Carolyn Kaufman Psy.D.

Psychology for Writers

Using the News to Inspire Your Stories

The writerly muse considers new technology

Posted Mar 10, 2013

Up-close image of Google Glass

Photo of Glass by Antonio Zugaldia

When I was in sixth grade, our English textbook had little blurbs (called “loglines” in the writing world) that told you just enough about the story to hook you. The problem with this particular textbook was that it didn’t include the names of the books with the blurbs. Because I was intrigued by some of the loglines, I decided I’d write the stories myself. And a writer was born.

I’m fascinated by the idea of a writerly Muse – a mythological creature that feeds you ideas and inspiration. In many ancient stories, the Muse is considered the true storyteller; the writer is merely a vessel through which the inspiration flows. In fact, early authors would often begin their stories by begging for help from the Muses. For example, Canto II of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno begins “O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!”

If only it were that simple.

The problem with the idea of a Muse is that in it, writers become passive empty vessels, eagerly awaiting any sign of divine inspiration. And as any writer who has ever waited on a Muse knows, these creatures have a terrible habit of taking far-off vacations (without cell phones or email) when you need them most.

Meanwhile, psychologists argue that waiting on a Muse is the best way to get absolutely nothing done.

I mean, think about it. Where else in life can just anyone sit back, do nothing, and be rewarded with amazing success? Not in business. Not in the other arts (e.g. fine art, illustration, music, theater, dance). Not even in relationships. (Sure, we’d all like Prince/Princess Charming to show up on our doorstep eager to make us excruciatingly happy, but for most people it doesn’t work that way.) Ideas aren't going to come to you whole—you need to extrapolate from intriguing bits of information you run across.

In other words, good ideas take active participation and work from you.

Now, I like the idea of a Muse so much that I’m not going to tell you that you should throw it out the window. Nope. I say tie her down and make her tell you where she gets her ideas! Remember, you don’t actually have to come up with something out of nothing. Creativity isn’t just generating new ideas, it’s also combining old ones (or parts of old ones) in useful ways.

Here are a few places the Muse might tell you to look for intriguing bits:

  • Newspapers
  • Online news (I’m addicted to Flipboard)
  • Novels
  • Song lyrics
  • Television shows
  • Movies
  • Gossip (yes, you may have just found a reason to listen without too much guilt)
  • Any other place you’re hearing about others’ lives, beliefs, hopes, and dreams

Let’s just take the news as an example: does the news have conflict? Check. How about interesting people? Check. (We might even call some of them “characters”!) And short blurbs that provide just enough information to tantalize, kind of like the loglines from my long-ago textbook? Check.

So let’s look at an example of a news story that’s ripe with potential psychological issues for the writerly picking.

I’m currently fascinated with a new product called Google Glass, something I learned about through Flipboard’s technology feed. In case you haven’t heard, Glass is supposed to make your smartphone obsolete—you wear it on your face like a pair of glasses. Glass it has all the features of a smartphone, but it's projected in front of you and only you can see it. You can record videos, call up information about people, check your calendar, get texts, video chat, etc. I honestly prefer to read things than watch videos, but Google's How It Feels video will bring you up to speed faster than anything I can write, and it's only a couple minutes long.

Now, I look at this and even though a little part of me thinks it's really cool, the rest of me is going "well, there goes what's left of our privacy." This technology will have face recognition software (for starters) and will let people photograph you, take video and audio of you, and upload things about and of you to the internet. You, however, may have no idea it's happening and even if you do, you’ll have no control over it. Ever have someone post a less-than-flattering photo of you on Facebook? Well, this technology will allow people to post a heck of a lot more, and worse, they can do it out of context. You think trolls are bad in the comments sections of news stories? Those same people are about to be able to do a lot more than say something nasty.

Anywhere you go, people will be able to pull up tons of information on you just by looking at you. Name, age, marital status, videos, pictures, you name it. You can't opt out, and you won't even know it's happening. The ultimate reality show is coming...and you're in it.

This is already happening on a smaller scale. In February, Chinese official Yan Linkun had a violent temper tantrum in an airport, and someone caught it all on video. Interestingly, the airport security officials do nothing to intervene, though there are other videos of them intervening roughly when people who are not politicians do such things. Needless to say, Yan wouldn’t have faced such harsh consequences had the video not gone viral.

Though certainly there will be laws and lawsuits around Glass if it takes off (a Seattle bar has already pre-emptively banned Glass), let’s face it – this idea puts a whole new spin on Big Brother.

Fellow Psychology Today blogger Yosef Brody has suggested a variety of ways Glass may change our lives, ranging from loss of privacy and changes in how we relate to others to changes in the experience of loneliness and mental health issues like cognition, psychopathology, and child development.

Now think about how you can apply these potential changes to a story that includes a product like Glass, particularly if you’re writing science fiction. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a precursor to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, everyone lives behind glass walls so the government can watch them. Nineteen Eighty-Four has Big Brother. What could you do in your novel with a psychological landmine like Glass?

Carolyn Kaufman is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. More information is available on the book's website.

© 2013 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today