Monday, June 20, 2011

You Tell Me: Control

I've been thinking a lot about control over the past week or so. Mostly because several things have happened in various areas of my life, and I've had almost no control over any of it.

In my work with clients, I spend a lot of time talking with parents about their children's "high need for control." They wonder why a child would do something so obviously self-sabotaging as laughing at a parent's reprimand or intentionally hurting someone. They're shocked that the child seems to be so excited and delighted at causing them distress and frustration.

Sometimes the word "manipulative" gets used.

I always shy away from that particular term. Words are powerful, and if you use a word like that, I think it attaches a lot of adultish meaning and intention to the behavior of a child.

So instead of "manipulation", we talk about control. And how some kids, some people, seem to need it more than others. It comes out in so many different ways, too. Some good, some bad. The need for control is a basic human feature, after all. One central to many of the rights and values we hold dear. It's important. But some of us are better than others at letting it go, or at facing the reality that we don't really have that much to begin with. And some of us struggle with it.

That's what I've been thinking about. Now I'll give you an example from my own life, from just last week, which, I confess, was a rough one. Because she is lovely and sensitive, Kathleen, my agent, asked me if there was anything she could do in light of the various things I'm dealing with (nothing life-threatening or devastating, so no worries!). She reassured me I could take longer to get certain things done, et cetera. And I said to her--send me the revision notes for my WIP as soon as possible, please. I need to dive into them. I need to bury myself in something. I need to feel like I have control over something.

She came through for me; she sent me a five page editorial letter. And for the last few days, I've been happily tinkering with the world I've built within this WIP, writing new chapters, clarifying character motivation, slicing out inconsistency, wrestling with how to shoehorn the economic concept of the gold standard into a futuristic monetary system based on electronic credits (it's an action-packed urban fantasy/romance, I swear).

Let me tell you, this revising felt good. Cleansing and thrilling. This was something that was all me, all about what I could do in response to critique, how far I could stretch my creativity, whether I could meet the challenge. If these revisions suck, that's because I screwed them up. If they're good, that's me, too. I'm so grateful to have had this task--because I needed something to control.

While I sort out my control issues, tell me. Do you have a high need for control? How does it come out in your life? How about your writing? When does it help, and does it ever hurt you or get in the way?

Remember to check out Lydia's Medical Monday post and Laura's Mental Health Monday post today!


  1. I used to crave control. I wasn't really a control freak, but I got stressed if things weren't going to way I wanted.

    Today though, I'm a different person. I know, and fully accept, that control is an illusion. The only thing I can control is myself, my own reactions to events around me. I think, hope, I'm a better person for that.

    That said, the nature of control does crop up in my writing. I like showing a character's normal life and then throwing it into chaos as they struggle to hold on to everything all at once. Then they have to decide what things they can save, what must be sacrificed, and how they're going to restore order before it's too late.

  2. Maybe that's why I love writing fiction. It's me having control of something in my life . . . even if sometimes it feels like my characters and story are controlling me. ;)

    Hope things work out for you, Sarah.

  3. Sarah, this post is so thought-provoking. When interacting verbally with younger children, our choice of words is so important. They can misinterpret easily. Words are so powerful. (As we all know.) Control is a vast subject and there's just not enough time or space here for me to explore. I'll be in thought all day. :_

  4. My life has pretty much taught me that there is no such thing as control, only the illusion of it. This makes it easier to let go of.

  5. I have in the past- like when my first daughter was born I was pretty much a control freak. I still get a little overbearing about small details like where we should go first if we have errands to run- how the furniture should be set up, etc...only because I run around a bunch of options in my mind and am totally persuaded I've come to the best conclusion- never understanding why my husband bothers arguing with me about stopping for gas before the grocery store and not after. LOL I have a controling 'side' and being a writer and controling every aspect of a story and its characters definitely feeds that side of me.

  6. All four of us are pretty much beyond the idea that we can control things in life. As Paul Anthony Shortt said, the only thing we do have control over is ourselves. (Usually. :P)

    So writing, for us, isn't about control. It's about telling a story, which means we have to be true to character. As much as people like to compare writing to "playing god," it's not. More often writers talk about (as Stina did) losing control to characters and story; about being scribes, mere vessels through which the story comes out. Isn't that funny? In creating a world, you discover you don't really control all that much of it after all.

