Who are we?
I suspect that I’m not the only writer who has moments when I doubt my ability, when I ask myself what I’m doing and why. When I have these moments, I find some solace in the teachings of two guys: Professor Hayes and Stanley Burnshaw.
Professor Hayes was my sociology professor in college. He had an off-the-wall theory that schizophrenia resulted when parents didn’t allow their children to express themselves openly. His idea was that stifling a child’s conversation, imagination, out-loud play with friends real or imaginary, yells, hoots or shouts somehow damaged that child’s developing personality, resulting in schizophrenia.
This theory was, of course, pure bunk. But while trying to prove it, he discovered something else. Dr Hayes found that each person has a unique pattern of verbal expression. Some, for example, talk a lot in the morning; others don’t utter a sound until after noon. Some people are generally quiet; others talk non-stop. And he found that if people aren’t allowed to adhere to their natural patterns of speaking, they become irritable or depressed—even neurotic. He formed a new theory: that self-expression is an essential human behavior, and that people must follow their natural rhythms of expression or risk depression, irritability and neurosis.
What does this means to writers? Well, if the theory is right, it might quite simply mean that we have to write regularly, according to our own natural rhythms. If we don’t, we might not become schizophrenic, but we will likely get depressed and irritable, if not downright neurotic.
Okay, fine, you might say. So we get depressed when we don’t write. We already knew that.
Stick with me. I’m not done. When I doubt myself as a writer, I also think about a study I worked on in grad school. Hiram Hayden, distinguished professor, publisher and editor, conducted research on creativity. My paper concerned the experience of writing, and it involved interviews with
writers, among them Anthony Burgess, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Elie
Wiesel, William Styron, Vladimir Nabokov and so on. People who wrote often and well. America
These authors wrote detailed descriptions of their writing experiences. And I compared these details to theories of creativity posed by great thinkers like Freud, Jung, Sartre, and (drum roll, please) a man named Stanley Burnshaw. It turned out that, more than any of theories, the authors’ experiences reflected Burnshaw’s.
Burnshaw’s theory was that creativity is an essential physical function of the human body, and that, like other physical functions, it is rhythmic. Just like heartbeat, breathing, eating and excreting, creating needs to follow a regular cycle or the body will suffer, much as it does when it doesn’t exhale or excrete. In other words, not creating will make a person feel creatively constipated.
Burnshaw wasn’t talking specifically about writing. For him, creativity could come in many forms—inventing, acting, playing music, dancing, playing, painting, imagining, singing, etc. It could be physical or conceptual, verbal or non-verbal. But somehow, it had to allow self-expression, and it had to be practiced on a regular and consistent basis.
Which brings us back to Professor Hayes. Both of these men posited that self-expression is necessary to human health, that it’s fundamental. Not a matter of choice. If we don’t create or express, we will suffer the consequences.
For me and other writers, the medium of self-expression is words, and the process of creativity is writing. If you’re a writer, writing is not optional: you must write and write regularly, rhythmically, just as you must eat and sleep and breathe and poop. It’s not so much about language and literature as it is about health, both mental and physical.
For writers, writing is how we keep balanced. Even when we loathe it, dread it or doubt it, it’s a process we abandon at our own peril. What we produce might not always please us, but that we continue producing is essential. Writing is always better than not writing, because writing is not just what we do; physically, fundamentally in our most basic bellowing blithering souls, it’s who we are.
Merry Jones is the author of THE suspense novel THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, as well as the Harper Jennings thrillers (WINTER BREAK, BEHIND THE WALLS, SUMMER SESSION),and the Zoe Hayes mysteries (THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE NANNY MURDERS).
Visit her website for more info about her and her work.
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