Writing: An Art or Science? - Essay by Robert Maurer, PhD
The following text is excerpted from a presentation that Dr. Maurer made to a writers' organization in London, England. Dr. Maurer teaches The Psychology of Storytelling: Writing Believable and Involving Tales this quarter.
Writing - is it an art or science? Now there is a question you don't hear very often. In fact, to some of you, the question makes no sense. Writing is surely an art, a spiritual journey, an emotional odyssey, but how is it a science? I asked myself that question a few years ago when a friend who taught in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program asked me to give a guest lecture. What did a clinical psychologist have to say to a group of writers studying the intricacies of the psychological thriller or the romantic novel? My initial answer to this question was "nothing," but my friend persisted, and pressed upon me a stack of videos of some classical films, but mostly, she gave me taped interviews with outstanding authors, playwrights, and screenwriters. As I listened to these gifted authors discuss how they created their characters and plots, I was surprised and humbled: their insights about human maturation and the change process completely matched very recent breakthroughs in the behavioral sciences.
Allow me to back up for a moment and discuss a slow and quiet revolution that has been taking place in psychology. For most of its 100-year history, psychology has been studying the lives of people in distress, and creating theories and therapies based on their experiences with these people. Recently, however, psychology has begun to study people whose lives are successful in health, relationships, and work. What could we learn if we studied couples who are enjoying their marriages, families who are thriving, children who are successful in school, and people in stressful jobs who are nevertheless healthy, happy, and who go home to good relationships? Maybe these people have found "the secret" to successful living.
This approach has worked in other areas of science; medicine, for example, has made its greatest strides by looking at who isn't getting a disease and trying to figure out why. So about five years ago, I began to collect studies conducted throughout the world, on people who succeeded in all three areas of life: work, relationships, and health, at last count, over fifty studies existed. Remarkably, each study reports the same results! Thus far, there are no exceptions to findings that suggest the human body may have its own laws or rules for success, just as it has for health.
Although a brief description of the four skills successful people share does not do them justice, let me list them: one, an awareness of the need for attention as well as generosity in giving and receiving appreciation; two, an awareness and respect for fear-a willingness to feel it and to reach for comfort ; three, when afraid, successful people have a built in "nurturing voice" that automatically and compassionately reassures them that "it is okay to make mistakes, okay to be afraid, okay to ask for help." And fourth, successful people possess a sense of mission or vision: they are clear about their goals, and their sense of purpose sustains them in crisis.
So what does all this have to do with writing? As it turns out, a great deal. As I observed and interviewed writers talking about how they created and moved characters, it became clear that they had reached the same conclusions without the aid of elaborate computers or research methodologies. Their wisdom and observational skills led them to the same insights. Writers are the true scientists of our age, of every age.
For example, recent research has yielded new understandings of the relationship between thought and emotion. The "common sense" assumption has historically been that thoughts cause or trigger feelings. Recent brain research indicates that more often, feelings trigger thoughts in predictable times and ways. As recent as the studies are, literature and films reflect this reality and many of them are ten to twenty years old!
Another example: in every conversation with a writer about motivation or plot, one word appears again and again: fear. As one Academy-Award-winning writer stated it: "the most important thing you need to know about a character, is what they do when they are afraid." As I intimated earlier, recent breakthroughs in behavioral science research have also highlighted the positive and essential role of fear in the brain's organization. Science is unlocking the secrets of the ideal and dysfunctional responses to fear that make for the incredible variations in human behavior. We are now learning how the brain builds into its "Software" an "internal parent" that will either soothe us or paralyze us when we are afraid, depending on the healthy or unhealthy responses to our emotions that we experienced in childhood. The essential element of character is this: our inner emotional voice reacts to our fears or opportunities and either calms and inspires or responds with a specific painful voice, giving rise to worry, anger, or disappointment. In the dramatic scenes of films such as Ordinary People, Suspicion, Rairiman, or in successful novels and short stories, it is evident that the writers have unlocked the mysteries of these brain "characters" long before the scientists.
In my classes, the subtleties and complexities of human motivation, personality, and change are explored through the perspectives of science and literature. The new research perspectives will, on the one hand, enhance observational skills and insights and, on the other, confirm suspicions that writers are the visionaries and prophets of our world. Science provides, at best, the lyrics to the melodies of the writer. Just as "feelings" often precede "thoughts" in the individual, so does irrational creativity precede rational scientific understanding in the culture. A recent statement by the playwright George C. Wolfe is a useful reminder of the value of all good writing: "Theatre is church. It's people sitting in the dark, watching people in the light talk about what it means to be human."