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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Many people are familiar with Plato's allegory of the cave. Men (prisoners) face a cave wall, unable to turn around, with a fire burning behind them. Between the fire and the men is a walkway, along which puppeteers carrying objects pass. All the men know of the world are the shapes and shadows that are cast upon the wall. The shadows constitute the basis of reality for the men. Imagine attempting to discern the world from such a vantage point. How would the words that are selected and the language that is used further define what is real? A shadow of a book is not the same as the book itself. And what would happen if one of the men was to become free, and make his way to daylight? Would he experience madness as he experiences the objects themselves as opposed to their apparitions?

As previous entries have discussed, our use of language determines our reality, evokes emotion, and helps to motivate--or demotivate--us.  Words transport us to different worlds. Words can describe our experiences, but they are not the experiences themselves. The map is not the territory.

Writers take advantage of the fluidity of experience and the worlds that are created by words. How frequently have you read a book and then later viewed a movie based on the book? How often did the movie measure up to the written word? If it did, how did that happen? Was it because the images stayed close to the descriptions in the written word? If it didn't, was it because the images that you formed when you read the book were superior to the adaptation of the movie into film?

In any form of communication, we assume that the listener, reader, or reviewer interprets the message in the manner that we intend. But experience, culture, mood, and the relationship between the communicator and the recipient will cast their own shadows.


Saturday, March 24, 2012


In the last blog entry we talked about habits and how language shapes our behavior as well as our responses to the behavior of others. Today's discussion focuses on patterns of behavior.

Routines can be important parts of our day as well as health maintenance activities (HMA). Do you take a multivitamin regularly? If you do, chances are that you are most consistent in doing so when you follow an established pattern. And you may make it easier to alert yourself to the HMA by establishing cues.

For example, if you routinely brew a cup of coffee each morning, keeping a bottle of vitamins next to the coffee maker is a sure cue for taking your daily vitamin. Have you had the experience of putting  your vitamins in a different location, say, when you ran out and had to buy a new bottle. If, the next morning, you brewed your coffee and there is no vitamin bottle sitting there, you might forget to take one. Cues help to prime the memory pump.

If you put a note pad on the night table by your bed, you will be more apt to jot down creative ideas than if the paper and pen are in a different room. If you use your computer for both creative tasks as well as other activities such as online shopping, reading the daily news headlines, checking sports scores, or listening to music, firing up the computer might provide distractions that keep the creative efforts at bay. The use of cues such as post-it notes, or "to do" lists, can help to maintain focus and creative output.

Pattern interruptions can also help to decrease the likelihood of continuing negative patterns. Take smoking, for example. Although this would take a little effort to set up, the pay off may make it worthwhile. If a person kept cigarettes in one place but a lighter in a far away place (such as a different floor in a house, under the bed, etc.), breaking the chain of having cigarette and lighter together and requiring more effort to engage the habit may decrease the frequency of the behavior.

In many cases, all it takes is one alteration to the routine, plus or minus, to help create a healthy change, whether with HMA's or creative endeavors.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Routines, habits, and patterns

As winter makes its way past (and we all hope that it occurs sooner rather than later), we have a pretty good sense, now, of how the new year is shaping up. Changes related to resolutions that we made may have begun to occur, while some other ambitions fell by the wayside. That tends to happen with behavioral goals. Inertia is easier to support than activity. Someone joked that while hard work may eventually win the day, procrastination has an immediate payoff. It's hard to beat that kind of reinforcement sometimes!

You've probably noticed that our language has a variety of ways of referencing an event or an activity. For example, take doing one thing day in and day out. Is it a habit or routine? Is it a pattern? Or perhaps the same behavior might be associated with a pejorative referent--a rut. Any behavior can be spun to reflect a positive, neutral, or negative tone. And we may then end up reacting to the descriptor that we used rather than to the behavior itself. 

If we listen to someone who goes on and on about a distressing subject, the expression may be characterized as a rant. Ranting and raving are associated with lunatics, and that image is less than supportive. What if the emotional expression was called "venting," instead? Blowing off steam. The boiler analogy is a bit more favorable. Or if we walk away thinking, "he really needed to get that off his chest," well, then there is a whole different connotation involved. It sounds more supportive!

Exercise, fulfillment of creative endeavors, behavior change for health reasons, all of these things and more require initial steps to be taken, reinforced, and supported to continue. Few people would call daily exercise or going one more day without smoking as a rut. Positive routines. Good stuff! 

