The Psychology of Writing with Melissa Burkley — A Gehenna Post Interview

Greetings from the Ether,

Melissa Burkley is the author of Hinnom Magazine Issue 005’s guest column, “The Four Strains of Writer’s Block and How to Treat Them.” Burkley will contribute a column for every issue of Hinnom Magazine for the foreseeable future, and we are excited to share our interview with her!

Alas, let us begin!

 

CP: Can you tell our readers a little about you? The Writer’s Laboratory?

MB: I am both a research psychologist and a writer. I received my Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2006. As a professor and researcher, I’ve conducted hundreds of scientific studies (some featured in outlets like The New York Times and Esquire) and have talked about my research on Oprah Radio and Martha Stewart Radio.

My fiction work falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction whereas my non-fiction work blends my love of storytelling with my knowledge of psychological science. For example, I’ve written pieces that analyze popular novels from a psychological perspective (e.g., Psychology of Dexter book) and have also been hired by movie companies to psychologically analyze their films.

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Order The Psychology of Dexter Here

 

As a research psychologist, I’m trained to dissect human thought and behavior. For example, my colleagues and I examine how people’s perceptions form the basis of reality and how experiences and prejudices alter perception, such that several people can view the same event and come to very different conclusions. And as a writer, that tendency to dissect is only amplified. Stephen King (my all-time favorite author) wrote in Misery that when his main character decided to become a writer, he’d “condemned himself to a life of dissection.” I completely agree with that sentiment. I find it impossible to read a book or watch a movie and not think, “I wonder how they’re going to end it,” or “This is how I would’ve done it differently.” And as a psychologist, I’m constantly thinking, “That’s not how a person would truly respond in that situation.” My husband is also a psychologist and fiction writer—one of his stories appears in Gehenna & Hinnom’s own Year’s Best Body Horror 2017 Anthology—so as you might imagine, there is A LOT of analysis going on in our household (and a lot of storytelling).

In addition to my writing, I also run The Writer’s Laboratory. It’s a blog that teaches writers how to use psychological science to create authentic characters, craft immersive prose, and overcome common writing obstacles. Psychology has a lot of useful information for writers but the problem is that most scientific writers do not do a good job of communicating their findings to a non-academic audience. You essentially have a bunch of right-brained writers trying to learn information from left-brained scientists and as a result, a lot is lost in the translation. In my opinion, what is needed is a translator. Someone who knows both sides of the equation (that’s where I come in). This is why I created The Writer’s Laboratory and why I’m excited to be authoring the writer’s advice column for Hinnom Magazine.

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Order the Years Best Body Horror 2017 Anthology Here

CP: When did your passion for helping authors first spark?

MB: I’ve been teaching undergraduate and graduate students how to write scientific journal articles for two decades. On the surface, it might not seem that scientific writing and creative writing share much in common, but they actually do. Crafting a good opening hook, having a single story to tell and staying focused on that message, using vivid examples to engage the reader and effectively convey your message—these are all things that benefit both types of writing. I ended up using a lot of techniques from my creative writing background to inform my scientific writing, and taught my students to do the same.

Late last year, I decided to reverse the flow of this stream and create a blog where I used my scientific background to help creative writers. With twenty-plus years in the field, I know how psychology can be used to help writers improve their craft and I wanted to share those insights with the rest of the world. The result was The Writer’s Laboratory. Although it is a fairly new blog, I’ve already received a lot of positive feedback. As a teacher at heart, it makes me feel good to know I’m helping writers in an effective and fun way.

CP: Can you tell us a little about your first column in Hinnom Magazine? What plans do you have for future columns?

MB: My first column for Hinnom Magazine discusses writer’s block. There is probably more advice out there on writer’s block than any other writing issue. Everyone from Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck to Stephen King and Margaret Atwood have weighed in on the issue. So the idea that I could tackle it and offer something fresh was daunting. But what I kept seeing was how much the advice contradicted each other. Some say the only way to cure writer’s block is to write, whereas others say writing while blocked is the worst thing you can do (and still others say writer’s block doesn’t actually exist).

As a researcher, whenever I see contradictory information like that, I look to the data. So I tracked down the original journal article of a Yale study on writer’s block and discovered there are different types of writer’s block (four in fact). Some types require one solution and others require a very different one, which explains the conflicting advice. That journal article was excruciatingly dry and convoluted, so it’s no wonder that writers haven’t learned the lessons locked within it. Luckily for your readers, I’m trained in the language of journal articles so I was able to organize and repackage the information and spell out the advice in a fun and easy-to-read piece.

The list of ideas I have for future columns grows each day. For the immediate future, I plan to discuss how writers can tap into their unconscious mind to improve their writing. In my opinion, new writers assume that writing only comes from their conscious mind. But well-seasoned writers have learned to trust their “gut” and have developed tips that allow their muse to roam free inside their skull. That article should be a fun one to write (and to read).

CP: How will this column set itself apart from others?

MB: Truth is, there are a ton of writing advice books and blogs and columns out there. But every one pretty much does the same thing—it provides you with one writer’s opinions and suggestions. To make matters worse, the advice out there often contradicts each other (as was the case for advice on writer’s block). So how is a writer supposed to know how to separate the good advice from the bad? What writers need is advice that is based more on consensus and fact rather than personal opinion.

