Thursday 28 January 2010

Psychology, Psychiatry and Writers Groups

The relationship between creativity and madness has long been studied, and creative writing is frequently used for therapeutic purposes. Both institutional and open-access writers groups offer further opportunities for patients and for researchers. An awareness of literary fashions and the current role of writers groups will help maximise the benefits.

Writers and the Self

Subconsciously or otherwise, people may read literature for psychological benefits. Zunshine (2006), Mar, Oatley, Djikic, etc suggest that reading fiction is a kind of simulation of social interactions. "After being given either fiction or non-fiction from the New Yorker, those who read the fiction piece scored higher on a test of social reasoning" ("The Psychologist", V21 No12, p.1030-1). Compared to the general reading public and even to other creative people, writers might have more need of these benefits

  • "Nancy Andreasen has tracked 30 students from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. 80% had mood disorders (30% is average amongst similar people who are non-writers). 43% had some degree of manic-depressive illness (10% is average). 2 committed suicide over the 15 years of the study" ("Psychology Today", April 1987)
  • "A great many writers find relating both painfully difficult and beside the point. The same qualities that make them writers - self-direction, independence, intelligence, skepticism, a love of solitude - also incline them in the direction of isolation, alienation and a carelessness about relating." (Maisel, 1999)

Writing may be a more useful form of simulation than passive reading, helping practitioners to

  • analyse, prepare and anticipate human responses
  • see other points of view
  • create retrospective autobiographical narratives to analyse their past and plan behavioural reprogramming. Some writers create online personas, especially in the "fanfic" world - Fan fiction and its communities have long been of interest to academic researchers - see Henry Jenkins (1992)

Schizophrenia and depression are the mental illnesses most linked to creativity in the historical context (Schuldberg, 2001). He suggests that most often,

  • artists who focus on emotions and feelings in their work are manic-depressive. Sass writes that poets like William Blake, Lord Byron, Shelley and Keats all suffered from manic-depressive illness
  • artists who remove themselves from the world are more often associated with schizophrenia. Creative people with schizophrenia often experience a sense of alienation from the self, from their bodies and from the world. They become hyper-self-conscious but are able to step outside themselves, allowing a more cerebral form of creativity.

Some symptomatic mental traits could be seen as useful to writers, though the benefits tend to be specialised.

  • Obsession - writers need to be determined and focussed
  • Detachment; asocial distancing - writers need to be observers ("a poet even as falling down the stairs, will observe his fall" - Holub). A lack of empathy may assist observation. Also, staying away from people frees up more time for writing. Awareness of a lack of social empathy may result in compensating strategies - increased observation, etc.
  • Asocial self-revelation/freedom - freed from the constraints of politeness and political correctness, writers might produce more interesting (or at least provocative) work. This could be another compensating strategy, hoping to encourage a response.
  • Decontextualised (field-independent) thinking - randomness, chaotic/original thinking "outside the box", and finding unusual connections between things may help with creativity.
  • Multi-level thinking - a characteristic of some schizoid thinking is the ability to see the underlying media without inferring meaning, seeing pattern as well as plot; noticing fonts, wordplay.
  • Sensitivity - Highly Sensitive Persons and "neurotic" people might see things that others miss.
  • Inhibition - excessive control may lead to an interest in Formalism and Oulipo
  • Private language - Unusual forms of expression may result in interesting (albeit intractable) work.

The Writer in Society

"There have always been people in societies and cultures who have different experiences of reality compared with the majority, and there's always been an overlap between people who have those gifts, or insights, and people who are identified as suffering from mental illnesses" (Thomas, 2007). Social acceptance depends on the literary trends of the period. Some literary styles align with particular mental problems.

  • Romanticism - trying to be at one with nature presupposes a split between the mind and the world
  • Modernism - reading Sass's "Madness and Modernism" one might easily believe that modernism is dominated by schizoids
  • Nouveau Roman - might suit the mind-blind
  • Confessionalism - a school of poetry that merges well with therapy - easier to do if you don't care what others think of you, or the effects on family and friends
  • Surrealism/Dada - these schools are based on random or subconscious images
  • Ermetismo (Hermeticism) - a school whose poems were characterized by unorthodox structure, illogical sequences, and highly subjective language.
  • Elliptical poetry (a term coined in 1998 by Stephen Burt) - "Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music"

Patients might consider themselves lucky if they're born into a era whose literary style matches their symptoms. Currently there's no dominant literary mode. The Web has helped like-minded people keep in touch, leading to a more fragmented literary scene where minority genres more easily survive.