But what if the new behavior has not yet become engrained, or maybe not even yet initiated. What if the old habits, the inertia, the ruts, are difficult to overcome? Starting with a new sense of perspective might be helpful. What if we called the old habit not a rut, but maybe a drainage ditch? Or, maybe a pothole? Potholes can certainly be more easily overcome than ruts! Or, what if we step aside from the topographical descriptions altogether and consider that perhaps there have been some barriers that have prevented change?

A barrier could be a mountain, in which case we are no better off than when we felt stuck in a rut. But what if the barrier was a sawhorse? Or a gate with a latch that simply needs to be lifted and then the gate freely opens? What if the barrier is a toddler's bicycle on the path? We can deal with that!

Change is assisted by language. Language can help us feel stuck or can help free us. A good place to start is with awareness of our language. Millions of these ideas, images, and thoughts go through our minds, and they take on an automaticity. It's hard to challenge what we can't recognize and sometimes we have to slow things down so we can catch the words that we use. Two strategies come to mind.

First, write things down. This could be stream of consciousness thinking without organization, or it could be more systematic, like a diary or a journal. Or it could be stopping at random points during the day and doing a mental check in...what am I thinking right now? Jot a few thoughts on a memo pad. 

Second, enlist the help of a good listener. Tell him or her what it is that you intend to do, and ask him or her to help catch perceptions that aren't quite so favorable, looking for those key words like rut, raving, crazy, and so on. Words that address the barriers that seem to be out there. Consider asking the person not to help fix the wording, but only to point them out when they arise, as you have asked.

See if there are different emotions that are associated with different words, different descriptors, and different perspectives. They help set the tone for the more healthy behaviors.

Next time: dealing with patterns.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A New Year! On the edge of past and future

Welcome to 2012! It has arrived and already consumed a week of January.

Everyone knows about the phenomenon of new year's resolutions. For many of us, those are the things that we half-heartedly mention in passing but then really don't do anything about. For some others, though, resolutions are serious business.

Why is that, you ask? Human beings find it difficult to live in the moment. Partly that appears to be due to the fact that we have such large and active brains. We seek stimulation, even when we are learning from all the newspaper articles and magazine series and self-help books that it is extremely helpful to be mindful. To let ourselves pay attention to what is, right now.

Chances are that as you have begun to read these words, your mind, without even having been invited, has formed a variety of associations, some of which tickled memories that you may have allowed to unfold, and then those memories became the focus. Or, possibly, your mind moved ahead to the resolutions that you might yet make and how those could work for you, or you might have imagined engaging in one of the tasks that was added to your resolution list.

It seems that as much as we are creatures of habit, as homo sapiens we can be pretty distracted, too. Do you multi-task? Do you find it helpful (or even possible)? Or does doing three things roughly at the same time lead to one or two or maybe all of the tasks either not being completed or completed with reduced efficiency or quality? Chances are, you may multi-task better if you operate from a master list, such as a to do list. That helps to ensure that things that you believed to be important don't fall off the radar. And there is always a sense of accomplishment in checking things off of a list, or, if you feel more bold, scratch right through the words with vigor and triumph!

But...where was I? (Kidding!) Our ability to look back and remember or look ahead and imagine can be great strengths. They can also be obstacles. For example, if you are a creative sort, like a writer or a musician, and you are learning a new piece of music that is difficult, or if you are writing a new short story or novel and you find yourself with a wee bit of writer's block (or, potentially much worse, writer's acre), you might pause, put down your pen or harmonica, and just kind of settle in and think back to times when you leaped creative hurdles and found success. Voila! You are using positive memories and motivation and as part of a road map for what you might do next.

As a writer or musician, you might also pause, reflect, and imagine a point in the near future where you explore and expand the imagery of success. Picturing and feeling yourself getting beyond the present difficulty and into whatever the next step might be. Success!

Conversely, if you are a writer or musician and you find yourself remembering failures or creative endeavors that never found fruition (wouldn't it be nice to locate a town somewhere called Fruition, so periodically you could driver there, and, well, you know), and the result is more like "I can't do this. I'll never be able to do this." Despair. Or you could find yourself imagining the results of not learning the music or writing the story or novel. Nothing you touch will ever find success (another town we might want to look up). Anxiety.

