Sometimes ideas that move my thoughts along come totally unexpectedly. I recently read a review of a book on willpower by Baumeister and Tierney and bought it on impulse so I obviously needed to read it. I expected it to shed some light on personal change of the kind I’d come across in Schwartz and in my reading about ACT. I hadn’t expected it to map onto two of my other obsessions – the creativity/personal life relationship and religion. I’ll save religion for a later post and focus for now on some interesting insights about creativity that are scattered throughout this gem of a book.
In two previous posts I looked in detail at the relationship between Dickens’s art and his life (Perfecting the Life or Perfecting the Art below). In the end I closed the second post with the following points about two possible kinds of explanation for the dramatic discrepancy in his case.
Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in this Autumn’s Poetry Review pages 68-69):
The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.
Baumeister and Tierney come at it from a different angle in a way that does not contradict his point of view but complements it by explaining the problem at a different level – not necessarily a deeper or a better one, but intriguing nonetheless.
What is the will?
Before I get onto to that perhaps I need to give a brutally brief summary of their key ideas about will. Going into more detail can wait for the later post. So, here’s my version of the bottom line.
Will is in some ways like a muscle. It gets tired with use. The body needs energy in the form of glucose to feed the brain if the will is to keep going.
The link between glucose and self-control appeared in studies of people with hypoglycaemia, the tendency to have low blood sugar. Researchers noted that hypoglycemics were more likely than the average person to have trouble concentrating and controlling their negative emotions when provoked.
(670: the Kindle version I am using stubbornly refuses to give me page numbers rather than these useless co-ordinates. Maybe it’s a test of will: I’ll have another biscuit and press on.)
Taking slow release food fixes the problem. Regular exercise of the will increases its stamina enabling us to self-regulate for longer periods but not indefinitely.
This then raises the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (428):
Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.
Ego Depletion & Discipline
They go onto to extend their discussion beyond libido in any sexual sense to impulses, moods and thought patterns of all kinds. They argue that as the will tires we begin to experience our impulses and emotions more strongly just as our ability to contain them begins to weaken. At the crossover point we can no longer withhold our anger or master our depression.
This then begins to sound like a very plausible explanation of Edward Thomas‘s contrasting states of being. The drudgery he endured in writing hack work to feed his family can be seen as seriously depleting his capacity for self-regulation in precisely this way. He became ungovernably depressed and could not resist acting out his frustration on those closest to him.
Once he began to write poetry those problems became more manageable. So the link between periods of intense creative effort and lapses of self-control in-between is by no means inevitable. Interestingly there are other examples in Baumeister and Tierney’s book of where this simple relationship seems to break down. Take Anthony Trollope for example (1719).
Anthony Trollope believed it unnecessary—and inadvisable—to write for more than three hours a day. He became one of the greatest and most prolific novelists in history while holding a full-time job with the British Post Office. He would rise at five-thirty, fortify himself with coffee, and spend a half hour reading the previous day’s work to get himself in the right voice. Then he would write for two and a half hours, monitoring the time with a watch placed on the table. He forced himself to produce one page of 250 words every quarter hour. Just to be sure, he counted the words. “I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went,” he reported. At this rate he could produce 2,500 words by breakfast.
What’s more, this combination of a full-time job and a disciplined writing schedule did not seem to create periods of poor self-control (1737):
Trollope was an anomaly—few people can turn out 1,000 good words an hour—and he himself could have been benefited from slowing down occasionally (and cutting some of those 250-word digressions). But he managed to produce masterpieces like Barchester Towers and The Way We Live Now while living a very good life. While other novelists were worrying about money and struggling to turn in chapters overdue at their publishers, Trollope was prospering and remaining ahead of schedule. While one of his novels was being serialized, he usually had at least one other completed novel, often two or three, awaiting publication.
The Force of Habit
They come to an interesting conclusion (2377):
The clear implication was that the best advice for young writers and aspiring professors is: Write every day. Use your self-control to form a daily habit, and you’ll produce more with less effort in the long run.
They speak of how making an activity a habit reduces the amount of will power needed to sustain it (3824):
. . . . a lasting technique for conserving willpower [is] a habit.
That would seem to be a trick that works for some even when the tasks undertaken are massive. However, following the example of Trollope is a huge ask well beyond the capacity of most of us. All is not lost, though, for those of us who aspire to write a bit (3806).
Fortunately, there is another strategy for ordinary mortals, courtesy of Raymond Chandler, who was bewildered by writers who could churn out prose every day.
His solution is a somewhat surprising one:
Chandler had his own system for turning out The Big Sleep and other classic detective stories. “Me, I wait for inspiration,” he said, but he did it methodically every morning. He believed that a professional writer needed to set aside at least four hours a day for his job: “He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.”
They give this Raymond Chandler principle another name (3811-13):
This Nothing Alternative is a marvelously simple tool against procrastination for just about any kind of task. . . . . . you can still benefit by setting aside time to do one and only one thing.
I’ve heard this called ‘time banding’ and it works well for me. I label a span of time my ‘blogging time’ for example and refuse to do anything else for that hour or so. Blog posts get written. Only you can judge whether they’re worth reading. They’re certainly worth writing in that I dig deeper into the books I’ve read and the experiences I’ve had and mine more gold from them that way. Chandler, it seems, summarised the idea in terms of writing by saying (3815):
“Write or nothing. It’s the same principle as keeping order in a school. If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”
I think I’ll go now and lock myself in an empty garret for the next few hours with only a pen and paper for company. War and Peace here I come.
- The Situation of Willpower
- Reason.tv: John Tierney – Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
- Perfecting the Art or Perfecting the Life
- Mind over Matter (discusses Schwartz)
- Willing Change (four posts that deal with ACT)
- Hollis’s Edward Thomas (three posts on the poet’s last years)