How do emotions drive projects; and how do they end them?

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about how far it’s possible to construct an emotional biography of a writer, by examining the texts they choose to write at different times in their life. This is really a question about the emotional driving forces behind the projects in which we choose to engage; and is perhaps particularly interesting when applied to non-fiction writers (in which the personal motivation is potentially more opaque, the writer more obscured, than in fiction and autobiography). Why, for example, does someone like Simon Winchester write biographies of a collector of skulls; the Atlantic ocean; the Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham; the volcano Krakatoa; the geologist William Smith; and two men behind the Oxford English Dictionary?  I’m not inviting psychoanalyses of Simon here, nor trying to find a unifying factor among all these disparate projects. (Indeed, perhaps their disunity is more revealing.) I’m really just wondering why it is that writers become interested in different subjects at different points in their lives: how do certain subjects speak to us, engage our interest, offer a vessel into which to put our hearts? It’s not always enough to just say, ‘well, I simply find that topic interesting’. Interest is usually a matter of emotional engagement; and the extent to which our attention can be held by a matter, our spirits roused,  can be to do with how that subject speaks to our personal concerns at meaningful points in our own lives.

Of course, this isn’t always the case – far from it. In a psychoanalytic tradition, thinking can be an evasion of feeling; not an engagement with it. I think perhaps this was the case for my first book, Map of a Nation (a biography of the Ordnance Survey).

As a corollary to this, I’m also interested in why certain projects (not necessarily literary ones) fail: why are they abandoned? Are there cases in which this is to do with the writer’s heart being no longer in it; a mismatch between the type of emotional investment required to do justice to the subject matter and the writer’s personal drives and interests at that time?

I’d love to hear input on this: why do you pick the subjects that you do to write about? How do they speak to you personally? What sort of emotional investment is required to do them justice? Or do you have examples of projects that have failed because of a lack of investment? a case of the heart no longer being in it?




7 thoughts on “How do emotions drive projects; and how do they end them?

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  1. I think that this question is essential. How does our state of mind drive our work? And when does it detract? Even though the daily mind-wrestling, to get ourselves seated at our desk….doing the work day after day, is inevitable, it needs some underlying impetus.

    I’ve been writing about London author Charlotte Lennox (1729/20-1804) for nearly 20 years now. On the one hand that long period is embarrassing. On the other, it’s just right. I’ve gone through numerous stages of emotional connection to her life and work, and I still cannot say what holds me to her. I like the thrill of the search, the surprising connections, the piecing together of a traveling young person, writing early and being “discovered.” Many other subjects would fulfill these desires. I choose Lennox at a moment when I needed (emotionally) to connect England and Spain. I’d recently left Madrid and longed to reconnect with this fascinating land. Finding Lennox, the author of _The Female Quixote_(1752) was a revelation. Over time, though, I learned that Lennox knew little about Spain. She was more interested in the gender bending potential in _Don Quixote_, which had become the rage in England. With the Spanish connection to her somewhat severed, I sometimes wonder why I stuck with Lennox. Encouraging mentors made a difference. Though my emotional state has been all over the map, perhaps Lennox was my anchor. I grew with her. And growing to know her, fortunately, meant liking the work even more. My Lennox biography is in the last stretches now. I can feel myself getting ready to lift that anchor and let her sail.

  2. As a psychotherapist and writer I am accutely aware of how creativity is directly connected to emotional connections. In my book ‘The Creative Feminine and her Discontents’ I explored how it is not just desire which drives creativity but also destructive forces which can be harnessed to the creative end.
    I am now working on a book about how and why specific works of art have been influential at various stages of my life ; how I appear to have tuned in to certain artists at certain times because of a deep emotional connection that resonated at that time. I am in a process of discovery that seems to be suggesting that my stages of life and emotions resonate not just with the work of art but with the artist’s own developmental and emotional states at the time the work was made. Could the art work be a conduit for a meeting of psyches? Maybe also when we write about people rather than things we write about them because it brings us closer to them through love and sometimes also hate.


    1. A slightly different take on the problem arises in oral history. In an oral history project, choosing a sample of people with whom to conduct full-life interviews, is tricky. Like a biography, such a project involves investment of considerable time and effort.
      The central question is: ‘what exactly do I want to find out’, from which follows: ‘whom do I need to interview’. Then one asks ‘why exactly do I need to interview them (& nobody else)’ .
      We find and make preliminary contact with potential interviewees and briefly try to find out what light they can shed on the historical themes and topics of central interest – bearing in mind that unique and unexpected material of historical importance is sometimes encountered.
      The sample must encompass diverse views but still allow for corroboration; too homogenous a sample gives ‘saturation’ – ie similar stories repeated.
      Interviewers do report having ‘favourite’ interviewees – and that often reflects a psychological bond or rapport that may depend on such factors as: the interviewer’s skills and background knowledge; ethnic or value affinity with the interviewee, minimisation of perceived power differential and the interviewee’s realisation of their chance to achieve ‘immortality’ by entering the historical record and having their say.
      Projects fail for many reasons – quite a common problem has been occasional failure to be specific enough about what we want to find out within the resources available; successful projects somehow focus on specific goals yet are still not totally closed to important eye-witness testimony on unforeseen themes.
      Why certain themes are chosen in the first place is a deep question. In recent local history, it has something to do with celebrating the achievements of sustained collaboration of many local people working together over long periods to achieve a worthwhile end – unsung local heroes! There is something magnificent about what is says concerning the human spirit.

