Finding the Sweet Spot
The Big 5 of Writers’ Personality
How locating your sweet spot can make your writing practice less effortful and more joyous.
Something I’ve learned over my career as a writer—and through working as a facilitator, teacher, editor and therapist with many, many other writers—is the prevalence of anxiety. It’s the 80 lb. black dog that constantly nips at our heels. Sometimes it knocks us over and stands on our chest, panting in our faces, immobilizing us. And you’re not weird or a bad writer if you feel this. All of us feel this.
If you find yourself struggling as a writer, it is important to understand adjustments you can make to your writing practice to stay courageously and enthusiastically engaged.
One of the many courses I took during my psych degrees was Personality Theory. Freud, Jung, Meyers-Briggs—they all had something to offer.
I was particularly taken with the Big5 theory that posited personality is created by an intersection of points on five separate continuums organized around conscientiousness, openness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. (If you’re interested in learning more, and seeing your own personality scored on the Big 5, there’s information at the end of this post).
Recently I’ve been working on a similar “Big5 Model of Writers’ Personality.”
“Personality,” as defined in Psych Theory, is fairly fixed. But the elements that create one’s writer’s identity are much more fluid and changeable. It’s helpful to be aware of where you are on each continuum and act responsively if you want to stay in healthy balance. Consider “healthy balance” here as being in a state where you are unafraid to go to the page or keyboard and move the pen or keys, leaving a trail of the evidence of your writer’s mind behind.
The Big 5 continuums for writers are:
- From writing intuitively to writing intentionally
- From feeling confident to being anxious about your ability to write
- From writing just for yourself to writing for publication
- From writing from imagination to writing from reality
- From engaging in language poetically to writing prose
One of the reasons your writer self’s identity is much more flexible and changeable than your Big5 Personality self is because it’s more dependent on outer factors. For example:
Just received an acceptance from a journal or a yes from an agent? The point on the dimension of anxiety/confidence moves significantly in a positive direction.
Had a few rejections in a row? It slides towards writerly self-doubt.
And given that writing is so much about communicating—bridging that gap between your experience and someone else’s—it’s not surprising that outside influences have a strong effect on your position on the dimensions.
So here are some questions to ask yourself to assess where you are and whether you need a different place of practice to keep the pen moving.
Do you need to work more intuitively right now? Or do you need to apply yourself with intention?
This continuum contrasts the idea of writing for discovery vs. writing to fulfill a plan and flesh out an idea. There are lots of different dualities that could be applied to this continuum: Play vs. Plan, Process vs. Product, Pantser vs. Plotter.
Writing intuitively is about process and play: curiosity, meandering through memory, responding to prompts, exercises, constraints. This way of working is about discovering and following what comes up for you moment to moment. AWA Method workshops usually encourage intuitive, process writing. Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice is an intuitive process. So are Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way pages.
In contrast, writing with intention is about creating a product—developing an idea to completion. This is where all those writing books and websites full of outlines, plans, templates come in. Write a bestseller in 90 days! The Breakout Novel Workbook. etc.
Memoir expert Marion Roach Smith is a huge proponent of having a plan and sticking to it. She promises, Take my course and you’ll never write to a prompt again! But here’s the thing—sometimes we don’t know what the plan is, until we’ve done some—or lots of—intuitive discovery work.
Writers talk about being either a “Pantser”—someone who flies by the seat of their pants—or a “Plotter”—someone who develops an outline and sticks to it. We need to have access to both modalities.
How do you know which kind of writing you need to be doing right now?
Are you feeling stuck because of your grim determination to expand a project despite the fact you’re floundering a bit about what the project needs? You’ll likely benefit from focusing more on process writing.
Or are you feeling directionless—like you’re spinning your wheels—because you keep writing to prompts that lead you into delicious but distracting digressions? You likely need more writing to a plan or an outline. You might benefit from having a mentor, some accountability and some concentrated time holding your project in your head all at once.
If you read my occasional newsletter/emails, you’ll know about my Pyjama Writing experiment. Since January, a solid, dedicated group of writers have been gathering regularly with me to work in communal silence in four separate hours a week—I’ve been so grateful for that devoted, intentional time and their company to seriously move the 2nd draft of my novel forward and hold it all in my head.
