Transcription of Personality & Place #209

Dr. Belisle :                            This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 209, Personality and Place, here and for the first time on Sunday, September 13, 2015.

It can be lifelong processes to understand what makes each of us thrive as individuals and how to create personal environments that foster our best selves. Today we speak with science commentator Hannah Holmes about her book, Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality. We also explore the idea of creative space with Joan Dempsey, a writer and teacher who works of a converted chicken coop known as, the Shed, in the backyard of her home in New Gloucester. Thank you for joining us.

As someone who pays quite a lot of attention to the book world, I’ve been familiar with this name for a few years now. Hannah Holmes is an American writer, journalists, essayist and science commentary, who has published 4 books. Most recently, Quirk, Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality. She’s published articles online and in magazines, including Sierra, New York Times Magazine, L.A. Times Magazine, Outside, National Geographic and Discover. She lives with her husband in Portland, Maine, and she has also been a real estate agent for the past 3 years. Thanks so much for coming in.

Hannah:                                  My pleasure.

Dr. Belisle :                            I have been actually paying attention to your books because they’re so interesting. I think that one of them was about watching your lawn and seeing your lawn grow. I think you’ve done a lot of work on something like dust. You’ve been paying attention to the microscopic world around you from your vantage point here in Maine and yet you’ve moved on recently to brain science. Lots of stuff going on here.

Hannah:                                  One thing leads to another, believe it or not. I have always enjoyed turning a spotlight on the things that we take for granted, like dust. It’s something that you just don’t think about unless you’re thinking in terms of how it bothers you. It’s a microcosm of our entire universe. It’s perversely amusing to me to take something incredibly mundane and look at how it really functions in our world and functions to perpetuate an ecosystem that supports us. The same goes for the Suburban Safari book. We look at our back lawns as though they’re these ecological wastelands and for many years, for decades, biologists treated them as wastelands and disparaged them. It turns out they’re actually tremendously rich environments for a whole lot of species. We do a really good job of creating habitat for a wide variety of animals and plants in our backyards. Again, it’s the stuff we take for granted. We harp about the dandelions and whatnot, but we actually create a very healthy, if you can avoid the pesticides, a very thriving rich environment in a world where that’s increasingly difficult to come by.

Dr. Belisle :                            As you were talking I was thinking about Abigail Carroll, who is with Nonesuch Oysters. We interviewed her for the radio show. She was talking about something like this, that the ocean is so different and varied, and it has such a different and varied impact on things like creatures like oysters. You can go 6 feet north of one oyster bed and they’re going to be experiencing a completely different aquatic ecosystem, and yet we don’t necessarily pay attention to it, because here in Maine we look at, “There’s water. There’s water and oysters must live in it, great.” How does this paying attention to microcosm, how does this get you to the brain. I’ll tell you the reason I was really interested in having you come is because I watched your Ted Talk about the red mind, blue mind. It was so fascinating to me and I thought, “This lady is paying attention.” Talk to me about that.

Hannah:                                  Again, it’s the stuff we kind of gloss over and dismiss as unimportant, uninteresting. We just take for granted that the people who think differently from us are incomprehensible. They are only like that for the purpose of annoying us. Typically that cannot be. The personality book, Quirk, was me really trying to understand why every population of animals has individuals who are super obnoxious. Evolution demands that every personality type be functional, be useful, otherwise it would evolve away. We would not have those types. The fact is in mice, and starfish and humans there are obnoxious individuals. They are biologically obnoxious. Why? The book grew out of that question. Looking for comfort really in my discomfort around obnoxious people, what’s the explanation for this. How can I stop just being mad and reactive when people are obnoxious, and how can I understand them and accept them and appreciate what they bring? It really helps to bring mice into the picture, because how can you hate an obnoxious mouse. They’re all cute.

Dr. Belisle :                            Yes, if you like rodents that is very much the case. One of the things that you talk about it in your book is, and that I found so interesting, because you talked about mice that were more and less fearful and more or less open and different other personality traits, but you also started pretty early on by saying about 50% of our personality is genetically determined. How did you come to grips with the fact that the other 50% of the obnoxious person is not genetic, and possibly they have some way of impacting that?

Hannah:                                  That’s kind of a trick answer. Scientists used to feel that when you look at nature versus nurture it was about half and half. That nature determined about 50% of your personality and that nurture shaped the other half. What research is finding now is that it’s much more interesting than that. It’s that your genes, your nature determines whom you seek out to hang out with in the world, and it is those relationships that provide your nurture. Your genes are actually seeking out an environment that is suitable to your personality to maximizing your personality potential whether that’s obnoxiousness, or friendliness or helpfulness. The genes that you’re born with cause you to find an environment that’s comfortable for your head.

