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Writing with Your Whole Self

Donna Glee Williams, a NCCAT Center Fellow and author of "The Braided Path," shared the thoughts on writing below in this blog post. Thanks to Donna Glee for these writing tips.

After publishing a novel and dozens of short stories, poems, articles, and book reviews, I have to admit that I’m pretty comfortable with writing. But when I’m helping other people find their voices, I need to help them understand how the writing process is built from three very different kinds of brain-bricks: creative mess-making, technical know-how, and critical judgment. A little diagram I stole from Eric Berne’s Games People Play helps me get the point across. Students call it my “snowman.”

Transactional Analysis (TA), the understanding of human interaction that grew out of Berne's 1964 work, is based on three systems in the mind that called ego states: Child, Adult, and Parent, loosely parallel to Freud's id, ego, and super-ego.

• The Child ego state is the natural uncontrolled and untutored energy of a child to explore, move, express itself, and instantly gratify its biological urges. Spontaneity, creativity, and liveliness are rooted in this ego state, as are selfishness, impatience, and other less charming characteristics of the young human-in-training.

• The Adult ego state grows out of the child s increasing contact with the world as he or she develops reality-based skills and learns to manipulate things and events. A person's ever-growing “how-to” knowledge comprises the contents of the Adult.

• The Parent ego state is made up out of neurological "recordings" of the pronouncements and behaviors of a person's parents and other early caregivers. Because so much parenting is oriented towards thumbs upping or thumbs downing whatever a child is up to, the content of the Parent ego state is mostly evaluative and judgmental, whether it carries the sweet flavor of approval or the bitter tang of condemnation.
Berne saw the personality in terms of interactions between all three of these states. He represented them visually as a three-tiered stack of circles. A snowman.

In writing, the same simple diagram can be used to explain how different parts of the personality produce free-flowing creativity, possess technical competence gained from experience, and are capable of evaluation and self-criticism. Just as the Child, Adult, and Parent ego states work together to enable a spontaneous, effective, and self-controlled personality, so the Creator, Technician, and Critic collaborate in the creative endeavor. Each is important. Not just important, but vital.

The unbridled Creator (unserved by a competent Technician and a rigorous Critic) will bring to the table a writing that is free-flowing, but undisciplined and ineffective. The pure Technician, not in the service of a free Creator and a rigorous Critic, will bring a sterile but correct product. The premature Critic, preoccupied from the beginning with writing the Great American Novel (or poem, or assignment), will have trouble producing anything at all and will probably ask a lot of frustrated questions about writer’s block.

The schema can guide teachers, and students themselves, to the intervention appropriate to their problem. Identifying where the imbalance exists (creative flow, technical competence, or critical rigor), and whether it is a deficiency or an excess, will go a long way towards defining the intervention that is needed. For instance, the logorrhea of the uncontrolled Creator will benefit from grammatical drills and work on proofreading, but these approaches will do nothing for the writer blocked at the drafting stage by a premature or unrealistic Critic. The student with the over-active Critic may have a grandiosely positive or punitively negative self-assessment. This student may need the help of peer feedback to establish realistic standards for his or her own work. A different but related problem may occur when the Critic chimes in with an evaluation of the creation before it is even drafted, demolishing the student’s ability to compose with ease and spontaneity. The writer with the juiceless but technically correct product needs guidance in how to connect that valuable competence to passion, how to put craft at the service of something he or she really cares about. Once students understand that this is a problem of timing, that their self-critical skills are valuable but must be employed after the Creator has been allowed to play fearlessly with the act of composition, then they can begin to learn the tricks (such as rapid, timed freewriting) that can give creativity free rein.

Berne’s little “snowman” can help both students and teachers grasp that the creative process will only bear fruit when a free Creator is served by a competent Technician and a rigorous, clear-eyed Critic with appropriate standards.

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