We run into a similar problem in science all the time. Many ideas and theories about human behavior are contradictory, so we have to go to the laboratory to get at the truth. We bring in hundreds of people and conduct controlled experiments to get the answers to our questions and determine the most effective solutions. That same approach is what I think the writing community needs. They need writing advice grounded in scientific evidence.

But before you go groaning, “Ugh, science is so boring,” know that I am a teacher too. Whether it’s in the classroom or in one of my blog posts, I know the best way to get people to eat up a scientific fact is to wrap it in a candy coating. So that is what my column (and my blog) seek to do: present scientifically-backed writing advice in a fun, user-friendly way.

CP: Do you think that the struggles many writers face are based in more psychological realms than say, methodical ones? If so, why?

MB: Writing is an endeavor of the mind, which means that nearly all writing problems are rooted in psychology (with maybe the exception of basic grammar and composition, and that is easily solved with a copy of Strunk & White). When it really comes down to it, most writers either struggle with issues of process (e.g., writer’s block, lagging creativity, coping with rejection) or content (e.g., crafting realistic characters, dynamic plots, engaging openings).

I think it is fairly easy for authors to see how psychology can help them overcome the process issues because those are issues housed within the writer’s mind. What is less obvious is that psychology can also help writers with the content issues, since those are issues housed within the reader’s mind. How can I inject my plot with conflict and tension? How can I create a realistic villain? How can I hook my reader from the first sentence? At the heart of it, these are all psychological questions and so they require psychological solutions.

CP: What is your favorite article that you’ve written so far for writers, and why? Where can we find it?

MB: No lie, one of my favorites is my piece on writer’s block featured in the February issue of Hinnom Magazine. Like I said above, tackling that issue was a daunting but fun challenge for myself. Another of my favorite posts is on metaphor. Most writers know that metaphor is a good literary technique. But what they probably don’t know is it’s also a powerful psychological technique. Research shows metaphors actually change the way readers think about a concept on an unconscious level. In my post, I talk about the psychological research on this topic and then offer my “STORI” rules—five guidelines writers can follow to ensure they are crafting the best metaphors. You can find that advice and more on The Writer’s Laboratory.

CP: You have worked on many projects, a lot of highly esteemed publications. Which, for you, was the most rewarding?

MB: Getting my first scientific paper published in an academic journal was pretty cool, and talking to Gail King on Oprah Radio about my research was both exhilarating and terrifying (she is a tough-as-nails interviewer!). But both of those pale in comparison to the pure joy I had when I saw my first work of fiction published in the Women in Horror Annual 2 . It’s a story about an Amish girl leaving the community for the first time on her Rumspringa, but things are not as they seem. To see something in print and for sale on Amazon that was completely born of my own mind was a pinnacle moment in my life.

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Order the Women in Horror Annual 2 Here

 

CP: In closing, we always like to end our interviews with a tidbit of advice for writers, which happens to be your specialty. If there was one piece that you felt was most helpful, which would it be?

MB: Stephen King has given some amazing advice over the years, but my all-time favorite nugget of wisdom came from a 2003 award acceptance speech. In it, he said that writers shouldn’t strive to be good writers or even great writers. They should be honest writers. What does he mean by this? Well, according to “Uncle Stevie,” honest writers are ones who have “told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.” To demonstrate this principle, he tells the true account of an airliner crashing and killing everyone on board. He argues that the story would have had more literary flair if the pilot’s final words were a witty phrase or a touching farewell, but that’s not what happens in real life. In truth, the pilot’s final words captured on the black box were “Son of a bitch.” Not particularly eloquent but certainly very honest.

Honest characters and storylines help the reader become immersed in your writing. I think this principle is important for all writers, but especially so for those in the horror and fantasy genres. Such stories place make-believe characters in highly unrealistic situations so if you want to immerse the reader, you need to make sure your characters respond in an honest, realistic way. For example, in the real world, people often use humor to deal with trauma and atrocities. Soldiers make jokes on the battlefield. People giggle nervously when they’re afraid. Humor is a release valve we use when our terror reaches a boiling point. Good horror writers recognize this fact and inject a little humor into their stories to make them more authentic. Because when something strikes a reader as inauthentic, it launches them out of your story and chances are they won’t return.

As you can see, King’s advice circles back to my whole approach—if you want to be an honest writer, you need to know how people actually think, feel, and behave. That’s psychology!

 

Melissa Burkley

Melissa Burkley received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a professor, she has conducted hundreds of scientific studies and her work has been featured in The New York TimesCosmopolitan, and Oprah Radio. As a writer, her work has appeared in the 2017 Women in Horror Annual and The Psychology of DexterGirl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Twilight books. Her blog, entitled “The Writer’s Laboratory,” teaches authors how to improve their writing by incorporating psychological principles into their work. She writes a second blog for Psychology Today called “The Social Thinker.” Because of her dual-expertise in psychology and storytelling, she is frequently sought after by film companies who want a psychological analysis of their movies and characters (e.g., Blood HoneyLovesick Fool). Visit her website at www.melissaburkley.com

 

Thank you so much for stopping by! Make sure to pre-order Hinnom Magazine Issue 005, check out Melissa’s other work, and visit our Patreon for some awesome rewards! Check us out on social media too, if madness is something you’re into.

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