Want to boost your creativity? In this short video, I discuss some easy-to-follow suggestions on how you can use sleep to boost your creativity and awaken your muse!
Want to boost your creativity? In this short video, I discuss some easy-to-follow suggestions on how you can use sleep to boost your creativity and awaken your muse!
Novice authors often assume that writing occurs solely in their conscious mind. They toil over the perfect opening sentence. They twist words to the breaking point trying to create vivid prose and immersive scenes and fanciful metaphors.
But experienced writers know better. They know that the true writer resides in their unconscious mind. In Bag of Bones, Stephen King describes the writing process as analogous to having a bunch of guys with a truck pull up and unload furniture into your basement. Furniture you can’t see because it’s all wrapped in padded quilts, but you don’t need to see because you know it’s everything you need to write your story. All the writer has to do is unwrap each piece, carry it up the stairs, and set up in the correct rooms.
In King’s analogy, the “boys in the basement” are his unconscious mind. His muse. He is suggesting that as a writer he doesn’t create the story elements; they already exist within his unconscious. His job is to merely pull each story element from his unconscious and arrange it so as to make the best story.
What is the Unconscious Mind?
Psychologists have long held that the mind has two major systems: conscious and unconscious. The conscious system is the part of the mind we are aware of. It’s the part of us that debates options and makes decisions. People generally assume they are aware of everything that happens in their own mind, but in fact, they are really only aware of this conscious aspect.
The unconscious system occurs outside of our awareness or control. It is the part of the mind that handles all the heavy lifting so we can live our lives more easily. It is always running in the background, scanning all the millions of pieces of information that bombard our brains and determining what gets passed to our consciousness and what gets buried. Our unconscious mind is a treasure trove of forgotten experiences, emotions, ideas and memories. Unlike its conscious sibling, the unconscious mind is able to process this wealth of data very quickly and efficiently. And allowed to, it can make novel connections between all this seemingly unrelated information, which is essentially what creativity is all about. Amazingly, it does this all without us even being aware of it chugging away in the basement.
The unconscious mind is often thought of as a dumb creature, only able to deliver basic “tip of the tongue” facts or give us strange dreams about talking Rhinoceroses. But a great deal of research suggests it is actually our unconscious mind who is responsible for most of our decisions and innovations. Our conscious mind just takes the credit after the fact. For example, one study by John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues found that brain activity increased several seconds before participants made a conscious decision to move their finger. That means that their unconscious mind had decided to move their finger well before their conscious mind had.
Recognizing that ideas don’t just get consciously invented out of thin air may shake your sense of free will, but it is also incredibly freeing. It means you don’t create good story ideas; you unearth them from your unconscious. It means that you already have the idea for your next great story lurking down deep inside of you, you just have to help it find its way out. But here is the rub: the unconscious mind is a shy creature. It only comes out to play when there are few distractions or noises to scare it off. As a result, it is very hard to just force yourself to be creative. You can’t just tug at the leash and expect your inner muse to come running (do this and all you’ll get is a bad case of writer’s block). Instead, you need to coax it out of its den by dialing down anything that would activate your conscious mind.
Lucky for us, writers far more successful than us have found ways to accomplish this. Through trial and error, they have discovered ways to unlock their inner muse. Let’s explore a few such tips, ones that are not only used by esteemed writers but also backed up by science.
Seven Tips for Unlocking Your Unconscious Writer:
1. Sleep On It
John Steinbeck wrote in Sweet Thursday, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” Research backs this one up. A study published in Nature found that people who were given a creative task to solve and then allowed to sleep on it were more successful than those who remained awake to solve it. Sleep allows your unconscious mind to restructure information, resulting in new and insightful responses. Just make sure to keep a notepad by the bed for when inspiration strikes.
2. Give Yourself Permission to Daydream
“You get ideas from daydreaming,” Neil Gaimen once told his seven-year-old daughter’s class when they asked him where he got his ideas. “You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” In support of Gaimen’s assertion, a 2013 review of mind-wandering studies found that when people had a task and were given a break in which their mind could wander, their responses were more creative. So rather than avoiding moments of boredom with your smartphone or social media, relish in the boredom. Use those moments of riding on the subway or sitting in the waiting room to daydream, just like you used to do as a kid.
3. Drink Up (Within Reason)
For as long as writers have been around, they’ve been using alcohol (or other mind altering substances) to uncork their muse. From Poe and Hemingway to Faulkner and King—the list goes on and on (and on). As any drinker can tell you, alcohol weakens the unconscious mind. But a word of warning. It is one thing to use a small amount of alcohol to boost creativity; it is another to succumb to alcoholism. So how much is enough? One study found that a blood content level of just .075 was enough to improve people’s creativity (that’s roughly equivalent to two glasses of wine or two beers).
4. Keep Your Hands Busy
Something that uses your hands but allows your mind to be free to wander. Stephen King wrote in Bag of Bones, “I made no effort to think—an old trick from my writing days. Work your body, rest your mind, let the boys in the basement do their jobs.” Research supports this argument that busy hands results in daydreaming minds. Good options are household chores like dusting and vacuuming, physical hobbies like knitting or woodworking, or just doodling or using a “fidget widget” (e.g., Slinky, Fidget Spinner, smooth stone). Anything that busies your hands and focuses your conscious mind, allowing your unconscious muse to freely roam. This is probably why many writers, including J. K. Rowling, Joe Hill, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaimen, Danielle Steel, and Clive Barker, prefer to write their stories longhand.
5. Write During Your “Off Time”
People have what scientists call a circadian preference, which essentially means they are either morning people or evening people. You probably assume it is best to write during your most optimal time (morning people writing in the morning, evening people in the evening), but that’s not true. Although analytical thinking—the kind you use to solve math problems—is better during people’s optimal times, a 2011 study found that creativity was actually better during people’s non-optimal times. Because our conscious mind is groggy during our non-optimal time, it relaxes the reigns on our unconscious mind and gives it more freedom to wander.
6. Take a Shower
A survey conducted by creativity expert Scott Kaufman found that 72% of people report having a creative breakthrough in the shower. This is a secret writers have known for a long time. Agatha Christie, Edmond Rostand, and Dalton Trumbo all wrote while soaking in their tubs. And Woody Allen once stated in an Esquire interview that he frequently uses long showers to break through writer’s block. So why is a shower so good for creativity? It is an activity that is relaxing, done in isolation, and lacks other distractions—all essential components for unlocking your inner muse. To best optimize your shower, consider buying bathtub markers or a waterproof notepad so you can immediately jot down all your amazing ideas.
7. Get Outside
Nature is one of the best places to reacquaint yourself with your unconscious mind. Lots of writers go for walks or run outside to get their creative juices flowing. Stephen King walked four miles every day (until a freak accident stopped him). Joyce Carol Oates is an avid runner who stated, “The structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating, and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.” Research backs up this tip too. Study after study has shown that walking in nature (or even just viewing images of nature) boosts creativity by as much as 50%. Plus, as an added bonus, getting outside has been shown to reduce stress, increase happiness and boost physical health!
Writing Requires Both Unconscious and Conscious Minds
Once the “boys in the basement” send up a good idea, you still have to work hard to unearth it and get the words down on the page. Usually that means allowing your unconscious mind to drive the story during the initial writing phase and making sure your conscious mind isn’t getting in the way. As author Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “All I seek when writing is to allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”
But once the initial draft is written, that’s when you want to invite your conscious mind to the party. Your inner muse may design the first draft, but it is up to your inner editor to perfect the story and get it to the finish line.
This article initially appeared in Hinnom Magazine 006.
Do you have other advice for unlocking your hidden muse? If so, I’d love to hear it! Tell me in a comment.
