gods is my writing that bad? The truth is that rejection is the rule rather than the exception in publication, and how resilient you are may determine whether your writings ever end up in a reader’s hands.

Resiliency is not a state where one does not experience difficulty or distress. In fact, resilient people may experience great emotional pain. Resiliency is the process of moving forward despite adversity.  The APA (with some modifications from yours truly) gives some specific examples of how someone might build resiliency.

  1. Avoid seeing problems as insurmountable. This requires us to be aware of our own thoughts. Be aware of automatic thoughts and negative cognitions like ‘I keep getting rejected, maybe I should just give up,” or “This rejection proves I’m not a good writer.” Accepting rejection as a normal part of the writing journey and not an indicator of ability is an important part of becoming a resilient writer.
  2. Move toward your goals. Writers love to fantasize about making it big in the industry. Setting realistic goals that are grounded in the present can help us appreciate the progress we are making and cultivate resiliency against future failure. On any given day ask yourself, “What can I do today to move closer to my goals?”
  3. Have a positive outlook. Visualizing what we want can help motivate us. If we assume positive things are going to happen, we are more likely to behave and act in a way that creates future opportunities and successes. Conversely, if we have a negative self-view and outlook, we may not seize opportunities and in turn, create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
  4. Never stop looking for opportunities. As Mom used to say, if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.  There are lots of agents, publishers, and platforms to explore. Don’t get hung up at the bumps in the road. This will distract you from your goal.
  5. Face failure with decisive action. “Fear is the mind killer.” -F. Herbert. When you get rejected, move on, plan your next submission, and keep an open mind. Don’t wallow in failure, but if you happen to be feeling sorry for yourself, acknowledge your feelings and tell yourself “No matter how I feel now, I’m not giving up.”
  6. Healthy body, healthy mind. How we feel emotionally and physically has a lot to do with how we react to situations. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance, exercising, eating healthy, meditating, and engaging in relaxing activities can help us be more resilient in times of stress.
  7. Acceptance and allowing. Perhaps the most important. Failure and rejection are inevitable parts of life. Learning to accept change can only make us more resilient to life’s challenges. Remember, success is only sweet because we know the bitterness of rejection. As the folk singer Ramblin Jack Eliot once told me, “Take it easy but take it.” 🙂

http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx

 

Be as Brave as Your Fictional Characters

As a psychiatrist working in an academic program, I attend a weekly case conference where difficult and unusual cases are presented, sometimes with a live patient interview. Before last week’s conference, I saw my colleague in the hallway, who happened to be presenting the day’s case, and asked him whether or not there would be a live patient. My colleague answered “yes,” and I told him I would be right up after I returned from the Doctor’s Lounge where a caffeinated substance labeled “expresso” could be distilled from the Nestle Machine.

As I went on this errand, I thought about the bravery required to be interviewed in front of a room of psychiatrists. Many patients share after these conferences that a desire to “teach” and “pass on” their experience helped them overcome their fears and reservations.

Reflecting on this, I settled into the conference room and sipped my black caffeinated beverage while my colleague presented the powerpoint portion of his case. “Do you have any questions for me?” he asked the audience.

I looked up at the other doctors at the table and back to the presenter. Suddenly the truth dawned on me; my colleague was presenting a case on himself. 

My colleague’s disclosure required a lot of courage. The stigma of mental illness is profound. Patients often struggle to share their experiences with even close friends.  For a provider to reveal his own psychological struggles to his colleagues is a rare act. I thought to myself, ‘If our roles were reversed, would I be so brave?’

According to Dr. Tissington, a psychologist specializing in the psychology of bravery,
“Bravery is the management of fear. There is no one personality type that you see who is brave. We cannot predict who is going to be brave and who is not.”

After the conference, I went home and decided to write another chapter in my second novel, Child of Fire. I reflected on the bravery of my protagonist and of some of the other characters in the book. Reflecting on these characters, I again asked myself, ‘If our roles were reversed, would I be so brave?’

As writers, our characters allow us to assume different sexes, races, or even different species. Through our characters, we can be more playful, compassionate, diligent, and courageous than our normal personas allow. As a result, we are natural escapists; however, to get our work out there to be read, we must be quite the opposite.

I remember talking to a fellow fantasy writer once about Cristopher Paolini, the author of the Eragon series. According to my friend, Chris dressed up in medieval garb outside of supermarkets to market his book. My first thought upon hearing this was, ‘He must really love his characters.” As writers, we must be as courageous as our protagonists to bring our works to life.  Thankfully, I am blessed with many good examples of bravery.

Understanding the Psychology of Bravery and Courage. 2 November 2010. http://www.aston.ac.uk/news/releases/2010/november/understanding-the-psychology-of-bravery-and-courage/

How schemas can help you develop better fictional characters.

