Monday 16 August 2010

Creative Writing and Psychology, by Elaine Hatfield

Many doctors have become writers of fiction, perhaps most notably Anton Chekhov, also a good number of philosophers, for instance Jean-Paul Sartre, but what about psychologists? Not so many perhaps, and not so famous in the world of fiction, at least not yet. At OnFiction, we know a few, and we are asking some of them to write posts for us about the relationship of their psychology to their writing of fiction. Anyone who is a psychologist who writes fiction, or a knows of such a person who might be good for us to approach, please get in touch with Keith Oatley (e-mail is in my Profile).

The first psychologist-novelist we have asked to write for us is Elaine Hatfield, a noted social psychologist whose best known work is on love and its social implications. Her first novel was Rosie, about a young psychologist, Rosie St Giles, who has a temporary teaching job at the University of Hawaii. She has a prestigious research grant on love which is singled out by a United States Senator as being a waste of tax-payers' money. Rosie is zippy and unusual as a protagonist, and the novel's other characters are interesting and recognizable. The novel is about the fortunes of Rosie and the US Senator who thinks his ridicule of Rosie's research will be a cheap way of winning votes. Hatfield's style is racy. Her mix of politics, the workings of academe, and sexual goings on (of which there are quite a few) works really well. An excellent read.
Creative Writing and Psychology
I’ve always been interested in creative writing. When I was 12, I was poet laureate of the Detroit Police Gazette—the Truborg. It has all been downhill from there. Nevertheless, when I started a serious creative writing career fifteen years ago, I was surprised to discover that creative writing and academic writing aren’t that far apart.

Firstly, psychologists probably have a head start as creative writers since we are intrigued by character and human foibles.

Secondly, in both careers you do best if you explore the topics that interest you. If you try to please the crowds, you are doomed.

Thirdly, therapists, scientists, and budding creative writers have to have realistic expectations as to the praise they will receive. It is easy to believe that if we are just brilliant enough, work hard enough, do everything right, we will reap the adulation of the crowds. That is expecting way too much. There is an old saying: “When we’re 20, we worry about what people think of us; when we’re 30, we don’t care what they think; by the time we’re 40, we realize they’re probably not thinking of us at all.” I would argue that if you can find a very few colleagues and readers who admire your writing, you should count yourself very lucky. As for the other 99%, I’m afraid we just have to take censure in stride.

In the interests of “truth in advertising,” I thought that I’d share a few of my favorite “awful” letters with you to remind us all what anyone who deals with agents, publishers, and the public can expect—on a good day.
1. Thanks, but this is way too good for us. We publish pointedly tasteless stuff.

2. Thank you so very much for your submission “Holy Guacamole.” Your piece is well crafted, but cannot be used in The Blackstone Circular. Some of my subscribers are rich, while others are working class. They would be offended. Can you send me a positive point of view, either about them or about your own class of people?

3. We sorry fo’ say we nevah choose your submission to Hybolics. But dat no means ees junk. Jus cuz we nevah take yo’r stuff dis time, no sked cuz we kinda moody. Shoots den. Write on, brah.
The point? My suspicion is that, in creative writing and psychology as in life, the prerequisites for “success” are not talent but independence, enthusiasm, endurance, and resilience. That—and a large dose of self-mocking humor. A thick skin might also help. The rewards of a successful career must be intrinsic: the pleasure of saying what you can’t help saying and doing what you can’t help doing. If one casts one’s fate to the adulation of colleagues or the crowds, then—good luck.
Elaine Hatfield

Bookmark and Share


Livia Blackburne said...

Yay for psychologist/writers! I totally agree, Elaine. I think the failures and frustrations of scientific process are actually a good training ground for navigating the frustrations of publishing. I once wrote a blog entry on the importance of not taking criticism personally in both science and writing.

LWP said...

Paul Bloom at Yale has an interest in fiction's relation to psychology, particularly, it seems, as it relates to moral development. Perhaps he'd like to respond.

formerly a wage slave said...

Interesting things here. Nonetheless, I must confess the "c"-word disturbs me. I think Elaine is exactly correct to say that a certain stability is needed to do any writing. That is very much a grubby material matter. If Chekhov as a doctor was able to write the way he did, he probably had material in his patients, but his profession also gave him a needed degree of stability.

