Critical Thinking and the Noogie Man

photo of head bust print artwork

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Eric Witchey

Recently, I went to a mixed company party where someone I barely knew actually gave me a noogie. Mind you, I’m a 60 year-old man. He wrapped a beer-fed arm around my neck, rubbed his knuckles on my balding skull, and playfully said, “There’s always at least one liberal egghead at these things.”

I refrained from ripping his balls off and feeding them to him because I actually like the hosts. That, and he was easily 20 years younger than me and outweighed me by at least 100 pounds.

Earlier that day, I had started reading an article about critical thinking. At the party, the concept came up in conversation. Being a communication consultant and writer, I felt very comfortable describing the content of as much of the article as I had read. This, apparently, made my new, large, personal boundary-challenged BFF uncomfortable enough to need to engage in some simian, physical dominance behavior.

Later on, awake at about 2am and staring at the ceiling of my Eric cave, I started thinking about what most people experience when their eyes pass over the phrase “critical thinking.”

My, perhaps ungracious, conclusion is that the phrase triggers a vaguely, barely recognizable in the mental background noise of their minds, self-affirmation of the belief that they are critical thinkers. They reinterpret the phrase to mean something like, smart people like me. It is a fleeting ghost of a thought that is barely recognized, if it is recognized at all. By the time it might be recognized, the eyes and mind are already on to the end of the sentence and the next sentence.

In the context of teaching, I have often wondered how to successfully demonstrate both the processes of and the value of critical thinking. Sadly, my success has been limited. It is a very hard thing to teach because learning it requires a proactive self-doubt combined with a desire to learn and, possibly, change.

Critical thinking, for a person who actually engages in it as a habit, looks something like this when they encounter a new phrase like—oh, let’s say, “critical thinking.”

What does that really mean? What does critical mean? Does it mean important? Of paramount importance? Necessary to survival? Does it mean analytical—to analyze, deconstruct, evaluate? Does it mean to attack—to minimize, to negate, to reduce to component insignificance?

Thinking. Hm… Present participle of “to think.” Could it be a progressive form instead of a participial form? Does it mean to engage in ongoing thought? Is the participial form a nominalization that means “the class of thoughts associated with the adjective critical?” If a noun prior to “critical” is the modified term, does it mean the modified preceding noun has thought capacity engaged in an ongoing process? Maybe it means that the preceding noun has capacity and the phrase is intended as a compound adjective in which the hyphen has been unintentionally dropped?

Interesting that I could generate so many speculations about such a ubiquitous phrase. I’ll run a search on the phrase in order to test the denotative and usage history against my own experience, assumptions, and speculations.

From Criticalthinking.org:

#1: A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

#2: Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.   People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.    They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.  They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.   They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking. . . .

From Wikipedia:

Critical thinking is clear, reasoned thinking involving critique. Its details vary amongst those who define it. According to Beyer (1995), critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgments. During the process of critical thinking, ideas should be reasoned and well thought out/judged.[1] The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking[2] defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.’[3]

From Daniel T. Willingham and The Federation of American Teachers:

In layperson’s terms, critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth… (The article goes on to describe types of, studies in attempts to teach it, and problems in pedagogy).

From Dictionary.com:

disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Okay, enough fiddling about with online sources that may or may not be subject to editorial scrutiny, peer-review, and general tests of accuracy and veracity. To my own bookshelves for real answers.

I think I’ll sample my very favorite dictionary, a big fat library edition of the 1947 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. This book is the hernia-generating monster that, when I was a kid at Saturday morning story time readings, was chained to a pedestal inside the library front doors—as it should be.

Nothing. No entry.

I wonder why I had to wade through so many words that began with ‘co’ on the way to ‘cr?’ Well, that’s not relevant to the question I’m researching. Refocus.

Next on my shelf.

From the 1983 Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Deluxe Second Edition:

Nothing. No entry.

I would have thought that the Universal Unabridged Dictionary would be fatter than the merely International Dictionary, but it’s not. Maybe we lost a lot of words between 47 and 83. Not relevant. Still, I had to wade through a lot of words that began with ‘co’ on the way to ‘cr.’ I’ll figure out the root history to ‘co’ words another day. Refocus on the question at hand.

