Make Good Use of Your (Over)Reacting Habit

“10 Habits of a Successful Writer” was the article title in the writer’s magazine. Same old, same old, I thought, intending to skip over it. After all, I knew the rules by heart: write every day, write what you know, write first in the day, etc.

Then I glanced at the actual list of writing habits, and none of those “rules” were there. Instead I saw things like “the habit of rehearsal,” “the habit of ease,” and “the habit of reacting.”

I was hooked.

The article by Donald M. Murray (writing teacher and Pulitzer Prize winner) was a reprint of a 1992 article. On “the habit of reacting,” he wrote:

“I am aware of my reaction to my world, paying attention to what I do not expect, to what is that should not be, to what isn’t that should be. I am a student to my own life, allowing my feelings to ignite my thoughts… I notice my writing habits, and from that grow this article. I see signs for a house tour, feel an unexpected anger at the smugness of those who invite tours into their homes, and end up writing a humorous piece about an imaginary tour through a normally messed-up house, ours. I have taught myself to value my own responses to the world–and to share them with readers. I build on my habit of reacting.”

Value YOUR Reactions

This jolted me!

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to curb my reactions. Because of my personality, I tend to react quickly (instead of stewing quietly), have strong opinions about everything and everyone, and think I know how to fix everybody and every injustice I see. (“Oh, Kristi, calm down,” is a phrase that always annoys me.) Obviously, for the sake of my relationships, I’ve had to learn to keep most of my critical opinions to myself and stop trying to fix people and situations, many of which are none of my business anyway.

But try as I might, the inner opinions and reactions don’t stop. Sometimes I think I will pop a cork if I have to keep quiet one more minute. (Literally, I leave the room sometimes to get a grip on my mouth.) While all this is well and good–and necessary for peaceful relationships–I think it’s had a negative effect on my writing.

I was discussing this with a writing friend–the problem I was having infusing enough conflict into my novels lately. Everyone had become so “nice.” Few strong opinions were expressed by my characters anymore, and they mostly kept their feelings hidden. I found them boring and, for the first time in my writing career, I was abandoning projects half-finished.

The Habit of Reacting

My personality type will probably never stop reacting, but after reading this article, I decided to write down all the strong reactions I have to people and things and situations. Instead of biting my tongue till I implode or get a headache, I write in my “reaction journal.” In it I say what I really feel and think about the events of my day.

Later, when appropriate to a plot, I’ll let my characters react! They’ll say the things I’m thinking behind my bland tolerant smile. They’ll say the things I no longer feel are right or necessary to say to people inhabiting my real world. It will keep conflict out of my relationships, but add it to my characters and stories where it will do some good.

I am beginning to understand why Julia Cameron (of The Artist’s Way fame) says, “Keep the drama on the page.”

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6 Responses to Make Good Use of Your (Over)Reacting Habit

  1. good idea! And I think how a character can say things that would be inappropriate elsewhere! Thanks, Kristi

    • kwpadmin says:

      So true! And sometimes they ARE things that need to be said! But it can come across better in fiction, I’ve found, than in many of the settings that I’d dearly love to spout off in! :-)

  2. Vijaya says:

    Strong reactions are definitely a clue to what we’re passionate about … and the real meaning of passion is suffering, so it is what we’re willing to suffer for. It gets to our core values.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Vijaya, thank you for that comment! I hadn’t pushed it that far, but that connection is certainly there. We don’t often connect passion with suffering (other than at Easter), but that’s a good point! And it’s all grist for the writing mill. 8-)

  3. Karen Jones says:

    Great topic! And your segment THE HABIT OF REACTING is simply brilliant! The thought of keeping a journal for the reactions that I really want say in a situation not only helps me write great readable prose, but it may also help my mental health! Thanks, Kristi, for a wonderful article.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Thanks, Karen! Yes, it’s good for the writer within, as well as your mental health, to write it all down. Otherwise I might implode. :-)

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