Saturday, October 10, 2009

Motivate Your Writing! by Stephen P Kelner, Jr (Part 2)

Now that we know statistics show that writers are megalomaniacs, we might wonder why we aren’t out leading the French Army against Russia, or at least dressing up in cone-pointed bras and vogueing on stage with Madonna. Kelner has an answer for this, too, though it requires some background.

There is a psychological tool called a Picture Story Explanation. (Those with good memories may recall Malcolm McDowell’s Alex being shown short versions of these in his hospital bed in the penultimate scenes of the movie A Clockwork Orange.) PSEs display an ambiguous situation and then ask the subject to tell—or write down—a story to explain what is happening. There are long and short versions; five minutes of writing and thirty minutes of writing are common.

PSEs are used to measure all manner of things. One of them is “activity inhibition,” sometimes simply called “socialization.” The simplest way to measure this is to merely search for the occurrence of the word “not” in the narrative of the PSE (including the “n’t” suffix).

Thirty-minute PSEs average 450 words. An average American will use 1.75 “nots” in those 450 words. If an American uses more, then he or she is well-socialized; that is, they are able to channel and control their basic motivations. Someone well-socialized may want to compel others to act in certain ways, but they are more likely to do this by exhortations than by fisticuffs.

While an American is well-socialized at a mere two “nots,” however, our British cousins aren’t considered well behaved unless they include at least four “nots” in every 450 words. (At the risk of perpetuating the mirror-reflection stereotypes of the inhibited Brit, researchers have found that among the French, Italians, and Spanish, even one “not” is considered massively socialized. Ah, those hot-blooded Mediterranean types.)

As enjoyable as it is to have our prejudices reinforced, that wasn’t the point of this discussion. Let’s recap those cultural differences. To be considered significantly inhibited, people display the following “not” frequency:

French, Italians, Spanish: 1 or more
Americans: 2 or more
British: 4 or more

The average for published writers in Kelner’s survey is 18. Should I spell that out? E-i-g-h-t-e-e-n. Twice nine, three times six. A whole buncha nots.

Kelner quotes psychologist David McClelland: “When a typical person gets mad at you, he hits you. When a mystery writer gets mad at you, he takes a year to write a novel killing you off.”

So, as a group we writers are all so power-mad as to be dangerous; but luckily for the safety of our streets, we’re all so inhibited that this drive all gets channeled into furious scribbling.

I’m afraid I’m giving a distorted impression of Kelner’s book, since I’m dwelling on the parts that interested me the most. In fact, Kelner’s book is about how to motivate yourself to write—not a problem that most of the visitors to this blog probably have.

Confused, frustrated, even sometimes blocked, we might well be at times; but I don’t think most of us have trouble finding the motivation for writing. Finding a way to channel that impulse elsewhere might be a more useful self-help book for many of us.

At any rate, if you want to write but don’t seem to be motivated to write but still want to write anyway, whatever the heck that means, this book might help you.

My advice, though: If you don't want to write, fer heaven's sakes don't write. For some it's a pleasure, for others an affliction, and for many it's both. But what it definitely isn't, is a duty.


Tim Stretton said...

I've never heard of "PSE" before. It sounds a tad far-fetched, but I can certainly buy into the idea of writers channelling much of their inner life into their work.

I wonder what the PSE says about a writer who litters his work, even his titles, with exclamation marks!!

Neil said...

David, did you include that last paragraph simply to qualify as a writer?

And does that mean as British writers Tim and I require 36 n*ts each to qualify?

David Isaak said...

You've never heard of PSE before? Honest, it's a common psychological tool. (A stupid one, perhaps, but common. At least as common as ink blots.) You can tell it's a legitimate research tool because it has such an unappealing, pedestrian name.

I'm not sure what an overuse of bangs! (as some printers call them) indicates, other than a writer who needs to be stopped. (Although I admit that it's also something is see in the writing of a lot of 7-10 year-olds. Because it's fun! It's loud! It's like SHOUTING!)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

I'm giggling because I hadn't (there I go again) noticed. (Oops. Does no-ticed count?)

I don't know if you need a full 36, but I suspect that at a mere 18 you're probably shouting poetry at the sky like a drunken Dylan Thomas.

Anonymous said...

Hi, folks -- happened to Google myself (probably a side effect of too much Power motive) and found a recent reference to my several-year-old book, which was a nice surprise. Thanks for the shout-out, David, and a pretty pithy summary of the motives, too.
For the record, it was a working title (exclamation point and all), and my editor kept it. I expected him to change it, to be honest. Who am I to question?
Just FYI, the standard deviation -- average variation around the mean -- for Activity Inhibition is 0.25, which means anyone with 18 is beyond the beyond as far as the ability to channel or manage their motives, even if you are teddibly British.
(I've had opportunities to work with a lot of Brits over the years, and having 18 would still qualify you by a mammoth margin, I think.)
One reason I wrote this, David, was because even experienced award-winning writers get stuck sometimes, and because motives are nonconscious, they may not know what to do about it or why it happened. (It's all in the book, as you know.) One writer who was already pretty productive told me she got more so after I advised her on her motives, so that's not bad either. (She tweaked her writing group practices.)
By the way, I finally broke academic habit and started referring to the Power motive as the Influence motive, which is much more neutral. All three names really suck, and David McClelland, the genius who really made this research live, used to complain about that all the time. Such is academia.
Steve Kelner (still on LiveJournal, LinkedIn)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Steve--

I enjoyed your commment so much that I decided to promote it to a post so that others could enjoy it as well.