Clearly, looking to the past and imagining the future are double edges on our swords. Being mindful of these pathways may be a first step in guiding creative change.

Next post: Routine, habit, or pattern?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Eyes of the Beholder

Writers, psychologists, lyricists, mall walkers, people on the street…all these people and more spend a fair amount of time watching others. But the presence of someone who is “just”observing may influence the actions that are occurring, even at the level of subatomic particles. The Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty suggests such an influence.

And for the observer, it may be more difficult than imagined to watch behavior that occurs without providing a mental filter through which to view human nature. Each observer brings his or her assumptions along even when the goal is to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Sometimes we go so far to ascribe motivation to those whom we watch. We not only wonder why someone engages in a specific behavior, we bring judgment to the scene.

If we see someone waiting patiently for a car to leave a parking spot in a mall lot, only to have someone zip in from the opposite direction and take the spot, we might have immediate hypotheses leap to mind: the person taking the parking space is inconsiderate. A scofflaw. Perhaps even antagonistic. And how does the person who had been waiting patiently respond? With anger, frustration, irritation, annoyance? Or does patience give way to more aggressive behavior such as hand and finger signals?

As the watcher, we observe from the perspective of someone who has been in a similar position before, the position of someone who had waited patiently. We remember how we felt.

However, we are missing the perspective of the individual who had pulled into the vacated space. Does he or she clap hands with glee, knowing full well that he stole such a key spot, so close to the entrance? Or is the hand clap and joy a result of having found a spot at all in a crowded mall parking lot? Or is it possible that the driver never saw the waiting vehicle? Maybe the driver was preoccupied with something that happened earlier. Bad news delivered at work. A family squabble. A doctor visit.

When we assume to know why people behave the way they do and that their motivations arise from something fundamental about them, we are committing what social psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. We assume ignorance or arrogance or malcontent, when the actual motivation may be much more benign. We operate from a certain history, and it can be difficult to step away from that.

What happens when the tables are turned? What if we are the driver that takes the just emptied parking space? We see a car pull by us as we get out of the car; the driver is angry, maybe talking under his breath. Or maybe the person lowers his window and says something directly to us. Why is he so indignant? I had a right to that spot just as much as he did!

In effect, we may be demonstrating Self-Serving Bias, which occurs when we assess our own motivations much more favorably than we would others. We make mistakes. Other people are idiots. We view our actions through the lens of situational variables. We view the behavior of others as a reflection of personality attributes.

The Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias are just a couple examples of the role that perception plays in sorting out motivation and human behavior. As writers, we can use this understanding to craft compelling characters. As mall walkers and drivers and passers-by, it helps us to remember that there are two sides to every story, and that scenarios we witness are not blank slates that we straightforwardly record. We select an unconscious lens from our bag (or perhaps more correctly, baggage) and THEN we push “record.”


Sunday, August 14, 2011

cereal killers

What was your favorite cereal when you were a child? Do they still make it? Or has it gone the way of nostalgia?

When I was growing up I enjoyed Quake, a sugar-rich cereal that was quite tasty. In a pinch, I would also eat Quisp, which was made by the same company and had a dissimilar look but similar taste. If memory serves, the two cereals appeared on commercials as “rivals.” But those cereals are gone.

Gone, too, are some of the toys of youth. These include the original electric football games, where the running back carrying the split felt football traveled in circles, neither gaining or losing yards. But that was only because the offensive line and the entire defense were also spinning. Yes, those were the days.

One toy that never made it past the days of my youth was a tomahawk with a shuttlecock. A wooden mallet held a feathered shuttlecock with a metal base. Pull out the shuttlecock, put a cap in the indentation of the mallet, put the shuttlecock back on, and then strike the mallet against a hard surface. Boom! The shuttlecock would fly up into the air, ten, twenty, or more feet above the ground. It was a great toy to play with on the 4th of July.

My brother and I used to heartily enjoy this toy. Inevitably, however, our initial joy at creating propulsion and flight would lead to more deranged experimentation. We would try two caps, and then three, and then as many as we could stuff into the mallet. The shuttlecock would go higher and higher and would begin to travel back to earth minus a feather or two, until the object it turned into no longer resembled a shuttlecock at all. Intrepid we were, however, and we persisted in using increasingly explosive force until the shuttlecock would fly a hundred feet into the air, eventually coming to rest on the roof of the school building next door. This activity, always with the same progression of events, occurred each Independence Day for several years, and the school roof continued to collect the shuttlecock remnants.

