Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Are You an Alpha or a Beta?

Are you an alpha or a beta?

This is a topic that's sprung up a lot lately on Facebook, and it fascinates me. Before we dive into the specifics, let's develop a nice operational definition of "alpha" and "beta." I like to think of this construct as a continuum, or pecking order, present in masculine personalities. 

Alphas are at the top. They are the leaders. They are confident, cool under pressure, and care little about what others think of them. They live life on their own terms. They don't ask for what they need; they take what they need. They fit the masculine stereotype, even though sex is irrelevant.

Betas are the followers. They're pleasers. They are self-conscious and rely on passive-aggressive means to get what they want or need. They whine. They complain. They play the role of victim. They're easily offended. They fit the feminine stereotype.

Does This Dichotomy Really Exist?


In short, not really. The idea is borrowed from the cousins of our best friends- the wolf. Specifically, wolves in captivity. In the latter third of the 20th century, researchers noticed wolves in captivity (that part's important) developed a strict social "pack hierarchy." The strongest male, through force, assumed the role as leader. The strongest female assumed the role of alpha female. They mated. The rest of the pack helped raise their baby wolves. Pop human personality theorists borrowed this concept and applied it to humans. 

Psychologists struggled to actually validate this idea. As it turns out, human behavior is far more complex. In fact, the entire field of personality psychology is plagued by weak correlations and exceptions to rules. There are A LOT of theories out there... some better than others. None adequately explain the depth and breadth of humanity.

This shouldn't be a huge surprise because... it turns out wolves are more complex, too. Captive wolves act differently than wild wolves, which seriously damages the fundamental basis of the alpha/beta dichotomy.

Be that as it may, we still like to make sense of our world. We like convenient categories as they provide valuable mental shortcuts. It's important to remember that all of us have some alpha qualities and some beta qualities at least some of the time, and this is usually dependent on the situation. Even though the concept of alphas and betas may be fantastically over-simplified, it can still serve a useful purpose.

Why We Care

Our society heavily favors alphas. They get the first pick in pretty much everything. Betas... they fight over the scraps. Normally, we fall into one of these two roles- leaders or followers. Active or passive. Strong or weak. The role we play at any given time is inconsequential, as long as it's the role we want to play. Problems arise when betas decide they want to become alphas... usually with really bad results.

The fundamental problem is betas assume being an alpha is a set of behaviors. Do the behaviors -and- POOF! You magically become an alpha.

Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. Alphas aren't alphas because they act cocky, brag, or exclaim their strength. In fact, nothing shouts "I'm a beta" for males than peacocking. You know, the "Jersey Shore" male strutting. It's all just an act, which is painfully evident to true alphas. Real alphas don't need to peacock. For women, it's more common to proclaim strength, which is also a distinct "I'm a beta" cry. Again, real alphas don't need to proclaim their strength. Both of these behaviors are nothing more than facades to hide insecurities.

The real secret to being an alpha is inner contentment. Once you really accept who you are and recognize you're at the helm of the ship that is your life, becoming an alpha is easy. Needing the affirmation of others is the hallmark of being a beta. 

This, of course, is easier said than done. If you're a beta and you want to be an alpha, here are some tips:

1. Introspection helps. If someone hurts or offends you, plumb the depths of your psyche to figure out why. There's a root cause, and it has nothing to do with the other person. You're allowing yourself to be offended and/or hurt. 

2. It's okay to act the part until you achieve inner contentment, just make sure you know how alphas really act. In any given social situation, observe. Try to figure out who is the true alpha in the situation. In a room full of alphas, everyone immediately knows where they fit in the pecking order. True alphas accept this.

3. Develop the ability to lead. Alphas, above everything else, are leaders. They care deeply for their pack and take every opportunity to help them. 