“Goals cannot be achieved without discipline and consistency” – Denzel Washington
What are your writing goals? To finally write your first novel? Put together a collection of short stories? Submit your query letter to agents? Pen that memoir you’ve always wanted to get around to but never did?
We all have goals. Goals about our writing career, but also goals about our health, our hobbies, and our lives. And yet, it seems we are always failing at our goals. But why?
One of the main reasons people fail at their goals is that they don’t have a good goal plan. On Sunday night they think, “tomorrow I’m going to wake up an hour early and finally start writing that novel.” They set their alarm for 5:30 am but don’t plan any further than that. Come Monday morning, they roll over, hit the snooze button, and dredge through another week without a single change to their lives.
No shame here—we all do it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can achieve our goals whatever they are, you just need to know the right way to go about it. As Denzel Washington pointed out in his 2015 commencement speech at Dillard University, to achieve your goals you need discipline and consistency (the guy is worth over $150 million so he must know something about achieving goals). But that’s easier said than done.
For this post, let’s just focus on the consistency part. To be consistent, you need a good plan. One that will ensure that no matter what your day is like, you will still get off your butt and work on your goal no matter what. Lucky for us, psychologists have figured out exactly how to develop such a plan. Even better, you can do it in under 60 seconds. Here’s how.
A good plan should specify five things:
For instance, if you are trying to stick to a writing routine, it’s not enough to just want to write every day. It’s not even enough to set your alarm for 5:30 am. You need to develop a plan that states exactly
Psychologists call this type of goal plan an implementation intention. Implementation intentions refer to an if-then statement that specifies the exact behavior you will perform in a particular situation. Implementation intentions are referred to as if-then statements because they typically take the form of “IF situation Y occurs, THEN I will engage in behavior X.” So IF it is 6 am on Monday morning, THEN I will go on the porch and write. And IF my schedule gets too hectic and I don’t have enough time for a full writing session, THEN I will outline my next scene.
A number of research studies have shown how beneficial implementation intentions are. For example, one study by Orbell and colleagues had women set the goal of conducting a monthly breast examination to check for potential tumors. For women who just intended to complete this goal, only 53% actually completed the exam during the next month. But when the women wrote down exactly when and where and how they would conduct the monthly exam, 100% completed the exam during the next month. Other studies have found similar effects using different goals, such as taking vitamins, exercising, eating a low-fat diet, or recycling.
So why are these nifty little plans so effective?
One reason is that, because of how specific they are, they are easy to follow. This ensures that your goal-directed behavior is the same every time. There’s that consistency Denzel was talking about.
A second reason is that because of their specificity, it is really easy to see when you’re falling behind. If your goal is just to “write more,” that goal is so abstract it’s hard to tell when you’re succeeding at it and when you’re failing. But if your goal is to “write at 6 am on Mon-Fri for 1 hour” then it is really easy to see when you are hitting your mark and when you are falling short.
A third reason is that implementation intentions make our goal-behaviors automatic. Anyone who has tried to kick a bad habit knows that the beauty of habits is you don’t have to think about them or will yourself to do it. You just do it without even thinking about it. For example, if every day at 4 pm you grab a Snickers bar out of the vending machine, chances are when the time rolls around you will find yourself mindless standing in front of the machine and wondering “how did I get here?” That’s because overtime, your repeated behavior caused your brain to create a connection between the behavior (eat a candy bar) and an environmental cue (4 pm). Now here’s the cool thing—implementation intentions harness this automatic power for good. For example, if you form the implementation intention, “IF I enter a building and see an elevator, THEN I will take the stairs instead,” you’ve linked the exercise goal (taking the stairs) with an environmental cue (seeing an elevator). By routinely linking your writing to a time (6 am), a place (on the porch), or an already formed habit (the smell of coffee), those cues become unconscious reminders to your brain that it’s time to start writing. Do this a few times and you’ll find yourself automatically grabbing your laptop and heading to your designated writing area without having to think about it.
So, enough talking, let’s start doing. Once you finish reading this post, take just one minute of your day and write out your implementation intention on a piece of paper. Then post it somewhere where you will see it every day. Do this one simple step and you will double your odds of achieving your writing goal (or any goal for that matter)!
And as a bonus, here is another one-minute motivation hack to really sky-rocket your success. Get a calendar (or print one out for free here) and mark a big X on every day that you actually fulfill your implementation intention. Once you see those X’s all lined up in a row, you aren’t going to want to spoil your winning streak. But if you do, no biggie. Treat it like a game. Maybe this time you got through five days in a row until you fell off the wagon. Start again and see if you can’t go for six! Or start a competition with a friend and post your streaks on social media.
If you try this technique and have success, I would love to hear about it! Shoot me an email or note it in a comment.
Now get going!
[This post includes excerpts from my Pearson textbook, Motivation Science].
Has this ever happened to you? You’re taking a shower, mindlessly scrubbing away and then—BAM!—you suddenly get struck with creative insight. Maybe you got an idea for a novel. Or maybe you figured out how to best start your blog post. Or maybe you just finally figured out who Jon Snow’s real parents are in Game of Thrones.
Whatever the breakthrough, if you had it in the shower then you are not alone. A survey conducted by creativity expert Scott Kaufman examined people from eight countries and found that 72% reported having creative breakthroughs in the shower. Interestingly, that number was higher than those reporting creative breakthroughs at work.
So what’s happening here? Why are showers so good for creativity?
To understand the “power of the shower,” you first need to recognize where creativity comes from. Unlike other cognitive tasks that rely on analytical strategies housed in our conscious mind, creativity and insight come largely from our unconscious mind (to learn more about the role of the unconscious in creativity, see my earlier post). Successful artists know this fact and amass all sorts of simple, easy tricks that allow them to tap into their unconscious well of creativity. For example, in prior posts I’ve discussed how artists ignite their creative muse through sleep, mind wandering, nature, and asking “what if”.
In this post, we’ll discuss why taking a shower may be the easiest (and definitely the cleanest) creativity hack of all. And what’s particularly great about this trick is that you shower every day anyway—but chances are you’re not be doing it the right way.
The Power of the Shower
Have you ever ha the answer to some question on the tip of your tongue but couldn’t retrieve it? Maybe you’re trying to remember something you read earlier in the day or maybe you just can’t identify the first movie you saw with Nicolas Cage. The point is, the harder you press your brain to come up with the solution, the more stubbornly resistant it gets. But then you finally give up, switch to another task, and—Aha!—there’s the solution. That “Aha! moment” is called insight and it has been studied by psychologists and neuroscientists for decades.
What the research shows is that when it comes to Aha! moments, our brains are a bit like a temperamental dog. The harder you tug at the leash, the more resistant your brain becomes. But loosen the leash and allow your brain to scamper about freely and suddenly the solution will pop into your head. The reason for this has to do with differences between our mind’s conscious and unconscious processes. Most people assume that our brain works hardest when we are consciously concentrating on a task (like the tip of the tongue example), but that’s not true. In these situations, your brain’s command center (the prefrontal cortex) is focusing all its resources on a single task, but it has to shut down other areas and ideas to do so. Concentration makes our brains censor themselves, and as a result, most of the new and creative solutions are tossed away before we even realize we had them.
But when we relax, our command center relaxes too, and our brain enters its unconscious mode, what psychologists call the “default network.” When the default network comes online, it opens up pathways in the brain that allow for new connections to form. It is in these connections that creative genius is born. Gutenberg combined the screw press (used to press fruits in his day) with paper printing. Einstein uniquely combined energy, mass, and the speed of light in his famous equation, E=mc2. Steve Jobs, who intuitively stated, “creativity is just connecting things,” combined technology with artistic aesthetic.
But here’s the rub, the default network is a shy creature. It only comes out to play when there are few distractions or noises to scare it off. As a result, it is very hard to just force yourself to be creative. You can’t just tug at the leash and expect your creative mind to come running. Instead, you need to coax it out of its den by dialing down anything that would activate the brain’s command center and scare off your default network.
