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!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Where Nobody Knows Your Name

When you go into an establishment, a familiar one, does everybody know your name?

I would be upset if I were to go into a restaurant or bar and have everyone call me Norm, but I also imagine that Norm felt very appreciated at Cheers. He had his place. His hangout. He had his peeps.

For quite a while (a couple of years, easily), I had been making regular visits to a McDonald's across a busy highway from where I work. I mention the highway because in my earlier days for hoofing it to Mickey's, there were no stoplights, no established pathways for pedestrians. If I was on a mission on a particular day, I would be in "look left, look right, bolt!" mode. It was a great day when traffic signals were installed at the intersection and pedestrian lines painted on the highway. I could get to Mickey's a bit more safely.

The other factor that comes into play is my great friend, Paul. Paul is a child psychiatrist and on the sweltering days of summer he enjoyed getting iced coffee from McDonald's. I had never been a coffee drinker. Never had more than a cup or two of hot Joe ever. And when I had, it was liberally dumped with sugar and cream. And while I have always liked iced tea, I thought iced coffee was some kind of abomination.

But on the day in question, Paul had this glorious iced coffee on his desk. It just looked delicious. Within a few minutes I was across the street and had one of my own. I learned that I could enjoy sugar free vanilla iced coffee and the number of Splenda packets it takes to make it taste perfect.

I started going to Mickey's every work day morning. Later, I added an afternoon walk to get an additional treat. Now, most days, I have two glasses of iced coffee, and I really enjoy them.

One day when I was standing in line, I saw that the same young woman would be waiting on me who almost always takes my order. I stepped up to her, she asked how she could help me, and I began to channel Norm.

As gently as possible, I said, "I come here almost every day and every day I order the same thing. Maybe you can tell ME what it is that I would like."

The young woman puzzled over this and we looked at each other. I certainly recognized her. And my comment appeared to have awakened her.

"Iced coffee, right?"

"Yes, but what kind?"

It took another minute, but we landed on the correct flavor. I thanked her by name, at least the one that was on her name tag.

The next day, the same worker cheerily told me what my order would be. Correctly. She was beaming.

"Now, THAT," I said, "is great customer service."

I was mistaken. A day or two later she saw me walking across the pedestrian walkway on my way to the restaurant. This time, the iced coffee was already made and waiting for me at the register.

Since that time, at least two other workers and assistant managers and now even the manager recognize me and there is a flurry of activity when I walk into the place. I seldom get to order a sugar free vanilla iced coffee any more. It is almost always made before I get to say a word. I speak to these workers by name and always get huge smiles. I thank them for their efforts and have written at least two email messages to corporate McDonald's about their amazing service and what it feels like to be recognized and treated as a regular customer. I know that this reinforcement has been shared with these employees, because I have asked about it. And the assistant manager has told me more than once that no one leaves positive messages. The only thing they hear about is complaints.

At my local McDonald's, I am Norm. I am a regular. I know the names of many people behind the counter. And when I am waiting on rare occasions, there is talk about things that have no connection to restaurants. We just talk like people. Go figure. And when I have the opportunity, I try and let people know that they are doing a good job, and I let their bosses know, too. People enjoy hearing such good news! Reinforcement helps!

I love that iced coffee. And I love when I am recognized as a regular customer, even if nobody knows my name.


Saturday, July 2, 2011


Life is what happens while we are busy making plans for other things. And then other things take center stage, and what was important earlier in the day becomes more inconsequential. And these are truisms. Everyone knows them. But when we are reminded of the big picture, we can't help but take notice. And give thanks, if appropriate.

I had been thinking about what the next blog entry would be about. I had narrowed it down to the potential creative application of bi-phasic sleep cycles to creativity, or the role of the muse in creative endeavors. But before either one could be finalized, life happened.

This morning I was driving in the midst of busy holiday weekend traffic. As usual, traffic was moving too fast and drivers were not being as courteous as they could be. We put ourselves in metal boxes, hurtle through space, and with our anonymity intact, we act as though we own the roads and human beings who do human things can irritate us to no end.

In my rearview mirror I was aware of a woman following a little too close for my comfort. In front of me, however, was where the action was. Someone cut in front of an SUV two vehicles in front of me. The driver of the SUV hit her brakes and stopped quickly. Behind her, the motorcyclist was not so fortunate. He tried to stop but had to dump his Harley and flew over its handlebars into the SUV as his bike skidded behind him. In that split second, I was certain that one of two things was going to happen. Either my brakes were going to lock and I was going to hit the motorcyclist, or in the midst of trying to stop I would be hit from behind, causing me to flip over or pushing me over the man who just crashed to the highway.

I braked hard and veered right. Beside me was a van, and the driver also veered right as far as he could, but he was hemmed in on the other side by a tractor trailer. I waited for our vehicles to smash together. Our side mirrors made contact. The other driver stopped and I pulled over beside the median. My mirror was mangled and a piece of fiberglass had popped off. The other driver's mirror was also broken. We both ran back to the cyclist who was miraculously moving. At least enough to stand up. He may have ended up with a broken shoulder. After traffic was stopped enough for vehicles to be pulled to the side of the road, and while we waited on an ambulance and a state trooper to show, there were four of us sharing the scene. And the discussion was all focused on the same point. Somehow no one was killed. Each of us would be leaving the accident scene.  The van and my vehicle had, at worst, busted mirrors. We were darned lucky.