Dr. Belisle :                            All these self-help books that are out there that are telling us that we can change our lives, we can but we have a lot of the deck stacked against us.

Hannah:                                  Yeah, you can change your behavior. It takes a much, much, much longer time to change your actual brain. You can change your brain, the way your pathways fire through long and serious practice. We can see them with meditation that you can actually change your brain patterns, despite the genetic programming that created those patterns, and child abuse and things like that. You can see how those ramify in the actual structure of the brain. Certain events can cause changes in the infrastructure. What is easier to do is put a transmission between the brain and your behavior so that when your brain is saying, “Somebody cut me off in traffic and I’m going to ram them in the bumper, ” you can put a transmission in there that it shifts down your behavior from your impulse. While your personality is to ram people, your behavior that comes out is to take a deep breath, remember that all humans are human and go on with your day. You’re not changing your personality per se, you’re changing the behavior that flows forth from your natural personality.

Dr. Belisle :                            One of the things that I found interesting was that you actually use your own self as a subject in this book, that you used yourself, and actually your husband, and I think a friend of yours or maybe a couple of different friends as examples of different sorts of personalities. That’s interesting to me because you end up getting sort of science and not science. You’re observing your own self from within yourself. You talked about the neurotic type of inclination, I guess, versus the non-neurotic inclination, and how this had really impacted you, and how it had been both a good and a bad thing for yourself and evolutionarily as a human. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Hannah:                                  In science writing, in particular, it’s really, really a struggle to find ways to make these chemical and mechanical concepts relatable. Science writing; there’s always that struggle to demonstrate how the science connects to daily experience for humans. The only way I can think of to do this, to make personality science personal to people, was to use real people and to help the reader to care about people, even when the traits those people might be displaying aren’t naturally lovable. By becoming exhibit A in that book I’m able to sort of model that not only the way humans spin off some coo-coo behaviors, but also how it’s just fine. It’s all just fine. No matter how coo-coo you may be, or you may think you are, we’re all just fine, we’re all as nature intended, and we’re all serving a purpose here. For me to walk myself through the process makes it easier for the reader to understand that whatever she brings to this book in terms of obnoxiousness or natural terror of the world it’s fine.

Dr. Belisle :                            As a doctor, I really liked the part that you described about serotonin and how the serotonin impacted the way that you observe the world and maneuver the world, because for a long time we’ve been prescribing these serotonin reuptake inhibitors, so that increases the serotonin levels in the brain, but you brought up the fact that you know what if we don’t have enough that’s one thing, but if we have too much that can also be a problem as well. I’ve seen this in patients; they get medications that bring their serotonin levels and all of a sudden, instead of not being depressed, they get very anxious and very upset, but it’s something that we don’t always consider when we’re kind of tinkering with neurochemical transmitters, or hormones or other things within the body.

Hannah:                                  There’s so much of this that we don’t understand very well. Most of the psychiatric drugs that we use, anti-depressants and whatnot, were developed using mice and very, very primitive experiments that measure a drug’s effect on the personality behavior of a mouse. If you give a mouse Prozac and then hang him by his tail, he will actually struggle harder and longer to climb up the rope that’s suspending him, then he will without Prozac. That’s the acid test as to whether we have a good drug for human beings or not. It’s really poor. It’s really terrible. A lot of times they don’t translate at all and a drug just stops dead after the mouse studies. You can see how it’s easy to go far, far astray with a psychiatric drug if that’s where you start. Does this chemical cause a mouse to struggle longer when suspended by his tail? Okay, well maybe it’ll make people happy.

That’s a huge leap, and there are a million ways for it to go wrong, not least of which that no 2 human brains are like. We all have different sensitivities to each chemical we put into our brains. The best we can do with some of these anti-depressants and stuff is maybe a 50% effectiveness rate. Only 50% of the people you put this drug into will respond to it. The other 50% are so different in the brain, that’s just a non-issue, it’s a non-starter. Give me something else. Let’s try the next thing. We’re very much going by Braille when it comes to trying to alter the way our brain receptors work in order to elevate our mood just to the right spot without pushing it into the crazy zone or causing mood swings and whatnot. It’s amazing that we can do what we can, but it is still very much a primitive science.