Now back to the shower. Showers are very good at coaxing your default network to come out and play. Let’s explore a few reasons why:
1. Showering is relaxing (for body and mind)
We all know a shower soothes our sore muscles and relaxes our weary body, but it relaxes our mind as well. As mentioned above, when we relax, our default network becomes active and when it does, it acts like an airport hub, connecting random thoughts and forgotten memories together to create unique ideas. When we relax, we also produce more alpha waves in our brains. Alpha waves occur whenever we meditate or daydream and they often serve as a key to unlocking deeper states of consciousness and creativity.
The opposite happens when we are not relaxed and over-worked. Our brain dulls and our creativity recedes into the background.
2. Showering is a solitary act (well, usually)
To be creative, we have to forge a close, intimate bond with ourselves. And as anyone in a relationship knows, it’s hard to juggle multiple relationships at once. That is why solitude is so important to the creative process. By being alone, we are able to turn our attention inward and reacquaint ourselves with our own mind.
Artists have long recognized the power of solitude. In fact, it is so common that the image of the “reclusive artist” has become a stereotype. You can see this reclusive behavior in famous musicians (Michael Jackson, Syd Barrett, Sly Stone), film directors (Howard Hughes, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick), and writers (Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, J. D. Salinger, William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, Marcel Proust, Cormac McCarthy, Harper Lee). Solitude is often seen as a negative behavior but it helps artists forge “constructive internal reflection,” a vital component in any creative endeavor.
Artists have long valued solitude but it has taken science a bit longer to warm up to the idea. Most psychological studies focus on the negative aspect of solitude: loneliness. But these are not one and the same. Most notably is the fact that solitude is chosen whereas loneliness is imposed on us. And this is not to say that the presence of others doesn’t facilitate the creative process. Collaboration is a key element to many artists’ and scientists’ creative success. But such collaboration is usually effective during the idea refinement phase, not the initial idea generation phase.
3. Showering is boring (but in a good way)
Albert Einstein once said, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” Assuming Einstein is right (and he usually is), this means that we actually have to “waste time” if we want to be more creative. But when was the last time you wasted time? When was the last time you felt bored? When I was a kid, I remember being bored A LOT. The Saturday morning cartoons would stop around 9am and I was bored. Sitting around in the dentist’s waiting room and I was bored. Seated in class, staring out the window and I was bored. But I can’t tell you the last time I felt truly bored. Can you? The invention of the smartphone has nearly eradicated boredom from our lives, but doing so may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Because the truth is, we could all use a little more boredom in our lives nowadays.
When taking a shower, our biggest task is soaping our body and shampooing our hair. It is probably the most boring ten minutes we spend each day, and yet…we all look forward to a nice, long shower. One reason why boredom is beneficial is because it’s just another way for our brain to relax. But boredom also accomplishes another important task: it allows our ideas to incubate.
Multiples studies have shown that the quality of an idea or solution increases if you allow it to incubate—which means occupying your mind with another task while mulling over the problem. Switching your brain from the problem to another mindless task distracts your conscious brain, allowing your unconscious brain to generate creative solutions. For instance, one study had people invent new names for pasta shapes. After assigning this task, some participants immediately generated answers, whereas others worked on a boring task for three minutes (i.e., tracking a circle on the computer with their mouse) before generating their answers. The results showed that those who were given an incubation period (i.e., those who worked on the boring task first) produced more creative responses than those without the incubation period.
We all have an intuitive sense of how important this incubation concept is. This is why we often say, “I’ll sleep on it” when making an important decision, but you could just as easily say, “I’ll shower on it.”
4. Showering blocks out distractions
In this day and age, it is nearly impossible to find a place free of distraction. Our smartphones are constantly beeping and alerting us to emails and texts and tweets and Facebook updates, not to mention their million apps that taunt us to crush candies or hunt Pokemon. And even if we shut down our phones, there’s streaming TV, 24-hour news feeds, traffic, drones buzzing overhead, and…well, you get the point. It’s all too much for our archaic brains to handle.
That’s why a shower is so beneficial. For ten minutes each day, your brain gets a break from all those distractions. No phones. No television. No other people demanding your attention. When we turn the faucet on, nearly all sound is blocked out. And when our skin gets wet and pruney, it dulls our sense of touch. Truth is, taking a shower is the closest thing we get to being in one of those big, expensive sensory deprivation chambers (which have been shown to boost creativity).
Why is sensory deprivation so important? Our brains know that the more sensory information it receives, the more it has to attend to it and the less it can attend to being creative. Shutting down sensory input allows our brains to turn away from the outside world and focus their attention inward. It gives our brains free reign to roam our internal landscape and think about whatever it wants.
Sensory deprivation is so important that your brain actually shuts down sensory input when it is trying to be creative. One really cool brain scan study found that just before people have an Aha! moment of creative insight, the activity in their visual cortex drops off temporarily. Essentially, the mind is closing its eyes to avoid distractions so it can generate more creative solutions. This tells us that anything you can do to make it easier for your brain to shut out distractions will greatly improve your creative thinking.
Shielding yourself from distraction is especially important for people naturally high in creativity. This is because creative brains are spongy brains (or what researchers call “leaky sensory gating”). Creative brains soak up everything around them. This is a good thing, because it leads to more creative innovations and connections, but it’s a double-edged sword because it means creative people can easily sidetracked. That’s why sensory depriving environments (like a shower) are especially helpful in getting creative people to focus.
Put It All Together—The Perfect (Shower) Storm
When you combine these four qualities of a shower, it creates the perfect storm for creativity. As Kaufman stated,
“The relaxing, solitary, and non-judgmental shower environment may afford creative thinking by allowing the mind to wander freely, and causing people to be more open to their inner stream of consciousness and daydreams.”
For this reason, writers, innovators and scientists alike have all relied on the shower to get their creative juices flowing. Most famous is the story of Archimedes, a Greek mathematician who discovered he could use volume displacement to measure gold when he noticed how the water level rose when he got into his bath. But there are lots of other examples.
In 1990, NASA engineer Jim Crocker realized how to fix the distorted lenses of the Hubble telescope when he noticed the European-style showerhead mounting while showering in his hotel room.
Writers are notorious for doing their best work in the bathroom. Agatha Christie, Edmond Rostand, and Dalton Trumbo all wrote while soaking in their tubs. And Woody Allen once stated in an Esquire interview,
“In the shower, with the hot water coming down, you’ve left the real world behind, and very frequently things open up for you. It’s the change of venue, the unblocking the attempt to force the ideas that’s crippling you when you’re trying to write.”
Creativity is Like a Living Thing
One important thing to keep in mind. Creativity is like a living thing that grows and thrives in the space between our external and internal worlds. But just like any living thing, you have to cultivate this growth. When apple farmers want to produce the best fruit, they prune back new shoots (sometimes called “suckers”) that compete with the more fruit-bearing branches for light and water. They essentially create a space for the fruit to grow into.
Creativity is the same way. You can’t just expect it to be there when you need it. You need to cultivate it. You need to prune back external distractions and create a space for it to grow into. You can do this in a lot of ways, including meditation, daydreaming, and walking in nature, but the problem is that in this day and age of go-go-go, such things are seen as a luxury and so we are less likely to do them. Showering, on the other hand, is a necessity. No matter how busy you are, you still have to set aside a few minutes each day to shower. So for people who are just beginning to cultivate their creative roots, the shower is a great starting place.
Tips on How to Optimize Your Shower
Here are some simple ways to optimize your shower for maximum creativity benefits:
1. Shower alone. This means not only keeping your significant other out of the shower stall itself but also the entire bathroom. No showering while your husband is shaving or your wife is blow-drying her hair. Remember, isolation is key to developing creative ideas.
