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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]
- Enthusiastic or Reserved?
- Critical or Sympathetic?
- Self-disciplined or Disorganized?
- Anxious or Calm?
- Conventional or Creative?
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:
- Enthusiastic = High Extroversion; Reserved = Low Extroversion
- Critical = Low Agreeableness; Sympathetic = High Agreeableness
- Self-disciplined = High Conscientiousness; Disorganized = Low Conscientiousness
- Anxious = High Neuroticism; Calm = Low Neuroticism
- Conventional = Low Openness to Experience; Creative = Openness to Experience
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.
Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on how creativity emerges from combinations.
Successful authors often get their ideas for a new story because they automatically ask, “What if?” throughout their day. On his website, Stephen King states this in regards to the all-important “Where do you get your ideas” question:
“What all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’ ‘What if’ is always the key question”
To see this “What if?” process in action in King’s work, here are a few examples:
What if a political assassin was psychic and in actuality he was trying to save the world from evil? Hello, The Dead Zone
What if a dog got rabies and terrorized a family? Come join the party, Cujo.
What if a writer was kidnapped by his number one fan? Nice to meet you, Misery.
Why do “what-if” questions work so well? The answer is that, as King noted above, they often combine two ideas or concepts in a unique way. And scientists are in general agreement with this idea that creativity comes from combinations. In fact, such combinations are thought to occur on a neural level, with patterns of neuron activation combining in novel ways. Neuroscientists call this combination “convolution”, but an easier way to think of it is to use the metaphor of braiding (you know from my earlier post that I love me some metaphors!). Braiding takes individual strands and twists them together to produce a single plait, which can then be twisted with other plaits to form even stronger ropes and cables. Similarly, creative thinking involves taking neural activity in the brain related to one concept (the family dog) and twisting it with activity related to another concept (rabies).
The nice thing about thinking of creativity as combinations is that it takes the pressure off. As a writer, you don’t need to come up with a completely new idea. As Mark Twain famously stated:
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
So stop pressuring yourself to come up with a totally new story idea. Instead, think about how you can combine already known things in unique and non-obvious ways.
Of course not all combinations are good. Peanut butter and jelly is tasty, but peanut butter and sardines? Not so much. So asking the what-if question doesn’t guarantee the answer will be good every time. Neil Gaimen once joked in an interview about the idea, “Everybody knows that if you get bitten by a werewolf when the moon is full, you will turn into a wolf…There’s that moment when you’re sitting and thinking, ‘So what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?’” Chances are, there is a good reason Gaimen has never actually written that story.
In the end, you’ll have to judge which answers make it through the sifter and which deserve to fall through. But the more times you ask “What if”, the more creative ore you’ll have to sort through.
To institute this technique, train yourself to as what-if questions throughout the day. Better yet, consider combing this with the other tips mentioned in my earlier posts this week. Ask “what-if” while you’re outside talking a walk or just before you fall asleep. But keep in mind, when your unconscious mind begins answering this question, it will likely come as a whisper (especially for writing novices). So be ready and listen carefully once your inner mule starts talking.
Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on the benefits of the great outdoors.
I believe that nature is hands down one of the best cures for the constipated writer. And I’m not the only one. Stephen King, for example, states he walked four miles every day (at least until a freak accident stopped him). And many writers, like Joyce Carol Oates and Malcolm Gladwell, are lifelong outdoor runners. They don’t just run to boost their physical health, they run to boost their writer mind as well:
“The structural problems I set for myself in writing,” Oates says, “in a long, snarled, frustrating, and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.”
Gladwell echoes this sentiment: “I free-associate [while running]. I suspect a lot of useful thinking is going on a subconscious level. I do not run with music, so I am completely unencumbered when I run.”
