Monday, February 7, 2011

At Least vs. If Only

I spent January lost in a sea of WIP misery.

Yes. It happens to everyone, I know. My agent said something to me like, "you've only been at this writing thing for what, a year? Writer's block is 110% normal. Go read some books and don't worry about it."

[Here's an aside: Kathleen Ortiz is awesome]

But the whole thing terrified me, because ever since I started writing, I've been half-convinced the whole thing was a fluke. I'd gone through the first 35 years of my life without writing so much as a short story or a poem, and in the last year ... well. So perhaps you can understand why I'd believe my 2010 was some weird karmic joke. I've wondered if I'm like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, destined for a brief period of illumination before losing all that light.

I'm still hashing all that out in the space between my ears.

But a week or so ago, I ditched my January WIP, even though I had written, in chaotic bits and pieces, at least half of it. And last weekend, I outlined another novel. And in the five days after that, I wrote the first 20,000 words.

Huzzah! Back in business.

Until Saturday, when I realized I'd written that first 65 pages from the wrong perspective.

All right, so I go on Twitter, and I mention this hilarious bit of stupidity. And two lovely Twitter-friends, Jennifer Walkup and Amparo Ortiz, reply and basically say the same thing--"AT LEAST you didn't [insert even more frustrating writerly experience here]"

Their sentiments, my friends, are called "downward counterfactuals".

And they were like a salve on my bruised writer's heart.

Funnily enough, I did some research on counterfactual thinking when I was an eager young undergrad. A counterfactual thought is a mental construction of an alternative to facts or events. It's a "what might have been." Human beings engage in this sort of thinking all the time. I do, too. Heh.

There are two major types of counterfactual thought--the upward and the downward.

The upward: "If only I had realized this book must be written in third person, I would have saved myself days and days of work."

The downward: "At least I didn't write a complete novel before realizing first person, though I loves it so very very much, is just not the right POV for this book."

The upward: "If only I had let this sit for a few days before plunging in, I might have figured this out sooner."

The downward: "At least I've put serious words to page for the first time in a few months, because that's a sign I am not regressing into my pre-writer existence."

Get it?

Both kinds of counterfactual thinking are useful.

If you are in need of MOOD REPAIR, downward counterfactuals should be the mental trick of the day. Thinking about how you've avoided a much-worse outcome will make you feel better! And who doesn't want to feel better (we'll save that for another post, shall we)?

If you are in need of a LIFE LESSON, upward counterfactuals are more your poison. After all, if we're all filled with relief because it could have been worse, we're not focusing on how we could do better. And who doesn't want do do better (you guessed it, another post is called for)?

All right, so which type of thinking fits your style? And in what kind of situation?

Do you comfort yourself with the downward counterfactuals? And if so, are you sure you're not protecting yourself a little too much?

Do you delve into possibilities for improvement with the upward counterfactuals? And if so, are you sure you're not beating yourself up a little too much?

Be sure to check out Lydia's Medical Monday post and Laura's Mental Health Monday post today as well!


  1. Whoawhoawhoa. With an already downtrodden mood, this post speaks volumes to me. I'm all about upward counterfactuals. If only I had done stuff right in the first place, I wouldn't be in this mess. That's the story of my life. So yes, I'm beating myself up all the time. It's the neverending circle. Someone stop my clock!!


  2. I'm thinking downward thoughts, but being a half-full person might have something to do with it. :)

  3. hee hee. those terms seem backwards to me! :) i do both, and then get myself confused! :)

  4. I am downward counterfactualizing all the time, but I didn't know it!
    Great post Sarah, and glad you got your writing mojo back!

  5. Believe it or not, I try to avoid both when I write. My thoughts are more as follows...

    Sigh... *pinch bridge of nose* Let's fix that.


  6. I think a balanced writer should do both - upward and downward. But who am I talking "balanced" on a blog with psychology in the title? :) Loved the "meet. collide. meld. fight to the death. snuggle" - sounds like my writing experience nearly every day :)

  7. Nice!

    I generally start with the "If Only's" and soothe myself with the "At Leasts"...end on a high note, right? LOL!

    *hugs* on the fluctuating writing mojo...I was in a slump in January too, then I figured out how to "fix" my MS's problem. Funny how a breakthrough comes in the darkest hour.

  8. hi miss sarah! that counter up and down stuff is pretty cool. i didnt ever hear of that before. for me im sorta both. like today if only i got all my math homework done i woulda got a better grade. at least i got enough done so i didnt flunk. mostly when im not feeling so good i do lots more if onlys.

  9. Ha - thanks for shout out. LOL. I def waffle between the two. I am always arg why didnt I see that sooner, but also well, at least I saw it. And ITA - KO rocks.:)