The Intrinsic Writer

Deep River Dream, Robin Urton

Intrinsic writing

is about writing for your own, self-motivated reasons, such as the satisfaction of accomplishing a goal you’ve set for yourself, or discovering something about yourself.

Intrinsic meaning occurs during an autotelic activity, one we direct and have a sense of control over. You become an intrinsic writer when you write because you feel like it; or more importantly, because you feel happier and more engaged with life when you’re writing.

Alternatively, extrinsic writing is about writing for an externally-motivated reason (a deadline, a publisher, need for approval, to win against an opponent as part of a competition). This creates an exotelic situation, which comes with a potential problem: since we are all raised within an agonistic worldview, one’s exotelic reason for writing too often involves some form of competition.

This might never be a literal competition. Instead, this could be the sense that anonymous others are achieving when you’re not. To the extent that you are motivated and feel good about yourself, responding to an externally-motivated stimulus has little or no negative connotation.

Blooming Meditation, Robin Urton

Ideally, of course, competitive situations are supposed to be pleasurable and bring out our best.  However, when it comes to writing, an activity complicated by individual psychology, emotional states, and perceptions of reality, there can be a negative component to being raised in a strongly competitive culture.

Because competition is not necessarily a positive energy, there’s a potential chasm lying between autotelic and exotelic writing. There are specific times when writing goes badly or feels forced. I believe at least some of these moments are caused by external, socially-reinforced stressors on the writer.

There are certain expectations imposed on those who come to the writing situation. For the writer to succeed, she must overcome hurdles that do not necessarily exist for those who fulfill the ‘social contract‘ of what a writer is expected to be, based on what we’ve been told to believe—our legacy of writing myths.

A Dreamer’s Odyssey, Robin Urton

‘Successful’ writers, I think we can agree, have all, to a great extent, accepted the unspoken social contract that says that writing is, like any other commercially-viable activity, competitive in nature. In addition to money, fame and glory, there is something for the successful writer to “win,” and it’s called cultural capital—not an insignificant possession, since it grants you access to power in ways that should be discussed more often than they are.

Cultural capital is a form of social cachet or status granted to the person who attains intellectually significant achievements. That these achievements are defined by a group in power with cultural values that shift and change over time is a detail that goes largely undiscussed, since instead we focus on the writer’s attainment, rather than the elitism of the cultural milieu in which she attains whatever status is granted to her.

Meditation Dream, Robin Urton

But what happens for the writer whose self-motivation is provisional, who depends largely upon someone else’s approval if she is to continue writing without feeling discouraged? To continue being interested in the challenge of writing, she’s going to have to add to the complexity of her own writing experience by adding new skills. Ideally, complexity should be balanced by a difficulty factor that includes attainable goals.

By using the word ‘attainable,’ of course, I have complicated the situation, since many goals you might want to achieve seem utterly unrealistic if you believe the myths about writing and writers we have inherited through the centuries, so let’s look at some of those myths.

Writing is an activity unlike any other for one specific reason: writers are imbued with magical ability because society puts high value on the ability to communicate in ways that affect our emotions. This is true, I believe, because we don’t understand ourselves very well, and we’d like to think that writers and other artists have a mystical understanding of humanity’s inner dimensions, combined with an ability to explain ourselves to ourselves.

Then society decides that ‘good’ writers (usually writers who can explain the human condition via poetry or lyrical prose) are so special, so magical, so inspirational, that the writer is placed on a pedestal of heroic proportion. During this process of ‘deification’, the writer becomes A Great Author, and society loses any sense of proportion in terms of valuing the person as an average human being.

Brave New World, Robin Urton

The danger of being externally-motivated in an environment where writers are pitted against one another, and are encouraged to live up to a mythic status available only to an anointed few, seems clear. Only the intrinsic writer will succeed in having a meaningful reason to write when up against such strong beliefs about what makes writing and the writer important and valued.

As long as we continue to perpetuate the elitism that surrounds the act of writing, we risk alienating potential writers who lose faith in themselves when they come up against hurdles that have nothing to do with ability, talent, or skill, and everything to do with perception, belief, and mythology about writing and writers.

Creative flow and the love of reading & writing

Okay, bear with me. This post has got some ridiculously long words, like: Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, which I have a hard time spelling, let alone pronouncing. However, he wrote a marvelous book about how creative flow works; it’s called, very simply, in contradistinction to his name, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial 1991), and I hope you read it. It’s significantly easier to get through than you might think.

The core of his argument lies in this concept: that the “key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding” (67). A “self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward,” is key to what Czikszentmihalyi refers to as an “autotelic” experience, meaning, a self-motivated goal or activity. Even the most painful or difficult experiences, he argues, can become rewarding if the person sticks with it long enough to have that proverbial lightbulb go on.

That means that if you’re not enjoying something actively, but you stick with it, the chances are much better that you will have that moment of inspiration or breakthrough that leads to the next place in your understanding, ability, or talent with something. The preparation is all. The amount of work, conscious or unconscious, that you put into something (like writing, obviously) can lead to greater insight and skill.

One of the things that makes sense is that writers must be readers, must immerse themselves in the printed, written, and spoken word. To enjoy writing… for it to flow for you, might not happen overnight. I doubt it happens for very many writers. It isn’t enough (in my experience, working with published writers as their editor) to get accolades, money, and fame, from your writing.

To love to write… this is part of the process, and it might not be obtainable in every minute of every writing day. But if you read Csikszentmihalyi, you will get a better idea of how it’s possible.