Social Integration

If writers are going to support themselves by writing nowadays, they will need to teach, so social adaption is useful. It may also improve the chances of wider publication. The risk from the writer's viewpoint is that if (as Freud believed) their writing's a symptom, then it might disappear as they become more "healthy". Several normalisation options are on offer

  • "Asylum" - rather than change the writer to fit society, new surroundings can be found to suit the writer. Some art colonies (and academic settings) are big enough to be self-contained worlds within which eccentricities are tolerated, even encouraged, creating their own norms that visitors adapt to.
  • Borderline cases - those with borderline symptoms may be more strongly encouraged to tweak their style rather than adopt wholesale changes - e.g. writing a narratively normal piece with a mad person safely compartmentalised as the main character; normalising the appearance of their manuscripts and cover letters.
  • Drugs - These may be offered to make life easier, but they may dull writing. Schuldberg suggests that drugs blunt the creativity of patients with manic-depressive illness more than that of schizophrenic patients.
  • CBT - behaviour change (e.g. being encouraged to meet people) may take the edge off writing or use up time.

Some neurotic people have a high tolerance for loneliness, and may find writing a useful way to gain esteem while being alone. Socialising may not "cure" writing, it may merely take away the opportunities for writing, leading eventually to lowered self-esteem. However, socialising with writers is less problematic.

Writers Groups

"Seizing on a traditional trope of the poet as exceptional individual, certain individuals receiving health-care who feel themselves to be exceptional apparently adopt poetic discourse as part of that role", (Fiona Sampson, in "Kicking Daffodils", 1997). Some writers groups exist solely for people with diagnosed mental problems (see Survivors Poetry, etc). These and private study can help a writer's inner development, but before the writer emerges fully into society they can join a halfway house - a more public writers' group. The semi-structured discourse within a restricted domain coupled with tolerance of quirks makes such groups a welcoming environment. They range from one-off events to Master's degrees.

  • Amateur - Local writers groups are as popular as ever. Some focus more on literary appreciation than production. Their repetitive, undemanding format offers newcomers the chance to hone social and literary skills prepared in isolation. They usually have annual membership fees. In the bigger cities there are performance venues too, with open-mike sessions. Weekend and week-long residential courses are increasingly popular.
  • Academic - There are creative writing evening classes in most towns. UK universities are slowly catching up with their US counterparts (over 800 degree programs in creative writing exist in the States). Some are part-time with low-residency options.

Technical competence, commercial success, emotional authority and educational status all contribute to a complex web of interaction in a group. In an educational context the tutors have a potential conflict between academic assessment and encouraging self-discovery. Autobiographical writing is an exploitable grey area, especially when authenticity is considered a positive literary feature. "Creative Non-fiction" (encompassing autobiography and personal essay) is on the increase.

How writers can use a public writers group as a support group

At one writers group I attended in the 80s, a subset huddled at the tea-break who seemed to have little in common. I later found out that they'd all been to the same local mental hospital. Therapy professionals who recommend patients to go to particular groups should perhaps attend one first - their atmosphere can vary a lot. Some groups offer tea, biscuits and companionship with a stable membership, others are competitive hot-houses. Some benefits of using writers groups are that they're cheaper than evening classes, casual, less committal, and (as opposed to self-help therapy groups) the person is not stigmatised as a patient. However, the writers need to be self-analytical enough to exploit the benefits, and meetings can be rather unstructured with difficult members. Advice includes

  • trying an online group first.
  • being prepared to face robust criticism that judges commercial potential more than depth of insight. Nervousness is common when presenting work, and crying's not unknown.
  • looking upon all expression (comments as well as explicit self-analysis pieces) as revelation. The more gestures, the more that's said and written, the more there is to analyse.
  • monitoring how much you speak in proportion to how much others speak, and checking the proportion of positive comments you make compared to negative ones.
  • playing the game of wanting to be a writer, wanting to be published.
  • studying theory in order to defend idiosyncrasies on theoretical grounds. Finding an appropriate style. Finding role models. Mixing theory with person-centred comments.
  • going to the pub with members afterwards to get more varied feedback.

How psychologists can use writers groups

Less well covered than links between creativity and mental health is the group dynamics of writers groups. It's a mutually beneficial topic. A university creative writing course might welcome multi-disciplinary interest from a psychology department, hoping to improve students' ability to benefit from (and run) workshops. Topics could include studying

  • how a writer's style influences the type of criticism they offer, and how influential their comments are.
  • how a person's psychological type affects their chosen genre - is fragmented work a reflection of, or reaction to, personality?
  • how genre affect happiness/survival statistics - are confessional poets happier than similar people who don't write?
  • workshop dynamics (the different types of leadership and dissent) and how groups reach consensus on a text

The morality of using a writers group in this way needs to be addressed. There are precedents (in literature as well as psychology - in the US particularly, writing tutors use teaching contexts as subject matter for their poems and stories nowadays), and the group organisers are often willing to volunteer. The organisers of writers group who I've met are used to one-off visits and bouts of strange behaviour.