For me, nature is my daily writing room. Rather than writing in an office or a coffee shop, I spend most of the year seated on the back porch with my computer in my lap. When it’s spring, I sit under the eaves, enjoying the sound of the rain or the rustle of the breeze through the budding leaves. When its summer, I drag my chair out into the sunshine. When Autumn comes, I bundle up with a blanket and a mug of hot cocoa. And when winter finally arrives and forces me inside, I pick a spot by the window and listen to nature sounds as I write.
Yes, writing outside has its drawbacks. The fickle weather. The screen glare. The neighbor mowing his lawn. The occasional chatter of noisy squirrels and buzzing of bees. But I find it is far easier to get distracted when I’m inside the house and surrounding by chores and people and technological intrusions that want to lure me away from the world unfolding on the page. I also know that the fresh air and sun and limitless sky above gets my inner mule working overtime.
Of course, writing outside doesn’t work for everyone (but here are some great suggestions on how to do it right). If you just can’t make the move, go for a run after you’ve finished your writing for the day or even just a short walk to combat your writer’s block.
It seems writers like King and Gladwell know something that scientists are just discovering. That exposure to nature greatly improves cognitive functioning and creativity. For example, in one study participants took a walk in a tree-lined arboretum or in a building-lined downtown area. Those who took did the nature walk performed better on a cognitive task than those who did a city walk. Another study found a nature hike boosted creativity by 50%! But what if you can’t get out in nature? Fear not. One study found that just viewing images of nature boosted brain power.
So why is nature so beneficial? One reason is that nature acts like a reboot for the overloaded brain. Modern life is constantly bombarding our mind with information and distractions. This makes it nearly impossible to hear the creative whispers of our inner mule over such mental noise. By removing these distractions, our mind is freed to wander, leading us on exciting new journeys across undiscovered paths.
Another less obvious reason is that being in the open air unconsciously stimulates our mind to think more openly as well. In a fascinating series of studies, researchers Meyers-Levy and Zhu examined how ceiling height influences the way our minds work. In their studies, participants completed tasks in an identical room. The only difference is that for some of them, the false ceiling was lowered to a clearance of 8 ft. For the others, the ceiling was raised as high up to the maximum 10 ft. Their results showed that low ceilings unconsciously activate thoughts of confinement, which causes the brain to think in analytic, concrete ways. Conversely, high ceilings unconsciously activate thoughts of freedom, which causes the brain to think in the abstract and to consider how things are related and integrated. Nature, of course, has no ceiling. So by being out in the open air, it may prime your mind to “think outside of the box” and “shoot for the stars”.
Lastly, keep in mind that nature has benefits that go far beyond just creativity. Research shows that it also reduces stress, increases happiness and vitality, and makes you a more generous and helpful person. So go already! Get outside and take a walk!
Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas!
Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Yesterday’s post suggested night dreaming is good for boosting creativity, but so is daydreaming. The more technical term for this childlike experience is “mind wandering,” which refers to times when your mind strays from your current situation in favor of unrelated thoughts. So just like dreaming, mind wandering occurs because your inner rider is relaxing its reigns and letting your inner mule decide your destination.
Mind wandering is incredibly common—one study found it consumed 47% of our waking hours—and happens during nearly every activity (interestingly, sex was the activity least likely to involve mind wandering). Studies on mind wandering mimic that of the sleep research mentioned above. When people are given a problem to solve and then given a break in which their mind could wander, they were more likely to solve the problem creatively. However, these studies suggest that mind wandering doesn’t boost creativity in general, so you need to be thinking about the problem you are trying to solve before the mind wandering occurs.
Given that our mind wanders so often anyway, it may seem that you don’t even need to encourage it. But remember that mind wandering is only beneficial when it occurs during that time when your mind is trying to solve the solution. So its good to learn some mind-wandering techniques so you can use this procedure strategically.
One way to relax your inner rider’s hold on your mind is to generate ideas during your non-optimal time of day. This means that if you are a morning person, consider thinking about ideas in the evening. And if you are a night owl, try mulling your ideas over your morning cup of coffee. This advice seems counterintuitive—we usually think our brain works better during optimal times when it is most alert—but research shows this isn’t always the case. Although analytical thinking (e.g., math problems) may be better during people’s optimal times, research shows creativity is higher during people’s non-optimal times.
