Thursday, March 19, 2015

Popova on Steinbeck’s Self-Motivation Through Journaling

At Brain Pickings, Maria Popova talks about how John Steinbeck's habit of keeping a diary helped him write The Grapes of Wrath. Excerpt:
Steinbeck had only two requests for the diary—that it wouldn’t be made public in his lifetime, and that it should be made available to his two sons so they could “look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was.” It stands, above all, as a supreme testament to the fact that the sole substance of genius is the daily act of showing up. ...

The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move.
Read the whole thing. Motivation. I've known people who've used journals to chronicle all sorts of things, everything from daily routines to the oscillations of marital relationships to internal emotional responses to life’s big events. But I've never heard of anyone who's used it to motivate himself to write. The cynical part of me finds it somewhat ridiculous, a sop to those who worship at the altar of self-help. However, science says I very well might be wrong—old science. According to NPR, in 1911 a pair of neurologists examined the link between the mind and the body, using physical constraints to test subjects' self-concept. (The scientists "noticed that when women who habitually wore the big hats [that were in vogue at the time] walked through doors, they ducked" even when their heads were bare.) In other words, the way we conceive of ourselves impacts our actions, and we can influence that self-conception through mental effort. Psychologist Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan thinks that so-called self-talk really can work. “What we find," he notes, "is that a subtle linguistic shift ... can have really powerful self-regulatory effects."

Yeah, I know. It still sounds a bit wonky to my ears. But who can say? What worked for Steinbeck might just work for you and me.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Stephanie Graves)

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