Category Archives: Personal

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

My major life activities are reading (usually fiction) and writing (always nonfiction). So I’m delighted when I come across something that combines the two: something like Marcy McKay’s writing challenge What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing. Marcy runs The Write Practice, a web site and newsletter aimed at fiction writers, but even though I write nonfiction, I often find her insights helpful. But this one I just have to try. I’ve been saving it, and today is the day.

Here’s Marcy’s four-stop process and my responses.

1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.

Five Favorite Novels:

Five Favorite Works of Nonfiction:

2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.

Common Themes:

  • the search for family
  • self-discovery
  • the search for personal identity
  • enduring and learning from painful personal experience
  • making meaning in one’s life
  • the meaning of love

3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.

I do not feel comfortable publicizing the events of my formative years here, but I do incorporate them, in a general way, in the next section.

4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem… . You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.

My childhood included disrupted family life fraught with much verbal and emotional abuse. There were, however, spots of light that showed me other possibilities did exist.

People talk about “finding themselves,” but this exercise has made me realize that we don’t find or discover our self as much as we create it. Many years ago I realized that I had lived much of my life in an attempt to define myself in negatives, in saying what I am NOT—such as “I am not a victim.” When I realized this, I thought it was, well, a very negative thing to do, a negative way to live my life.

But doing this exercise has made me realize that such concentration on negatives—what I am not—is not truly a negative approach to life because understanding what I did not want to be helped me to become, or create, the self and the life I wanted. Acknowledging who I did not want to be enabled me to create the identity I wanted, one that embodies the values and beliefs I’ve come to hold dear because of the knowledge I’ve gained from my personal experiences.

In my recent focus on improving my writing I’ve frequently come across the concept of “finding one’s writing voice.” This phrase always bothered me in some vague way because it suggests that we’ve somehow lost our writer’s voice. But I now realize why I dislike the whole notion of “finding our voice.” We don’t find our voice, we create it, just as we don’t find or discover our self but rather create it.

Marcy says that this exercise helps us look at our inside stories vs. our outside stories. Our inside stories are the ones we carry internally, whether we’re aware of them or not. These stories often come from our childhood experiences and influence both how we think of ourselves now and how we behave in the future as we attempt to conform to the internal notion we have of ourself. Some children grow up feeling loved, accepted, and encouraged; those children move forward with confidence and a sense of self-worth and potential achievement. But other children grow up being told that they’re bad and that they’ll never become any better or accomplish anything; those children tend to live out their lives fulfilling this self-concept that they’ve incorporated into their sense of identity.

It is possible, however, to transform and transcend the identity story that our previous experiences have given us. One way to do this, the way that I have pursued all my life without even knowing why, is to read. These outside stories can show us other life possibilities and can thereby encourage us to edit our inner story.

My great thanks to Marcy for this exercise that can help us understand ourselves better and appreciate ourselves more. Doing this exercise can change your life.

Blog a Day Challenge: January Report

I admit that when I set this challenge up for myself near the end of December, I did so with trepidation:

  • Would I be able to find something to write about EVERY SINGLE DAY?
  • Would I be able to do all the research necessary for each post during a single day?
  • Would I be able to find enough overlap between the three areas of my current life (reading, writing, retirement) to make all three areas interesting?
  • Would I neglect other areas of my life in order to get a post written and published every day?

I did manage to write a post a day for the first month. Here’s what I’ve learned from the challenge so far:

  • It was easy to find topics to write about once I began paying attention to what goes on in the world around me.
  • Not every post needs to be a research project. (Since I tend to approach everything new that I come across as a research project requiring a lot of background investigation, this lesson was perhaps the most difficult but important one for me to learn.)
  • The various areas of my life do cross-pollinate each other once I begin to think that way.
  • So far I have not felt that I am neglecting any important parts of my life, probably because I’ve made an effort not to compartmentalize the several aspects of my life but rather to see them as complementary parts of a whole.

One challenge I still have to face is how I’ll keep up with writing and posting when we travel.

But overall, I’ve found this first month of the blog post a day challenge in 2015 to be enlightening and rewarding.