2. Keep all distractions out of the bathroom while you shower—this includes your phone, playing music, listening to the news, a television, ANYTHING!
3. Do some prep work—think about your problem or do a bit of research on it just before you take a shower, then allow your conscious mind to relax while you bathe. That way, your shower time allows your creative thoughts to enter the all-important incubation period.
4. Shower in the morning or evening, when your brain’s command center is groggy and your unconscious brain is free to roam. Research shows that creativity peaks when your mind is the least alert.
5. Have a way to record your brilliant ideas in the shower. You could keep a notebook just outside the shower, but this can get messy, so here are two better solutions. One option is to buy a set of “bathtub markers” (Crayola makes some) or dry erase markers (if you have tile) to scribble your creative ideas on the shower stall. If you prefer a more organized approach, get a waterproof notepad like the one made by AquaNotes.
So next time you are having a creative block, take a shower and try out these tips. Not only will your body feel fresh afterwards, but your mind will too!
Writer’s block. We’ve all experienced the dreaded symptoms. Your hand frozen over the page. The blank screen staring back at you like an unblinking eyeball. The fear rising, whispering “you’ll never be able to write anything good, ever again.”
Writer’s block is one of the few things that nearly all writers share, no matter where they are in their careers. The beginning writer working on their first book. The bestselling debut novelist trudging through the sophomore slump. The prolific author who fears the well has finally run dry. Esteemed authors from Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck to Stephen King and Margaret Atwood have all lamented their woeful run-ins with this dreaded disease.
Given the ubiquity of this scourge, you’d think there would be clear advice on how to treat it. There is not. In fact, the most common advice is contradictory. Some insist writer’s block can only be cured by more writing, suggesting daily scheduled writing periods or writing prompts to get the creative juices flowing. But another camp argues the last thing blocked writers should do is force themselves to write. Instead, they advise taking a break, reading a book, doing laundry—anything that will temporarily distract you from the blocked project.
So which is it?
Not only am I a writer but I’m also a research psychologist, so whenever I see contradictory information, I look to the data. And the data suggests that the solution depends on the type of writer’s block you have.
That’s right, contrary to popular belief, there is more than one kind. There are in fact four, according to Yale researchers Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios. Using their work as a template, I will help you to identify your particular strain of writer’s block and point you toward the best treatment.
1. The Fear-of-Failure Block
The fear-of-failure block is driven by perfectionism and excessive self-criticism. These writers can feel their imaginative juices bubbling under the surface, but they are crippled by the sense that nothing they produce is ever good enough.
One way you can treat this strain of writer’s block is to relax your expectations. As Margaret Atwood said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Accept that writing is a messy process. Your story isn’t going to be perfect the first time you write it (nor the second or third). But that’s okay. You must give yourself permission to not be perfect, to not even be good, during your initial attempt. As writer Jacques Barzun suggests, “Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper not eternal bronze. Let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes.”
A second way treat this strain of writer’s block is to change your view of failure. Failure is an inherent part of any endeavor, especially a creative one. Novices often view failure as an indication that they don’t have what it takes to become a good writer. But experienced writers know failure is part of the process and that it simply indicates they need to try harder.
Because this block is driven by anxiety, a third treatment it is to engage in calming activities. This is where the “take a break” advice for writer’s block is appropriate and actually works. Go outside and get some fresh air. Spend some quality time with friends and family. Better yet, try meditation (which not only reduces anxiety but boosts creativity). Give yourself a few hours or even a few days off and chances are, when you come back to your writing you will feel less anxious.
2. The Fear-of-Rejection Block
Rather than self-criticism, the fear-of-rejection block is driven by a concern for others’ criticism. “Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged,” Erica Jong states in The New Writer’s Handbook. “If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line.” This strain of writer’s block can produce fear (the writer is afraid she will never achieve others’ lofty standards) or hostility (the writer is angry because she believes she is talented but feels that others are not recognizing her talent). Both emotions occur because the writer feels they are falling short of others’ expectations.
One treatment for this strain is to write without concern for others’ opinions. Easier said than done. Barbara Kingsolver offers this advice: “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say.” Similarly, Stephen King says that writers should work in a room with a closed door—both literally (to block out distractions) and metaphorically (to block out concerns about others’ opinions). Now this doesn’t mean you should never care about what others will think, only that you shouldn’t care during the initial writing phase (save that worry for the rewrites).
But what if you’re the type of person who needs others’ opinions to motivate you? If that is the case, then pick just one person to metaphorically allow into your writing room. John Steinbeck once told a friend suffering from writer’s block, “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother.”
3. The Fear-of-Success Block
The fear-of-success block is driven by a writer’s worry that her success will negatively impact those close to her. Writers who suffer from this block tend to put others’ needs ahead of their own, so the thought of success leads to guilt, fear of change, and worry that their loved ones will become envious or resentful. Now you may be thinking, “Who the hell is afraid of success?” but the truth is people are often unconsciously afraid of success and (more importantly) the changes it brings. Success alters the status quo and produces new experiences some writers may feel unprepared to deal with (e.g., dealing with publishers, lawyers, reporters, internet trolls, stalkers).
To treat this strain of writer’s block, you must learn to prioritize your needs equally with those around you. Also remind yourself that just as you learned how to become an effective writer, you will also learn how to overcome the obstacles that may result from your success. And keep in mind that when you succeed, you will not be alone. There will be agents and publishers and editors to hold your hand and help you navigate your new surroundings.
4. The Lack-of-Motivation Block
The lack-of-motivation block is driven by a sense that your creative well has run dry. You find yourself unable to daydream, to stitch together a coherent sentence, or even find the right words. There are generally two reasons why you might experience this block. Either you’ve fallen out of love with writing itself or you’ve fallen out of love with your current project.
If you feel you’ve fallen out of love with writing, remind yourself this is probably just temporary. Everyone feels burned out from time to time. You just need to take a short break from writing so you can rediscover your love for it. Try sleeping, join a writer’s group, watch a movie, or read a book to remind you why you wanted to write in the first place. And if you adhere to a daily writing schedule, give yourself permission to take a “you” day when you’re feeling blocked. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Burnout also tends to occur when writers replace their intrinsic reasons for writing (your love of it) with extrinsic reasons (desire for critical acclaim, money, fame). If this is the case, it’s time for you to reassess your priorities and remind yourself why you started writing in the first place.
If instead the problem is that you’ve fallen out of love with your current project, then you may need to shake things up. According to Ray Bradbury, “If you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.” Now it’s possible the entire project needs to be amputated, but more likely it’s that you need to make a few strategic, surgical cuts. Maybe the scene you’re working on is unnecessary. Maybe you thought you were writing a horror novel when it really wants to be a mystery novel. Maybe you need to completely remove one of your characters (Stephen King killed off half his characters when he got bogged down in the middle of writing The Stand). Whatever the reason, you need to take a good, long look at your work and be ready to hit the delete button.
But deleting alone is not enough. You also have to fill in those missing spaces with new ideas. This is where free-writing and creative writing prompts can actually be effective. Those tasks help you get reacquainted with your muse and introduce new scenes or storylines or characters that you hadn’t yet considered.
Lastly, because this block is caused by low energy, writers can temporarily treat it by engaging in activities that boost energy. Drink some coffee, go exercise, get some fresh air—whatever works to reinvigorate your sluggish brain.
Writer’s block is often viewed as a disease to be cured. But the truth is, you will never fully get rid of it. If you are lucky enough to have a long writing career, writer’s block is something that will inevitable pop up again and again.
Instead of seeing writer’s block as a disease, think of it like physical pain. Your body uses pain to warn you that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. It is a necessary and beneficial system because it helps identify exactly where the problem resides. Writer’s block is the same way; a little bit can be good for you. It can force you to take your work in new and exciting directions. It can tell you when you are working on the wrong project. And it can tell you when you are writing for the wrong reasons.