Okay, really, seriously! Enough fiddling about. Pull the definitive source from the shelf and torture my aging eyes with micrographic print.

From the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary Vol. A-O, 1981. 21st printing. This is the dictionary that was never chained to anything because in full-print size, it spans 14 massive volumes. In micrographic print, which requires a magnifying glass to read no matter how young your eyes are, it is only two fat books made up of very thin paper. Herein, I shall find the complete history of the use of the phrase, “critical thinking:”

Not! Nothing. No entry.

So, the phrase is not treated as a word prior to 1983. Further research could tell me when it began to be treated as a single concept in phrasal form. Not now. Instead, maybe I’ll do a little bit of work to better understand the two words, “critical” and “thinking.” That’s the next logical step if my goal is to understand use in context rather than use over time.

Unfortunately, the OED micrographic print went on for a column and a half with denotative uses of “critical.” I can’t put that kind of time in on wading through lists of meanings in order to find deep understanding of something I’m not being paid to chase—at least not today.

Paid to chase. Hm? Is that why we don’t think? Are we all just chasing our next banana? No. Don’t go there. Not now.

Maybe I’ll write a blog entry about the semantics of denotative combinatorics some other time. I’ll match up each definition of critical with each definition of thinking to create all the possible matches as an exercise in possibilities.

Or not. Focus. Right now, I have to get to other things.

This is the point at which a habitual critical thinker might break out of the rapture of research. At this point, they have ceased critical thinking. They fall back on untested personal experience and speculation.

They read the comma and the next word and consider them as limiting variables in revisions of and reductions to the above possibilities and their relevance to a developing understanding of the possible intent of the author and to personal interpretation of their written effort.

I…

Oops. I mean, they. They do this because a part of me… I… they… them still feels the pain of Homo Neoneanderthalensis knuckles on my balding head.

Crap. Okay, I’m outed.

Reading smart stuff written by smart people makes me feel better.

Take that, Noogie Man!

Hm… Is imaginary revenge a result of critcal thinking? As my father used to say, “No matter where you go and no matter what you do, the monkey is still a monkey.” Interesting that my father used the second person, singluar pronoun. Until this moment, I have always universalized it and excluded myself.

Exhausted, I settled down and finished reading the article that had started all the trouble.

Critical thinking is treated in this culture as a symptom of some underlying disorder: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Asperger’s Spectrum Disorder, Autism, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. As a culture, we treat people who demonstrate passionate curiosity and who actually focus on seeking diverse or nuanced understanding as if they are broken. We dismiss actual, credentialed experts as too educated to be useful, and we use ad hominem attacks to socially shun the curious by undermining the credibility of any non-credentialed, non-academic who engages in critical thinking. We place value on the presentation of confident, socially dominant behavior as knowledge rather than on the processes of productive, egalitarian exploration through conversation. Smart people learn to be quiet at mixed social gatherings because they are statistically much more likely to meet with shunning, sarcastic attacks like, “I didn’t know you had a Ph.D. in bullshit,” “You must have swallowed a fucking dictionary before you showed up,” “You always did think you were better than the rest of us,” and, my personal favorite, “How about those (insert sportsball team here),” than they are to meet a non-combative conversationalist.

The same person, engaged in conversation with others while travelling in educationally developed nations like Denmark, Sweden, France, Norway, and Finland is greeted with statements like, “You aren’t like most Americans I’ve met,” “I can tell you didn’t go to an American school,” “What a pleasure to meet an American who can talk about more than TV, sports, and their children,” and, my personal favorite, “You are the first American I’ve met who didn’t need to win the conversation.”

Can I claim understanding and objectivity in my thinking if, for me, the article amounted to cherry-picking? So, I have failed as both a critical thinker and as a good American. My research was not pure. My curiosity was not open to all possibilities. In the end, I just wanted to win against the Noogie Man. I am Homo Neoneanderthalensis. Sadly, Noogie Man will never read this, so I have only succeeded in giving air noogies to mind shadows in the comfort of my own home.

-End-

A Writer Gives Thanks, Yet Again

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

T is for the thousands of words pulled from deep within your gut.

H is for the few hundred to make the final cut.