Another, perhaps less advisable way, to relax your inner rider is through alcohol. For as long as writers and artists have been around, they’ve been using alcohol (or other mind altering substances) to uncork their muse. From Beethoven and Picasso to Twain, Hemingway and Poe—the list goes on and on (and on). Stephen King admits his drinking got so bad during the 1980’s that he doesn’t even remember writing Cujo. And he admits that his book The Shining may have been his unconscious’ mind telling him he was an alcoholic father long before his conscious mind was willing to admit it (suggesting your inner mule may sometimes act like a real ass, but it often knows more about yourself than you do!). So a word of advice here, it is one thing to use a small amount of alcohol to boost creativity. It is another matter entirely to succumb to alcoholism. So how much is enough? A research study found that a to 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).
Perhaps the healthiest way to increase mind-wandering is through mindfulness meditation (specifically the type called “open-monitoring meditation”). In mindfulness mediation, you first focus on opening your breath, then opening your mind to allow any thoughts of sensations to occur. The key is that these thoughts are allowed to pass through your mind without judgment, like clouds floating across the sky (for an excellent beginner’s tutorial by Sharon Salzberg, check out this video). A study conducted in the Netherlands found that one 45-minute session of open-monitoring meditation increased the number of creative responses given by 40%, and it increased the originality of those responses by 400%! Plus, meditation has all sorts of other benefits for both your mind and body, so why not kill two birds with one stone?
Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas!
In the third post for my “The Writer’s Laboratory” series, I suggested that writer’s often get their ideas from their unconscious mind rather than their conscious mind. To illustrate these two mental systems, I used the analogy of a tourist riding a mule down into the Grand Canyon. In that analogy, I referred to the writer’s unconscious mind as their “inner mule” and their conscious mind as their “inner rider”.
In that post, I suggested that writers hate answering the question, “Where do you get your ideas” because in truth they don’t really know. Their ideas often come to them when their inner rider is asleep or bored, allowing their inner mule to speak up.
“You get ideas from daydreaming,” Neil Gaimen once told his seven-year-old daughter’s class when they asked him the infamous question. “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.”
So it’s not that successful writers have more creative ideas than the rest of us. They just do a better job of listening to their inner mule when it starts talking. But what do you do if your inner mule just isn’t cooperating? Each day this week I will post a new tip (based on psychological science research of course!) that should spur your inner mule into action. And keep in mind these tips are not just limited to generating creative writing ideas, they help spur creativity for any kind of endeavor.
Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on sleep. It seems counterintuitive but the best way to get your mind working may be to put it to sleep. Lots of scientists have discussed how some of their best ideas came to them either in a dream or upon waking. Thomas Edison, for instance, would nap with steel balls in his hands held over a metal pan so that when he dropped them, presumably because he was dreaming up some juicy solution, he’d awaken with new and creative answers to his problems.
Lots of writers have also mentioned how sleep has helped their creative process. For example, Stephen King tells a great story in On Writing about how he fell asleep on long plane flight from New York to London and had a terrifying dream about a famous writer who is captured and held hostage by a psychotic fan. When he awoke from the dream, he could still hear the crazed fan’s dialogue in his head so he jotted it down on an airline cocktail napkin. That snippet of an idea would go on to be Misery, one of King’s best novels.
Similarly, 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.”
Lots of research backs up the idea that sleep boosts creativity. For example, in one study by Wagner and colleagues, participants were given a challenging and time-consuming number task. However, what the participants didn’t know was that there was a hidden secret strategy built into the task and if they figured it out, it would greatly speed up their progress. All participants were introduced to the task and them some were allowed eight hours of sleep while others were kept awake. After the eight hours had passed, participants resumed working on the task. The results showed that 60% of the sleep group discovered the hidden strategy compared to only 23% of the wake group.