Few novels can succeed without rich character development. How we identify, or fail to identify, with a story’s characters can determine whether or not we keep flipping the pages.

Writers have different techniques for developing characters. They can be based on persons close to the writer, celebrities, historical characters, or an amalgam of persons with whom the writer has either read about or shared contact.

Our characters’ personalities have a lot to do with how the story unfolds. Like us, they make choices, and those choices have consequences. Whether or not a reader finds a character “believable,” has a lot to do with whether their decisions make sense to us about what we know about them. This is where schemas become important.

The developmental psychiatrist Jean Piaget defined schemas as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning.” (1) Wadsworth described schema as index cards for the brain. (2) Tompkins and McGee define schema as “a mental bundle of knowledge that holds everything we know about a topic.” (3) Therefore, schema are patterns of thought or behavior, based on collections of acquired knowledge, which influence how we attend to, interpret, or respond to new information. Schema are the lenses through which we experience the world. They allow us to quickly synthesize and respond to new information without complex thought. Once established, schema tend to remain fixed even when challenged with contradictory information. (4)

For example, let’s say you run into a dragon on your way to the store. You know it’s a dragon because under your schema index card for dragons you identify the characteristics of large flying reptiles. Based on books you’ve read, let’s say “The Hobbit,” you have other information filed about dragons, notably that they are dangerous, not to be trusted, and will likely eat you. Based on this schema you have for dragons, your first thought may be, “Oh crap I’m going to die,” and your action might be to run away. Now let’s say your only experience with dragons is the book Eragon. In this case, your schema about dragon behavior may be quite different. You still may be frightened because dragons are a little intimidating, but your first thought might be “Wow, that’s a dragon,” and your first action might be to smile and wave awkwardly. Based on this example can you see how schemas can result in prejudices?

Now think about the characters in your story. What are the seminal experiences that define them?  How do these past events influence their current interaction with others and their environment? Do the character’s words and actions match with what the reader knows about them? As you write, remember that schemas are like personalities: they are difficult to change. If you’re going to change a character’s schema, or make them act in a way contrary to an existing schema, there has to be a good reason for it; if approached intentionally and with care this could result in powerful character development.

  1. Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.
  2. Wadsworth, B. J. (2004). Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development: Foundations of constructivism. Longman Publishing.
  3. Tompkins G.E. & McGee L.M. (1993) Teaching Reading With Literature Case Studies to Action Plans
  4. Nadkarni, S.; Narayanan, V. K. (2007). “Strategic schemas, strategic flexibility, and firm performance: The moderating role of industry clockspeed.” Strategic Management Journal28 (3): 243–270

 

Mentalization and how it can you make you a better writer.

In its simplest form, mentalization refers to our ability to perceive another’s way of thinking. Being able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes (as the saying goes), is often more difficult than it sounds. Our ability to understand the internal states of others through their thoughts and feelings can help us better form internal representations of our fictional characters’ minds.

According to psychiatrist Glen O Gabbard, M.D., mentalizing is often referred to as having a Theory of Mind. Having a Theory of Mind starts with understanding one’s own mind. As alluded to above, our thinking and behavior are representational. They are a product of our unique experiences, thoughts, and emotions.

The first step to becoming a better mentalizer is to accept that people think differently and that if we interpret other’s actions through our own “lens” of experience, we may misinterpret their motivations and intentions. This framework gives us the opportunity to see things from another person’s perspective.

Like people we meet, fictional characters also have internal representations of the world. As writers, the better we understand what guides our character’s actions and behaviors, the more believable they will become to our readers. One way to help you learn to mentalize with your characters is to base them on a person in your life. Think about how that person views the world, how they react to various stressors and circumstances, and then apply that to your character. As you become more adept at this process, writing from your character’s perspective will be as easy as changing your shoes. Whether or not your character has the capacity to mentalize is for you to decide :-).

 

Scientists and Writers. A Lesson from the Engineer Psychiatrist.

“I see you were an engineering consultant before medical school. Psychiatry seems like an odd choice for someone with your background. I would think you might be interested in a more technical medical discipline.”

The applicant shifted slightly in his seat and smiled. “You’re not the first person to ask me that. People don’t realize it, but engineering is less exact than you think. Sometimes things look great on paper, but when you try them out, they don’t work. It takes a lot of imagination.”

“It sounds like it,” I smiled, making a small note in the applicant’s file.

As a Chief Resident in a psychiatry training program, I interview many prospective medical school graduates for residency positions. Psychiatry being an eclectic field, I rarely meet an applicant who does not inspire me in some way.

After the applicant left my office, I thought about the writer and scientist Stephen Jay Gould who famously said, “Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective information. It is a creative human activity, its geniuses acting more as artists than as information processors.”