A is for the armor you must don through each and every edit.

N is for the nerves of steel required to re-submit it.

K is for the knowledge your writing tribe of friends freely impart.

S is for the spark of an idea, and knowing where to start.

G is for grinding through the muddle of the middle.

I is for the intuition of knowing what to leave, and what to whittle.

V is for the humble verb that alone will make your story speak.

I is for the inspiration that at times plays hide and seek.

N is for the final novel you, and you alone did create, and pursue.

And the final…

G is for the immense gratitude of readers, and their very positive review.

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Paper Clip by John Burridge

Today on ShadowSpinners we welcome John Burridge, who brings us a tale of mystery, inspiration, and not-so-ordinary objects.

I linger outside the supermarket where I sometimes write.  The hot sky is the color of ash, as if someone has smeared the remains of a BBQ pit across heaven.  The breeze makes it seem like the grey smudge above hides rain, but the forecast is for heat and an insulating inversion.  I’m tempted to make this a drinking night–the day’s been frustrating–but I opt to try to write instead.  A cold blast of air-conditioning hits my face as I walk inside.  

I stalk through the aisles, try to find something that will inspire me to write, purchase some healthy-ish snacks, then head upstairs.  The table I normally write at in the supermarket’s mezzanine is occupied by an older lady with the props of homelessness:  an over-burdened cart, which might have been an IV rack in a past life, its thick grey wheels signaling that it’s possibly from a hospital or nursing home, with full, plastic rival-market shopping bags hanging from it.

I cast about the mezzanine and end up at another table; like all the others, it’s a cool, dark, and highly polished sheet of marble or artisanal concrete, flecked with mica glinting like stars.

I set up my tablet, plug in headphones against the inevitable wailing children, cell-phone-using psychiatry patients, and estranged roommates.  I type–hoping that this time the words will flow like a spring in an oasis; like the aurora borealis at midnight; like a pod of dolphins dancing among the waves; like lover’s kisses along the nape, around the hollow of the neck, and over those places loved best.

Instead, I write ten or so lines of bad Oscar Wilde pastiche and maybe three lines about the Prince of Lyres standing over splinters of his instrument in front of the still locked gates of the underworld.  Gee, thanks, subconscious.  Tell me something I don’t already know.

Then the children, their mothers, the cell-phone users, and irked roommates parade by my foreign workspace–each one stomping the floor in just the right place to make my borrowed workspace tremble.  This would never happen at my regular table, which is not on the path to the market’s restrooms.

The old woman–pushing her cart before her–joins the parade, makes for the elevator, and exits the mezzanine.

By this time, I’m thinking this isn’t going to be a good writing night and I should just go meet up with my ex-critique group for a drink–but, it’s still early, and, actually, I should be saving my money.  A math tutoring session at the next table over decides me that if I’m going to not-write doggerel, I may as well do it in a better setting.  Besides, an attendant with antiseptic spray and cleaning rag has swooped over the vacated tables.  I scoop up snacks, pack, tablet, and keyboard, and I walk–headphones still on–to my regular spot.

I get to the table and there in the dark-sky-and-mica-star center of it is a paperclip.  Which slaps me back in time.  Weeks ago last June, at an elder-stateswoman-writer’s memorial, someone told a story about paperclips.  A few days before the writer died, the story-teller (an atheist) and the writer were joking around about supposed afterlives and randomly came up with the word “paperclip” as the message the writer would send as proof if she found herself in heaven.  The day after, the story-teller, in a moment of synchronicity, inexplicably found two paperclips–which he presented to the memorial gathering–linked, in his pocket.

I pick up this singleton paperclip.  It’s steel or some other silvery metal, with little grooves worked into the loops for extra gripping friction.

What meaning does one assign a paperclip–which may have been left behind by an elderly and possibly homeless woman when she left, pushing her belongings and errands out into the hot evening with a setting sun hidden by smoke and ash?

Paperclips hold pages together–paper planes which touch but do not connect.  Maybe the paperclip says, “Hold together;” but hold what?  There’s nothing currently in it more substantial than thought.

I rotate the paperclip in my fingers.  It’s not perfectly flat.  The inner loop of metal is pulled up slightly from the outer loop.  At one point it held together something–a manuscript? a prescription and receipt? a photo and resume?–but holding whatever together has warped it.

