Personality and writing

Do you write primarily for yourself, or for your readers? The answer may depend on your personality type. Of the many different personality classifications which have been proposed, almost all recognise the introvert-extravert dimension.

Introverts tend to write for personal fulfilment and satisfaction. They choose the subjects which interest them, rather than those which might appeal to the market. They are reserved and solitary by nature and, in extreme cases, may have little or no desire to have their writing published or read by other people.

Extraverts, in contrast, continually seek contact with the outside world and relationships with their readers are of prime importance. They want to broadcast their message, to be noticed and liked, or achieve good sales in a specified market. They love doing media presentations.

This is of course an oversimplification, because personality traits exist on a continuum. Introverts and extraverts are not distinct categories; most people display elements of both at different times and in different situations. Some tend towards one or other end of the spectrum, others lie in the middle (ambiversion).  And this combination is probably what works best in relation to developing a writing carer, as my own experience may illustrate.

Like most writers I naturally tend towards introversion, but have learned to develop my extravert side. As a child my favourite pastime was writing stories just for my own amusement. My first published book was written much later on, while I was studying for a postgraduate exam in medicine, and I started it as a way of understanding and memorising the material from my lecture notes. But then I showed the manuscript to a couple of colleagues, who suggested submitting it for publication, and it was accepted second time round. I had no idea that it would become established as a textbook for medical students and psychiatric trainees and, in commercial terms, prove more successful than anything I have written since.

My next few books were about psycho-oncology and, though again I began writing them mainly for my own interest and education, I was very mindful of their potential impact on others because they dealt with some sensitive issues and would be read by some patients and relatives, as well as by staff.  Authors only ever hear feedback from a small minority of their readers, but I had favourable responses and reviews (except from one oncologist vehemently opposed to complementary therapies) and I hope these books have helped with the prevention and management of the distress often associated with cancer, and highlighted the fact that there can be something positive in the experience of this and other illnesses.

Since I retired from academic and clinical medicine, and started writing self-help books for general readers, I have aimed to develop this theme of seeking the silver lining in sickness and adversity. When I was asked by an interviewer for three key words I chose ‘balance’, ‘positivity’ and ‘self-responsibility’.

I am now going back to what I most enjoyed doing as a child – writing fiction – and my new novella is almost finished. Although I do intend to publish it, I am not expecting high sales because I have ignored the golden rules of targeting a market niche and staying within a defined genre. It’s a mixture of mystery and romance with a paranormal flavour and I wrote it because I wanted to, in response to one of those vague inspirations which come from an unknown source.

So long as you write what you wish to write,
That is all that matters …

Virginia Woolf

Choosing the cover for a self-help book

One of the pleasures of ‘indie’ publishing is having freedom to choose the cover image. I recently spent an hour or so browsing in search of the best one for my new book Persons not diseases: a guide to mind-body-spirit medicine and holistic healing. With such a huge selection of titles now available online, it is often just a split-second glance at the cover which decides potential readers whether or not to ‘look inside’ a book, so it is important to choose a theme and colours which attract attention and convey the desired message.

But different people can interpret the same picture very differently depending on their emotional state, as I learned from a chastising experience some years ago when I worked in psycho-oncology at a hospital in England. I was giving a talk about coping with cancer and included a few art slides to represent different moods and attitudes of mind. My favourite was a colourful image of a trapeze artist high up in a circus tent. This was intended to symbolise positive qualities such as courage and joy, but one patient in the group thought it showed a woman hanging herself. When considering images for my new book I was careful to avoid anything which could lend itself to such a shocking interpretation, but on the other hand I did not want it to look too bland or sentimental.

I considered sunrises, seascapes, flowers and abstracts before deciding on a picture of a path winding up a green hillside, with blue sky above. I chose this picture mainly because I liked it, and I think it could also suggest taking ‘the illness journey’ through natural surroundings in a spirit of peace and hope. Talented designer Jeremy Taylor has now converted this photo into the cover image for Persons not diseases, which will be published as an e-book next month with a print version to follow later.

Bach flower remedies in cancer care

At the beginning of my first career as a medical doctor I worked for several years in a radiotherapy department, and later came to specialise in psycho-oncology. Now as a Bach flower practitioner, though I see clients with a whole variety of problems, I still have a special interest in the psychological aspects of cancer. The main role of the Bach flower remedies in cancer care is to ease emotional distress caused by the diagnosis, the symptoms and the treatment. They are not an alternative treatment for the cancer itself.

One client who came to see me recently has a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer, and quite understandably has often felt despondent about her situation. After her first consultation with me she wrote: ‘My own path is one of deteriorating health and ongoing courses of chemo. I accept “where I am” but recently faced starting a new, stronger chemo regime and became rather melancholy. I decided that over and above medical treatment I needed to keep my own energies in balance in order to cope well and enjoy the present.’ I recommended a mixture of flower remedies including Gentian, which helps to restore faith for those who are feeling disheartened by setbacks in life.

My client’s report continues ‘Imagine my delight around five days after starting the remedies to realise that the melancholy feelings had completely lifted. By the first day of my new chemo regime I was able to hold my head high and present at the appointment in comfort and with confidence…I am convinced that the flowers have helped beyond measure’.

Many of the other remedies from the total of 38 may be indicated in cancer care settings, sometimes for relatives and staff as well as patients themselves. Examples would include Mimulus for courage in the face of understandable fears; Red Chestnut to calm anxiety on behalf of others; Star of Bethlehem to provide comfort at times of shock or sorrow.

Some clients want to go to deeper levels; a cancer diagnosis can be the impetus to change a longstanding psychological imbalance such as a chronically pessimistic outlook, or a tendency to suppress feelings and desires in order to please other people. The flowers can help in such cases too.

Although the question of whether having a positive mindset improves the medical prognosis for cancer is still debated, it will certainly improve general well-being and make it easier to cope.

Up to six flowers, selected for each individual according to how they feel at the present time, can be combined in the same mixture. The remedies themselves have no side effects, but they are made up with a small amount of brandy as preservative and although the alcohol concentration is miniscule there is a theoretical risk of interaction with some prescription drugs, so please check with your doctor if they are safe for you to use.

Further Reading: Barraclough, J (ed) 2007. Enhancing Cancer Care: Complementary Therapy and Support. Oxford University Press, Oxford.