Dr. Belisle :                            When you’re describing hanging a mouse by its tail and its struggle to climb back up its own tail, there was another experiment that you described where they would put a mouse in water, and mice can swim. Some mice would keep swimming as if they had some sort of hope for the future, and other mice would just sort of … They would float there with their little noses above water as if they had less hope for the future, but they could still biologically exist. The struggling mouse that climbs up its tail is similar to the struggling mouse in the water. These are the mice that theoretically have some greater resilience, so this is what we’re trying to model as human beings.

Hannah:                                  Exactly. Obviously, to some extent it works because that’s what Prozac came from, is from the observation that a mouse will swim for longer in a test tube if he has been taking his Prozac. If you take away his Prozac he will just collapse in lethargy. We can’t interpret anything about the mouse’s feelings. Perhaps the mouse is going into a Zen state of total universal acceptance and happiness, but we do the best we can from the behavior. They don’t call it depressive behavior in mice. They always say depression-like behavior or behavior that indicates depression. They never attribute an emotional state to the behavior. They only talk about the behavior itself.

Dr. Belisle :                            That’s another interesting thing as I was reading along, that ends up being in some interesting way almost a value judgment that is assigned to many of these personality traits. For a long time extroversion was considered this thing to be aspired to, and lately introverts have gotten their greater voice and so now more and more people are recognizing it’s really okay to be an introvert versus an extrovert. Even some of the things you were describing in the book, even the idea that some people are more neurotic or some people are more fearful as opposed to seeing this as a evolutionary advantageous it still has a value judgment associated like maybe this is a negative thing. Whereas if you’re more fearless like this is the great American hero. How did you feel as you were going through writing about this and seeing this?

Hannah:                                  It was really interesting to consider the role that culture plays in judging which personality types are the best. Definitely American culture thinks that extroverts are awesome, impulsiveness, venture capitalist types, that are the American myth, that’s the person who’s conquering the world. Different cultures feel quite differently. That same personality in Japan, which values more reserved, perhaps dignified personality or behavior type, that person is not going to be encouraged to express their full extroversion and impulsiveness. They’re going to be discouraged. That’s the 50% nurture stuff. They will do what they can to make their personality comfortable in the environment, but they will always get messages back, “Tone it down, buddy, and just keep a lid on it.”

Dr. Belisle :                            As you were writing this book one of the things you had to do was convince some of the researchers that you were not a member of an animal rights group, that you were not a member of PETA. It was actually really hard to get your foot in the door because in trying to do this research on rodents they get a lot of negative feedback. That must’ve been a little strange as a science writer to be given the cold shoulder.

Hannah:                                  It was very funny. It was frustrating. Really frustrating, actually. I had to go to Germany to get into a mouse research lab. I couldn’t get into a single mouse research lab in the U.S. Funny as well just in terms of personality to be writing about personality trying to work with these scientists and meeting such neurotic fear based behavior, and I get it. Some of these people are really persecuted for the work that they do in trying to help us all have better mental health. If there’s a better way I don’t know what it is. Nobody loves to torture mice or monkeys, but also nobody like depressed people leaping off the bridge. It was very interesting to observe these people, from both the science writer perspective and then from a personality perspective, how suspicious and fearful a number of them were, which made for fun writing because I totally, totally made fun of them.

Dr. Belisle :                            You did it in a very gentle way.

Hannah:                                  I hope so.

Dr. Belisle :                            It really didn’t come across as if you were judging them at all. It just was, I just wanted to talk to you about mice and personalities and why is this so hard, and yet at the same time understanding why this is so hard.

Hannah:                                  There was this guy who was so, so suspicious at Duke, and in the middle of his fear that I was PETA … He was really open about his fear, but at the same time his wife was from Nova Scotia, I think, and when I came to his lab he wanted me to bring her some Maine lobsters. I was like, “Do you really think someone from PETA is going to bring you living animals with the full knowledge that you’re plunge them into boiling water….” It doesn’t make sense. That’s what fear will do to you.

Dr. Belisle :                            Right, you had said, “I’d like to come visit you,” and he said, “Okay, you can visit but bring lobsters.” Then even when you showed up with the lobsters that you’re going to give to him so he could eat them, he still was concerned that you were from an animal rights group.

Hannah:                                  Yeah.

Dr. Belisle :                            That’s very interesting.

Hannah:                                  Very funny.

Dr. Belisle :                            Tell me about the red brain, blue brain thing that you discussed in the Ted Talk. I hope I’m getting this right. I thought it was very interesting because it really did speak to just what it means evolutionarily that you have one type of brain versus another.