Here are my January stats:

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 55 words

Longest post: 1,360 words

Total words written: 19,115

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured posts:

1. 8 Lessons College Bowl Season Teaches About Writing

I’m featuring this post because it resulted from the first time I saw how something in one area of my life (personal experience) applied to another part of my life (my writing). I see posts like this all over the internet and often find them interesting, but in the past I just didn’t think this way. But this one appeared out of nowhere while I was watching college football, an example of how synchronicity happens once you open yourself to the possibility of it.

2. Flow

I’m featuring this post because it’s my first attempt at defining a technical term for a general audience on my blog.

I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look at this post and then leave a comment telling me whether you think I’ve succeeded.

Flow

Related Post:

 

flowCsikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
HarperCollins, 1990
ISBN 0–06–092043–2

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
Basic Books, 1997
ISBN 0–465–02411–4

 

 

finding flowAthletes talk about being “in the zone.” For musicians, it’s being “in the groove.” Even if you’re not an athlete or a musician, you’ve probably shared the experience of being in an alternate state of consciousness in which the outside world falls away and leaves you completely absorbed in the activity you’re focusing on.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-SENT-me-hi) popularized discussion of this human experience as flow. He describes flow as follows:

When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. (1997, p. 31)

He identifies clear goals, relevant feedback, and a balance between the demands of the task and a person’s skill level as the three necessary conditions for flow to occur. The balance between the challenge and one’s skill level is important; if the task is too easy, one becomes bored, whereas if the task is too difficult, one becomes anxious and frustrated and finally gives up. But when these three conditions are met, the flow state of absorbed consciousness often occurs.

The key to flow is the complete focus on or absorption in an activity. Csikszentmihalyi says that such focus produces order in consciousness. He explains that information enters consciousness for one of two reasons: (1) because of our intention to focus attention on it, or (2) because of attentional habits based on biological or social instructions. We can choose what to focus our attention on through our intentions:

We may call intentions the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered. Intentions arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something. Intentions are also bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalized social goals. They act as magnetic fields, moving attention toward some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others. (1990, p. 27)

Accordingly, when we intend to focus our attention by concentrating on one activity or task, our consciousness will filter out unrelated stimuli that are potential distractions. This filtering results in the completely focused attention necessary for flow. This is why people in flow lose track of time and don’t notice that it’s time to turn the lights on or cook dinner.

Once flow begins, the “magnetic fields” of our intentions will direct consciousness toward information stored in our brains that might help perform the task we are concentrating on. Ironically, then, we must actively focus attention on a particular area to begin flow, but we must then give up control and allow internal intentions, those “bits of information” stored within us, to direct consciousness in making related associations in order for flow to continue and produce results. When this happens, people often feel that they are not in control of their actions, that some force is working through them.

An important characteristic of flow is that it is pleasurable for the person experiencing it. Csikszentmihalyi argues that, because flow is so enjoyable, people will seek out activities that produce flow. “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself” (1990, p. 67), he says. He calls an activity that produces such optimal experiences autotelic; that is, it is an activity that people perform not because of what they will gain or produce by it, but for its own sake, for the sheer pleasure of doing it.

Another important characteristic of flow is that a person’s sense of self-consciousness disappears. As Csikszentmihalyi explains:

loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are… . Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward. (1990, p. 64)

The flow state is different from ordinary waking consciousness: “Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes” (1997, p. 31). In his studies of flow activity Csikszentmihalyi found that it uniformly “provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed of states of consciousness” (1990, p. 74). In other words, flow is an alternate state of consciousness that facilitates creativity.

For this reason flow can be an important component of problem solving. People who are self-conscious about appearing silly or ignorant to others won’t volunteer suggestions to attempt to solve the problem at hand. But when flow occurs and self-consciousness falls away, people will try one possible solution after another until they arrive at one that works. This is why allowing individuals to work alone rather than in group brainstorming sessions often produces better results.

In developing the concept of flow Csikszentmihalyi used “a phenomenological model of consciousness based on information theory” (1990, p. 25). He explains that, according to this theory, “to be conscious … simply means that certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring, and that we are able to direct their course” (1990, p. 26); therefore, consciousness is intentionally ordered information, and consciousness corresponds to subjectively experienced reality.