When you have writer’s block, your mind is trying to warn you that something is off, so listen to it. What is it telling you? Then treat the block in the ways I’ve described and get back to doing what you love.
This article initially appeared in Hinnom Magazine 005.
I’d love to hear your favorite advice for overcoming writer’s block–tell me in a comment.
The #MeToo movement shined a light on the alarming frequency with which women experience sexual harassment and assault. For women, this movement has led to a tsunami of emotions—from feelings of being supported and emboldened to anxiety and anger and PTSD. It started a world-wide conversation that has taken center stage—in the news, movie award ceremonies, one-on-one discussions—and it is a conversation that must continue.
A less talked about issue is how men are feeling in the wake of the #MeToo movement. This is understandably and justifiably so, since the #MeToo movement is primarily about making women’s voices heard after decades of being silenced and ignored. But just as women are feeling that their perspective and their experiences are finally being highlighted, many men are feeling like the rug has been pulled out from under them. Although this conversation isn’t as visible, it is certainly percolating in chat rooms and offices and lockers rooms around the world. Men who were raised to pursue women the way a hunter pursues prey are suddenly unsure of what constitutes appropriate dating behavior. The recent Aziz Ansari allegations (and the online debates that ensued) are a clear example of this.
So how is a good guy with an active sexual appetite supposed to navigate the modern dating scene? This is the overarching question that dominates the award-winning animated film Lovesick Fool. Told with wry, observational humor reminiscent of classic Woody Allen films, the movie follows the lead male character, Donnie, as he searches for love in the current world of Facebook likes and Tinder swipes.
Lovesick Fool is written and directed by Dominic Polcino, best known for his work on The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and The Family Guy. Audiences familiar with these shows will appreciate the awkward, flawed male character that leads the show (voiced by Dominic himself), as well as Donnie’s cast of quirky co-workers (Fred Willard, Janeane Garofalo) and his psychic/therapist (Lisa Kudrow).
Check out the trailer here.
Although only forty minutes long, the film touches upon a number of psychological themes. First and foremost is the gender dynamic of men and women in modern society. The opening scene shows petroglyph sketches of cavemen hunting various beasts, then turning their clubs and sticks on women as a mating declaration. This, ostensibly, was the nature of dating in prehistoric times. Several instances of cavemen knocking women down and dragging them off are depicted until we get to a sketch of the lead of Lovesick Fool, Donnie. When he offers a playfully predatory growl to his potential mate, she turns around, clubs him on the head, and walks away. The message is clear: The rules for men have changed.
This idea that men’s traditional approach to pursuing a mate is akin to a hunter pursuing its prey is a theme revisited later in the movie. During this scene, Donnie’s more confident inner self tells him he can help Donnie pick up women based on “things he’s read and stuff.” Cut to Donnie standing outside a café. His confident self tells him, “What you need to do now is look at it like you’re the hunter and they’re the prey.” A woman walks by dressed in a zebra print dress and making neighing horsey sounds, another gracefully gallops by looking like a gazelle, and a third hops past like a bunny.
The imagery is amusing, but the underlying point is a serious one. From an early age, men are often told they should perceive themselves as the hunter and the woman they are pursuing as the prey. It is a message largely constructed by men for men, and at first glance it may seem harmless, but recent research shows it has very real-world consequences. In a series of experiments in my own research lab, I examined how this predator-prey message impacts men’s proclivity for sexual violence. Inspired by songs like Maroon 5’s Animals (“Baby I’m preying on you tonight; Hunt you down eat you alive”) and Duran Duran’s Hungry Like a Wolf (I’m on the hunt down I’m after you”) and the classic bar scene from the movie Swingers, my colleague and I had large groups of men and women read a passage that described a heterosexual man on a first date. Half of the participants read a neutral version but the other half read a version that included references to the men-as-predator and women-as-prey message. For example, instead of referring to a “night on the town”, the predator/prey version stated “a night on the prowl”. And rather than saying he “enjoyed the get-to-know-you phase” of dating, the predator/prey version stated he “enjoyed the chase.”
The alarming (but not necessarily unexpected) results indicated there was no significant difference for women who read the two types of readings. But the pattern for men was different. Men who read the predator/prey reading were significantly more likely than men who read the neutral version to indicate they would engage in rape if given the chance. Men who read the predator/prey reading were also higher in beliefs that perpetuate rape (e.g., women who are raped while drunk or sexily dressed asked for it; If a girl doesn’t fight back, it’s not rape).
The point is, just a few minutes of exposure to this predator-prey message was enough to encourage men to see themselves as sexual predators and women as their sexual prey. That is a concerning result, especially given the pervasiveness of this message in popular movies, songs, and even children’s cartoons (e.g., Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood; Zootopia).
Another psychological theme explored in Lovesick Fool is the impact of modern technology on human communication. In a world where emotional intimacy is more likely to be expressed with a texted emoji rather than a face-to-face exchange, one has to wonder if humans are losing their ability to connect with each other. In the film, this concern is expressed in a silent but poignant scene where Donnie is seated in a café and sees a young family at the nearby table. The husband kisses his wife, pays attention their baby girl for half a second, then pulls out his phone and starts texting. Soon the wife does the same. As sad classical music plays in the background, the audience is left to contemplate if technology is degrading our ability to engage in rich, deeply formed social bonds.
So what does the psychological research have to say about this theme? Here the news is mixed. On the one hand, online tools like texting and Facebook appear to facilitate, rather than impair, people’s social connections. For example, a longitudinal study by Kraut and colleagues found that the more hours people spent on the internet, the more time they spent having face-to-face contact with family and friends. This is because people often use the internet and email to maintain their connections with long distance relationship partners that they couldn’t physically socialize with.
On the other hand, as the scene in Lovesick Fool suggests, this same technology can negatively impact our face-to-face interactions when they do occur. In one study, researchers observed pairs of participants engaging in a 10-minute conversation in a coffee shop and noted whether either of the participants had a cellphone present during the interaction. Afterwards, the people who conversed in the presence of a mobile device felt less connected with their partner and less empathetic toward their partner than those without a mobile device. Keep in mind that in this study, the phone just had to be visually present to negatively affect the conversation. So even when our mobile devices aren’t buzzing and beeping, they can erode social connection. This is because they symbolize a wide network of people and information that draw our attention away from the conversation at hand.
Thus, the key is how we use our technology. Smartphones and the internet can be good socialization tools, so long as they enhance good old-fashioned physical interactions, rather than replace them or distract us from them.
In sum, Lovesick Fool is a quirky, humorous examination of dating in the modern age that also manages to touch upon serious psychological topics. It is also a movie clearly written with the male-perspective in mind. Every seemingly beautiful woman in it is leered at and ogled by the main character (although he rarely acts upon his urges). We get to see what that experience is like for Donnie, but have no sense of what that same experience is like for the opposite sex. In my opinion, that is the missing puzzle piece in this movie—especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement—and something that would make for a fascinating follow up to this film.
Most women are so used to being harassed and cat-called and treated as sexual objects that it is as much a part of their lives as sleeping and eating. Men may say they understand that fact on a logical level, but few have any idea what that experience is like day in and day out. As a social psychological researcher, I think what would balance out Lovesick Fool is the addition of a quirky, honest, humorous take on that uniquely-female experience. Now that’s a movie both men and women could relate to.
I am proud to announce I will be authoring a writer’s advice column for Hinnom Magazine. Hinnom Magazine is a new and vibrantly growing publication featuring horror, fantasy and science fiction stories. Click here for more information.
Ever felt like your family was driving you mad? If so, then you’ll likely sympathize with Jenibel Heath, the main character in the new psychological thriller Blood Honey (see trailer here).