  • Richard M. Berlin (ed) (2008), "Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process", John Hopkins University Press
  • Vicki Betram (ed) (1997), "Kicking Daffodils", Edinburgh University Press p.261
  • Stephen Burt (2009), "The Boston Review" May/June 2009
  • Kay Redfield Jamison (1993), "Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament", Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
  • Henry Jenkins (1992), "Textual Poachers", Routledge
  • J.C. Kaufman and S.B. Kaufman (2009), "The Psychology of Creative Writing", Cambridge University Press
  • Eric Maisel (1999), "Living the Writer's Life", Watson-Guptill, p.125
  • Louis A. Sass (1992), "Madness and Modernism", Harvard University Press
  • David Schuldberg (2001) Infinite Mind: Art and Madness
  • Philip Thomas (2007) The Independent, Sunday, 18 March 2007
  • Lisa Zunshine (2006) "Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel", Ohio State University Press
  • The National Association for Poetry Therapy and the National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy have information on training
  • The UK's Poetry Society were/are involved with various projects - see their healthcare page.
  • Survivor's poetry

Saturday 16 January 2010


People not uncommonly say that short stories are more like poetry than novels. Some short, single-focus stories may well be mistaken for poetry, just as some poetry gets called "chopped-up prose". In the journey from story to poem there used to be a no-man's land of unpublishable short prose. The only hope of publication for these pieces was in poetry magazines. Texts in the format of recipes or shopping lists became poems. Anecdotes and vignettes couldn't be prose-lineated in poetry magazines because they weren't "Prose Poems" - a term that had rather been taken over by surrealists and erstwhile experimentalists (Baudelaire, Russel Edson etc.) So they got a line-breaks make-over.

Now the literary landscape's changed - we have Flash. Flash isn't a genre or a mode. Definitions vary, but in practise it's short (less than 1000 words, sometimes a lot less) and doesn't use poetic line-breaks (though it may still use line-breaks the way that adverts, lists, etc use them). Usually it employs narrative, character or plot, but sometimes it uses juxtaposition. The style may be poetic without it needing to be a poem, though the more it jettisons traditional story features (character, plot, length) and adopts poetic ones (sound effects, form) the more like a poem it will be.

I think Flash writers reading some poetry magazines for the first time might see familiar material but might wonder about all the line-breaks - "It's Flash with hiccups". Some free verse writers don't like adjusting let alone removing line-breaks though they have trouble explaining what they are for - "they just feel right" ... "they just came out that way" ... "they give the imagery room to breathe", etc. The poets might indeed be able to point to a line-break that introduces a telling pause, neglecting to explain what the pauses presumably introduced by all the other line-breaks are for. The "free" in the phrase "free verse" means to me that the author's freed of the need to put line-breaks in just for the sake of a restrictive form, but that freedom has become a duty, with many poems adopting the regular rectangular stanzas of older formal poetry.

I don't think there's such a thing as a neutral line-break. They're never hidden characters. To me each line-break added is an effect that is potentially powerful but can as easily backfire. And yet, reading poetry one might believe that line-breaks don't have to pass stringent tests to justify their existence the way that adverbs do. Irrelevant ones are politely ignored, like someone's speech impediment. Take Catherine Smith's "Snakebite" (in the Forward book of poetry 2009). It's 13 3-line stanzas ending with "Tomorrow/ we'll feel sick as dogs. But tonight,/ here, under a bright, full moon,// we're amazing, and as we hug/ on my doorstep, I taste you,/ kiss the snakebite off your lips". If you gave a point for each line-break that did something and deducted a point for line-breaks that did nothing (or less than nothing), I don't think you'd come out with a positive score. It's not an auto-cue text, it's literature, so why not let the story speak for itself? "If in doubt, leave it out" is a maxim that can be applied to more than words. Flash takes the radical approach of eliminating the poetical line-break.

I think many poems written in the past few decades in retrospect fall more appropriately in the Flash category - poems like Carolyn Forche's The Colonel for example. Simon Armitage's poems in the Winter 2009 issue of "The Rialto" (a poetry magazine) looked very Flashy to me. Some magazines ("Tears in the Fence", for example) avoid genre classification by not labelling sections "Prose" and "Poetry". Sometimes (as in a few New Writing anthologies by the British Council) there's a section entitled "Texts" for debatable works.