Conclusion

The dichotomy of alphas and betas may not be statistically verifiable, but it is a useful schema we can use. This is especially true if we're a beta and wish to become an alpha. I've always had a lot of alpha traits, but was raised in an environment that more or less required me to learn beta behaviors. It's taken awhile to learn to effectively play the alpha role, but it worth it. Being an alpha is a Hell of a lot more fun. ;-)

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Difference Between Writing Nonfiction and Fiction

About three months ago, I decided to start a new book project. The chosen topic: sex. I needed to get away from writing about running, especially considering I rarely run these days.

Why sex? Well, back in my undergrad days, I was planning to be an experimental psychologist (the folks that do research.) Specifically, I was focusing on social psychology. Even more specifically, I was focusing on sexual behavior as a function of social influences. You know, how does your environment affect your horniness, adventurousness, etc.

Long story short- I got a job teaching high school, then spent about two years traveling the country. I've slowly fallen into a writing "career" during the last five or six years. It started with prolific blogging (~1000 posts averaging 1,000 words/ post), and morphed into two running-related books.

I wanted to start a new project, and writing this blog helped me connect to my roots. The first plan was to write a nonfiction book using the tone and voice of Squirrel Wipe, which was basically tackling the sport of ultrarunning with sophomoric humor.

I wrote a mission statement. Or "thesis statement" for you language arts-types.

I made an outline of topics I wanted to cover.

I wrote an introduction.

I wrote the first 5,000 words.

And it sucked.

The Nonfiction Writing Experience


For me, writing nonfiction has always been pretty easy. Doing experimental write-ups, historiography (I regretfully majored in history, too), and blogging all honed my skillz. My nonfiction methodology is simple- leverage my experiences to figure out what information the audience wants to know, then deliver it in an amusing way.

The process itself was straightforward. I thought about a given topic, then wrote it down. In the case of blog posts, I'd immediately publish. In the case of books, I'd do some rewriting usually to make the material funnier.

This process resulted in a huge volume of work. The lack of editing meant I never second-guessed the material, which created a degree of edginess. My various blogs became my diaries.

The methodology worked well as long as I was sufficiently inspired... which occurred in roughly two month cycles. A persistent case of writer's block led me to the extreme decision to... God forbid, write fiction.

The Fiction Writing Experience

I'll admit, writing fiction scared me. It seemed so much more intimidating. My friend Pete had dabbled in fiction (he wrote this excellent book available as an ebook... if you like crime-based fiction, check it out) and tried convincing me to take the plunge. 

I resisted.

I did do some cursory research, which led me to one of the most widely-regarded book for fiction writers- Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird." I did some other research on the Interwebz, too. It led me to a conclusion-

Writing fiction wasn't necessarily the process of making up stories; it was the process of documenting the stories that play out in your head.

All of a sudden, fiction got a lot less intimidating. I spend A LOT of time daydreaming. About ten percent of that daydream time is spent on actual real-life problems and issues. About forty percent is spent on weird random shit, like wondering how a supercharger differs from a turbo charger or where the weaved top of apple pie crusts originated. That last 50% is spent in an entirely fictional world.



It's hard to describe my own personal Land of Make Believe... mostly because of its plasticity. It's ever-changing. Some facets have been around since early childhood. Some elements were added yesterday. The best way to describe it would be to use a comic book universe analogy:

Lot of characters, lots of settings. Sometimes it's pretty normal, sometimes it gets bizarre. The characters from different settings can interact, but rarely do. 

I am deeply fascinated by human behavior. I like to observe people... try to figure out what makes them tick. My Land of Make Believe serves as a bit of a "sandbox" where I can apply what I learn.  Sometimes people would ask how I could run 100 miles without getting bored. The simple answer- I spent A LOT of time in my Land of Make Believe. 

I digress. Back to writing fiction.

I came to realize all I had to do to write fiction was describe what was happening to the people that populate my Land of Make Believe. It's basically a technique Lamott discusses in her book. The tricky part is actually observing what's happening. Actions happen far faster than I can type, and I don't have the luxury of having trained as a writer. The actual mechanical process is pretty slow.