Blood Honey stars Shenae Grimes-Beech (Degrassi: The Next Generation) as the female protagonist at the center of the story. Ten years after Jenibel witnessed her mother’s suicide, she is summoned back to her childhood home by her dying father, played by the remarkable Gil Bellows (Shawshank Redemption, 11.22.63). Home, in Jenibel’s case, is a hunting lodge called “The Hive” that sits on a small island in the Canadian backcountry. It serves as the Heath family business, offering remote hunting trips and producing its own honey thanks to a colony of bees.
The only way to access The Hive is to fly in on a rickety amphibian plane. When Jenibel arrives, we get the first glimpse of the remotely located lodge. It clings to the slag of rock jutting out of the water like a barnacle clinging to a sinking ship. The setting is both serene and unnerving and it immediately sets the tone of the movie, hinting that things which look beautiful and perfect on the outside can be rotting and festering underneath.
There to greet Jenibel when she arrives is her family, which in addition to her antagonistic, alcoholic father includes her brother Neil (who has been forced to run the family business in her absence) and her special needs sister Linda. They all come together the first night and congregate by the fireplace. Reminiscing with old friends and a few of the regular hunting clientele. Drinking moonshine sweetened with homemade honey. It is here that we get a peek at just how important that liquid gold is to this family.
They say that blood is thicker than water, but in the Heath family, honey is thicker still. Honey is at the core of who they are. They put it in their booze. They sweeten their coffee with it. They even use a batch that went bad to poison any vermin that try to invade their home. In these examples and others, the film uses honey as a powerful metaphor for this family’s bond. But just as sweet honey can turn rancid and become poisonous, so too can family.
When Jenibel’s father commits a shocking act, she finds herself in a battle against the rest of her family. She wants to sell the hunting lodge; they want to keep it. The stress of it all pushes Jenibel’s already fragile psyche over the edge. She starts to see things that aren’t there. Are these repressed memories (what her therapist called “waking dreams”) or are they hallucinations? Is she going crazy or is her family poisoning her? Boundaries between real and imaginary, past and present, memory and hallucination, all become blurred until the truth is finally revealed.
As a psychologist, I was impressed with the many psychological themes threaded throughout the movie: Childhood trauma, recovery, suicide, repressed memories, forgiveness, mental illness. In my interview with the writer/director of the film, Jeff Kopas, I learned that he had consulted several psychologists during film development and I believe that approach paid off well. There is a sense of authenticity to this film that most psychological thrillers do not have. Clearly Jeff wanted to make a film that was both psychologically stirring and realistic (a hard challenge indeed). Directors take note: If you want an authentic psychological script, seek out the guidance of psychologists (like me!) during the writing process. After all, we are trained to know the ins and outs of people—their personalities, their behaviors, their deepest fears and aspirations—better than professionals in any other field.
I also enjoyed the eerie atmosphere of this movie. In an age when most theater fair is whiz-bang superhero films with massive sets and overdone CGI and bloated scripts, it was refreshing to watch an old-school feeling film where the remote location is as much of a character as the people. Blood Honey was filmed on a far-flung island where the cast and crew had to be boated in from the mainland each day and it shows. The sparse scenery, combined with the slightly out-of-tune piano score, provides a queasy mix of untouched beauty and isolation and loneliness that leaches through the screen like a cold breeze. It’s a feeling the viewer finds difficult to shake even after the film ends.
The power of the situation—a common theme in psychology—is also evident in this movie, in terms of the influence of Jenibel’s return home. As a young woman, Jenibel fled The Hive (both physically and mentally) and now she is forced to return. And despite the progress she’s made and the accomplishments she’s achieved as an adult, her return brings forth a flood of emotions and memories she thought were long-buried. And don’t we all feel a bit that way when we return home? Suddenly being thrust back into the physical presence of our childhood house or amongst our family members seems to regress us. We slip into old roles, pick up old fights where they left off years ago, and struggle to navigate the rocky waters all over again. Blood Honey does a good job of capturing that struggle we’ve all experienced and of demonstrating the powerful effect our physical and social environments have on our minds.
Lastly, as a researcher who studies prejudice and sexism, I appreciated the gender themes in the film. Despite the many talented actresses out there and the recent Time’s Up movement, it is still rare to find a film where the story sits squarely on the shoulders of a female protagonist. Especially a woman whose intrigue is in regards to her thoughts and feelings rather than her body or her romantic relationships. In Blood Honey, a small, frail woman is pitted against an entire hoard of brusque, intimidating men and yet it never feels like an unmatched fight. That fact is a testament to the well-written script and Jennibel’s well-acted character.
In terms of my overall evaluation of the film, I found it to be an engaging character-driven film that is rich in psychological tension. At 90 minutes, it is a tight movie (a quality I greatly appreciate), but it still offers a steady, slow build and never loses that sense of subtle menace. Blood Honey fits squarely within the “unreliable narrator” trend popular in film and novels these days, but still manages to stay fresh and offer its audience surprises. All in all, the movie strives to set the tone of a classic Hitchcockian thriller, although it doesn’t always reach that lofty goal. There are a few occasions where the jumbled imagery and dream-like sequences are confusing, but those moments are the exception rather than the rule.
Where I think this film truly succeeds is in its ability to loiter in the mind after the final credits roll. It is one of those movies that you walk away from and can’t easily get out of your head (I love those types of films!). Watch it with others and you’ll be discussing what really happened and what it was all about well into the night. Like honey itself, Blood Honey lingers on the palate long after it has been consumed.
I found the characters to be strongly formed and well-acted, especially that of the father. Although Gil Bellows doesn’t have a lot of screen time in this film, his role is incredibly powerful and unsettling. My only criticism here is that at times, the escalation of emotions in the film happened too quickly and as a result, came off a bit over-dramatic. Perhaps the slower build in these scenes got lost in editing (or perhaps the characters just need to lay off the honey liquor).
As both a psychologist and fiction author, I was delighted when Tricoast Entertainment contacted me to review the film and provide a psychologist’s perspective. Overall, Blood Honey is a richly hewn psychological thriller and I can’t wait to see what Jeff Kopas writes next!
To read my exclusive interview with Blood Honey’s writer/director (where we talk about the writing process, the “unreliable narrator” trend in film/novels, and how on earth he convinced Gil Bellows to douse himself in bees!), see my earlier post.
Blood Honey will be released in the US (DVD + VOD) on January 29, 2018 (click here to learn more about the film).
As both a psychologist and fiction author, I was super excited to land an interview with award-winning filmmaker Jeff Kopas, the writer and director behind the new Hitchcockian thriller Blood Honey.
Blood Honey stars Shenae Grimes-Beech (Degrassi: The Next Generation) as the female lead and Gil Bellows (Shawshank Redemption, 11.22.63) as her antagonistic father. The film has already opened in Canada and will be released in the US (DVD + VOD) on January 29, 2018 (click here to learn more about the film).
Before we dive into the interview, here is a quick synopsis of the film [or see trailer here]:
“Summoned by her dying father, Jenibel Heath, after a decade away, reluctantly returns to her beautiful island home, a remote fly-in hunting and fishing lodge. Waiting for her is bitter family dysfunction and the nightmare of her last childhood memory: the suicide of her mother. Soon, Jenibal finds herself burdened with selling off the family lodge, against the wishes of her family and friends. In a harrowing passage through guilt, loyalty, and devastating memories, Jenibel navigates an obstacle course of personal torment that pushes her psyche to the breaking point. What begins as a journey of forgiveness, devolves into a fatal nightmare and a struggle to maintain not just her sanity, but her life.”