Hannah:                                  Scientists are starting to pay a lot more attention to the subject of why some people turn out blue brained and why some turn out red brained. Again, using genetic research you can determine that it’s about 50% genetic and then about 50% environmental again, with the caveat that the genes of your personality will steer you towards an environment that feels right for you. If you start from the premise that this diversity in the way we view society is evolved and genetic, then you must accept that it is important to have that diversity, otherwise it would not have happened. If evolution allows a diversity to exist you must accept that diversity has a purpose. When I was looking at what that purpose might be, I was pulling together a lot of different studies people have started to do around the country and around the world, what makes these two types so different. It was really fun to look at the various ways people have tried to tease out the differences and then to try to find my own explanation as to why this serves us as a species.

Dr. Belisle :                            People who have a red brain they tend to be more, and you can describe this better than I probably, but they tend to be more on alert, they’re more territorial, they’re more likely to keep the invaders out and protect those that are within their tribe or their camp, which is great because they will always have the resources that they have. On the other hand, the people with more of a blue mind tend to be more open and welcoming and let the invaders in, which is great because they can procreate and they’ll keep propagating the species, but on the other hand, sometimes they’ll let in the invaders that might actually kill them. That’s what you’re talking about with red and blue.

Hannah:                                  If you start from the premise, for most of our history as a creature like every other creature we’ve been territorial animals, and in our case, probably, in little villages or groups of perhaps 200 people. We had no antibiotics, no vaccines, we were extremely vulnerable to every stranger we encountered. The natural response was suspicion. To be a successful territorial animal you have to defend your access to food and water in your territory and also to what I use, shorthand is uteruses. They’re hard to come by. There just are never enough uteruses. A good territory contains uteruses, water, and food and some place to sleep. You have to work to defend that, otherwise, every passing stranger is going to take all your stuff and the same goes for the neighboring groups.

There’s this natural animosity between territorial groups. On the other hand, if you never let anybody in you’re going to inbreed, eat all your food, someone’s going to die in the pond and foul the water and then you’re all going to die. End of story, end of evolution, you lose. Somebody has to be the one who’s looking outside the territory, looking across the boundary, looking for other opportunities to expand the resource space, weather that’s looking for fresh sources of food, looking for interesting new uteruses, looking for clean water. Nature is chaotic and unpredictable, and when it wipes out something in your territory you better have a plan B. That plan B is often to go into someone else’s territory. That’s a lot easier if you already have good relationships with them.

What it looks like is the blue brain specializes in maintaining those networks outside the territory. The red brain specializes in defending what has already been accumulated in the territory and making sure that we have reliable access to that stuff. The red brain is awesome at quick response to danger and you can measure this stuff in human brains how quickly they react to a danger stimulus. Red brains are quick on the draw, they prefer extremely good organization, so that we can all respond as a group, they make awesome armies essentially. The blue brain is better at looking for opportunity, at seeing a stranger as something to be exploited as opposed to something to be stabbed, they’re interested in new experiences, so they have a natural curiosity that pulls them away from the known and into the unknown.

Dr. Belisle :                            What I love about all of this is that you also, over the course of all this time, all the writing that you’ve done, all the research that you’ve done, you’ve come to a place where you know what I’d really like to do, I’d like to sell houses. 3 years ago you decided you were going to sell houses and you actually are using the knowledge that you gained of personalities, and of people and of observations to help you do this and it’s something that you really enjoy.

Hannah:                                  I’m really surprised how good of a fit this has been. All my journalistic work has translated so powerfully into helping people with their territorial issues. Not just in terms of ensuring that the territory is a good one, which is sort of the fundamental job of a real estate agent, but also helping them navigate their own emotional response which can be extreme. It can be extremely uncomfortable. It really is true that moving is the 3rd most stressful life event after death in the family and divorce. Moving, it is horrible for you. Even if it’s exciting and fun it’s extremely stressful. It brings out the absolute worst in people.

It’s wonderful to be able to prepare them for that, and to help them understand what they’re responding to. They’re not being crazy. Their territory is being ripped out from under them or they’re walking into a brand-new territory with no idea what the future holds on a biological level. Intellectually they understand it. They feel like they should be happy and everything’s beautiful, but emotionally for an animal to leave its territory, oh my God, that’s life-and-death stuff. That is how our brain responds to it. It’s a pressure cooker for an animal’s emotional response to change territories.

Dr. Belisle :                            I, for one, appreciate all the time that you have spent observing those of us around you who are inhabiting your world with you. If you’re listening, and you’d like more information about Hannah Holmes the real estate agent, you can go to Are there other places people should be looking to learn more about the work that you’re doing Hannah?