  3. From Margaret Patrikeos 16 March, 2013.
    The question of why we fail at certain projects has been on my mind for quite sometime. One reason is loss of interest, but another, I think, is the fear of failure, and I’m alert for articles that may offer answers. In this morning’s The Australian newspaper, journalist Ruth Ostrow relates fear of failure to procrastination. She cites Jung and Freud who contend that given the choice – 1. Being Happy, or 2, being Right – the majority will choose number 2. I asked myself is this why I often feel nauseous when I sit down to write? Is this why I fling myself into the nearest shopping centre to appease that dull ache? In 2011, the cupboard in my spare room was filled with new green saucepans, and the summer of 2012 was spent making ice-cream. Neither my cooking skills, nor my waistline, improved. Procrastination is something I battle on a day-to-day basis. It has nothing to do with making myself happy, but everything to do with the fear of failure. Ruth Ostrow includes a quote by Goethe and I’m reminded my daughter gave me a birthday card that included the same words: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
    I continue to write the Exegesis to my PhD. It’s a case of feeling the fear and doing it. This blog has given me cause to pause and think about my reasons why I am driven to complete the task. First, the age factor is the elephant in the room. A friend once said, “Marg, I may have only ten good summers left.” Chilling words, but true, particularly as we hit our sixties and seventies. Secondly, my project offers the opportunity to study relationships between fathers and daughters, a subject I am passionate about, and this brings me to the second question asked in the previous blog: Why we pick the subjects to write about.
    The choice to write my memoir “Invisible Ink” arose from my father’s words. The day he died, he issued an edict: Marg you have to write. He was ninety and this was the first piece of advice he’d ever given me. Of course, I could have ignored him, and I tried. After my father’s death in 2001, I inherited his writing, which arrived in an olive green case. I unpacked the case and stuffed all his work into six black boxes. Eight years later, in 2009, I took up the challenge. My work led me to other daughters who have written about their author fathers.
    My fear of failure is ever-present. A way of overcoming the fear is to ask myself – Why am I doing this? And here Joan Didion is immensely helpful. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear” (Didion 1976 Why I write).

  4. The above comment has reignited my thoughts about women writers. Working as a Jungian Analyst with women who wanted to write, paint, sculpt, I became fascinated with the multiple ways in which they avoided doing that which they apparently desired. In the end writing a book helped me understand what was going on. The idea of being successful was much more problematic than failure. Success would bring about change, possibly isolation from a partner or children. These women were much more frightened of their power than their ability to fail. It was this capacity to change themselves and others and therefore their destructive potential which held them back.

    I have found when I have difficulty getting down to writing that it is entering into the necessary dark but cut off space that I am loathe to do, even though I know that that is where I want to be. Each time I think this will be different and now on my third book I have to accept that it is exactly the same. Writers enter a Faustian pact. They have to let go of many of the props that tie them to a world of things and relationship and hope that enough will remain so that they do not get entirely lost. It is a dangerous process and so much easier not to do it. When we stop writing it could be that it feels too destructive to ourselves; a book is after all a dismantling of self, or simply that that fine balance of creativity and destruction has not been attainable

  5. My commitment to a decade of studying Edward Thomas, then writing ‘A Conscious Englishman’, was certainly emotionally as well as intellectually driven. He, like me, rather wrecked his early life and university career by becoming a parent at twenty. Further than that, I identified initially – not now- with his discontent as a result, and still with his indecisiveness, liking for ambiguity and maybe his stoicism.
    I heard Kathleen Jones at the Oxford Literary Festival on her life-long interest and commitment to Katherine Mansfield for similar reasons – a rackety foolish teenage marriage and creative development subsequent to that. Her new biography, containing many new finds of stories and letters, sounds excellent.

  6. How very intriguing. This whole area is immensely interesting. For myself, I read and research in preparation to write but never quite reach the point of active departure. I experience a very interested and intelligent curiosity at work reverberating the importance of sifting through source material in order to spot the diamond at the bottom of the sea. In my case, the search for understanding of an afterlife has been paramount. All life’s dimensions feed into this occult process which contains an extraordinary beauty in not actually reaching an assumed goal; a metaphysical imaginative power being sufficient. As the years roll by, the map of interests, adventures, insights and significant mystery arrange themselves in response to my acuity and perseverance. No different to anyone else, of course, except perhaps when the invisible calls out for attention. For that is when we are really alone with our task. A genuine need to be humble, spiritual and charged with interest is often just enough to activate a clear linear understanding of the significance of what one is doing or achieving. The past enhances our lives to the point of unicity of intellect, and it is at this revelatory point that earthly efforts give way to contemplation; the pastures of which are imposible to depart.

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