The Writer’s Laboratory: In my blog “The Writer’s Laboratory” I offer advice to writers on how to incorporate psychological principles and research into their fiction writing to make it more authentic. One of the topics I’ve explored in my blog is where writers get their ideas. So I’ll pose the question to you—where do you find your script ideas?
Jeff Kopas: In general, the ideas come from a desire to say something of meaning. Ideally they come from a place where you have something to say that’s not being said. The battle is that you go through the years of development and production and editing, and have to hold on to and remember what that core message is you are meaning to express.
TWL: And where did your idea for Blood Honey come from?
JK: It started location based, which is weird and, I’ve learned, also dangerous [he laughs]. My parents have a summer cottage in eastern Canada on the lake. There was an old hotel there from 1901 that was turned into a community club. There’s been murders there, a suicide, it’s just incredibly haunted. I worked there growing up and starting as a kid, I always wanted to shoot a psychological thriller there. That’s actually how this script got started.
But [after a few years working on the script] I got into this place where I’d started with location and hadn’t started with this idea of wanting to say something. I found myself with a story that didn’t work. It didn’t say anything. So our producer convinced me to bring on another writer to take a fresh stab at it because I was just going in circles, which happens and is really dangerous. So that’s when I convinced Doug Taylor to come on and co-write with me. Together we maintained the basic theme of a “woman in peril” story. And my goal had always been to tell an old school psychological thriller that could really happen. That was really important to me.
TWL: So you say you want to write stories that have a meaningful message. What is the message you wanted to get across with Blood Honey?
JK: I strongly believe you can’t be happy as an adult unless you resolve the sins or trauma of your childhood. Blood Honey is an extreme scenario, but that is the idea behind it. Everyone has issues from their childhood, to varying degrees, and it is impossible to be at peace as an adult if those aren’t resolved. I think that is a universal theme that everyone can relate to.
TWL: On the one hand as a writer, you have to give the audience what they want and meet their expectations. But on the other hand you have to make sure not to fall prey to overused tropes. How do you ride that fine line?
JK: Tropes to some degree sell. People want them in certain types of movies, especially genre movies. But ultimately tropes are lazy. So I think how you get away from that is to be authentic. With Blood Honey, we had a desire to make it a logic-based film. We wanted to make sure things could only happen if they were believable. If it is authentic storytelling, then hopefully you avoid falling prey to the tropes. But it is hard.
TWL: Blood Honey is chock-full of psychological themes such as trauma, suicide, mental illness, repressed memories. Did you do research on these psychological concepts during the writing process?
JK: Yes, one hundred percent! I had a couple of psychologists here in Toronto that I kept showing the script to as we were writing it, to make sure we were in the realm of believability. And to my amazement, they kept coming back with case studies to back up the events occurring within Blood Honey.
TWL: Interesting. I wasn’t sure if most psychological thriller writers/directors consult psychologists, but it seems that they should. Especially since there are so many misconceptions and stereotypes out there about mental illness.
JK: Ultimately our main goal was to make an authentic psychological thriller so that’s why we did it. To be able to send your script to someone who works in psychology is so cool because they come back with the best notes. That’s regardless of whether or not it is a psychological thriller, just from a character-based point of view. I told them that [beyond the psychological themes], I just wanted their notes about whether the characters’ behaviors were believable.
TWL: I think that’s a good point. Psychologists are really good at many aspects of storytelling—things like character development, authentic dialogue and non-verbal mannerism. It’s a skill that we develop so much it’s like a habit and we don’t even realize we are doing it. Because of our training we pay so much attention to what people say and how they respond. I definitely use that aspect of my training when writing my own fiction, but for people who haven’t had psychological training, it just may not come naturally. So it makes sense to seek out a psychologist’s opinion as a consultant.
JK: I agree. Psychologists are an awesome resource and it is something I will continue to do for sure.
TWL: We’ve been talking about your role as writer but let’s switch gears now and talk a bit about your role as director. The bee scene. I feel like you can’t talk about this movie without talking about the bee scene. It definitely was intense watching it unfold on the screen and I can’t imagine what it was like to be there in person. Can you tell me a bit about how you convinced your actor, Gil Bellows, to do that scene?
JK: Yeah, not easily [he laughs]. I flew from Toronto to Montreal to meet Gil for lunch because he was shooting an Amazon series there. We’re sitting there eating oysters and we get to the bee scene. Before I even ask, he says, “I’ll do it…if you do it first.” So I say, “Yeah, let’s do this.” Then he said, “Okay, just promise me I’m not gonna die.” But I got lucky because Gil is pretty close to being a method actor, so he’s pretty intense on set. When the time came [to film the bee scene], he was just game for it.
So there we were, filming on this isolated island twenty minutes from the mainland and we literally boated in these two bee hives. Each hive has about 60,000 bees in it. It was a pretty cool experience.
TWL: Were there any mental preparations that you saw Gil take before doing the scene, to get himself in the right mindset?
JK: Yeah, he definitely went into Zen state. He does a lot of meditation and went into a meditative state just before shooting the scene. Having bees on you like that is a pretty weird feeling. You can feel their little tongues licking your sweat.
TWL: So it sounds like you did try it out yourself?
JK: Yeah, I had a few. Not even close to what he did, though.
TWL: Throughout the film there are times when the viewer doesn’t know whether what they are seeing is real or a memory or a hallucination. As a result, it fits into a recent trend in fiction and film known as the “unreliable narrator,” like Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. I was curious about your opinion. Why do you think modern audiences are so drawn to unreliable narrator stories?
JK: That’s a really good question. I think that maybe it’s because storytelling has continued to evolve. We broke this fourth wall in the last few years in a mainstream way, and I wonder if people are less upset by being tricked by a narrator now. I wonder if an audience would handle it the same way thirty years ago as they do now. So many of these stories with unreliable narrators, like House of Cards, have the narrators breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience. And you know that maybe they’re not being completely honest with you, but that’s in part because they are lying to themselves. So I wonder if that’s opened up a window for writers to do that.
The unreliable narrator is certainly not new, I just think, as you said, there is a recent trend. I also think it is just storytellers trying to find a unique way to tell their stories. This is a tool that is more readily available now.
TWL: So what are you working on now?
JK: I’ve got a lot of scripted television now, which is really fun. I’ve got an ABC series that I developed with Alicia Key’s production company that hopefully will go into production this summer, based on the Freedom Riders. I’ve actually got nine different scripted TV series in varying degrees of development right now.
And I have one feature film left. It is a sexual psychological thriller based in Venice, Italy, during Carnivale.
TWL: So when you write your scripts, do you write them sequentially or do you have to bounce back and forth between different projects?
JK: Every writer figures out their own best method. I’m really top-heavy down so I have a really good idea of what I’m going to write when I actually get down to doing the first draft. I spend a lot of time in development. I spend a lot of time on outlines and beat sheets and story maps and character biographies. I even create character psychologies now. So by the time I get to the first draft, I’ve got a really good idea of what I’m going to be doing and I try to kick it out quite quickly. I’ll write that first draft in one or two goes. And then obviously, you spend years rewriting the thing [he laughs].
How about you, what do you do?
TWL: I do things very similarly. I talked about this in an earlier blog post, but it seems to me that there are two types of writers. There are writers that do almost all of their writing beforehand and then when they get to actually putting it down on paper, the story just spills out. I’m definitely one of those types. I spend months (or years) thinking about it during the day or when I’m falling asleep. So when it comes down to actually doing the writing, it just seems to pour out and happens pretty quickly.
But certainly there is another style of writer that sits at the blank page or screen and writes in their mind while they are writing the physical words down. So it’s interesting to look at those two different styles.
JK: Yeah, I find that most of the accomplished writers I talk to working in novel or screenplay formats seem to be pretty top-heavy. The ones I find really interesting are the ones who are so disciplined. They have to write every day. They force themselves to be at the computer every day at nine a.m. and work until four. I think a lot of novelists do that, which I think is really interesting. But I find that a lot of them are still top-heavy. They have a pretty good map before they go on to write and I think the reason is because it saves you years of redrafts.