Hannah:                                  My current blog, I call it, Geek Realty, and it’s a blending of science and human behavior around our houses and also sustainability issues, which have always interested me. The website for that is kludgy and unattractive, but I do repeat it on Facebook. If you can find me on Facebook, you can find Geek Realty.

Dr. Belisle :                            We’ve been speaking with Hannah Holmes, who is an American writer, journalist, essayist and science commentator who lives in Portland, Maine. Thank you so much for the interesting things that you’ve brought to our conversation today and brought into the world at large.

Hannah:                                  Thanks, Lisa.

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Dr. Belisle :                            As someone who spends a fair amount of time writing for the radio show and also for the magazines I do know how important it is to have a great place to do my writing. I have with me today another individual who is quite familiar with this idea. This is Joan Dempsey, a graduate of both the MFA in creative writing and the Post-Graduate Certificate for the Teaching of Creative Writing Programs at Antioch University in Los Angeles. Joan Dempsey is a writer and writing teacher. Her work has been published in the Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Peloton Magazine, Obsidian, The Citron Review and has been aired on National Public Radio. Joan writes and teaches from The Shed in New Gloucester, where she’s lived for the past 9 years with her partner Bert, and their 2 dogs, Logan and Bea, and 2 cats, Maggie and Little Jack. Thanks so much for coming in Joan.

Joan:                                          Thanks for having me.

Dr. Belisle :                            As I’m reading this, I’m just picturing this place and your little family of animals, Logan and Bea, and Maggie and Little Jack, and it seems like you’ve really created a space for yourself in New Gloucester.

Joan:                                          Yeah, absolutely. The shed that I work from when we moved here 9 years ago was a chicken coop and a tool shed. As soon as I saw it, even before we moved in I thought that’s going to be my space. I designed the interior of the space. The structure was in good shape. We had it renovated and now it’s full of books, and it’s my own space, and I work like crazy, and I leave the door open so the animals can come in and out.

Dr. Belisle :                            Where did you come from? Where are you originally from?

Joan:                                          I grew up in New Hampshire, then I spent probably 22 years living in Boston, and went back for a short stint in New Hampshire and then came to Maine 9 years ago.

Dr. Belisle :                            And somehow managed to have a connection also to Los Angeles.

Joan:                                          Yeah. Los Angeles was never a place I thought I would be interested in or want to go. I had probably the stereotype that a lot of people have; big, smoggy, lots of traffic, but when I started looking for MFA programs to study writing that one really jumped out at me. They have a nice focus on social justice. They have a really diverse population of students who go there, and it’s a low residency program. I went twice a year. Ended being 2 ½ years and it was just fantastic. By far the best learning experience I ever had, really tremendous.

Dr. Belisle :                            What was your other life before you went back?

Joan:                                          I’ve had several lives. I love to go where my interest takes me, so I spent some time after college exploring the world of graphic design. I took some classes at Massachusetts College of Art, I managed a small design firm for a time in Cambridge, then I discovered that everything was moving online, and I liked the tactile part of design, so I decided that wasn’t quite for me. Then I jumped into the peace movement. I did anti-nuclear work for many years with a bunch of lawyers and got a Masters in nonprofit management, and then I jumped into animal welfare and I spent 10 years working at the Massachusetts SPCA primarily as a lobbyist and animal advocate. Somewhere along the line there I dipped my toe into writing and that’s my true passion for sure.

Dr. Belisle :                            As you were moving from graphic designer, to peach, social justice, animal welfare activist to writer how did you determine that this dipping of the toe, that this was your passion? What was it about the writing that really called to you?

Joan:                                          The thing about the writing that called to me, is that I think it’s the thing that has been the most consistent over time, each of those areas I got very excited about. I got excited about learning all I had to learn and then I reached a point where I was done. Where I felt like, “You know what, I’ve learned all I can learn and I’m ready to move to something else that catches my interest.”

When I started writing my first workshop I took it I was probably about 30 years old. I took it at Grub Street Writers in Boston. They were very new at the time, but they’re a lovely writing school now. I knew in the first session of the first workshop I took that this is the thing I wanted to do. That was because I sat down to do an exercise and this character just appeared to me. I had always frankly thought this was a crock. When I heard writers say that I thought, “Oh come on, you create this stuff,” but it happened in my first writing exercise and this character came and I just followed him. I really fell in love with the work.

Over time I’ve just continued to take workshops and then I got my MFA. I think it’s the fact that every time I write something new I’m entering a new era, so I have the love of following my passion in different topics wherever it goes, and writing sustains that. I can’t imagine it will ever stop. I’m both learning about the craft of writing constantly and I’m learning about new topics as I research them for the next book.

