Saturday, January 4, 2014

Overcoming Doubt: Psycho-Emotional "Temperature" and the Process of Composition

by Steffanie Triller Fry

In her October 21 post to SNL Writing News, Katie argued that distraction in the writing process is “not a barrier to overcome but a necessary part of the process of overcoming” (Wozniak, Kathryn. “Distractions in the writing process.” Italics in original). She argued that our brains, bodies, and spirit all want this distraction in order to get us unstuck as writers.
            This post fell on the heels of the SNL Month of Writing Challenge, a month-long effort to encourage writers to overcome distraction and produce as many words as possible. The idea is that a month of writing will encourage us to understand that we can write, and that the more writing that we do, the more good writing we will do.
            On November 26, Kamilah Cummings posted on “Lessons in Failure,” arguing that perhaps one of the best ways to succeed is to readjust our goals. As she reflects on the challenges that adult learners face when balancing their personal, professional, and academic lives, Cummings thinks about the “psychological impact” of teacher expectations and adult students’ struggle to meet these expectations (Cummings “Lessons in Failure.”)  
            In addition to the impact of Katie’s distraction and Cummings’ expectations, I think that when writing, we also experience a significant amount of doubt. I see this regularly in both myself, my fellow writers, and in my students. As an adult student in a graduate program in creative writing, doubt is something that I think about, experience, and attempt to overcome constantly. And, in answer to my prayers, one of my own professors actually addressed this issue in one of my second semester courses. In her seminar “Rich Porridge and Thick Mud,” A.J. Verdelle shared with us the ideas of a little-known text by Kenneth Payson Kempton, The Short Story. In this text, Kempton presents the chronology of composition from the perspective of the psycho-emotional temperature of the writer. Below, I have reproduced his T-Scale as Verdelle presented it to our class:

On this graph, despair through ecstasy represent the psycho-emotional temperature of the writer. A is the point at which composition begins. Note that the temperature (T) here hovers between apathy and assurance: the writer is confident enough in his or her topic to begin. T then rises steadily, the degree depending on the writer. B is the point at which the writer begins to react to his or her composition, perhaps after the first draft is complete. Here T drops, usually well below normal (normal being defined as A). Kempton posits that close to C, somewhere between apathy and despair, is where much good work has been finished.
            This would mean that most great writers – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, King, Morrison, etc, likely finished their great works in despair! Or, at least, even when their manuscripts were published, they still harbored doubt about their composition. When this scale was first presented to me, I felt a kind of familiarity, kinship, acknowledgment. I felt better about the way that I feel when it comes to writing.
            But, after Katie and Cummings’ posts, I revisited Kempton’s ideas. And, of course, something seemed to be missing from his theory of psycho-emotional temperature of the writer. So, I drew up my own graph, thinking in particular of adult students, myself included. I imagined a psycho-emotional temperature of the writer that begins at a stage before the A in the chart above. My adaptation of Kempton’s graph is below:

What I have noticed, from working with writers during the SNL Month of Writing Challenge, reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and experiencing my own life as a writer, and the commonality that I notice in Cummings’ expectation and Katie’s distraction, is that all of this “psychological noise” comes before the actual writing. Yet, Kempton’s chronology of composition begins with the writing. So, my modified graph acknowledges that most of us begin somewhere between apathy and despair, and actually have to bring ourselves from my A-prime to Kempton’s A before we can even begin. If we can learn to overcome the distance between A’ and A, that is where the real work of writing is done. Perhaps, if we consider Kempton’s idea that most great work is achieved at C, then we can begin to understand and accept doubt as part of the entire writing process – beginning and end.

Works Cited

Cummings “Lessons in Failure.” Weblog entry. SNL Writing News. November 26, 2013. January 4, 2014

Kempton, Kenneth Payson. The Short Story. Harvard University Press, 1947. Print.

Verdelle, A.J. “Rich Porridge and Thick Mud.” Lesley University MFA June Residency. Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. June 2013. Seminar.

Wozniak, Kathryn. “Distractions in the writing process.” Weblog entry. SNL Writing News. October 21, 2013. January 4, 2014  

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