The 2 Flash writers I've followed most closely (it's hard to avoid them if you read online) are Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman. They both write poetry and short stories as well as Flash. Their Flash spans a spectrum. Pieces like Tania Hershman's "Hand" is where poetry takes over from Flash. The shortest piece in her The White Road and Other Stories book (Orange Prize Commended) is 102 words long. She's got Flash into the august "London Magazine", and in June 2010 BBC Radio 4 will present a week of her Flash. Vanessa Gebbie's contributed to "Field Guide to Flash Fiction" (Rose Metal Press), and has edited SHORT CIRCUIT - A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. Her Flash tends to be closer to prose, I think, which may be because she's more serious about her poetry (her work's been short-listed in the Bridport poetry competition).

Both are relatively new writers emerging without historical baggage into a world where Flash is a viable option and poetry isn't necessarily considered a higher form of art. It will be interesting to see how this new generation of writers redefines the genres.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Poetry, Mathematics, and Computing


I look upon Mathematics as distinct from "Science", and "Poetry and Mathematics" as a mix that provokes issues distinct from those of the more commonly discussed "Poetry and Science" mix, so it's interesting to see how real poets handle maths. However, as an integration of the 2 disciplines I find poems like Wislawa Szymborska's Pi rather disappointing. It focusses on one feature of pi, namely that its digits go on forever without repeating. But the vast majority of numbers' digits go on forever. The poem's allusions aren't pi-related - e and the golden mean might have been more appropriate choices, or the square root of 2 - though it's not a transcendental number, it's an irrational one. If she'd written a poem called "Hamlet" or "Childbirth" or "football" ("wow, don't they kick the ball a long way") displaying this amount of empathy with the subject I could imagine readers being unhappy, but poets get an easy ride when they use Mathematics. That said, the outsider's viewpoint is one perspective, and at least this name-dropping ensures that the poetry audience isn't alienated.

A photo of a test-tube isn't a fusion of Art and Science in the way that opera combines Music and Drama. I think many poems about maths are like that photo rather than like opera - if they're good (and they may well be) it's not because of their understanding of the subject matter. However, if I'm accusing Szymborska of being in some sense shallow what do I mean by "deep"? Mathematically important, characteristic, fundamental? Can a mathematician's notion of beauty or depth be tranferred into poetry? The Greeks were allegedly upset when the square root of 2 was shown to be irrational - the proof's short and elegant too. Godel's results shook the foundations of maths. The Continuum Hypothesis underpins many other results. All of these are perhaps worthy topics. For style, perhaps Tractatus or some of Spinosa's texts offer a model. I've seen some contemporary attempts to bring more balance to the poetry/maths mix

  • In the 2002 Bridport Poetry competition, Dr Frank Tapiador won a supplementary prize. I seem to recall that the poem had formulae in it
  • Michael Bartholomew-Biggs was a reader in Computational Mathematics before recently retiring. Uneasy Relations has notes to accompany the maths-inspired poems.
  • Both Peter Howard and I have written poems about e, and I'm sure we're not the only ones.

Ted Chiang's prize-winning short story Division by Zero is serious about maths too.

Of course, there's more to mathematics than numbers. Perhaps in these other topics (topology, combinatorics, the Mobius Strip, Godel's theorems, etc) there are more fertile possibilities. Fractals excite some - "Fractals may be the most complex and the most subtle examples of patterns found in both mathematics and poetry ... When poets borrowed ideas from fractal geometry and applied them to the reading and writing of poetry, they made a remarkable intellectual leap" (M. Birken and A.C.Coon, "Discovering Patterns in Mathematics and Poetry", Rodopi, 2008, p.167)

Or perhaps I'm looking too hard for deep similarities. Poetry and maths are human activities so they're bound to share features just as Cookery and Woodwork do: both require good ingredients, careful preparation, a balance between function and beauty, between the parts and the whole. With Poetry and Maths

  • there's the attitude, the stance vis a vis the visible world. According to Frye, [both literature and mathematics] "proceed from postulates, not facts; both can be applied to external reality and yet exist also in a 'pure' or self-contained form. Both, furthermore, drive a wedge between the antithesis of being and non-being that is so important for discursive thought", Frye, "Anatomy of Criticism", 1957, p.351
  • there's the compression and elegance of expression.

In Mathematics influences poetry by JoAnne Growney there's a reasonable list of points of contact

  • mathematics and poetry demand similar creativities
  • constraints involving mathematics give poets the opportunity to discover new language
  • mathematics offers precise and vivid imagery for poems.