Dr. Belisle :                            Why did you decide also to get this Post-Graduate Certificate for the Teaching of Creative Writing?

Joan:                                          That was a twofold decision. I love teaching because I not only can help other folks but I learn things more deeply myself, so it was that. There was also the practical matter. I knew enough about the world of writing to know it’s not an easy way to make a living. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll go into academia and this will be helpful to me.” I ultimately decided after doing a stint in academia, a short stint that I would get really sucked into doing that work and I would leave my writing aside. I decided not to go that route. Teaching still really moves me, and it moves me because I can help other people have that great experience that I had of falling in love with the work. Right now what I’m doing is teaching on my own. I’ve got my own business and I’m teaching people online primarily and it’s just endlessly rewarding.

Dr. Belisle :                            As you’ve created this space for yourself, The Shed in New Gloucester, what things have you learned about yourself? You’ve gone from a very outward facing direction where you’re dealing with people, and lawyers and animals, and now you’ve gone more inward. You’ve created this little space, almost like an eggshell to kind of protect you in some ways, but also it’s porous enough, as you said, that your dogs and cats go in and out, people go in and out, so tell me.

Joan:                                          I think the most important thing that I’ve learned is that I feel like I’ve arrived at a place where I know what works well for me. I’m outward in many other ways. I am an extrovert and I do get energy from being out in the world, and being with other people and talking with other people. I have not lost that piece. I spend my days primarily by myself, working in the shed. What I love about that, and what works really well for me is that I’m in charge of everything. I get up when I want to get up. I take a walk when I want to take a walk. I work harder, I think, then I’ve ever worked because what I’m doing I love. I get to make decisions every day about what I’m going to do. I don’t have anybody else that I’m accountable to, so I don’t have any politics that I have to deal with about getting approval, or getting consensus or any of those things.

While I was good at that when I did it, it also had its frustrating moments of trying to move ahead, trying to get something done, feeling like it just takes so long to get anything done with groups of people. Now I just get so much work done. I work all day. It’s fantastic.

Dr. Belisle :                            We’re lucky to have you then?

Joan:                                          I’m not sure about that.

Dr. Belisle:                             Just the fact that we’ve gotten you to leave the shed, I guess, is.

Joan:                                          This is a perfect example, though. If I was working a full-time job I would’ve had to arrange that, but I got the call and I thought sure why not. My schedule is my own, so here I am.

Dr. Belisle:                             I do love this and I have to say of all of the writers that I’ve interviewed, and we’ve had few on the show, you’re the only one who has said I’m an extrovert.

Joan:                                          Yes. I think there’s also a myth that many writers are introverted. I think many are, but I’d love to see a study about that because I certainly am not an introvert. There are plenty of writers I know who are also not introverts, but I do think there’s a tendency for writers to be …. They get their energy from being inward instead of outward.

Dr. Belisle :                            Having worked with writing teachers before, one of the things that they’ve mentioned to me is that writing becomes such a personal exercise there’s often almost a therapy that takes place if you’re talking with a person about their personal essay or even a novel. Do you find that to be true?

Joan:                                          Yeah, very much so. Very much so. What I find is there’s some folks where it’s very directly personal, where they’re setting out to tell a personal story. They know that they’re doing that. The thing I’m more interested in, and this particularly happens in fiction, is when there’s a lot of deep psychological stuff going on that the writer isn’t aware of until after the fact. That certainly has happened to me, and I have seen it time and time again with writers that I work with on their manuscripts. They know what they’re writing about, and the topic they’re writing about and somewhere along the lines discover, “Oh gee, this is about my,” fill in the blank. I think that the best writing comes from that place where there is an unconscious depth of emotion that comes out almost in spite of what the author is intending. That kind of deep writing is some of the best I think there is.

Dr. Belisle :                            Do you think that fiction can be helpful in some ways, because when you’re writing a personal essay it’s about your life and oftentimes about people that are still living, and about conflicts that still exist, whereas fiction you can pour a lot of something into it and it doesn’t have to be completely real?

Joan:                                          Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s the beauty of fiction. I remember at some point when I was working on my first novel, I was just racking my brain. I can’t remember the specifics, but I know I was thinking, “Did this really happen in the real world. Did it happen?” I was researching and trying to find it and suddenly I thought, “I’m writing fiction. I can just make it up.” That was so nice. Writers do want to get the facts right and they want their work to be believable, but the beauty is it is fiction, and you can make it up and that sometimes saves you.

