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sunandshadow
05-18-2009, 02:43 AM
I just read The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty, which spends some time discussing compulsive writing and speaking and how they might be give us insights into writer's block. This thread, though, is not about what the book mentioned, it's about what the book left out: reticence, communication avoidance or aversion, avoidant personality disorder, and social anxiety.


Reticence is a communication problem with cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions and is due to the belief that one is better off remaining silent than risking appearing foolish (Keaten & Kelly 2000). Reticent individuals tend to avoid communication in social and public contexts, particularly novel situations that have the potential for negative evaluation. [...] Reticent individuals view themselves as incompetent communicators, and measured against norms about appropriate levels of talkativeness in social situations (→ Social Norms), they tend to fall short. Reticence is typified by a set of faulty beliefs about communication, such as that good communicators speak spontaneously and one must be born with good communication skills. The adoption of this set of beliefs creates anxiety and feelings of helplessness.


I'd like to modify the last few sentences a bit. While reticent individuals may view themselves as incompetent communicators, people with writer's block are more likely to view themselves as being boring communicators or having noting of importance to say or having nothing to say that other people want to read.

Ms. Flaherty writes about her own experiences with hypergraphia and depression; my own brush with mental illness went in the direction of social and communication avoidance instead. In college, living on a nearly-deserted college campus in summer and becoming increasingly distressed by the knowledge that I was failing a Latin class I needed for graduation, I was overcome by the compulsion to hide in my room. I dreaded speaking to anyone, and unplugged my phone because I feared people would call me.

I slowly recovered from this over the next year or two, including returning to the same campus for another summer intensive language class, in spanish this time. I suffered from anxiety throughout the class but ended up getting an A in it and graduating, an accomplishment that helped abate my anxiety. After a few more years I also stopped having nightmares about school. But, my personality was permanently altered by that year of college; since that point I've been more averse to speaking, more aware of my silences, more aware that other people are not particularly enthusiastic or appreciative when I do open my mouth.

I see this issue from the other side too - most story ideas are not for stories I would be interested in reading. It's completely logical that most people would be disinterested in reading anything I have to write. Conversely, if they aren't interested in my thoughts, I have no motivation to value them as an audience or desire to communicate with them. When I do write, I write slowly and often have to tell myself it doesn't matter if I think of exactly the right word or grammatical construction, nothing is really accomplished by spending 2 hours pondering over it. I have a perpetual fear of criticism, ironically moderated by my knowledge that most people don't care what I say or how I say it, and most of them aren't worth me caring about their opinions.

Unfortunately I haven't run across any information about how avoidance and reticence are expressed in altered brain chemicals or activity, as Midnight Disease describes for the disorders associated with hypergraphia and pressured speech. But it certainly seems to me than an aversion to communicating like I've observed in myself is the true opposite of the urge to communicate to a mass audience via publishing fiction.

So, I guess I've finally gotten to the philosophical question which was the reason I thought this was the most appropriate forum for this thread. The question is pretty simple: why write fiction? I'm relatively happy with my story ideas just floating around in my head, so why should I put myself through the agonies of nailing them down on paper? Given the statistical fact that most people have no interest in seeing the average story idea developed and published, why does anyone want to create novels and send them out into the world? And one more, given that readers of fiction rarely communicate any of their thoughts about particular pieces back to the writer, isn't writing fiction a totally disfunctional way of trying to communicate to people?

Higgins
05-18-2009, 05:05 PM
I And one more, given that readers of fiction rarely communicate any of their thoughts about particular pieces back to the writer, isn't writing fiction a totally disfunctional way of trying to communicate to people?