I put it down next to my keyboard and stare at it as I type.

Is the shade of a great writer leaving me a paperclip as a sign of encouragement?  Or, is it a reward for sitting with butt in chair and fingers on keyboard instead of slouching against a tavern table with a margarita in my hand?  Or, is it a challenge–write the story this empty paperclip will have to hold together?  Or, is it a message–the writer connects meanings to the actions in the text?  Yeah, right.  “Don’t lose the day job,” would be a more likely message, and I imagine she’d have better uses for manifesting paperclips, like leaving them for her family or people she’d known much longer than our two years’ acquaintance.  Or her agent.

I write all this while staring at the paperclip.  It’s getting late.  Maybe tonight I’ll dream about paperclips.  Maybe I’ll make a shirt that says, “My writer friend went to heaven and all I got was this paperclip.”  Maybe I’ll write a fantasy story about a magician who makes a talisman of paperclips linked together into a necklace:  every paperclip a star, every star a soul, every soul a story.

***

John Burridge writes short stories in the high fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary urban fantasy genres.  His work explores familial relationships, choice, and identity.  A native Oregonian, John lives with his husband, son, and two requisite cats (one fluffy and grey, the other sleek and black).

John is an alumni of the Eugene Wordos, a professional writer’s critique group.  He was an active member from 2001 to 2017, and he chaired or co-chaired their meetings from 2003 onward.

His first professional sale was to Writers of the Future.  Since then, he has garnered a few other sales and many, many rejection slips.  You can read more about him and his publishing history at https://johnburridge.blogspot.com/p/bio-writing-credits.html.

Just a Few Words

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By Cheryl Owen Wilson

Knowing the rules of a particular trade, and having applied them long enough to be confident in breaking them, seems to be of benefit mainly in the artistic realms of life. In the writing realm, I’m certain we can all come up with a best selling author who broke basic rules taught to us by our many English teachers. Cormac McCarthy and E.E. Cummings are the first two to come to my mind. One day I may be in a position to break rules, but first I must learn them.

I’m in the process, of what I hope are the final edits on my first novella. So rules, or tips on how to strengthen a story, are forefront in my mind these days. I’ve discovered books filled with rules so numerous a writer might never write a word if they took the time to read and apply them all. Thus, for the purpose of this blog I will touch on just a few I found helpful.

1st Rule— Did I need to use the word just in my last sentence? No. I discovered I use the word just along with its friend only way too often. My writing mentor Liz Engstrom, would say never to use the word just. She would also add the following to the banned list of words: very, causing, here, this, now, and today.

I write short stories. The idea of writing anything lengthier seemed absurd to me. I almost, nearly, didn’t write the book.

2nd Rule—Did my last sentence make you cringe just (I told you I really like this word) reading it? Yes. Investigate, or take out: almost, kind of, nearly, and sort of.

I recently had the pleasure of spending three days with my tribe, my writing pals. What did I do at this valuable retreat? I found the 641 times I used the word was, and reduced it to 226! A simple word, yet when removed, it transforms the sentence.

“She was crying uncontrollably.” vs “She cried uncontrollably.”

3rd Rule—Investigate every use of: is, was, are, be, being, am, and were.

I am currently searching out the simple, humble word—it.

4th Rule—There is generally a better word for it. Investigate your use of, it.

I celebrated finding my last was, and then explained to my pals it was now my quest. This elicited a most interesting discussion on the infamous often mocked and parodied phrase written in the novel Paul Clifford, by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I’ve never read the book, but know the phrase from my favorite cartoon beagle: “It was a dark and stormy night.” It—the phrase—is a classic. It breaks all the rules, but sometimes rules are there to be broken. Just make certain you have a very good reason for doing it.

What rules do you break and why?

 

What Did You Win, Eric?