I think it is a bit of an amateur thing to just sit down and start writing too early. Because it takes self-discipline not to. It’s really hard for me to sit there knowing I should just wait, get feedback on it, talk to people about it before I dig in. Because once you get into that first draft, it’s so much harder to change.
TWL: So those are my main questions. I have one little fun question I try to end all my interviews with. It’s a mini personality quiz [the five-item NEO-PI for those familiar with personality psychology]. For each pair of descriptions below, just pick the one that you feel best describes or represents you
JK: [Jeff’s responses are underlined]
Note: Jeff’s responses suggest he is high in Extroversion, Consciousness, and Openness to experience and low in Agreeableness and Neuroticism. My guess is a lot of successful film directors have similar personality profiles.
Want to take the personality test yourself? Circle the word that best describes you and then score as follows:
See here to learn more about each of these personality traits.
If you want to craft a story that includes a great villain, chances are that villain is a psychopath. Now, most people rely on the colloquial usage of the term and assume that psychopath = killer, but that’s not necessarily true. Most psychopaths are not murders. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that this fact makes psychopaths harder to spot in a crowd than you might think (hint: he’s usually not the crazy-eyed guy in the black trench coat walking down the abandoned street). Research suggests that 1% of the population meets the criteria for psychopathy. That may not sound like a lot but this means 1 in every 100 people you know is a psychopath. They could be your neighbor, your coworker, your friend, or maybe even your favorite blogger 🙂
With all these psychopaths running around, how do you spot one? Psychologists have been conducting research on just such a question. Information gleaned from such research can greatly benefit writers because it provides us with a clear and accurate portrayal of what psychopaths are truly like. That’s important, because when we think of the word “psychopath,” what usually comes to mind first are commonplace media portrayals of crazed killers. The kind you see in Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But these depictions are a far cry from what actual psychopaths are like.
So how can you make sure your villain is realistic and authentic, especially when most media depictions of psychopaths are so often not?
The answer is simple. To craft a truly authentic psychopath, the writer needs to know what a psychopath looks like in the real world. Lucky for us, others have already done the heavy lifting for us and published extensively on the subject. So let’s look at what the research says.
Although theories of psychopathy may vary, most researchers tend to agree that real-world psychopaths demonstrate a cluster of three personality characteristics. This cluster is referred to as the “Dark Triad” because people who possess these three traits often exhibit malevolent behaviors (e.g., crime, ethical violations, etc.). That means that your villain should possess these traits too. They should be apparent in your villain’s personality, behavior, and motivations.
People high in Machiavellianism are duplicitous, cunning, and manipulative. They place a higher priority than most on power, money and winning. They easily disregard moral and social rules and as a result, lie to others and manipulate them with little to no guilt. Think Gordon Gekko from Wallstreet or Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards.
For people high in this trait, manipulating others is an impulse, much like an alcoholic has an impulse to drink. Sometimes this manipulation is done to achieve a personal gain (e.g., to get a promotion) but other times it is just done for fun or because they can’t stop themselves (e.g., internet trolling). Depending on type, these people’s tools of the trade are deception, guilt, bullying, feigned weakness, or flattery. But whichever they choose, they regularly wield these tools in an attempt to twist the emotions and behaviors of those around them.
Because such people are master manipulators, they are often charming and well-liked, at least on a superficial level. They may feign interest and compassion for a short time, but that façade wears off quickly and it becomes clear they only really care about themselves.
A perfect literary example of this trait is Amy Dunne from Gone Girl [SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie]. Amy Dunne goes to extreme lengths to victimize the men in her life, often because their only sin was not giving her the attention she thought she deserved. Her particular tools of manipulation are sex, lies, guilt, fame, and of course her well-crafted diary. Even we as the readers get duped by Amy’s lies, and it isn’t until midway into the book that we see her for what she really is: a master manipulator.
You know that little voice in your head that tells you to return a found wallet or treat others as you want to be treated? Well people high in psychopathy don’t have that voice, or if they do its volume is turned down very low. As a result, they lack many of the social emotions that normal people take for granted, including guilt, remorse, sympathy, and pity.
It is this lack of a conscience that enables psychopaths to engage in behaviors that normal people may secretly fantasize about but never actually do. When someone hurts us or makes us mad, we may think, “I just want to punch him!” or “I could kill him!” but we would never actually do it. Psychopaths don’t have that brake pedal. Generally speaking, if they want to do it, they’ll do it.
This also hints at another quality associated with psychopathy—low impulse control. People high in psychopathy are quick to violence and aggression, they have many casual sex partners, and they engage in risky or dangerous behaviors. Their mantra is, “Act first, think later.”
Once again, Gillian Flynn crafted an excellent representation of this trait with Amy Dunne. Amy is cold and calculating and almost reptilian-like in her lack of compassion. She seems absent of any sense of right and wrong or empathy for what she puts others through. Instead, she has a calculating, pragmatic nature, regardless of whether she is lying to the police or getting rid of a human obstacle. Through her actions and lack of emotions, the reader finally sees Amy Dunne as a glacial beauty who lacks even a hint of warmth or humanity underneath.
People high in narcissism are self-centered, vain, and have an inflated sense of their qualities and achievements. They see themselves as perfect. Any flaws they may have they refuse to see in themselves and instead project onto those around them. For example, a narcissist who secretly worries she isn’t smart enough will accuse those around her of being dumb as a way to boost her own ego.
Narcissists love compliments, can’t get enough, and lavishly praise anyone who admires or affirms them. The flip side of this coin means they are extremely sensitive to insults and often respond to criticism with seething rage and retribution. They have what psychologists refer to as “unstable self-esteem.” This means they put themselves up on a very high pedestal, but it doesn’t take much to topple them to the ground. What a normal person would perceive as constructive criticism, narcissists see as a declaration of war.
Because of their self-focus, they don’t get along well with others. They have problems sustaining healthy, satisfying relationships and so they tend to seek positions of authority where they can work over, rather than beside, their colleagues. Such authority also helps because narcissists never blame themselves for their problems. It is ALWAYS someone else’s fault (Notice that this blame is a spark that writers can fan into a strong, burning motive for their villain’s behavior).
There are lots of examples of narcissists in popular literature (and many more in historical literature), but in my opinion, one that holds true to this description in a non-obvious and non-stereotypical way is Annie Wilkes from Misery. Annie doesn’t immediately come off as arrogant or boastful (although her claim to be Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan” is our first hint of her inflated sense of self). But as the book unfolds, we are subjected to her constant complaining of the world and those in it. These rants demonstrate that she does see herself as superior. Everyone else is a “lying ol’ dirty birdy” and anyone who falls into this dreaded category is not worthy of sympathy or even basic human dignity. The character of Annie Wilkes is an excellent example of how to incorporate narcissism (or any of these three traits) in a way that is subtle and unique, but still clearly present.
Now let’s put it all together. Keep in mind that just being high in one of these traits doesn’t automatically mean a person is a psychopath. People can be risk-seekers or arrogant and not necessarily engage in malevolent behavior. In fact, some research suggests that real-world heroes share some, but not all, of these traits (perhaps a good topic for a future post!). What matters is the combination of these three traits. Your villain needs to have all three. The perfect storm of egotism, manipulation, and a lack of conscience.
So when it comes to crafting your villain, try to steer clear of the blatant crazed killer trope. Dig deeper and craft a more interesting and believable bad guy or girl. Make your villain a master liar and manipulator. Make them callous towards others and a risk taker. Make them highly arrogant but easily threatened. Make them interesting but also realistic.
Who is your favorite fictional psychopath and why? Share your answer in your comments.