    BUT. Writing is also work, and work is something you can do to feel productive and active. THAT ties into control, and sense of power. That is what makes us feel good, and anchored in this world.

  7. There is so little beyond ourselves and our reactions to events that unfold around us that we can control. I think you control coming to the table each day and actively managing your life. Making the best decisions you can for the choices you're presented with. We can't control outcomes, but we can do the best we can with what we are given.

    Great post Sarah

  8. Sigh. Yes, I do. When I was a kid, my life was tumultuous at best; there was absolutely no semblance of control, so I sought it in other ways. Mostly by reading, but a few more unhealthy outlets too. That's changed; I _really_ empathize with throwing yourself into revision because that's the kind of control I love too. It's constructive.

    I don't consider myself a person who needs control over other people; I'm easy to get along with and live with. I need control over my personal space and my creative endeavors.

    My characters and I do this rather strange tango when we first get to know each other -- I think we're figuring out boundaries.

    How much control over the situation do I need to write you, I ask?
    Or, dear character, how much control will you need to take from me to 'lift off' and start behaving independently of me?

    Each one is different. I love that.

  9. I started to read this post and I got to wondering...have you been listening in at my house lately? I swear this control business is going to be the end of me. I have a teen and a tween. They're home for the summer.

    I guess I use writing as an escape too. Something I can control, even if I do get frustrated when it isn't working out quite right. I know I can fix it somehow, if I think about it long enough.

    Hope you get everything sorted. :)

  10. Sorry it's been a rough week, Sarah. But I'm glad you were able to throw yourself into revisions. Your agent is a star!

    I long ago realized, after my son was born hugely prematurely, that I could not control events.

    The only thing I could control was my reaction to those events. (Not that it's easy, mind you.)

  11. First of all, I'm so sorry to hear about your rough time, and am sending you positive energy (I figure it can't hurt!). When I went through a long period of difficulty in my life, there were two areas where I was in control that gave me relief. One was driving. Immediate and tangible. The other was I lost the ten pounds I'd been wanting to lose forever, and knew in the process my dedication came from that great feeling of being in control of SOMETHING. (Also made me understand anorexics on a more empathetic level!) I'm so impressed you are able to use your writing as the focus for the control you need to claim. Fantastic! And it will work out beautifully.

  12. Oh yeah, I would have asked for the same thing!!

    I think it's a lifelong lesson for me and I let it go in chunks otherwise I may have to be put in a straight jacket.

    We cannot do it all and unless we let some of it go and let others step in, we'll continue to be overwhelmed.

    And it's also very sobering to see your own child struggling with it on certain levels.

    Hang in there, you! ((hugs))

  13. I'm sorry to hear you had a difficult week. :( I totally get that digging into your revisions would give you a sense of control that you were lacking in other areas of your life.

    I have a horrible need for control, and I still haven't gotten over the fact that I ended the school year with one parent thinking badly of me. I can't control what she thinks, but it's SO hard to let go and move on!

    Writing helps, though. :)

  14. I think many of us gravitate to writing because of the control aspect. Craft your world, cause chaos and happy's all about being God in a world where we are not God.

  15. When it comes to writing, I see it as a 50/50 thing. I control what I write, but my CPs/betas/family members also have a say. I like that balance a lot, actually. Reminds me that I'm not in it alone :)

    As for my life in general, I need to feel like I'm in control. If not, I freak out pretty bad and come up with multiple disaster scenarios. It's SO not cute :)

    Hope you have a wonderful week, and best of luck with everything, Sarah!! *hugs*

  16. I am rather fond of control. ...That didn't come out like I meant it. I'm more of the realm of self-control. I like knowing what's going on with me and being in charge. I want to know the exits and what to expect, so I can prepare myself. When I was little, I'd refuse medicine in part because it tasted GROSS, but also because I wanted my body to recover on its own and somehow get stronger in the process. (I gave this system up in college. Adults don't real sick days. Sigh.)

    I've been reading The Demon's Surrender, and Alan, a character well-known for being manipulative revealed that he never drinks. The prospect of losing control of himself and what he might be capable while under the influence frightens him. I saw the character in a new light, especially after reading this post. He has never gotten to be the narrator, so we're always stuck viewing him from another person's perspective, struggling alongside them when it comes to figure out if he's telling the truth or lying. He is dubbed "manipulative" when all he really is trying to do is grasp hold of an uncontrollable situation that he has been coping with since childhood.