 

Littlest Death: An Afterlife Fantasy (a.k.a., Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel):
Winner: Independent Publishers Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy.
Winner: International Book Awards for Visionary Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Best New Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Cross-Genre Fiction

What Did You Win, Eric?
by Eric Witchey

Last time I posted in this blog space, I talked about award sickness because one of my novels had just won the Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, that same novel has won First Honors in the Visionary Fiction category from the International Book Awards. It also won finalist (top five) positions in several other categories, including Fantasy Fiction. At the same time, another novel of mine won First Honors in the Fantasy Fiction category from the International Book Awards. Yet another book won a Finalist position for both cover design and short fiction. The books are, respectively, Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel from ShadowSpinners Press, Bull’s Labyrinth from IFD Publishing, and Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure from IFD Publishing.

Note: Thanks are in order here for Alan M. Clark for his cover designs for both Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure and Bull’s Labyrinth.

Has my good problem, Award Sickness, gotten worse? Yes. Yes, it has. Thank you for asking. On top of that, I now have another good problem. I now have conversations that go sort of like this:

“Congratulations! What kind of stuff did you win?”

“Uh. Um.” Eric looks down and shuffles his feet.

“Really,” they say. “Cash, like the Pulitzer or the Nobel?”

“Uh. No. It’s not like that.” Eric waves his hands as if to push the assailant away and avoid embarrassment.

“Well, what then?”

“Stickers?” It sounds so tiny and pointless to Eric, so he adds, “I won some really cool stickers to put on my books. And a certificate!”

“That’s it?”

“A silver medal on a ribbon. I won that, too.” He doesn’t want to say he could wear that heavy bit of kitsch around his neck if he wanted to shout to the world that he is the worst kind of self-impressed language geek.

This kind of conversation confuses non-writers who often think recognition of excellence means income or fame. Having won quite a few awards for my writing, I can say with some confidence that awards rarely translate into income or fame. Sometimes, but rarely. This absence of fame and fortune even confuses some writers, so it’s time to come clean on the whole award thing.

Here’s what I won.

On a purely material level, I won stickers, a medal, and several certificates.

On a marketing level, I won the right to have Littlest Death presented to an international audience at the New York Book Expo and at the Library Book Expo in New York. Also on a marketing level, Littlest Death press releases went out to 800 various media, blog, and vlog outlets for consideration for exposure. Oh, and I can put stickers on the covers that appear as part of the presentation and advertising on places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and GoodReads.

Yay! Of course, I have no idea what that means in terms of sales. I won’t know for months, and possibly years, to come.

From my personal perspective, I won validation for the Afterlife Fantasy genre, which is embodied by Littlest Death. I had been thinking about writing an Afterlife Fantasy for some time, but I probably would never have done it because it would not have fit into any existing marketing category served by the octopus imprints of the big five publishers. A book like Littlest Death would have made the rounds of the imprints for several years. I’d have received the usual “loved this but not quite right for us” rejection letters. Instead, it came out from a small press that isn’t quite so risk averse.

Most important from my perspective, I won validation for the creative process that resulted in Littlest Death.

When I teach, I often say that craft tools should be based on the underlying linguistic and cognitive principles that govern the reader’s internalization of emotion from story. The test of a principle-based tool is pretty simple. It must be all of the following:

  1. Useful as a descriptive tool for finished, text-based story.
  2. Useful as an analysis tool and solution predictor for revision of text-based story.
  3. Useful as a design tool for the production of text-based story.

To that end, I have spent about 25 years obsessively characterizing and recording tools that fit the above criteria into a personal catalog. I use these tools constantly, and I teach them to others. However, prior to writing Littlest Death, there were a few tools in my box that I believed fit the criteria but that I had never actually tested on the design level. I had only used them as diagnostic and revision tools.

I used the opportunity to write my Afterlife Fantasy to test the design power of the untested tools. Specifically, the tools I often used in revision and description but had not really applied during story design were:

  • Irreconcilable Self as a control for character psychological and sociological development.
  • Vertical Story Analysis as a design tool to support manifestation of Dramatic Premise (Lajos Egri) and Character Arc prior to composition.

I’m not going to explain these tools here. Sorry. It would take too long. I’m just saying that these tools have been in my box for a while, and I have used them to revise many stories that went on to sell. In fact, I used them to revise Bull’s Labyrinth, which won the International Book Award for Fantasy Fiction. I also used them to revise some, but not all by any means, of the stories in Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure. I had just never used them up front before initial composition, so I felt a little bit like a fraud when I taught them because I had only proven to myself that they worked on two of the three levels of proof for “tool” that I require.