I have to call my insurance company. I may write about the accident more in a journal, just to get the last bits of cortisol out of my system. Neither task was one I had envisioned at the beginning of the day. But compared to the other potential outcomes, I got off easy. And I am giving thanks.

Creatively yours!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

What is your impossible dream?

What do you dream about on the days or nights when you are the woman or man of La Mancha? Do you imagine jousts with knights errant, or do you find yourself wondering how you ended up in front of some broken down windmill? How do you sort out how and when to let your dream take flight from its protective cage? Because like all cages, not only does it keep other things from getting in, it keeps the contents from getting out.

I was reading about John Grisham this morning, a talented writer who has a couple of new books coming out. Apparently he dreamed of playing baseball, which, of course, occurred before he became an attorney. And then as an attorney he apparently realized that he needed to write. And he wrote at the same time during which he practiced law, making time to encourage his new dream. And it happened. He became a multi-published, best selling author. It is quite a story to consider.

I think of staring at windmills on the days when my career, my day job, hits some bumps. Those days when nothing seems to quite fall into place, when other people don't seem to want to cooperate, or when my mental wherewithal feels more like mental wherediditgo. I call these days my bookstore fantasy days. I daydream about opening a bookstore, being around people who love books, maybe have some coffee brewing, emitting that wonderful scent that fills the room and tickles the noses of the browsers who walk the aisles. And to support my other hobby, collecting fine pens, there would be pens and pads and folios and desk objects for sale as well. Leather chairs. The ticking of a grandfather clock.

My daydream usually ends when I start thinking that, somewhere out there, a bookstore owner sits daydreaming, wondering what it would be like to be practicing law or medicine or running a mom and pop diner. Convergent and divergent dreams. Maybe we could set up a site that arranges for career swaps for peoples whose divergent dreams reflect opportunities for others. Dream swapping!

Writers write. That is what makes them different from attorneys or bookstore owners or professional football players. Writers need dreams to guide them, to prompt them, and to provide a carrot on the stick as motivation for letting the BIG dream out of the cage. Until we do, it has no chance. But the moment we do let it out there, like a graceful messenger pigeon, we become acutely aware of all the obstacles, rejections, abandonment, criticisms, and other hazards that might slow its course or intercept it or send it--gasp--spinning to the ground.

Today, as you read this, think about your big dream. Think about the next step you might take to unhook the cage door and coax the dream out into the world. And recognize that the odds of your dream coming true increases proportionally to the number of times you engage in some action to nurture your vision.

Are you with me? Pick up your sword, mount your trusty steed, kick up some dust, and off we go!

Write on!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I've Got Rhythm...

And so do you! And maybe, just maybe, there is a way we can harness one of these biological rhythms to enhance creativity and well-being. And you don't have to dance it, unless you really want to!

The rhythm in question is the ultradian rhythm. It occurs approximately every 90 to 120 minutes for about twenty minutes. Those twenty minutes may provide us with some essential and welcomed benefits, including fostering creativity, provided we don't do much. So, how do we foster anything by not doing something? That seems, well, unnatural!

The reverse is actually true. We may put in an hour and a half to two hours of focused attention, whether it be trying to pay attention at a long meeting, writing a novel, or engaging in scholarly research. So far, so good. What happens next is key. The mind and body will experience a push for us to go inward. We may feel kind of day dreamy. We may try and override this tendency because it feels unproductive. We may ingest caffeine, nicotine, or just keep pushing on through, which, as it turns out, are not very ultradian-minded.

Instead, we should just "go" with the rhythm. Sit back, reflect, breathe. Put the pen down. Push the keyboard away. Shoe the co-workers out of the room. This may be a time during which our ideas assimilate and things begin to gel unconsciously. We likely will feel more positive and energized afterward. And, who knows? Maybe a solution will emerge to that plot twist with which we were previously struggling. That would be pretty cool!

So, be aware of your rhythm. Follow the beat of your internal drummer. And remember, you don't have to dance...unless you really want to!

Creatively yours!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

circadian rhythms

Can you feel the rhythm of the night? Does your mind shift from a hum of activity to a state of suspended animation? Do you ever have the sense that your being is in the grip of some spin-off of seasonal affective disorder? If so, you're not alone. The winter months can be particularly brutal, particularly if you live in an area where cold and snow predominate. When darkness falls early, it can be a signal to begin shutting down and burrowing in for the night. Of course, this isn't necessarily an effective time for writers or other creative types. Our circadian rhythms are roughly 24 hour cycles that are influenced by shifts from light to darkness. Darkness stimulates our brains to release melatonin, which moves us in the direction of sleep.

So, when do you write? During the day? Before work (it can be dark then, too). After work, rushing to get those words down on paper before the cover of night? Or do you change your inner environment (e.g., caffeine) or adjust your external world (e.g,. artificial light) in order to awaken the Muse and stimulate your fingers on the keyboard or pen on the pad? Or do you rely more on weekend hours and the greater availability of daylight?

Spring is 32 days away. The days are getting a wee bit longer. We should all expect to see a boost in creativity as a result. In the meantime, many people have deadlines or personal goals for which they're shooting. Winter can be tough sledding! If you have found this to be the case, give yourself a break. It's hard to argue with biology.

Creatively yours!