Writing is an essential component of a scientist’s daily life. In fact, most scientists spend more time writing than conducting experiments. To receive funding, they write grants. To justify their grants, they write research papers. This requires creative tact, as the scientist must translate their findings into something readily digestible for other scientists, and in many cases, non-scientists.

What the scientist and the writer share in common are curiosity and creativity. Most writers spend a significant amount of time doing research. This curiosity allows them to create realistic characters, settings, and plots.  In some cases, the writer’s curiosity can lead him to create ideas that will become realities. Think of visionary scientific writers like Isaac Asimov who predicted many of our modern technological advances.

Requoting the engineer psychiatrist, “Sometimes things look great on paper, but when you try them out, they don’t work. It takes a lot of imagination.” Out of context, this does sound a lot like creative writing, doesn’t it? I guess the writer and the scientist have a lot in common after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing and the Power of Positive Thinking

Contrary to Popular Culture, Positive Psychology is not about the “The Secret,” or the Law of Attraction.  Martin Seligman defined Positive Psychology as “The scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.” Of the scientific research done in this field, the work of Barbara Fredrickson stands out as particularly poignant in showing how positive emotions can facilitate creativity.

In her Broaden-and-Build Theory, Dr. Fredrickson hypothesizes that positive emotions have a way of expanding our thinking, moving our minds from automatic responses to more creative ways of thinking and acting. Some positive emotions that appear particularly important for creativity include joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love.

According to Dr. Fredrickson, joy broadens our creative and intellectual behavior through the urge to play and push the limits. Interest creates in us the urge to explore, assimilate new information and experiences, and expand the self. Contentment, on the other hand, broadens us by creating the urge to savor current life circumstances and integrate them into new views of self and of the world (very helpful in writing). Pride, as seen through the lens of personal achievement, broadens our urge to share with others and expand our vision of future achievements.  Taken together, or apart, these positive emotions help broaden habitual modes of thinking or acting (Fredrickson 2001).

One important observation of Fredrickson’s work is the reciprocal nature of positive emotions and thoughts. Each promotes the other. So, how might we increase our positive emotions and thoughts? Short answer: writing.

Dr. Robert Emmons has written extensively on the power of gratitude in improving contentment and joy. One way to improve gratitude is to journal daily on those things that are positive in our lives or which we are thankful for. This simple practice can have transformative effects and has been shown to improve health and wellness (Emmons & Stern, 2013).

Writing about life goals also seems to cultivate positive thoughts and emotions. In a study by Dr. Laura King, it was found that writing about life goals for four consecutive days was associated with feeling “less upset, more happy, and getting sick less often.” These effects continued to persist five months after the study was completed.

Journaling or reflective writing also appears to have myriad benefits. In studies performed by Dr. Pennebaker, writing freely about past traumas can improve physical and emotional wellness (Pennebaker, 2017). These results appear to be enduring and replicated by other researchers. It is important to note that Dr. King’s research on writing about life goals shows that the content of journaling does not necessarily have to be “traumatic” to elicit positive benefits.

Meditation, specifically Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM), has also been shown to cultivate positive emotions and consequently creative thinking. In a well-designed randomized controlled trial developed by Dr. Fredrickson, participants who engaged in LKM for six weeks, demonstrated enhanced positive emotions in relation to controls. Other benefits of this practice included increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased depressive symptoms (Fredrickson et al., 2008). Follow this link for a daily practice of LKM. Here is an example of a guided LKM.

Fredrickson BL. The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. Am Psychol . 2001 March; 56(3): 218–226.

Emmons RA, Stern R. Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention. J Clin Psychol. 2013 Aug;69(8):846-55. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22020. Epub 2013 Jun 17.

King, LA. The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2001; 27, 798-807.

Pennebaker, JW. Expressive Writing in Psychological Science. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2017 Sep 1:1745691617707315. doi: 10.1177/1745691617707315. [Epub ahead of print]

Fredrickson BL, Cohn MA, Coffey KA, et al. Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. J Pers Soc Psychol . 2008 November ; 95(5): 1045–1062.

Motivation follows Action: The Psychology of Starting.

“Doctor, I have a great idea for a writing project. I just can’t seem to start.”

Sound familiar?

Starting anything is difficult. Whether it’s a short story, a novel, or even a blog, motivation to start can be elusive. Many of us wait expectantly for motivation to tell us when to start. And there is the problem. Action does not follow motivation, motivation follows action.

According to psychologist Deborah A. Olson Ph.D., “Sometimes the best way to get started is simply to start, and wait for motivation to catch up with you.” So what are some tips for getting started?

