What Worked and Why?
May 26, 2011
I’ve just finished a big chapter of my book about my father’s naval tours of duty before and during World War II. The chapter I’ve finished deals with my conception and birth and the first year of my life during which the war is raging and my parents wonder whether any day my father will be called back to active duty. After this, I have only three or four more chapters to go and then the book will be finished. I’ve been at it for years, but this stage of the process – completing the book – I’ve been at for about a year. And I think I have four to six months more to go.
I haven’t been posting recently because I’ve just been diagnosed with Lyme Disease (again) and I’ve been put on a strict new regimen of medications, supplements, and a food plan. It’s taken some getting used to. I’ve also been trying to exercise and meditate every day: I’m trying to do everything I can to help my immune system, and it seems to be working. During this transitional time, working on the book has been my priority. But today, I have more energy than I’ve had in years, and it feels good and I have enough energy left off to write a post. Writing this book while I’ve been sick (though I hadn’t known I was sick) I realize, in retrospect, has been hard. Still, as Mabel Dodge Luhan writes in Lorenzo in Taos, her memoir of D. H. Lawrence’s stay in New Mexico, writing every day is the only surefire way for someone who needs to write to feel good.
While I’m taking a break from the book – I’ll start again Monday – I’ve been making a list of books I want to read this summer. In my pile of reviews, I came across one of Martin Seligman’s, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being and I’ve put it on my list. I’ve read Seligman before, and have found his work to be very important for my study of literary creativity. Seligman emphasizes that it’s as important or more important for psychologists and students of human behavior to study what works, what makes us satisfied, what makes us fulfilled, what makes us happy, as it is to study what makes us neurotic, sad, and miserable. The early study of psychology focused upon neurosis; a new group of psychologists, though, are focusing upon wellness.
Seligman contends that studying neurosis doesn’t teach us anything about enhancing our well-being. To do that, we have to study how people who are living fulfilled lives behave, and then extrapolate from their lives a set of behaviors that can be taught to others whose lives aren’t quite so fulfilled. Seligman believes that if we change our behavior, we can change the way we feel, and that we shouldn’t wait until the way we feel changes to change our behavior – that would be like putting the cart before the horse. Though the years, I’ve tried to apply what I’ve learned from Seligman to my work on writing.
An anecdote to illustrate my point.
Years ago, when I was writing Writing as a Way of Healing, I spent a summer writing about what went wrong in Sylvia Plath’s writing life in the year that led up to her suicide. While friends of mine were sunning themselves, swimming, going on summer holidays, I sat in my study and read and read and tried to figure out why Plath killed herself. (As if I could answer that question!) More specifically, I wanted to figure out if Plath’s relationship to her writing might have been partially responsible for her suicide. So I read everything I could, and I concluded that Plath had been using her work to “relive” the traumas of her life rather than “retell” them. She’d immersed herself so deeply in her work that the very act of writing retraumatized her and dug her in deeper and deeper. There were a host of other reasons, too, of course, for her suicide. She was a single mother living though one of England’s most horrific winters, for example. She’d lived through a difficult marriage. She had grandiose expectations of herself that no one could possibly fulfill even though she was enormously successful. She did whatever she could to make life harder for herself (she raised bees, grew and harvested fruit, while raising children under difficult circumstances). And she might have been given medication toward the end of her life that might have made her suicidal.
By the end of the summer, I’d written, say, 40 pages of material. I’d let myself take an excursion into Plath’s pain that lasted months. I was happy with what I’d written, but when I called my editor, he said, “But, Louise, we were hoping you’d write a positive book; the title is Writing as a Way of Healing, after all.” And so I realized that most of what I wrote was unusable, though I did cull some material for a chapter on how to take care of ourselves as writers by citing some behaviors of Plath as examples of what we should not do. The rest of my research for that book focused, as Seligman’s does, on writing behaviors that did help us feel fulfilled as writers. And, in this way, my work and Seligman’s began to intersect.
The review I read of Seligman’s Flourish states that Seligman suggests that we keep a “What-went-well-today-and-why diary” for a week. He states that this simple practice tends to lower depression for as much as six months! The focus of this technique is to invite us to focus on the positive; to invite us to learn about our own effectiveness; to provide us with information that we can use about our positive behavior in the future. So I started thinking that we can apply Seligman’s technique, not only to our daily lives, but to our writing lives.
What if, at the end of our day, we sat for a few minutes, and wrote “What went well with my writing today and why?” I thought that if we did this consistently, we would have an invaluable record of what works for us and why, rather than the altogether more common record of a litany of complaints so many of us write about what’s not working and goodness knows why. In fact, in my research for my Writing as a Way of Healing, I learned that people’s health could be predicted by the number of positive words they wrote when they reviewed their lives, and their illnesses seemed to correlate with the number of negative words they wrote. That is, no matter how difficult our circumstances, it seems that the way we present ourselves to ourselves determines whether our narratives will help us or harm us.
So, let me tell you what happened when I spent time writing “What went well in the writing of this chapter and why?”
I learned that organizing all of my notes into one massive time line of world-wide events for the period I was covering (August 1941 through November 1942) helped. I learned that inserting important dates from my parents’ lives into that time line helped. I learned that culling all the photographs from that time period into one mini photo album helped me see what my parents and I looked like through that time frame. I learned that plugging all the earlier drafts of this chapter into Scrivener (check it out on Google) helped. I learned that working two hours – no more – every morning helped; I learned that it was good for me to stop when I still had something to say. I learned that I could build on an earlier essay I had written about the time period. I learned that I could change the voice of earlier work to match the work in progress. I learned that I worked best on days when I’d had a good night’s sleep, when I’d done 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, when I turned off my phone, when I didn’t check my email. I learned that I needed twenty working days to bring the work to completion (I had several drafts in hand); I learned that I needed seven of those days to organize my materials before beginning the revision. I learned that it was best for me to work on this material without showing it to anybody and without talking about it too much. I learned that it was a good thing that I’d written a “proposal” of what I intended to do in the chapter because it acted as a guide for me.
After I did this for a few days, I found that I started feeling better about this book-in-progress. I learned that I really know what I’m doing. I learned that I know how I work best. I learn that, for me, the writing process is far less haphazard, far more studied and planned than I imagined.
I’m wondering what you’ll find out about yourself as a writer if you spend some time writing “What worked and why?” I’m wondering how we’ll all fare in our work if, instead of cataloguing our weaknesses, we focus upon our strengths.