According to these researchers, sleep allowed the participants’ brains to mentally restructure the information learned, resulting in new and insightful responses. To put it another way, when you learn something new and then immediately sleep on it, what you learned becomes clearer and more creative.
Don’t got time for a solid eight hours of sleep? No problem. Research shows similar creativity benefits occur for mid-day naps too. In fact, this study found a 60-90 minute mid-day nap was more effective in boosting brain performance than 200 mg of caffeine (which is equivalent to 2 shots of espresso)!
I mentioned in my prior post that I write stories in my mind long before I put anything down on paper. Most of my “mind writing” occurs just as I’m trying to fall asleep or just as I’m waking up (and sometimes, like Stephen King, a snippet of the story comes to me in dreams. So if you find yourself stuck on stale ideas or trying to work through some problem in your writing, try to thinking about the problem just before you fall asleep. One study found that when people did this, half of them dreamed about the problem and for 70% of them, their dream included a novel solution to their problem.
Just make sure that if you follow this advice, you keep a notepad or journal by your bed. That way if your inner mule starts chattering in the middle of the night, you can write down your creative ideas and then hopefully go back to sleep!
Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas!
I was recently honored to receive an interview request by Psych2Go to discuss my sexism research in light of the #MeToo campaign and to also outline how my blog merges psychological science with creative writing.
Sexual Harassment, Social Norms and Creative Writing: An Interview with Melissa Burkley, Ph.D.
Melissa Burkley offers her perspective on the #MeToo campaign, the sexual harassment/assault epidemic and how creative writers can use academic theories to their advantage.
Check out the interview here.
Where do writers get their ideas?
This is the question writers are asked the most. And it is the one they enjoy answering the least. According to acclaimed author Neil Gaimen, getting asked this question is the primary pitfall of being a writer.
“Doctors, for example, are always being asked for free medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting a profession that must be and then people change the subject fast. And writers are asked where we get our ideas from.”
So why do writers hate answering this question? Because the truth is, they don’t have a clue where their ideas come from.
Gaimen admits this outright: “I don’t know myself where the ideas really come from, what makes them come, or whether one day they’ll stop.”
So too does Stephen King, stating in a Q&A, “I can tell you about fifty percent of the time where I got the idea. And the rest of it is totally like getting an idea in a dream and I can’t really remember where they came from.”
But a shrug of the shoulders and a “I don’t know” is the last thing the person doing the questioning wants to hear. So writers learn to make up answers.
“In the beginning,” Gaimen says, “I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: ‘From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ I’d say, or ‘From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,’ ‘From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement’.”
So how is it that people who make their living from writing can’t tell us where their story ideas truly come from? I think the reason has to do with the fact that the human mind is what psychologists call a “dual-process system.”
Psychologists have long held that the mind has two major systems: controlled (conscious) and automatic (unconscious). Here is an excerpt from my textbook entitled Motivation Science (co-authored with my husband), that describes these two systems:
The controlled system is the part of our mind that we are consciously aware of and is within our control. People generally assume they are aware of everything that happens in their own mind, but in fact, they are really only aware of this controlled aspect. When you are trying to make a conscious decision (e.g., Should I eat the brownie or the apple?) it is your controlled system that weighs the pros and cons and ultimately decides which food item to eat.
The automatic system occurs outside of our conscious awareness and essentially is the part of our mind that handles all the dirty work in order to make our lives easier. It scans all the sounds and sights and smells that constantly bombard your brain, interprets and organizes the information, then decides if it should be discarded or if deeper processing is in order. Without it, our brains would have to process each piece of information one by one. (Note: If you want to learn about the automatic mind in greater detail, see Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink”)
One system is not any better than the other. Rather both systems are necessary and they work in tandem. For example, when you are talking to friends at a large gathering, your unconscious brain is processing all the other information in the room (sights, sounds, smells) so that your conscious brain can focus on what your friends are saying. Don’t believe it? Just wait until someone across the room mentions your name. Now how did you hear that if you weren’t actually listening to everyone else’s conversations? It’s because your unconscious mind was doing that for you, hearing and filtering it all out. But when it heard your name, it knocked on your conscious mind’s shoulder and said, “Hey, they said our name. This is important. Better attend to it.” For obvious reasons, psychologists call this interesting phenomenon the “cocktail party effect.”