But after months of that, I was feeling constrained by plodding along so steadily as a Plotter—my creativity waned. I needed a shot of writing with curiosity and an experimental attitude.
So during AWA’s Write Around the World (WAW) fundraiser in May, I took in as many intuitive, prompt-based generative workshops as possible. I used the WAW sessions for pure creativity and fun, giving myself permission to write the worst junk in the world, and went in with a wide open, let’s-see-what-happens attitude.
I SO appreciated being facilitated by someone else—having someone else plan the prompts, figure out the logistics and the timing. And out of these workshops I wrote several very promising first draft poems, the beginning of a short story, and the beginning of two essay/braided memoir pieces. None of those would have happened if I hadn’t surrendered to playing around. I also produced a collection of stream of consciousness dreck that will never see the light of day again, and that’s fine. That’s the thing about play – it doesn’t have to be or become ANYTHING.
How are you feeling about your talent and skills as a writer these days?
I’ve noticed that when someone begins (or returns to) their writing, they’re almost always somewhere on the anxious end of the dimension. They may be too frightened to read the first few times they write on-the-spot in a workshop. A question that I’m often asked when a new writer hires me to give them feedback on a piece of writing is, “Should I bother to continue? Do I have any talent? Is this any good?”
Most writers have a tipping point. For the first while, they need strengths-based feedback, like the kind we offer in generative AWA workshops. What’s strong in this already? What stays with the reader/listener? How did this piece affect us emotionally? The length of time a writer needs this depends on the individual—for some it’s weeks, for others it’s years.
But eventually, with enough encouragement (real encouragement – not empty flattery) a writer will come to recognize their own strengths in craft and voice; they will come to believe that they have something to say that interests and affects those who read their work. They begin to dream of sending their work out. Now they’re ready for more balanced feedback.
Do you need more encouragement about your abilities as a writer right now? Or are you ready for constructive feedback that will give you some ideas of how to make your writing even stronger?
There’s a general misunderstanding in the writing community that AWA workshops are “all about just making a writer feel good.” But that is a fallacy. It’s built right into the precepts of the AWA method that “The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer’s original voice or artistic self-esteem.” But that doesn’t mean one can’t get meaningful constructive feedback in an AWA method workshop. All certified leaders are trained in how to give feedback that makes the work stronger. (Note: NOT in how to give feedback that shreds a writer’s self-confidence!)
I believe writers will ALWAYS need to hear what’s strong and working in a piece. And, when a writer is ready, they need to hear what will make the work even more effective in communicating their ideas with others.
Writing for Yourself/for Publication
Who is the intended reader for this piece of work?
In some ways this has a parallel to the previous dimension; just as we always need to hear about the strengths in our work, we should be always writing for ourselves first and foremost. That’s what leads to authenticity, to the uniquely personal and original. That’s what keeps us engaged over the long haul on the same project.
Writing for yourself engenders curiosity and spaciousness. It allows you to keep yourself company as you investigate what you have to say about something. It gives permission to wander and to explore.
And then, when you’re ready to put it out in the world, you bring a different set of muscles to the keyboard. You call on your editor’s eye. You begin to think about marketplace, and where you would find readers that are looking for the kind of thing you have written. (Sometimes you begin with a marketplace—for instance looking for themed Calls for Submission on Literistic or Duotrope—before you even begin.)
But if you begin to write for publication too soon, you can become frozen in the hard-eyed glare of the inner critic and the barrage of judgmental statements like: “Boring!” “Too long winded!” “Too facile!” “Too derivative.” “Not current enough.” “No one’s going to be interested in this.” “Too personal.” “Too bland.” “Too risky/exposing—what will your mother/husband/wife/family/friends/work associates/students think?!” Before long you’re avoiding your writing desk and straightening cupboards/basements/garages or bingeing on Netflix.
Writing first and foremost has to be enjoyable and a personal pleasure. If you’re not getting your butt in the chair, ask yourself, Am I too engaged too early with thinking about the market for this piece?
Are you writing from imagination? (short stories/flash fiction/novels). Or are you writing from reality? (memoir/essay/creative non-fiction).
Most of us have a point on this continuum that is most natural to the writer in us. However our range on this dimension naturally broadens over time and with experimentation.