Dr. Belisle :                            Over the course of my time I’ve written a couple of novels, which have not yet been published. Somebody read them over with me and she said to me, “It’s very interesting that the men in these novels,” which I wrote several years ago, she said “They all seem to be men talking at you.” She called it something. She called it man spleaning, where some men have this tendency to talk to women as if they don’t really know very much. She said, “Do you know that all your characters are like that.” I said, “ I had no idea.” How interesting that is, because I actually think that in my life I have attracted a fair number of men who would like to tell me things just by nature of I guess my personality. It’s less so now, but isn’t that so interesting that here I am writing a novel, and then the men are all a certain way.

Joan:                                          Yup, there you go. It’s a perfect example, perfect example. You couldn’t see it yourself, but when someone pointed it out you thought, “Oh,” and reflected on something in your own life. That’s the other piece that I love about this work is that you continue to grow. You don’t ever stop growing as a person and as a writer. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.

Dr. Belisle:                             Tell me what your first novel was about, because I’m interested in how you progressed from your first novel to the novel that you’re working on now.

Joan:                                          I’ve written two novels, neither of which are published. My first one is in a drawer; the second one is with agents right now in New York. The third one is still the seed of an idea. My first novel, I think, was my learning novel. It’s a quiet literary novel primarily about death and the ways in which we choose death. Agents loved it and said, “We can’t sell this because it’s too quiet, too literary and given the market it’s going to be tough.” I learned how to write a novel from writing the book. My second novel, which is out with agents right now, I’m quite excited about. I deliberately wrote it as a literary page-turner, so that an agent could say, “Yes, I can sell this because it is a good read.” My readers have told me enough and I trust my readers that it’s a good read. Also, about dark subjects though. It involves the Holocaust the Holocaust survivor art theft but it’s set in 2009 and also deals with issues of homophobia. There’s some pretty serious stuff going on, but it’s a really moving plot.

You asked how I move from one to the other. Again, I go where my interests lie. What do I find myself reading about and thinking about when I’m not even thinking about writing. I tend to find a topic that’s of interest to me and then just go and read, and watch and listen to anything I can listen to. The one that I’m exploring right now is looking at wrongful imprisonment. I have a judge character lurking in the background, and a jury lurking as well. I don’t yet know who’s going to come forward and say, “This is my book.” I’ve been reading. I’ve really been binge reading and binge watching anything that has to do with wrongful imprisonment.

Dr. Belisle:                             These are some heavy topics that you’ve drawn to you in your life. You’ve already talked about being part of the peace movement, and you’ve talked about animal welfare, you’ve written about death and wrongful imprisonment. Where does all that energy come from?

Joan:                                          I don’t know. I spent two long weeks down in Washington at the Holocaust Memorial Museum when I was writing the last book and I got a grant to spend time there. Everyday I would go there and go to the archives and I would sit and watch testimony from survivors, just talking head, talking for hours. I couldn’t get enough. It was just fascinating to me. I think for me there’s something, and I haven’t really formulated this yet, but it seems to me there’s something about helplessness, and giving voice, certainly animal welfare work is about giving voice to animals who can’t speak for themselves. That’s a common thing that’s said in that movement. When I was doing anti-nuclear work, we were working with a lot of folks who had been impacted by nuclear fallout essentially. Certainly in the Holocaust, you’re dealing with victims.

There’s something in there that pulls me in and certainly with a wrongful imprisonment there is helplessness due to the system for these folks who become imprisoned through no fault of their own. There is this thread there and I’m just kind of learning about it now, what is it about it that attracts me to that. I think it’s something about voicelessness, and helplessness and how to have those people come forward and speak out and be heard.

Dr. Belisle:                             Joan, tell me about your growing up years. You said you were from New Hampshire originally. Was there anything in your family background that caused you to be interested in, I guess, giving characters voice, or giving animals voice or giving other people voice?

Joan:                                          Yeah, definitely. I grew up in New Hampshire. I was born in New Jersey, but my parents went back to the land in 1970. I was a second grader, and moved to rural New Hampshire and they started a health food store and that whole bit. My parents were very liberal and my mother still is very liberal, and really had a keen sense of social justice. My father had been a teacher in New Jersey and he ended up standing up for somebody who had been fired for really prejudicial reasons, and my father lost his job as well. We had books all over the house. There was an entire section about race, which I’m not sure actually where that came from, but I still have all those books that my father had studied. I don’t know where that came from in him, but there was definitely a sense of looking out for people who are less fortunate. Certainly we always had a lot of animals and I that was a big part of my growing up.

