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A Pavlovian Response To Writing Fiction, by Clint Greagen

Writing; it’s not trench digging, or underwater welding, or UFC fighting, but writing fiction is hard work.

The trench gets dug but the writer never stops digging. The underwater welder comes to the surface but the writer is always submerged. The UFC fighter heals between matches but the writer – published or not – is continually wounded.  The job is never finished.

That’s if they’re doing it right.

Many articles have been written about the motivations of writers. I’ve read and heard all the theories from healing the inner child, to being driven by beings from a celestial plane, to wanting to make lots of money (which would have to be the most fanciful).

My favourite theory, put forward by anthropologists, is that of the human brain as a sexual ornament. The male peacock has its beautiful feathers and mad dancing skills to attract mates and prove health. Humans have a complex cerebral cortex and mad story-telling skills. In our hunter-gather past the humans most likely to mate regularly were those who told the greatest and most engaging stories. We told stories orally, through dance, by drawing on stone, by carving ornaments from wood. A great story teller proved he was in possession of a good healthy brain and strong genes, and was therefore likely to produce successful offspring. Our most creative ancestors made the most babies and here we are: naturally selected story-tellers suffering from a now-redundant impulse. Great theory. But who knows what the truth is?

If I examine myself and the role writing has played in my life, I would guess that the motivation to keep at it, for me, is more Pavlovian. Whenever I receive positive feedback about my writing and stories, I salivate a little, my eyes get glassy and I start pawing at the earth and pulling against the chain to attack the keyboard again.

I can trace this response back to my childhood. I started writing stories at around the same time that a lot of my friends did. It turned out I was just a bit better at it than most of my friends. This brought me some praise from parents and teachers and class mates and the encouragement to keep at it. In that way writing and story-telling have become a compulsion with accidental origins. What if I’d been introduced to a different activity and shown similar potential? Could I be an obsessive footballer right now, a computer programmer,or a businessman with real potential to make money?

So, you could argue I’m suffering something akin to a trauma-based mental illness. My childhood was going so well and I was on my way to a normal life and then someone told me I was a half decent storyteller and my ego began to soar and took an immature, still-forming self under it’s wings, and here I am; screwed.

Since then thousands of hours of writing have passed and this flawed self has grown into its own winged bird, and whether I take flight one day as a recognised and successful writer, or shuffle my talons through the dirt with only a flutter into the world of publishing, it’s the only way I can be now.

For all the torment and withdrawal it’s brought me, it has also formed resilience, a pointed determination and a selective self-confidence that gives me the occasional adrenalin rush I’d associate more with extreme sports.

I’m addicted to the thing I do and this thing I’ve become.

And now I’d like to wrap this article up because I have more writing to do. This quote by George Orwell has always rang true with me:

“I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

(PS: I have never received any offers to mate with anyone as a direct result of my writing.)


Clint Greagen’s bio page


On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and FictionPsychonarratology: Foundations for the Empirical Study of Literary ResponseNarrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling (Frontiers of Narrative)A Glossary of Literary TermsNineteen Eighty-FourAfter AmericaBeautiful Malice

Writing Novels in Australia

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Whenever I receive positive feedback about my writing and stories, I salivate a little, my eyes get glassy and I start pawing at the earth and pulling against the chain to attack the keyboard again.” LOL Love it! I know the paw-fect writer’s retreat for you too – a dog-friendly B&B. We accept writers and their dogs!!!!

    February 23, 2013
  2. So the TL;DR to walk away from here is we’re all mentally ill. I’d be offended if it wasn’t true. Good post, Clint, and it’s made me see a potentially profitable niche at writers’ festivals – deprogramming sessions and one-on-one counselling. I might even go along myself. Hmmm, there’s a short story in this…

    February 24, 2013

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