  17. I'm a control person. I get really stressed out when there are things I can't control. A kind of personal example... my husband's job is a commission based one. He works really hard, but sometimes, the sales just don't come through. It means our finances are tighter some months. When that happens and I have been the stay at home mom, I get really stressed. There isn't much I can do to change the situation, add to the finances, whatever. It drives me nuts.

    I also don't do well with big changes. It's the control aspect of them. When we moved or graduated from college, it was huge change and it was all out of my control.

    Now, in my writing, I tend to have characters who are fighting to control their own fates or situations. It's kind of interesting.

  18. I usually do need to have control over things in my "work life." In my personal life, I allow my husband to do most of the controlling. I think it's because I'm just so durn tired. :P Hope everything is better for you!

  19. Wow, yeah, this one hits pretty close to home for me. In fact, I just commented on Laura's post that diving into the writing is the best way to deal with it for me as well. I'm sorry you are going through so much. I hope that things get better for you.

  20. A character who revels in control makes a great villain.
    Personally, laundry folding makes me feel in control. Weird, huh? It goes in the pile I put it in, so there.

  21. nope. i don't have much control cravings.

    but i don't like to BE controlled either.

  22. I only recently realised (like two weeks ago) how controlling I am/can be. In the bad way. Before then I had been aware I like a certain amount of order and organisation but I hadn't known that given the chance I can turn into a very bossy little person. My desire for control shows itself in writing in the fact that I like an outline and I really like the idea of a corkboard full of index cards. Nice and under control, no runaway story this time!

  23. I'm a control freak in real life, but I'm not at all in my writing. My characters are always taking the story in new directions and I love being along for the ride. I get a little frustrated when I'm trying to get the story going in one direction and it ends up going in another, but I love how well everything fits together if I just let the story have the reins.

  24. Good point! And I'm not really a control freak, but I notice it in my 6 year old a lot. He gets very frustrated when he can't control a situation. Boy, have I got a tough road ahead ....

  25. It's nice to be able to lose yourself in revisions. That's where I'm at at the moment. And yes I like to have control otherwise I get a little grumpy lol.

  26. raise a point I'd not thought of before. I guess my writing is related to control, and one of the reasons I am able to dive into it and not come up for air for many hour. Although to be honest, many times my characters have a mind of their own and head off in a direction I didn't expect. I suppose even that is my subconscious taking the reins. :)

  27. My wife and I were just talking about this. Just before we got our new girl, we were both stressed out a little (perfectly normal, we know), but we dealt with it completely differently. I retreated to books and games and things that relaxed me. My wife, on the other hand, cleaned like crazy and got on the kids for every little thing.

    In talking about it, we realized that she needed to feel like she had control over SOMETHING, just like you and your manuscript. (It's possible my games and books were the same thing taken in a different direction--I don't know). But yeah, TOTALLY understand.

  28. Great post! I hope the rough patch is over for you.

    I don't care much about control, really. There have been times at work where I wished I had more control so I could resolve a customer's complaint myself, but for the most part I'm happy giving up control to others.

  29. That's awesome that you see your revising that way. Too often, revising seems like the tedious part for me. I really need & want to get into it more. and I will.
    As for control, I think I'm pretty good at taking things as they come and being okay with not being in control. Just today, I wrecked my car (no one was hurt & it wasn't my fault). I thought, "huh. I guess I'll need a new car then. Maybe even something new enough to not have a cassette player..."
    At least in most areas I'm like that, but then a lot of times I wish I had more control over myself. -David

  30. Oh my word--YES. This is me. I remember as a kid, I was moving away, and I finally wheedled it out of my friends that they were throwing me a surprise going away party--and then I helped them throw it for me. Control? Just a little. This is something I understand well. I can't stand like I'm out of control, so when I'm waiting for something, I always tend to find a million things to do. It's hard for me to sit still.

    I'm sorry you're having a tough time. I hope whatever it is, that you find your way through it. I'm glad to hear your editing is helping you out!

  31. Sorry you've had a rough week, Sarah. I'm glad you found a safe place to retreat to. :)

    I've had control issues since I was little. Once I started college I finally felt like I was in control of my life. When I got my first full time job, I felt even more in control. Five years ago I gave up teaching to stay home...The longer I stay home the less control I feel like I have. This week I decided to take my writing more seriously...and take back some of the control in my life.

    I hope your week gets better. :)