Dr. Belisle:                             You described the reason that you went into graphic design originally was that you like that tactile nature of it. Is there a tactile aspect to writing?

Joan:                                          There is. Certainly writing with pen and paper is very different than writing on a computer. There have been studies done about that that I can’t quote, but I know they exist about the sensation of physically writing on paper and how that pulls something different out of you than typing on a keyboard. The other thing as a writer and as a teacher; I get to do a bunch of graphic design anyway, because I work solely alone I don’t have designers I have to work with so I get to dabble in that realm when I’m promoting courses.

Dr. Belisle:                             As you are talking about the tactile aspect, the characters, there is a tactile aspect, they might only be in our minds as we are creating them but they become very real, very embodied. The characters have a tactile aspect. They become very real, very embodied so there is something about them when reading it, you can almost touch them in a way.

Joan:                                          I don’t know if you have ever done this with your characters as a writer yourself but I find myself acting out the characters. I often sit alone in the shed, physically I try to evoke an emotion or I act out something physically that I am trying to describe. In my current novel there Is a scene of this guy that gets beat up, and of course I have never been beat up, I’ve seen it on television, etc but I have never experienced that, so I was throwing myself on the ground. I was in the shed literally falling on the ground, seeing where I would hit first, that kind of thing. If there is a character experiencing an emotion, I will sit at my desk much like an actor does and I try to physically conjure the emotion in myself so I can begin to feel it and observe how it happens. Am I getting goose bumps? Does my stomach really hurt? There are so many clichés when describing emotion, so I ask myself, what does that feel like in my throat, is It thick or something else?

In my first book I had a dream that I was the main character, I had been struggling getting inside of him, and then in my dream I was inside him so that helped understand him because I have been him. The physicality I had a dream that I was the main character. In another dream I was helping the main character of my most recent novel, she was an elderly character so I was able to physically feel her in that dream.

Dr. Belisle:                             When we had the author Louis Lowry on she was able to physically remember various stages in her life. She physically remembered being a child at the age of 7 and what it felt like to be in a classroom. It just wasn’t that she remembered it as an intellectual exercise, she embodied that memory. I am not certain how many people have that ability but it sounds like what you are doing is kind of evocation of that physicality.

Joan:                                          I have definitely experienced what I call body memory. Say for instance you have lived in a house for a long time and you walk into the kitchen and the fridge is on your left so you develop this body memory of walking into the kitchen and opening the fridge a certain way. When you move somewhere else you find yourself going to the same place even though your fridge is on the other side of the kitchen. I think that is what Louis is talking about is she can put herself in other places in time but she can feel it inside. I definitely have that, one of my strengths as a writer is that I see places in my fiction as clearly as I see this studio that we’re sitting in.

Dr. Belisle:                             That being the case it seems the making of your shed, your space was particularly important. Spaces are so important to you that you actually needed to have this place that was yours.

Joan:                                          Absolutely, the thing about the shed and the reason why my artist and writer friends come and see it tell me they hate me because they’re so jealous of the space. It is very important for me to have space that is mine alone because the physiological energy it takes to do the work is a lot. To minimize external distractions and have everything around me supporting my work is super important. I advise any artists to clean space for themselves and make it happen somehow.

Dr. Belisle:                             I think you’re probably right about people being envious of the space. I think of the song; “All I wasn’t is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air….”

Joan:                                          And this is one enormous chair!

Dr. Belisle:                             Exactly! It is not a place that necessarily we might write but it is a place we might return to and a place that might cradle us somehow. And if you are able to return and be cradled then henceforth creativity and all sorts of things.

Joan:                                          And honestly I feel that way about where we live and our place. When Bert and I came here 9 years ago, the first morning I woke up in that house, I felt like I’m home. I hadn’t felt that for quite sometime and so it is that safe home place that we can move out of and be creative. I feel fortunate in that way.

Dr. Belisle:                             It is interesting that you are from your shed creating a novel about false imprisonment. That is a very interesting irony that you are working with in your novel.

Joan:                                          It certainly is. I feel so sorry for those folks who are locked up and trying desperately to get out and find their own place that they can come and go from, you can’t come and go from prison.

Dr. Belisle:           Well Joan, I give you so much credit for having followed this path, and when you

understood this was your passion, walking down on that. I love this approach that you’re taking because there are many people in the world that secretly think, “I wish I could do….” But you’re doing it, you’re building it, you’re creating it, and it’s pretty wonderful that you have this place you have developed.

I will be sure to look for your most recent novel. How can people find the teaching and writing that you’re doing and the writing that you’re doing?

Joan:                                          Thank you. You can find me online at