I think it's over-ambitious to take matters further than that. All the same, I think mathematical allusions deserve to be followed-up as assiduously as literary ones.


Computing though is a rather different issue. There are many computing languages to choose from, and they needn't be used merely to describe and prove. Some poems (particularly kinetic Concrete poems or those involving procedural poetics) are already programs. In addition

  • In "These Days" by Leontia Flynn (New Gen poet) there's a poem with fragments of a computer program - "Perl Poem"
  • Peter Howard's also published poems about computing. Some (e.g. 68000 Mornings) are online
  • In "Digital Poetics", by Loss Pequeno Glazier (University of Alabama Press, 2002), the author gets rather excited about the poetic potential of Unix - "[Unix] can also be seen as highly poetic, employing sparse, condensed syntax for powerful effects. ... It offers possibilities for conceptualising space that are compelling ... These and many similar features suggest that UNIX is a system with intensely compelling poetic features"

Many online poems exist, written in Flash, etc. I've only recent found The periodic table as assembled by Dr. Zhivago, oculist which is a collaboration between a writer and a computer programmer showing how chemistry terms can be translated into literary ones by a computer program.

Further Reading

Sunday 3 January 2010

Magazine Reassessments

I tend to stick to the same stable of magazines, but I thought I'd take a look around this year. What's changed?

  • I have access to the online magazines that the University subscribes to - the full text of hundreds of literary magazines ("Poetry", "PN Review", etc)
  • My local Borders has closed. They stocked many US and UK literary magazines
  • WWW magazines have improved in quality and status
  • Some magazines have gone. Others (e.g. Iota) have changed beyond recognition.
  • I read that book publishers care less about slush piles nowadays. I don't know whether this means that they take more notice of magazines. Even if they do, I suspect that only a few magazines matter. More likely they're influenced by networking (of which online discussion boards - some associated with magazines - play an increasingly significant role).

What affects my choice of subscriptions?

  • Brand loyalty
  • Chance - I've tried renewing subs to 2 magazine lately but something's got lost in the post, so I might not try again. And chance encounters affect choices - what tipped the balance towards "The Dark Horse" was Hannah Brooks-Motl's article in the Summer 2008 issue
  • I try to support prose-only magazines - "Riptide", "short Fiction", etc.
  • I get magazines that supply something I can't get elsewhere
  • I get magazines if it improves my chances of getting acceptances

Beneath it all though lies a feeling that paper magazines are doomed. In the UK the main poetry publishers and major magazines seem less influential now (to me and my peers, I guess I mean). There's more small-press infiltration of prize-lists, and more pamphlets are being published. Perhaps the Web has helped smaller magazines more than large ones - the small mags benefit more from the networking and wider visibility that the web provides. Magazines that I've unjustly neglected in the past are "Magma" (whose contents I like), and "Poetry London" (whose poetry I'm rather less sure about). I haven't seen "Tears in the Fence" for years - it's changed a lot, and is a good read. And "Brittle Star" has done well lately. Importantly for me, these latter 2 magazines publish short fiction. At the other end of the spectrum there are 2 venerable magazines I've never been in - "Poetry Review" and "PN Review". Though "PN Review" has a few interesting articles, I have trouble with most of the poetry and some of the chattier essays. I like its reputation more than its contents. But I'll keep posting to "Poetry Review" every two years or so.

I imagine many of these publications are under pressure. Now that US magazine are often easier to submit to than UK ones I wonder how many UK writers sent their work straight to the States. Besides, for fiction there are hardly any UK markets anyway, and "Rialto" tells people to expect to wait 6 months for a reply to a submission.

But all is not rosy for US magazines either. I'm told that "Story" and "New American Review" have gone, "TriQuarterly" has become WWW-only and "Southern Review" is shrinking.

As the water-hole dries up, strangers rub shoulders. On Poetry Publishing Amy De'ath suggests that both Carcanet and Salt cut through the mainstream/avant- garde divide, though Carcanet tends to print older, "established" avant-garders. On the more purely innovative side, Shearsman remains impressive and Barque keeps going. Magazines like "Tears in the Fence" are less mainstream than I'm used to, but not beyond my range. I need new challenges

In consequence of all this I think I'm going to adjust my magazine subscriptions a little, now that I can't buy off the shelf. I'll also send stories to the US rather than the UK, and take WWW magazines more seriously. But I still have trouble evaluating WWW magazines. I'm sending Flash pieces off, but I don't produce many so I don't want to waste them. I know of a few established outlets - "Smokelong", etc - but keep finding other possibilities. Even London Magazine's starting to print them. Time to take a few chances I suppose.