Sadly, what does a boy do with leftover rolls of caps and no shuttlecock to launch? We would put caps on top of a brick and hit them with the wooden mallet, which, eventually would being to shatter until all that was left was just the handle. But there were always more caps.

We would then begin to use the brick as the hammering force, striking caps on the sidewalk, until one of us would decide that it was time...time to put an entire roll of caps on the sidewalk and strike it with the brick. BOOOM!!!

What happened next was always the same, too. We would excitedly say things to each other about the sonic explosion that we had caused, but we couldn't hear each other over the ringing in our ears. And that outcome continued over the course of several summers as well.

Einstein was credited as having said that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Clearly my brother and I were insane.

But whether it is cereal, toys, or the pets that we had when we were children, those memories live on. Many facts have entered our memories and faded away. But do you still remember the name of your first grade teacher? Do you remember a favorite meal or dessert or vacation that you enjoyed as a child? The summers away from school that you hoped would last forever but always went by in a flash?

Thankfully, we have our words. We can capture the stories of our youth and share them with others. We may have photographs but they never captured the moments like our stories can. And the words take us back and trigger visual, olfactory, auditory, gustatory, and kinesthetic memories. The smell of the caps after ignition. The ringing in the ears. The primitive satisfaction of turning an ordinary red brick into part of a jet propulsion system. The taste of Quake. Words are magic. They evoke all of our senses. Perhaps your own memories have been stimulated as a result of reading this. If so, thank you for participating in an experiment in magic!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

creativity and control

When do I pull the trigger?

Ok, what was your initial reaction to that question?

If you are a thriller writer, you might be considering when a character should commit a dastardly deed. If you are a hunter, you might be wondering the appropriate time to squeeze off a shot at your furry quarry.

In truth, the question may address a number of scenarios, one of which is trying to figure out when something is done, when it might be time to move on. This is not quite as simple a consideration when your personality tends toward perfectionism, and, if that is the case, well, control issues are likely to creep in.

As a writer I often struggle with how many drafts to write. How many sub-drafts. Mega-drafts. The truth is, with as many drafts as I deal with, I have considered adding insulation to my writing space.  On the serious side, however, there is always a point at which I need to let go. Let it go. Set it free.

Most people are familiar with the paradox of control. Being in control is inescapable. But it is the approach to the control that is the key. One approach is to attempt to control the myriad of details that flood our daily lives. Controlling as many variables as possible is an attempt to manage anxiety. And for the brief period of time that we may able to do so, we are perfect. But....

How many balls can you juggle at one time before things go badly awry? I can juggle one ball with little difficulty on most days. Some days I can do two. The times I have attempted to juggle three balls I have tempted both fate and potential head injury. Multitasking doesn't mean that an adequate job is being performed with each task. This approach, then, may work over a short term, but in the long term it is problematic.

Another approach is to let go of control. Perhaps adopting a Zen attitude. We do our best and whatever happens, happens. What is extremely interesting to me about letting go of control is the paradox mentioned earlier. If you are letting go of control, aren't you, after all, in control of letting go of control, thereby never really "losing" control?

But the difference in the attitude or approach feels different psychologically. It reminds me of exposure treatment of chronic worry. When someone is consumed with worry, there is a very hopeless sense of being pounded by the worry in relentless flurries of attacks. The worrier feels that he or she has no control over the worry. It is a very difficult thought process to manage.

However, if worry is assigned as homework, the feelings shift dramatically. Try setting aside a half hour each night and dedicate yourself to worry. Prior to the worry time, put off the worry. Postpone it until the designated worry time. But when that time comes, worry, deliberately, about all the normal worries and even add some on to them. Worry about world peace. Worry about whirled peas. Worry about the cost of filling your gas tank. Anything you can think of. And...can you do it for a half hour? My experience has been that most people can't. After ten minutes of forced worry, the thoughts and fears are like balloons that are devoid of air. Directing or controlling the worry saps it of its energy.

Send out the short story to the contest. Write "THE END" on the novel. Put your taxes in the mail. Send the important email message you have been meaning to release into the virtual knowledge exchange. Go on, pull the trigger. Take a breath, and then see what your next task might be.

Write on!