But sometimes our material can block us up. Specifically in memoir, the exposure we feel as a result of telling our truthful stories can shut us down. If you suspect that’s the case, try switching to writing in 3rd person for a while, and intentionally change some details so the piece is “fiction”.
Conversely, sometimes we’ve already made that decision but it’s not working for us. There’s something in us that wants to stand up with our material, tell the true story and have our readers know “This happened to me.” Melanie Brooks has a wonderful book, Writing Hard Stories, that documents several well-known memoirs where that was the case. Those books refused to be written as fiction. They demanded to be told as the truth.
True Pyjama Writing!!
The sweetest spot: morning coffee and journaling with a doggy lap desk for my notebook.
I don’t have a prescription for this, except to notice how much in flow or how sticky your writing feels. If you notice that you’re stuck writing in one genre or another, shift to another.
Are you writing (mostly) poems?
Or are you naturally drawn to express yourself in prose?
Like the previous point, most of us have a natural way of using language and a writing voice/set of skills that lean more toward one end of the scale or the other.
Again, it’s crucial to bring noticing to the process. The noticing has to do with boredom or engagement. If one way of engaging language feels terribly predictable, too easy, too fallback, then try the other.
If you’ve been writing in a prosy, narrative voice, try experimenting with the kind of essence that happens when writing poetry. Try some craft exercises, or play with constraints. Even more inspiring, take an online workshop in an aspect of writer’s craft you feel uncertain about or don’t know much about. There’s so much learning about the craft of writing available online now.
All we have to do is look at the novels of Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels to see how a poet’s awareness of language can enrich a narrative text. Conversely, Ellen Bass’s series on revision in her Living Room Craft Talks was eye-opening for me in seeing how she revised her thoughts from narrative exploration to her stunning poems.
The key element in all of this is awareness and witnessing. A mindfulness about what state we’re in regarding flow and willingness to write. If the ink is pouring out with ease, then blessings on you and your pen or keyboard! Don’t interrogate the Muse—let her take your hand and lead you courageously into your material and your expression.
But if the ink is stuttering, or worse, dried up completely, you could try locating your position on each of the five dimensions and shift the “you are here” bead on each to a new position along the line and notice what happens.
Need more inspiration and play? If you want to write and receive strength’s-based feedback, sign up for a Writers’ Sanctuary – fall dates are now open for registration. If none of them match your schedule, there are many offerings by AWA facilitators on the AWA website. Amherstwriters.org
Mostly a prose writer, and feeling uncertain about poetry? Try one of James’ Poetry Sanctuaries this coming fall – a welcoming, non-threatening AWA based environment where you’ll be gently enlightened and challenged. And for those who want to get serious about learning more about poetry, I can’t say enough good things about Ellen Bass who will be offering another Living Room Craft Series online in the fall.
Need more focus and concentrated effort? You’re always welcome at Pyjama Writing. For summer 2021, sessions will be EVERY weekday morning at 7:30 and Monday evenings, also at 7:30 EDT. There’s no cost, although you can make a donation to support AWA’s social justice programs if you choose.
Need to dig deep into the truth of your life? I’m offering my “A Novel Approach to Memoir” to produce a full length memoir project again, starting in September.
Want to lie your head off? (in a full length novel J ) James is offering our “A Novel Approach to Fiction” 10 month course to produce a full length first draft novel, also starting in September.
Want to write for publication? Also starting fall 2021, I’m offering “10 months/10 submissions” once again – a program dedicated to guiding you through producing, revising and polishing your work, identifying markets and sending pieces out for publication.
Big5 Personality Theory from psychology.
One of the many courses I took during my psych degrees was Personality Theory. One theory that really appealed to me was the Big5. I liked it’s simplicity and elegance. The five dimensions are:
- from Open to Closed,
- from Conscientious to Impulsive,
- from Extraverted to Introverted,
- from Agreeable to Hostile, and
- from Neurotic to Stable.
(You can remember the 5 easily with the acronym O.C.E.A.N.)
My prof had us imagine the model as a spatial representation in three dimensions. “Each person will have a point on each one of those dimensions; it’s the intersection of all those singular points that create each person’s personality,”
Interested in finding out how you score on the five dimensions of the Big5 personality theory? You can do a brief but astonishingly accurate test here: