Category Archives: Writing

On Being or Becoming a Writer (Again)

While I was taking notes on Mary Pipher’s “Writing to Change the World” book, a bug flew in my eye. It was at the precise moment I was typing the following quotation: “When we equivocate we lose an opportunity to build our identities as writers. If you are not doing it already, I advise you to learn to say you are a writer” (p. 76).

Shall I really say “I am a writer!” even if it doesn’t feel quite right?

Or should I be more honest and describe the complete situation by saying, “I am a writer who is trying to write, but I have a bug that just flew in my eye and that’s making it more difficult than it might otherwise be.”

Didn’t someone once say that honesty is the best policy? And isn’t there a story about George Washington honestly confessing that he chopped down a cherry tree that he had no particular business chopping down. Of course that story is a lie and as it turns out Betsy Ross didn’t really sew the first American flag, but she had some fairly effective promotional people who either thought she did or decided to lie on her behalf.

What if I just tell a microscopic white lie to myself? Is that a problem?

Or maybe I just need an agent who will lie willy-nilly on my behalf? I’ve sort of always wanted somebody who would do something will-nilly just for me.

After all, honesty will only take you so far and the only advice my father gave me about being married was that “You don’t have to always tell your wife EVERYTHING you’re thinking.” That’s good advice, except that it contradicts with what Carl Rogers said about maintaining a transparent relationship and how he learned the most from being completely honest with his wife about the things that were most difficult to talk about.

Wouldn’t it be true, however (this, I understand, is how attorneys like to begin questioning the person who has just taken the stand), that lying destroys relationships and can take you to prison where you might share a cell with Piper Kerman. Then again, she wrote a book (Orange is the New Black) that got made into a television show and that’s pretty cool.

It’s very difficult to find clean and straight answers upon which everyone agrees. I’ve noticed this and thought I should honestly articulate this observation.

When I’m doing counseling with young people who have anger problems or who are cutting or who are embracing a negative and unhelpful identity, I sometimes ask them to consider thinking differently about themselves. The technique is a little bit of a knock off of Alfred Adler’s Acting As-If. I don’t ask them to pretend or to tell themselves bald-faced lies, but instead to tell more of the complete hairy-faced narrative truth. For example, when a girl tells me she’s got a “terrible temper,” I suggest and implore and encourage her to capture the WHOLE DARN NARRATIVE and instead tell herself something like, “I believe I’ve had a terrible temper in the past, but I’m working on it.”

Pipher (not Piper) says I should learn to call myself a writer. Obviously that worked for her and she’s been immensely successful and now she’s sharing it as a writing strategy. But what if that doesn’t work so well for me? What if my mantra is that I’m a writer who’s got a bug in his eye and that darn bug is making it terribly difficult, but I’m working on it?

What if I prefer a different hat style?

Here’s what I like instead: “I am becoming a writer.”

I most definitely like that better. I am becoming is a better fit for my tentative always in flux and change and self-reflective in-moderation identity.

I am becoming a writer.

And I hope you are too.

Professional Writing for Us Professionals Who May Not Quite be Writers . . . Yet

This past week I’ve been searching in vain for the origin of my favorite pithy advice to aspiring writers. It may have been Flannery O’Connor or George Orwell or another literary-type who noted or shouted or penned the phrase: “Writers write.”

This nice thing about this advice is that it’s simultaneously very general and very specific and very redundant all at the same time.

But there are also different breeds of writers who write.

While I was at the University of Portland, one of my noon-time basketball buddies was a Math professor. When he wasn’t making fun of his own stutter-step dribble or teaching classes or waxing his 1967 Mustang, he was writing a mathematics text. He told me his writing philosophy—which was really more of a strategy, but then he was a math guy. Every night he wrote one page of his textbook. Just one page . . . and he didn’t go to bed until he had completed this nightly homework. He never said, “Writers write.” He just wrote.

Another one of my Portland basketball buddies was an English professor, writer, and poet. He didn’t talk much about writing, probably because he was too busy reaching in and hacking my arms as I tried to shoot. When I asked him how he thought computers had affected writing and writers (this was the late 1980s), he said he thought there was too much cutting and pasting going on. Lines or stanzas or paragraphs would find their way to places where they didn’t belong. He was a real writer; a literary guy; a pen and paper type. He also wrote every day, but he was too interested in the muse to ever start or stop himself on a clock or a page.

This brings me to my point.

In the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana, we have a brand new doctoral-level course on advanced research and professional writing. As a caveat, I should note that we make no claim to be real (aka literary) writers. But that won’t stop us from doing what real writers do and following their advice.