To get a better sense of how these two minds work together, here is an analogy I used in the textbook:
Every year, nearly 5 million people travel to Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon, and for those who want to make the trip down to the bottom, there are two choices:
1.Do the 24-mile round trip hike on foot. Take it from our personal experience—this choice is rough, especially since it is much easier hiking down the canyon than it is going back up!
2.Take a mule ride down. Although this second option is less strenuous because it requires less footwork on your part, it is not without its dangers. The mules walk the steep, hazardous trek on the outer edge of the trail, their hooves just inches away from the rocky cliffs. Often, just as the mule takes a step, its hoof will slide on a lose rock, threatening to dump the animal and its rider off the treacherously high perch. In those tense moments, riders often try to take control of the animal to steer it away from the edge, but despite their effort, the mule refuses to obey.
People who select the second option often ask why the canyon relies on mules rather than horses. The reason is that a horse generally does what the rider wants to do, but a mule does what it wants to do. The stubborn nature of mules may sound like a negative trait, but miners in the 1800’s quickly learned that mules were better able to navigate the canyon’s treacherous trails because mules were more interested in preserving their own hide than listening to the sometimes poor instructions of their riders.
In this analogy, the stubborn mule is the unconscious mind and the rider is the conscious mind. The fact that most writers are unable to articulate exactly where their ideas come from suggests their ideas come from their unconscious mind. Maybe it was a dream they had or a story they saw on the news or a book they were reading that fired up the engine. Whatever the cause, it sparked a creative idea in their inner mule and suddenly they were off to the races.
For me personally, I do a lot of my writing in my mind so that by the time I sit down to my computer, the heavy lifting is already complete. Most of my “mind writing” occurs during those ten minutes at night while I am lying in bed trying to fall asleep or the ten minutes in the morning where I’m just starting to wake up. (Occasionally a story idea or snippet of dialogue rises up in the middle of the night as I’m rolling over or trudging to the bathroom—that is the worst!). As you can see, my “mind writing” tends to occur at times when my conscious brain is only half awake, allowing me to better hear the quiet voice of my unconscious mind.
Recognizing that ideas don’t just get consciously invented out of thin air is inspiring. Because we all daydream or get bored and find our mind wandering throughout our day. The only difference is that writers have trained themselves to listen to their inner mule rather than ignore it.
This recognition also offers a solution for the dreaded “writer’s block.” I find that when this pestilence strikes, it’s because I’m relying too hard on my conscious mind to twist the story into what I want it to say and my mule-like unconscious is refusing to go along. Which is why if you find yourself struck with writer’s block, it may be best to just hand the reigns off to your unconscious brain. Step away from the task at hand for a moment and try something else to get in touch with your unconscious mind. Go outside for some fresh air. Do a fun writer’s prompt. Start on a new project (preferably a short one, maybe a 500-word micro story) to get the creative juices flowing again. Then, when you’re ready to return to the target project, don’t force it. Relax the reigns and allow your inner mule to dictate where you should proceed. Chances are if you let it, your mule will take you in new and exciting directions.
Of course, once your mule comes up with an idea, your inner rider—or should I say inner “writer” 🙂 —has to step up to get words on the page. My unconscious mind may whisper ideas to me but then it’s up to my conscious mind to translate these ideas and images and voices into coherent sentences and believable dialogue and vivid metaphors.
Hopefully knowing that writers’ ideas often start from unconscious sources will help you tap into your creative side a bit. But what do you do when your mule is just refusing to budge? Are there things you can do to spur your creative mule into action? Yes, and that is exactly what my next blog post will address!