  1. Make yourself an appointment. No, not with your psychiatrist, with yourself. 🙂 Giving yourself a time to write, regardless of what does or does not end up on the page is important.
  2. Make it a habit. Like any craft, consistency and practice will help you develop your voice and writing muscle.
  3. Postpone Perfection. Remember, the first draft, or even the second draft does not have to be perfect. What’s important is getting your ideas on the page.
  4. Give yourself a deadline. Notice I didn’t say make your deadline. Setting writing goals for the month, for the week, or even for the day, can help you stay motivated. I rarely meet all my writing goals, but setting them will create momentum and that’s what’s important.
  5. Develop healthy positive fantasies. Fantasies about future success can kindle our motivation to write, but as psychologist Jeremy Dean notes, positive fantasies also leave us unprepared for challenges along the way, which when faced could lead to a decrease in motivation.
  6. Focus on what matters most–writing. I notice when I feel anxious about writing, I will fill my time with busy work. Instead of trying to displace your anxiety, acknowledge it and just write. Remember, cleaning out your email inbox does not bring meaning to your life.

These tips helped me write and revise (multiple times) my first novel and find action and motivation for other writing projects. I hope you find them useful.

 

The Psychology of Creativity. Theta Brain Waves and Writing.

As a psychiatrist and a writer, I have a particular interest in the psychology and science of creativity. All writers experience “writer’s block” at one time or another. For the Ancients, creativity was believed to come from outside ourselves in the form of muses. We know today that all mental activity, including creativity, is a product of chemical and electrical changes in the brain. Creativity being unpredictable, it is not surprising that our ancestors attributed it to it an external origin. I like to think of creativity more like a geyser opened up from the depths of our sub-conscious. This geyser is the theta wave; and far from being an unpredictable muse, the theta wave can be harnessed and cultivated.

Some of you may have heard of brain waves. Brain waves are associated with different levels of wakefulness and sleep. Alpha (13hz – 8hz) is the brain wave associated with relaxed, daydreaming states of mind; it is the state right before sleep. Theta (8hz – 3hz) brain waves are associated with light sleep, dreaming, creativity, and access to long-term memory. When we put finger to keyboard and the story seems to write itself, we are naturally accessing alpha and theta brainwave states. Writing every day is one way to train our minds to do this. Another way is through meditation.

For the last several years, meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, has been the rave in psychiatry. Studies have shown that meditation changes our minds physically and psychologically. One way it does this is by modifying our brain waves.

Simply sitting and focusing on one’s breath is a useful way to reduce Beta Waves (30hz – 13hz), which are associated with planning and active thinking (not conducive with creativity), and entering an alpha state. You may notice that it’s harder to write in the middle of the day or when you just worked on a task like doing your taxes. That’s because our beta waves are very active.

The bridge to creativity is through the alpha state and the longer you are able to maintain this state, the more likely creative theta waves will surface. Writing early in the morning when alpha waves predominate may help breath new life into a writing project. In fact, writing after any activity that produces a state of relaxation may help. However, if you are feeling particularly uninspired about a writing project, and your normal relaxation techniques are not cutting it, I recommend trying a guided meditation like the one below to help you relax into a theta state.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90GYrewNw4U

It is true that you don’t need to meditate to be a good writer, but I think it’s safe to say that meditation can help make you a better, more efficient writer.

 

 

 

 

The Great Cut: Time for a Copy Editor?

The process of revising is tedious but rewarding. When I finished cutting 50,000+ words from my novel, I felt relieved; the novel felt sharper and faster. By dawn’s daylight, my writer’s high ended, and I resolved myself to begin revising again from page 1.

After the second time through my novel, I began to experience a writer’s delusion known as It’s Perfect. Feeling slightly satisfied in my own musings, I began work on other writing projects and deciding whether to open up my checkbook.

If you have reached this point, let me help you with that decision.

Writing a novel is a labor of love. Many good writers never get the opportunity to see their work in print. Still, we spend hours and hours, writing, revising, crafting and sweating over our work. Why? Becuase that is what writers do. Our characters are like our children and who wouldn’t provide for their offspring?

Carrying this analogy forward, choosing a copy editor is like choosing a good school. Not every one is the same. The key is to match your book to the write editor (pun intended). Here are a few tips on choosing the right copy editor.

Tip 1: Do your research. There are a lot of people offering editing services out there. Make sure the person or firm you are choosing is legitimate. Do they have reviews? Will they allow you to contact references? Were they recommended to you by another writer or blogger with a good reputation? Doing your research can really help pay off in this area.

Tip 2: Match the book to the editor. Not everyone may agree with this point, but I think it’s important to have an editor that knows your genre. Some genres like fantasy or sci-fi could be confusing to an editor who mostly edits mysteries. Most editors will list the books they have worked on. This is a good way to see if your editor has experience editing work in your genre.

Tip 3: Pay the extra money. The scenario goes something like this. Editor 1 is about half the price of Editor 2, but Editor 2 has better references, offers sample edits, has worked on books in your genre, and is by all accounts a top rate human being. Bottom line: Don’t send your child to school in a Ford Pinto unless it’s absolutely necessary. It may cost you more money in the long run.