Furthermore, the nervous system is limited in how much information it can process at one time. We can hold only about seven pieces of information in consciousness simultaneously; beyond that limit, a new piece of information can enter consciousness only if one piece already there leaves consciousness. This process causes us to experience conscious events serially, one after another. Through our intentions, Csikszentmihalyi says, we can focus our attention on a particular activity. Such focusing of attention allows consciousness to select relevant bits of information, from the billions of bits stored in memory, that pertain to the activity we are focusing attention on. When this complete focusing of attention occurs, flow sets in. From the biological perspective, then, flow occurs when consciousness begins connecting separate bits of information stored within our brains.

Flow is a pleasurable alternate state of consciousness that individuals may experience when engaged in an activity that offers definite goals and relevant feedback and that provides a challenge commensurate to their ability. People in flow are completely absorbed in the activity at hand. Their perception of time is often distorted, feelings of self-consciousness disappear, and creativity is enhanced. If we believe the stories, Einstein was obviously in flow while working; he would forget to eat the meals left for him on a tray outside his workroom door. Authors who say “The book just wrote itself” are also describing the flow experience, in which they seem to lose control as a force larger than themselves takes over.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Best Books I Read in 2014

I read 43 books this year, for a grand total of 12,695 pages. The longest was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which weighs in at 771 pages.

Here, listed alphabetically by author, are the 10 best:

Atkinson, Kate. Life After Life
Fergus, Jim. One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
French, Tana. Faithful Place
Galbraith, Robert. The Cuckoo’s Calling
Galbraith, Robert. The Silkworm
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Joyce, James. Dubliners
O’Nan, Stewart. The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch
Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road

After compiling this list, I realize that only one, The Circus Fire, is nonfiction. Although I always read more fiction than nonfiction, I don’t think recall any recent year in which nonfiction was so sparsely represented.

*Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling

How about you? What were the 10 best books you read in 2014?

Personal Challenge: A Blog Post a Day in 2015

I woke up a couple of days ago with this thought: I should challenge myself to write a blog post every day during 2015.

I dismissed this thought right away because such a huge commitment seems like setting myself up for failure. Why not just commit to writing a post a day for the month of January? I asked myself. And if that works out, then do it for another month.

But the more I thought about the year-long challenge, the more it excited me. First of all, I know that some of my best ideas arrive just when I wake up. Sleeping allows my conscious mind to pull what it needs out of the chaos of the unconscious. I’ve learned to trust these awakening thoughts, just as I’ve learned to trust my intuition. Second, setting this goal certainly aligns with my recent decision to focus on my own writing. Finally, this challenge would allow me to distribute content across my three blogs:

On the day when I woke up with this thought, I looked throughout the day for ideas to write about. I was surprised and encouraged at how many opportunities I found.

I should emphasize that I don’t intend to write a post a day on each blog, just a post a day for any one of them.

Therefore, I’ve decided to go for it and challenge myself to write a blog post a day in 2015. I could just make a secret pact with myself to try to accomplish this, but I’m formalizing the challenge here to create accountability. I’ll be much less likely to let myself slide if I’ve made a public announcement.

Meeting this challenge will offer a lot of benefits for me right now:

  1. A writer is someone who writes, and this challenge will force me to actually write instead of just thinking about writing.
  2. Looking for something to write about each day will make me more aware of what I’m doing and of what’s happening in the world around me.
  3. Looking all around me for topics will help me distribute content among all three blogs; I’ve been neglecting my personal blog, and it therefore now badly needs some refreshing.
  4. I know from experience that the more I write, the easier writing becomes.
  5. Completing this challenge will demonstrate that I can write every day, not just when I’m in the mood or have nothing else to do instead.
  6. Keeping up with this challenge will help me to practice, practice, practice my writing.

I will allow myself this condition up front: I know there will be times when I can’t publish a post every day, either because I won’t have internet access or I won’t want to announce publicly that I’m not at home. My commitment is to write a post every day, even if I have to publish it, backdated, later.

So, who’s in with me?

Who will accept the challenge of a blog post a day in 2015?

Grab the logo here:

post a day logo

(Right click on the image, save to your computer, then upload to your web site.)

Monday Miscellany: Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Ireland!

For only my second trip abroad EVER, I am in Ireland for 10 days. This is definitely the trip of a lifetime for someone with O’Dea relatives on one side of the family and Conklin folks on the other.

More literary content next week. For now, I’m off in search of some green beer.