Once Littlest Death went into print and I started getting emails from people who cried tears of joy while reading, I felt pretty good about having demonstrated the tools’ usefulness in design. Once Littlest Death won two awards and several finalist slots in competition against many thousands of other novels, I started thinking it might be worth considering a few more such experiments in design.

What did I win?

I won validation of knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and the confidence that sharing that knowledge with others will be useful to them.

Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

-End-

Understanding Personality and Character Through the Enneagram

Many writers use tools like astrology and mythology to explore and develop character and personality. For those not familiar with it, I would like to introduce the Enneagram, a rich source of material to understand and develop character.  The enneagram is an ancient framework that delves into the structure of character in real life, and in fiction.  It has the unique ability to surface unresolved issues and conflicts within a personality, and the ways in which people express and manage them, for better or worse.

To delve into this resource, I would like to introduce Dale Rhodes, founder of Enneagram Portland.  Dale shared the Enneagram model with me several years ago, and it continues to be a source of revelation, and a lens through which I come to understand behaviour and motivation on a much deeper level.

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Dale, What is Enneagram Portland?

Enneagram Portland was founded in 2002 as the city’s primary resource for people to explore and experience the Enneagram. I work with people individually as a mentor and spiritual director; generally, with folks who are interested in finding out who they really are and what is really going on beneath the surface.

When I discovered the Enneagram in my spiritual director’s formation program, I knew I had found the tool and the framework that would help me journey with others who are interested in personal and spiritual growth as well as personality and character development— in life, on the page or on the screen, or all three.

Would you provide a brief overview of the Enneagram?
The system has its recorded roots with early Christian contemplatives in Alexandria who were trying to have a direct experience of Presence, and they noted that there seemed to be 9 Ways that people blocked themselves from Being and Presence.

As Pythagoreans, they believed there was meaning in systems of numbers; and they were also influenced by the Jewish Kabbalah and pre-historical wisdom from the Egyptians, along with their own self-observations as contemplatives.

This material was later declared heretical by Roman Church leadership (still is) but was kept alive by spiritual directors in various traditions, matching with Dante’s Seven Vices/Virtues.  It is a rich topic that requires more explanation elsewhere.

I just know this: The Enneagram is a useful key to understanding how we really are made and how the world is really working. It is the best tool I have found yet; and it gives directional paths for growth and development that are often expressed in the content of good literature and film.

The Enneagram describes Nine Personality Styles, each bringing their attention habitually and preferentially to one of nine arenas. We use all these placements of attention, but we often over rely on one of them, which brings both gifts and challenges:

The Idealist: error, perfection, standards and order

The Connector: needs, connecting and relationships

The Performer:  tasks and success

The Romantic:  what is missing and what is beauty

The Observer:  conserving energy, experiencing omniscience

The Loyal Skeptic: worst cases, safety and finding allies

The Epicure: options, freedom, joy and potential

The Protector: force, injustice, strength and power

The Mediator: comfort, harmony, union and consensus

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If you’re curious about the 9 Types, meet them here:

What made you decide to explore the Enneagram in literature and film?
I have always been an avid reader and my partner is wild about cinema. We have always had fun discussions about which personality styles do book or film characters seem to be emanating. It became clear that this is a viable way to expand the community of people who talk type when author Judith Searle presented to Enneagram Portland her workshop on “9 Personalities in Literature and Film.”

Portland is filled with writers and readers, and I assembled curricula for folks to read a book or watch a film each month, along with personality type descriptions, and the groups filled overnight.  Currently, I have three groups of ten running and will offer four more next year.  Writers tell me that they really benefit from exploring the arcs of character development (and disintegration) that these universal types and storylines present.

Tell us more about how the Enneagram helps us understand and develop character, personality and conflicts.
Everyone has had the experience of examining a character in a film or book and said, “I know this person.”  The Enneagram shows you that there is a map to character content tha you already know. It is not the territory, but it is a very helpful map to guiding you, (as a human, a writer or both!), through the land of understanding character motivations:  What is the person’s primary value? What is the person capable of?  What would be the arc of character tensions under stress and in ease and fullness?  As a writer and as a human who must interact well with others, this is invaluable.

