Friday, February 07, 2014


"This essay proposes to halt at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism, and confine itself to such practical conclusions as can be applied by the responsible person..." (T.S. Eliot)

"Swedenborg, if you permit him to be called a philosopher, writes: I saw three angels, they had hats on their heads." (Ezra Pound)

I am grateful to Lee Sechrest for his comment to Wednesday's post, in which he tells us how B.F. Skinner and Charles Ferster wrote Verbal Reinforcement:

They had a small room at Harvard with two tables, two chairs, and two typewriters (imagine!) They had nothing on the tables but their notes for the day, no pictures, no books, etc. Skinner had the room painted in a sort of mauve color unlike any other room. Each of them had a small, funny little hat that he donned whenever he entered the room. They did nothing in the room but write. When (if) their minds began to wander, they left the room. Ferster said that they quickly got to the point at which they could leave in the middle of a sentence, not even think about it until coming back in the room, and then they could sit down and take right up where they left off.

We always have to read stories like this as fables, in this case an almost surrealist fable. It's important to understand that whatever "truth" it contains, and whatever advice it provides, is not literal. This may or may not be how Skinner and Ferster worked, and it may or may not have been necessary for them to work this way; the story only tells us something about the general importance of marking off the writing process from the other things we do.

My advice looks somewhat different in the details. The luxury of having a special room for writing, a room especially for writing, is not available to everyone. But it is important to be able to establish a distinct writing "space" for a few minutes at a time. You don't have to clear a room of books and pictures, you just have to turn your back on them for twenty-seven minutes. You have to enter a metaphorically "mauve" space, if you will, "unlike any other room". The idea of having "notes for the day" is a very good one. Bring only the notes you need to write the paragraph you have chosen to write in a given writing session; part of the decision about what to write should be to select the relevant basis for writing, i.e., find the notes you need. I disagree with Skinner and Ferster about breaking off the writing session when the mind wanders. Stick to it for the allotted time, I say. Then there are the hats.

Hats. I was reminded of Skinner's pigeons. Remember that Skinner and Ferster were the arch behaviorists, and had developed many of their theories on the basis of their ability to train pigeons to dance for their food in small, specially designed boxes. The pigeons could learn to press a sequence of buttons simply by being rewarded and punished ("reinforced") for right and wrong behavior. But one interesting finding of the studies was that pigeons sometimes developed "superstitious" behaviors. They happened to hop around the box in a particular way before being rewarded with food, and because that behavior was not part of the conditioning it was neither rewarded nor punished, just ignored by the researchers. Nonetheless the pigeon behaved as though it would only be fed if it carried out this little dance. When I think of Skinner and Ferster putting on those silly hats in their (somewhat silly) little writing box, I think of those pigeons.

Still, all writers are entitled to believe in a little a magic. It's perfectly okay to have rituals if they work for you, just as an athlete may put on lucky underwear before every game. Of course, the stranger and more complicated the ritual the more vulnerable your writing process becomes. Keep the list of necessary features of your writing space small, manageable and realistic. Don't demand a special mauve-colored room in which to write. Wear a hat if you must.

1 comment:

Lee Sechrest said...

Well, after all, we do have the idea of "put on your thinking cap.
But I think you are right: a little magic is often helpful. Whatever works.