Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Miserable Muse?

Writing at, Mark Peters provides scientific backing for the old idea that miserable moods make for great writing. Excerpts:
Like so many writing teachers, I've been told I sometimes drive my students to depression or binge-drinking. Once, an online student who was about to meet me in person told a colleague that she needed to "face her fear" -- that face of fear being yours truly. Yes, I can be that delightful.

Well, maybe my reign of misery isn't all bad: It turns out that "low-intensity" negative moods are linked to better writing than happy moods. As shown in the research of University of New South Wales Psychology Professor Joe Forgas, when we're not walking on clouds or doing a happy dance, we tend to be more careful and mindful of details. ...

In one experiment, Forgas's guinea pigs -- humans, in this case -- watched either a comedy or a film on cancer before being asked to write persuasively. Others wrote emails after a similar "mood induction." In all cases, the sad folks produced arguments that were more concrete and therefore more persuasive than the happy campers. Just by being in a bad mood, Forgas's subjects unconsciously followed the advice I constantly give students: "Details matter," "Give me an example," "Back up what you're saying," and "Be more specific."
Read the whole thing. Peters nuances his argument quite a bit near the end, stating that while "a 'slightly negative mood'" may help we scribblers, "there's no evidence to suggest that a really awful mood might do the same." I concur, as far as that goes. While the narrator of Ecclesiastes says that the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, I'm not sure said house helps you put pen to paper. Indeed, works written out of deep despair tend to come off as mawkish and self-indulgent and almost impenetrably private. Perhaps the role of suffering is to give us the ideas that we treasure up for a time when we're better able to evaluate them. That's well and good. When it comes time to open up the word processor, though, give me a sunny day, a good night's sleep and a fresh-roasted cup of Guatemalan Finca San José Ocaña.

(Picture: CC 2009 by
_Nezemnaya_; Hat Tip: Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent)


C. N. Nevets said...

I hesitate to disagree, because I have anecdotally noticed the same thing in my writing, but I've also come to believe a couple of other things:

1) Part of the reason that negative emotional conditions spawn better writing, is that the expression of emotions in writing is cathartic, and we are anxious to get rid of negative emotions. As such, when we're writing from a negative emotional base we're often more open, more honest, and more willing to throw it all there. We don't have any urgency to get rid of a more pleasant emotional experience, and so I think our catharsis is hampered. The trick is therefore to figure how to be just as open, honest and all-out when we're in a positive place.


2) I think there's a certain crtitical appreciation for stuff that arises from negativity. It seems more honest, because critically positive emotional experiences are often linked to falseness, delusion, temporary states overlying a darker, gritter "reality." When you're writing in a negative place, you're often more jaded, more synical, more suspicious... Those things have a critical appeal and therefore the writing just seems better, whether it really is or not.


B. Nagel said...

I'll agree with Nevets that positivity does not win any favors with the critics or the critically minded. From an early age, students are taught to look for the lie in literature, whether it be the supremely ironic Modest Proposal by Swift or the weighted equality of Orwell's Animal Farm.

Sex and murder and drugs and blood sell stories and newspapers. But that's another subject.

I can see how the 'low intensity negative moods' would increase concentration and clarity. The occasional drink will chemically induce a similar brain state. But in the case of alcohol, tolerance increases and occasion can lead to constancy. And then you're just chasing that white dragon, ending up choked to death on a spoon like Tennessee Williams.

There is no substitute for practice and practice and more practice. The muse will not come until the work's begun, regardless of chemical enticements.

Phew. Long comment.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My feeling is you never know what will greet you at the WP. You need to show up to find out though. Happy New Year!

Scattercat said...

More details and more realism are good, but not necessarily "better" writing, depending on exactly what you're trying to accomplish. I suspect this study is just another way of getting at that fact that depressed people tend to have more realistic assessments of their own skills (as measured in predicting their scores on a knowledge test) than happy people do (who tend to overestimate their own competence.) We lie to ourselves a lot; it's how we make it through life. Only people at risk of suicide tell themselves the truth. Think about that the next time you need that "low intensity negative mood."

Mostly I just get rankled when people insist you have to be depressed to be a good writer, because I think the rest of the world mistakes introversion for depression. I get depressed when I *don't* write, and then I end up producing a bunch of crap before I get it out of my system and get back in the rhythm of things. Being cheerful makes me eager to keep going, whereas being in a "low intensity negative mood" makes me go play flash games and generally avoid my responsibilities.

On the other hand, I'm arguing against a large-scale study on the basis of my own experience. Which one is likelier to be abnormal, Nathan?

*mutters peevishly*
*turns on Plants vs. Zombies*

Loren Eaton said...


Disagreement ain't bad! Indeed, I wouldn't consider myself 100% onboard with Peters' hypothesis.

Regarding your second point, I have to wonder how much critical bias plays a part in the whole darker-is-better paradigm. I mean, I like horror and noir and their ilk, but I also find myself yearing for something upbeat and well-executed. And when it comes to actual writing, I always do better when I've had a good night's sleep and am in a decent mood.

Loren Eaton said...


Speaking of the literary greats' predeliction for getting snockered, did I ever send you this article? I like a glass of wine from time to time, but it seems to me that lots of drink sinks your writing prospects pretty darn fast. Think of what Dylan Thomas could've done if he'd stayed sober.

Loren Eaton said...


In fact, that was what I did last night! Turns out I need to do some research on medieval tanning practices. Never thought I'd write about that.

Loren Eaton said...


Being cheerful makes me eager to keep going, whereas being in a "low intensity negative mood" makes me go play flash games and generally avoid my responsibilities.

Yes, yes, yes. I got really down earlier in the week, and my productivity just disappeared. When I write something well, it gives me a little boost, which then makes it easier to write a little more and so on. It's a great postitive feedback loop.

BTW, I've never played Plants vs. Zombies, but I really like this video. Particularly the undead dolphin bit.

Scattercat said...

If you like Tower Defense games at all, Plants vs. Zombies is quite enjoyable. Actually, it's closer to a Defend the Castle game than a TD game; no mazing to speak of, just resource management, weapon placement, and being fast on the mouse button. Hardly an innovator in terms of gameplay, but the sense of humor is quite wry enough for my tastes. (And my tastes run pretty wry.)

Loren Eaton said...


My ancient computer started stuttering around the fifth stage, but PvZ was quite fun while it lasted! I particularly liked the pole-vaulting zombies.