Communication isn't necessarily about successful communication. Or to put it another way, given a signal system of reasonable complexity (including for example, roles and responsibilities, signals of acknowlegment and so on), sending the wrong signal may be the most logical solution to a given problem. So to give a simple and bad example, during the 1982 War in the South Atlantic, Admiral Woodward sent an attack signal to a submarine over which he had no authority via a channel he was not authorized to use. The Submarine didn't get the message (it was taken off the satellite queue by higher authority), but the RN high command changed the orders to the submarine. So a totally dysfunctional signal worked fine in that case, at least for Woodward and the RN.
Note that the signal itself has a story and is based on several layers of fictive or at least arbitrary circumstances that have nothing directly to do with communication:
1) satellite procedures
2) exclusion zones
3) state of war (not really grasped by the eventual target, which was not at battle stations)
4) "authority" in general (which while supervising events eventually allowed the submarine to attack anyway)...

Simpler facts such as how submarines communicate don't necessarily have a direct bearing on the story of a particular communication event....if in fact there is one such event that can be isolated (ie, if we take just part of a communication event, it can look like a non-communication, but if we look at the structure around it, it can be seen as functional). For example what is the actual communication event in the signal Admiral Woodward was not authorized to make? the bad signal that triggers a good signal? The good signal? or the whole story?

Some details:

http://www.strategypage.com/militaryforums/8-4239.aspx

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARA_General_Belgrano

claire
05-18-2009, 05:21 PM
I think for people who are compelled to write (and oftentimes seek publication) it's not so much about communication as it is self-expression. The act of writing (even if it's fiction) is part of how those individuals make sense of the world.

I don't get hung up over whether to keep writing or not in spite of not yet publishing - because for me there's no question. I'll keep writing no matter what happens. It's integral to my personality.

You're right - if communication is the ultimate goal, there are much easier ways than writing a book and getting it published.

sunandshadow
05-19-2009, 04:42 AM
I think for people who are compelled to write (and oftentimes seek publication) it's not so much about communication as it is self-expression. The act of writing (even if it's fiction) is part of how those individuals make sense of the world.

Is self-expression about making sense of the world? I decided a while ago that the world just doesn't make sense. But I have the urge to portray 'the world as it ought to work' which I suppose is a different way of making sense of it.

sunandshadow
05-19-2009, 04:43 AM
I like the submarine story. :D I'm not sure it really applies to writing fiction but, it's an awesome story.

Manix
05-19-2009, 04:47 AM
...isn't writing fiction a totally disfunctional way of trying to communicate to people?

Well, dysfunction runs deep in my veins, so I guess I'll keep on writing. It's the only cure I've found for depression. Catch 22...?

Higgins
05-19-2009, 04:27 PM
I like the submarine story. :D I'm not sure it really applies to writing fiction but, it's an awesome story.

I was applying it more to how fiction might not seem to communicate (ie it seems to be dysfunctional), but that sometimes dysfunctional communications are useful.

Another aspect of communication that applies to fiction is deception, ie, something is communicated that is not related to some simpler standard of interpretation in the expected direct way that communications are supposed to work (but often don't). One that people seem to like is the harmless insect that has the coloration of a poisonous insect. In the realm of simple communication poisonous colors mean a poisonous insect. As deception, poisonous colors send the poisonous signal from a harmless insect. The poisonous nature of the harmless insect is a fiction. It works well as fiction, but not as communication.

Ruv Draba
05-20-2009, 09:21 AM
I'm an enormously prolific writer who writes hardly at all. The amount of fiction I could write but don't approaches Asimovian proportions.

I don't have a compulsion to write, y'see. I have a compulsion to think, speculate, analyse and understand. But once I understand stuff (or feel that I do), communicating it is secondary. I'll happily put in the effort if the audience is worth it -- i.e. interested in the topic and capable of understanding without too much hand-holding. If they're not (or more accurately if I can't easily make the material accessible and interesting to other folks), I won't bother.

This sort of attitude isn't a mental dysfunction; it's just typical of people of my personality-type. While public speaking used to make me sweat bullets, I had to learn for my occupation and now I'm relaxed about it -- even quite decent at it. While making small-talk with strangers rates about as highly for me as digging my eye out with a parfait-spoon, I can do it and even make it enjoyable, because my job required that I learn how.

