Writer Wednesday: Know Yourself

Dr Dee's Scrying Mirror at the British Museum
Dr Dee’s Scrying Mirror at the British Museum

γνῶθι σεαυτόν

Pronounced gnōthi seauton, this famous Greek phrase means ‘Know yourself.” It’s been attributed to a variety of old sages, but if a thing’s worth saying, it will get repeated.

Know yourself: in the context of writing it means you will get the most work done and pleasingly if you take advantage of your strengths and make up for your weaknesses. I’m not actually suggesting you head into the wilderness on some kind of vision quest (although that’s always a good idea), but to take a moment to examine yourself in terms of behaviours. Who is that really in the mirror?

Are you a morning person or a night owl? I always imagine morning people as Debbie Reynolds burbling, “Good Morning!” in Singing in the Rain. Morning people probably imagine night owls as wraiths in Gothic clothing with huge eyes and twitchy expressions — sort of Edward Scissorhands. But it’s worth knowing your natural circadian rhythms so you can arrange your day to take advantage of peak times of creativity.

That way it’s not just caffeine fueling you.

Why carve out a half hour of writing time in the morning if you’re a real night owl? You’ll frustrate yourself trying to be productive at a time when your body wants to just go through the motions. If you’ve never really thought about it — or your job has made it impossible to choose your schedule — experiment for a few days with different times and see what ends up being most productive for you. Find a time when the words seem to flow more easily — or at least your brain is awake. You can work on changing that schedule if needed, but it’s uphill work.

Likewise, know your personality type; one of the most popular ways of assessing this is the Meyers-Briggs test. Many employers use them to know how to group people for better work output. Putting together a team requires balancing the thoughtful with the assertive, and the leader with the critic. If you know you tend to be stimulated by being around other people, schedule your writing time for a café or the busy part of a library. You may find it’s less distracting than being on your own. Likewise if you know you need solitude to work, find a way to get that quiet without interruption, even if it means hiding in the meeting room on a different floor from your co-workers or locking yourself in the bathroom at home.

You can find Meyers-Briggs type tests on the internet (here’s one) but if you can winkle an official test somewhere, the outcome is likely to be more reliable. Then again, you may just be confirming things you already sort of know. I am very much an introvert; I have managed to learn some extraverted behaviours for teaching and giving presentations, but I need a lot of time alone to recharge. Many writers share that tendency. It’s not anti-social or even shyness; we just need to be alone a lot of the time.

It’s okay!

Other Writer Wednesday posts can be found here. If you want to see me talk about these things in person, coming up March 25th, I’ll be giving a lecture at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and on April 10th, I’ll be talking about writing and social media at the Albany Public Library.

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