Monday, December 15, 2008

More on why writers are crazy, and why that could be useful

Long ago as time is measured in the blogosphere, Roger Morris posted a note on the topic of Learned Helplessness. You can go check out the Wikipedia entry on the topic, but in essence if you make an animal feel as if they have no control over events--if you remove their sense of personal efficacy--then the animals sink into a state indistinguishable from clinical depression.

Roger's pal Andrew Tallis (another writer, of course), pointed out that this is exactly the state of mind in which writers spend much of their time. The only control we really have is over the words on the page, and the quality of these seldom seems to have much relationship to what happens on the business side of things.

Not surprising, then, that so many writers are manic-depressive, or at the minimum strongly cyclothymic. If it weren't for the manic times, we'd never have the enthusiasm to get anything written.

But bestselling novelist Jennifer Crusie has a slightly different take on the topic. Crusie's beliefs are also based on lab research with learned helplessness:

When I read about this study, my first thought was, “Thank God, I'm not a rat.” Then I realized I was.

Crusie points out is that it's not really about control, it's about the perception of control. Simply believing makes a huge difference in outcome, even to rats.

I won't try to summarize Jenny's arguments--you should read her post on how to become Rats With Islands. But I think she's right. Our perceptions, even if delusional, can have a real and measurable effect on outcomes. And, c'mon, this should be easy. We're novelists. Delusional is our middle name.

15 comments:

Janet said...

LOL! I can do this. I know I can.

My New Year's project is to bag me an agent. Economic downturn? Piffle. There are winners even in hard times. Tons of competition? Hey, I'll blow them all out of the water. Obscure genre? Maybe, but there are people writing bestsellers in that category. Why not me?

How am I doing?

Tim Stretton said...

To keep going for years, usually in the face of utter indifference from the literary world, requires a certain delusional quality.

There has to be some kind of promise of payback for the writer, but that need not be belief in the eventual publication. It can be the conviction that the work has merit even if no-one reads it (a mindset I used when self-publishing) or something as simple as the need to exorcise the story that's tormenting you...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

I'd give an A+. And remember, one of the things economic upsets can do is rearrange the competitive landscape. It's unlikely to knock any kings off their thrones, but down below that level things will be up for grabs.

If I recall correctly, WHY NOT ME? was a book by Al Franken asking why, given the choices, he shouldn't be a leading presidential candidate. He may not have made it that far, but at present it looks 50/50 as to whether he'll be the next Senator from Minnesota.

So, why not you? To be honest, I have no answer. I think you'll probably land an agent in 2009; you've paid your dues, put in the hours, and know good writing from bad writing and chalk from cheese. That puts you roughly 12 million percent ahead of most people seeking agents.

Betcha $5 US (all I have in my pocket at the moment, and I'm afraid to do it in Canadian $, as before 2009 is over $5 Canadian might be worth more than my house) you have an agent before December 2009.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Tim--

Ah, you make very good points indeed. The coin in which the writer must be paid can vary, and some of our most iconic authors--Poe, Lovecraft, and Melville come to mind--certainly never reaped rich rewards by normal financial standards. Poe often nearly starved, and Melville spent his last years in obscurity, unable to publish one of his better books (BILLY BUDD). Lovecraft, now revered by the French, was never more in America than a penny-per-word pulp hack.

But the word "indifference" in your first sentence is spot on. Indifference is harder to deal with than open antipathy.

PS. I was surprised at Len's to find you a person of normal dimensions. I didn't recognize you at first. Your photo makes you look like a huge, hearty fellow who'd stand you five pints, slap you on the back with the force of a breaching whale, punch out a few of the gawkers in the bar, and then insist on going rock-climbing or crossing the Atlantic in a leathern boat. Good author photo. I'd keep it.

Aliya Whiteley said...

I'm all for fantasising that I'm an amazing writer, but can I work Daniel Craig in there too?

I know what you mean about Tim, by the way. I was expecting a sixfooter with a hearty laugh.

Janet said...

Feeding my delusion, are you? ;o) I'll take it.

I knew that complimenting your book would reap dividends...

Tim Stretton said...

Hey, you guys are giving me a midget complex!

David, as you say, it must be a pretty good author photo if it makes you think you're going to meet Ernest Hemingway...

David Isaak said...

Hey, Aliya--

It's your fantasy. If you want Daniel Craig in it, have at him.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Other people's delusions are amongst the cheapest pets to feed.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Hey, all I said was that you were of 'normal dimensions.'

You're apparently the kind of guy who stands in front of the breakers in a photo and looks rugged.

Feel lucky. Pose me in the same scene and I look like an aged and sadly out-of-shape former surfer.

Matt Curran said...

David, at least you look like a surfer. Someone said I look like a young Bill Bryson. And I know that's quite a writerly-compliment, but he's hardly dashing, is he?

I blame other people for my delusions, by the way.

Jen Ster said...

I am not delusional! I'm not! I'm not!

Now if you'll excuse me, Mr. Craig and I are going out for coffee. With Captain Jack from "Torchwood."

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

When I was younger, everybody seemed to think that I looked like a friend of a friend of theirs. (Never a friend, mind you, but a friend of a friend.) As a I result, I was frequently picked up hitchhiking by people who didn't realize I was a stranger until I was in their car.

I like your approach to delusion. A second-order delision like that has got to be impregnable.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

I think I just saw you guys in the coffee shop...

Jen Ster said...

Were we naked? Just hopin'.