The solution was a faceless intermediary that closely observes everything all the characters do. For the sake of this discussion we'll pretend he's Karl Childers, Billy Bob Thornton's character from Slingblade. Karl has a deeper understanding of their thoughts, beliefs, motivations, aspirations... whatever. To fully capitalize n Karl's knowledge, the events must have already occurred. As such, the entire story has already been determined. Only I don't know how it ends... yet.

The actual story being written is a function of the imaginary conversations with Karl. I observe the characters. Karl observes the characters. We discuss what we saw. I write.

The problem occurs when we get it wrong, which we realize after something has already been written. For example, most of the story revolves around a woman named Julia. She has a good friend Andrea. As the story progresses, the nature of Andrea's character has changed. Karl and I got it wrong in the beginning. That kind of shit happens a lot.

The fluid nature of the interpretation will require at least one or two rewrites. Normally I despise editing, but am actually looking forward to it this time. The more I learn about the characters, the better I can describe them in the early pages. 

My Land of Make Believe also throws some interesting curve balls. Early in the story, Julia has a brief encounter with a neighbor. Both Karl and I assumed this character didn't really play a role aside from being a convenient literary device to describe a particular facet of Julia's personality. 

Then they ran into each other and decided to chat. The ensuing events came as a complete surprise. Neither Karl nor I would have ever predicted what happened. I was bizarre to be writing while thinking "I cannot believe this is happening!" It was quite exhilarating AND it fundamentally changed Julia, the formerly minor character, and the nature of the relationship to those around them. Of course, that will require some rewrites, too.

What About the Audience?

When I wrote The Barefoot Running Book and Squirrel Wipe, I was acutely aware of my audience. I had interacted with them extensively. I had written hundreds of blog posts and closely studied traffic data. I knew what they wanted to read, what voice I should use to communicate the information, and how to deliver it to them. Writing them became a matter of melding that information with writing I enjoyed doing. The end result was a mutually-beneficial product. I knew each book would sell a minimum number of copies simply based on this information.

Fiction... that's an entirely different animal. I have no idea what my potential audience wants. I know I would like to read the book... but that's about it. It could only sell five copies. Critics could hate it. Worse, critics could ignore it. An easy way around this problem would be to take the same approach I did with the nonfiction books and start a blog of short stories. Experiment with different ideas and story lines; introduce different types of characters. I could then study the traffic patterns and solicit opinions from readers. I could begin to build a profile of the target audience. 

There's a problem with this approach, though. 

Karl doesn't like it.

Trying to please an unknown audience invariably interferes with the process. It pollutes the characters. The audience would want the characters to behave in a certain way. The good people should be good. The bad people should be bad. But that's not how real life works. Neither does my World of Make Believe. Bad things happen to seemingly good people. And vice versa. To fully allow this process to happen, I have to ignore the audience. 

So... Where Am I Right Now?

As of today, I have about 40,000 words written of the first draft. Based on where the story is right now, I would anticipate another 10-20,000 words will be needed to finish. The first draft will require a significant rewrite, which will probably add another 10-20,000 words. 

As far as the specific story, I still don't know exactly how it will end. In the beginning, I thought I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going to go... but I was wrong. Really, really wrong. Two characters dramatically altered the entire story. The events are building up to something... I just don't know what that something is. 

Oh, and for those of you that are wondering why I'm writing about this on the Sexpressionists blog- the idea started as a book about human sexuality, ergo there IS a lot of sex in the story. It's basically erotica. ;-)

Conclusion


This entire process has been a blast. I never expected fiction to be so much fun. I like writing nonfiction because it's a lot like teaching- it's a process of sharing information in an entertaining way. Fiction is different... it's more like drawing or painting (a hobby I haven't dabbled in since college.) It's a chance to let a few of the people from my Land of Make Believe see the light of day.

I'm curious- for those of you that write fiction, how would you describe your process? Share in the comments section!

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