It is indeed true that one should never take criticism too personally; but there are all sorts of criticism, and sometimes a critic can be insightful. Sometimes a nasty person might see something a friend wouldn't dare mention. So, it would be an error to treat all criticism as equal. Some of it you should take personally, not that you bask in self-pity or self-hatred, but that you think about it when you are not upset about it. And then again there is pseudo-criticism that is nothing but meanness or an expression of stupidity... The trick is to sort through the garbage and figure out what's worth paying attention to.

I would also worry that if someone were to take the often wise advice "don't take it personally" as a sort of universal rule, it would also prevent us from asking about how our society is organized, and whether decisions about how to allocate resources are not often made for very bad reasons.

If you write something, the process of writing has its rewards. But if you are unread, well, that's not nice. Without wanting fame you can still want to be read. And if someone appreciates what you've done, there's no harm in enjoying awareness of that fact....
Mark L.

no_slappz said...

It may be true that few psychologists write fiction, but there are a few. I think the successful crime writer, Jonathan Kellerman is one, and it would come as no surprise to learn of others who have a psych Phd but never mention it.

Meanwhile, it seems plenty of fiction writers work a psychologist or psychiatrist into their stories.

Keith Oatley said...

I am grateful to you, Livia, Jan B, Mark, and no slappz, for your comments. They are very welcome.

Thanks Livia: I agree with you (and Elaine) that as a writer one does well by not taking criticism personally, or at least not too personally. Personally, however, that's a place I haven't yet reached.

Thanks, Jan, for mentioning Paul Bloom. I do know of him, but I did not know that he's interested in fiction. I'll look that work up.

Thanks, Mark: I agree, it is a mistake to treat all criticism as equal. I find the best kind, the kind that good editors offer, for instance, occurs when the person has entered into the spirit of the writing, and is thinking about what has worked and how it could be done better. The kind of critic who says "I've read this book, and if I had written it, I would have done it entirely differently," isn't very helpful or, I think, very interesting to read as a reviewer.

Thanks no slapps for the suggestion of Jonathan Kellerman as a possible contributor to our series of psychologist-novelists. He does have a PhD in psychology, and I agree it would be good if he were to write something for us. I don't know him or know anyone who knows him, however, and so I feel a bit diffident about trying contact him. Perhaps I'll try to sleuth out his e-mail address.

LWP said...

"Now that the mouse is not alive, does he still love his mother? Does he still like cheese? Does he know he's dead? For these questions the children tended to answer Yes. So they tacitly believe that even though the mouse is not alive anymore, its mental life persists."

See that? It's next to the exact same thing as floating fiction's possibilities way up high, to fly over all the mundane material world.

(Note: the video cuts out before the end, but the transcript continues)

See also his article at

Me, I'd also add the considerations of Howard Bloom. I tend to agree with him that the human organism is not to be properly understood in isolation. (Like, duh. We write because there are readers. All the interesting stuff about us concerns our interactions.) IMO, the fictional, imaginative brain is tightly coupled with its biology, and essential to its biology is its biological placement in a larger social organism-- and biosphere.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Jan, for this new comment. I agree: human life is social life, and the defining characteristic of fiction is not that it's made up, but that it's about our social life.

formerly a wage slave said...

Thanks Keith,
Just two quick things: I began by thinking of a friend who described the late philosopher David Lewis as someone well able to think in terms of views he himself did not hold. But, then I realized that something similar is true of Plato. Historians may doubt whether his portrayals of Protagoras are accurate, but from a literary point of view there's a little parable in the dialogue "the Protagoras" that's quite memorable, and Protagoras was also a focus in the later classic, "The Theaetetus". This isn't now about criticism, but about putting yourself in the shoes of someone you want to criticize. Or as philosophers say: being able to understand their position.

You were pretty specific about helpful criticism. I am afraid my comment was not accurate when I spoke about liking to get a reaction to something I'd written. I regret that I used the word "appreciate". That's too positive. I was thinking of two particular friends/readers who commented on one specific character in something I'd written, talking about the character as if she were flesh-and-blood. Their reactions were unexpected but stimulating. The point was not that they said something positive, but that (to use your words) they entered into the spirit of the thing and they had a very different perspective than my own.

no_slappz said...

The other day while in the Housing Works Used Bookstore and Cafe on Crosby Street in Manhattan, I stumbled over "Fiction and the Unconscious" by Simon Lesser. Published in 1957.

The book includes chapters such as "The Appeals to the Parts of the Psyche" and "Conscious and Unconscious Perception."

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...