We will write . . . every day . . . and not just because writers write, but also because of what the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury suggested: “Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”

We will see what happens. We would like to have very pleasant careers.

There are many writing genres and styles and venues. It can be confusing. There are blogs and grant proposals and professional journal manuscripts and book chapters and emails and books and magazine articles and personal journals and the letter you should be writing to your mother. There are also many places to publish and many more places for not publishing. Right now I have at least 50 unfinished and unpublished blogs and commentaries and journal article manuscripts and books on my computer. This work is sitting and waiting for renewed inspiration or focus or time. I fear that I’m violating Annie Dillard’s advice on whether to hold ourselves back or break free. She wrote: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Speaking of hoarding, we don’t plan to keep this writing experience all to ourselves. And this brings me to my point (again). All who read these words may participate. Here are two examples of what you can do:

  1. You can read these blogs and provide commentary or critique. For example, shortly after posting the blog, “The Long Road to Eagle Pass Texas” my wife and co-author informed me that I had made a glaring grammatical error. If you read that post and can identify a grammatical error, please offer up your feedback. You can email me directly at john.sf@mso.umt.edu or post on this blog.
  2. You can write a guest blog. Everyone in our real (not virtual) class will have this assignment. As long as the blog focuses on writing or the helping profession or both and you’re open to feedback, please submit. I will assign it to a doctoral student for review and if it makes it into this blog, you can count on an incisive, but perhaps grammatically-challenged introductory comment from me.

In the meantime, just read . . . intensely . . . and write . . . even if only for yourself . . . and struggle with the muse like a wrestler or dancer or whatever metaphor fits best for you here.

Tomorrow’s Election and Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is one of the most ubiquitous psychological phenomena on planet Earth. If you don’t know what it is, you should learn. And if you do know what it is, you should start paying even more attention to it. It’s everywhere and it affects everyone.

I think the all-time best description of confirmation bias is captured by an old Yogi Berra story. One day, when a player on Yogi’s team was called out on a close play at second base in a crucial game, Yogi went charging onto the field to protest the call. The umpire explained that he, unlike Yogi, was an objective observer and that he, unlike Yogi, had been only about 5 feet from the play, while Yogi had been over 100 feet away, seated in the dugout. When Yogi heard the umpire’s logic, he became EVEN MORE ANGRY than before and snapped back, “Listen ump, I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it” (adapted from Leber, 1991).

There’s little doubt about the relevance of confirmation bias for tomorrow’s election. Liberal bloggers and pollsters see data suggesting an Obama victory while conservative media personalities counter-predict a Romney landslide.

As in the Yogi Berra example, confirmation bias explains why two presumably objective individuals can observe the same incident and draw starkly differing conclusions. After all, it’s impossible to suspend our personal beliefs and rely exclusively on logical data. We all naturally interpret and spin the data. Republicans look at recent economic figures and claim they’re caused by failed economic policies. Democrats look at the same data and note that Obama inherited a dismal economic situation and that we’d be far worse off if he hadn’t provided a stimulus and increased government spending.

The confirmation bias is everywhere all at once. If I were to wake up one morning believing abortion is murder, immigrants are illegals, and gays are sinful—my perceptions and behaviors would follow . . . and I’ll be more inclined to view individuals with darker skin as intruders who threaten my lifestyle, I’ll reject the mainstream media as having a liberal bias, and believe deeply that Fox News offers fair and balanced reporting.

But if somehow a miracle occurs and I wake up the next day believing women have the right to make their own medical choices, that many immigrants are just seeking a better life like my Italian forebears, and that gay-ness is a natural biological disposition—you can imagine how I might feel when I turn on my radio and accidentally listen to the Glen Beck show. It’s likely that I’ll pick a art his statements and question the source and validity of his facts.

My point is not to claim that one side has all the correct answers and if you think that, you’ve been drinking far too much Kool-Aid. Instead, my point is that we should all look at ourselves and question our biases. In fact, as you read this blog your response to the words on the screen will be affected by confirmation bias . . . and to the extent that you find yourself agreeing with or debating my position will likely have more to do with you and your beliefs and personal history than the accuracy or truthfulness of this blog.

As a final example, let’s look at the potential Presidential election outcome tomorrow. If you’re a liberal and Romney is elected you’ll be more likely to wonder if Tagg’s ownership of Ohio voting machines and voter suppression had more to do with the outcome than Romney’s desirability or credibility. On the other hand, if you’re a conservative and Obama wins, you may be inclined to blame it on voter fraud or an ignorant electorate. And if I’m correct and confirmation bias is ubiquitous, you may already be preparing your explanation for tomorrow’s election outcome.

Remember these words: “I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it” and try your best to cope with tomorrow’s results—either way.