In my course called “Understanding the 9 Types in Literature, Film and Community”  and in it, we have the delightful experience of reading great novels and dissecting and digesting them through the lens of personality.  We all find ourselves in all of these types and characters! We might prefer one personality style’s orientation, but we have them all.  Writers find this universal information enables their ability to develop multi-dimensional characters.

For example, think of the personality type I call The Idealist/Perfectionist. There is something universal in the portrayal of Dr. Jekyll as an upstanding and good man probably run by his super-ego/inner-critic, so of course we must meet his avoided opposite motivations: his shadow, the id/pleasure-drive of Mr. Hyde.

A quiet, insightful, male screenwriter, (a Protector) took my class because his girlfriend paid for it. He weathered some literature that he might not have picked up on his own, but his understanding of the system came alive because of reading an old classic.  My choice for the personality style called The Performer was Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, a novel that exemplifies what psychologist Erich Fromm would call “The Marketing Personality,” the quintessential American salesman.

This type is interested in tasks, success, marketing success, inspiring others (whether through truth or just using what works) and avoiding failure. For example Oprah, Bill Clinton, Sean Spicer, Tony Robbins, Sarah Palin and Jerry McGuire are folks who are oriented towards success, away from failure, and in the mix just might just believe their own press releases.

You already know these characters, and if you are a writer you can know them from the inside out through easily understandable models about motivation that the Enneagram explains in everyday language. That is why the system is so attractive to me— it’s universal, easily understood by all kinds of folks, it’s not vague psychobabble from a therapist or a guru, and it’s verifiably true.

Could you give some more examples of characters in books and their enneagram type?
My own personality style, the Romantic, is concerned with what is missing and how one is a creator of beauty. This theme can be found in a disintegrated form through Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, who has found herself increasingly limited in her own personal ability to create a beautiful life, so she begins meddling in others’ lives with disastrous consequences. Like Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, these women are two of my favorite train wrecks; probably because I know that this could be me if I ever go off my morning coffee.

The positively developed Romantic with an orientation to beauty is found in Thea Kronberg from Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, the story of a girl who has the natural resources as to accept her own identity as an artist, and to literally find her own voice as an opera singer.

In My Ántonia, Willa Cather addresses another style of character, The Protector. So much in that book and the main character attends to what Protectors care about–the vulnerabilities of immigrants, women and the land, abuses of power, responses to injustice, strength itself. I read it every year and I’m usually crying with its vivid descriptions of landscapes— harsh and beautiful Nebraska and harsh and beautiful inner character.

In Norma Rae you’ll see a Loyal Skeptic character, one who is concerned with divided loyalties: to what or two whom should I be loyal? to myself? to my parents/spouse? to the powers that be?  to the oppositions? and at what cost?  You’ll find the same issues alive and well in the teen novel about choosing a personality style and tribe: Divergent by Veronica Roth. Do these latter themes also sound like themes in Hamlet?  You’d be correct in saying so, as he lived in a mad world where he didn’t know who to trust.

The Connector’s shadow themes of manipulation, flattery, tyranny and misaligned service for the greater good can be found in King Lear and Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Watch the mother in The Manchurian Candidate (very timely) and you’ll see the same. Yet main character Flora Post in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm uses her Connector’s abilities to make loving helpful connections and to support a delightful kind world that no one would ever want to end.

Thank you, Dale for sharing this knowledge with us, and with the Portland community.  Here are some opportunities for people to learn more:

Upcoming classes on literary and movie character analysis
Understanding the 9 Points of View in Literature, Film and Community: Monthly Session September 2018-June 2019

Find out more about the Enneagram:
A brief and entertaining introduction to each of the Enneagram’s Nine Types can be found in these student youtube videos. Find out who you and your characters are:

An Introduction to The Enneagram, May 5th, 2018

Recommended Books:
The Enneagram in Love and Work by Helen Palmer
The Literary Enneagram-Characters from the Inside Out by Judith Seattle
The Essential Enneagram by Virginia Price and David Daniels, M.D.

 

Find Dale Rhodes and all programs at EnneagramPortland.com