It would have been easy to see my aversions as dysfunctional, and cement them into outright phobias by slathering on various traumatic experiences (all the cringe-worthy times that I screwed up in public speaking, or got tongue-tied in small-talk, or blurted something I later regretted). But that's a choice -- you can turn your aversion into a taboo, or you can accept that it's just a strong preference, that your past traumas are unimportant to anyone but you, and work around them.

My attraction to fiction is that readers evaluate it differently to non-fiction. Fiction engages both emotional and rational centres. It doesn't adhere to fact and therefore allows for speculation. It's often more entertaining than non-fiction and therefore can attract more readership and more thought. On the other hand, non-fiction is safe and easy for me to write -- my analytic brain jut takes over. Fiction is risky and hard -- I need to drill through mental walls to find my emotional centres; get my rational centres the equivalent of sloppy drunk and up for anything; then I somehow have to produce sense and satisfaction that reaches other readers. :) Fiction-writing is hard for me -- that's partly why I do it.

When I want to increase my fiction output I have to a) make a commitment to communicate more, b) lower my standards for what I'll deign to write about, c) be more tolerant of reader tastes, and d) be willing to entertain and not get too serious. When I deliver on that, I write more -- and perhaps write better. When I don't then I don't and I'd be stupid to blame myself for not getting more productivity while embracing a behaviour that doesn't produce much.

It certainly helps to get encouragement from readers, but one can't rely on such an emotional bread-crumb trail to keep writing. Ultimately it's your own faith, courage, inspiration and commitment that completes the work. Readers can only support that -- they can't build it for you.

I feel that 'writer's block' (whatever that is) is shaped by all the above. Writers can be rather precious, and their lack of deadlines/managers/accountability can lead them into bad habits. They need to get used to doing stuff they don't feel like doing, and thinking in ways they don't like thinking. It's simple as that. (I like James N. Frey's analogy of brick-layers getting 'brickies block'.)

It's possible to make aversions sacred by over-analysing them, by re-defining the world in terms of the aversion, by justifying current behaviour instead of challenging it. One can be a nervous wreck and do a great job, or be utterly relaxed and screw up enormously. I can't help but feel that the more self-help books and psychoanalytic theory that's written about writer's block, the more of it there'll be.

Higgins
05-20-2009, 04:45 PM
This thread, though, is not about what the book mentioned, it's about what the book left out: reticence, communication avoidance or aversion, avoidant personality disorder, and social anxiety.



It's possible to make aversions sacred by over-analysing them, by re-defining the world in terms of the aversion, by justifying current behaviour instead of challenging it. One can be a nervous wreck and do a great job, or be utterly relaxed and screw up enormously. I can't help but feel that the more self-help books and psychoanalytic theory that's written about writer's block, the more of it there'll be.

I've written a lot of fiction and a lot of it has been read and some of it has been published. On the other hand I'm certainly not a successful fiction writer, so perhaps my advice is of dubious value. Yet I think there are some things to ponder about communication and fiction and dysfunction:

1) Dysfunctionality isn't inherent in any one part of a communication -- it has to be considered in a larger context
2) Fiction isn't just about stories and communication, it is also about a writer (or several writers) engagement with the work or the project and the readers' engagement with the work. Engagement is not the same as communication. I've puzzled over quite a few works that don't work in any way as communicaton and are quite dysfunctional, but they still absorbed me and I learned a lot from them.

Hmmm....I'm stopping here arbitrarily as I puzzle over something else.

claire
05-20-2009, 05:54 PM
Is self-expression about making sense of the world? I decided a while ago that the world just doesn't make sense. But I have the urge to portray 'the world as it ought to work' which I suppose is a different way of making sense of it.


Yes, exactly.

Interesting thread, thanks for starting it!