Personality and the Writer
An Essay


As a teacher in the relatively nonpsychological forum of the creative writing workshop, I often draw on psychology to help writers gain perspective on their work. My area of expertise is literary fiction, especially adult, mainstream, contemporary fiction. Twenty years ago, when I started out in New York as an author’s editor, one of the first things I discovered—and it was a shock!—was that everything I learned in school about how to read and write academically on literature was almost useless when it came to working on a manuscript with a living writer. The actual writer was obviously not so much interested in having his or her work interpreted according to critical theory as in publishing it or, in the case of the best writers, seeing it achieve its greatest aesthetic potential, which is a practical goal enjoined by writer and editor, with the understanding that the work may be in a state of flux, perhaps even with regard to the author’s intention and meaning. A psychological approach to writing suggested itself to me ten years ago via an awareness of archetypes in stories, which led me to read Jung’s work, including Psychological Types (C. G. Jung, Princeton University Press, 1971). From my reading and from conversations with psychologists and psychiatrists whose interests include literature, I’ve developed some practical ideas about the relationship between personality type and creative writing.

One of my early teachers, Elizabeth Hardwick, a founder of the New York Review of Books, once observed that “writing is character,” by which she meant that when one reads Virginia Woolf, for instance, one is literally reading Virginia Woolf—her character or personality—though not of course in the literal facts and events of her biography but rather in the nature (or essence) of the individual as expressed in her art.

The six formal elements of fiction—diction, point of view, characterization, patterns of imagery, plot, and theme—may be viewed as aesthetic principles extrinsic to any single author or piece of writing. That is to say, these elements are classic and universal, but within any single piece of work or within the body of an author’s work, the use of these elements, the particular forms they take and the effects they achieve, are determined in large part by the personality or gifts, if you will, of the individual author. And here I’m using the word gifts partly in the sense of the Briggs Myers title on personality types, Gifts Differing (Isabel Briggs Myers and Peter Briggs, Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1980).

Often, a young or beginning writer will be said to be searching for a voice, as if voice were something to be found somewhere outside the writer—in an author whom the young writer admires or toward whom the young writer experiences an affinity. Voice is of course a sound—it has physical properties and comes directly from the body. In writing classes, I often listen to discover from where in the body the writer’s voice proceeds. Is the sound coming from the head only, or is it coming from the center of the body, from the heart and loins and stomach as well as from the head? Voice, one’s own voice, is centered directly in the body and soul.

Similarly, style, which is sometimes incorrectly thought of as a veneer or finish on an author’s writing, is rather an intrinsic component or characteristic of the author’s personality. When we read, for instance, in the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway a description of the main character—“a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness”—or when we read from Woolf’s book-length essay A Room of One’s Own her statement that “fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly, but still attached to life at all four corners,” we hear unmistakably the presence of the author, in her totality, in her writing on the page. She is, in her own phrase, transparent, incandescent.

But here I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack a bit and say something about how the material in this article came to me.

When I first began reading professionally, which is to say reading with an intent beyond my own pleasure and interest and beyond academic requirements, began reading instead with a kind of mandarin attention to what makes good writing and with an editor’s mediumistic task of connecting author and reader, I found I was able almost instantly to discern a false note, a misstep, a difficulty or problem in a manuscript. This knowledge initially came to me through the lyric effects of the writing, by which I mean the sound and rhythm, the motion occurring wordlessly beneath the surface of the writing. I could simply feel what was working or not. And today in classes with student writers I sometimes stop listening to the words being read aloud and listen only to the sound in order to assess what’s actually being said and how well it succeeds. For me, this is a natural and extremely reliable method, though not for everyone. I have, as the expression goes, an ear.

Writers with whom I work have told me that I’m very intuitive about their work. In fact I’m not very intuitive, or only in a childlike way, intermittently and impulsively. But I am able to feel the specific quality of their work, and by long experience I’ve developed certain ways of making an essentially inarticulate understanding explicit, so that it can be put to use to improve their work. That is to say, I begin with feeling and then apply my thoughts, perceptions, and other explications as I can. Another writer or editor might begin with thinking, or with intuition or sensation, and proceed from there.

Feeling—linked, as it is in me, with sensation—moves slowly, so I worked a long time before I began to see that in writing there were definite patterns related to each author’s personality type. How did I see this?

Well, often when there’s a predominant flaw in a manuscript—a lack of unity or clarity, for instance—it is the result of an imbalance, a lack of modulation, a disproportion in the play of effects. For instance, an individual like myself, whose primary aspect of personality is a feeling approach to life, will tend to write by ear and with a preponderance of lyric effects and an amplitude of feeling judgments but with a lack of plot. By comparison, an individual gifted with thinking may have an easy ability with plot, since thinking is what plots a story.

When I look at a manuscript that is abundant with sensory description and, perhaps, with lists or with material that seems to have been assembled by a process of accumulating the concrete details of experience, I know I’m likely reading a writer with a natural bent toward sensation. Likewise, if I find that images and imagistic writing are salient in a manuscript, I can usually determine that the writer is gifted with intuition.

In offering these broad and simplified ideas (derived from Jung’s Psychological Types and the works that have followed his), I’m suggesting that thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition (as the four primary functions of personality) are the functions through which a writer finds expression. This thought may be further elaborated with the recognition that each writer will tend to have an approach that is either outward focusing or inward focusing—extroverted or introverted—and when one matches this predisposition with the four functions, indicating for instance a difference between introverted intuition and extroverted intuition—the overall picture becomes much more interesting and useful.

Frequently, when a writer comes to me for help, it is because he or she is stuck, sometimes unknowingly, in a recurring pattern determined by the primary modes of his or her personality. No matter what content the writer takes on, the form of the work from story to story succeeds and fails in exactly the same manner, and in some cases the writer continues writing the same story over and over in different guises without realizing it. Each of us who writes is constantly engaged in clarifying his or her relationship to the writing. Examining the patterns in a piece of work (and from piece to piece) is an excellent method of gaining perception and insight.

Short story writer and novelist Flannery O’Connor, whose primary orientation in personality type was, I believe, intuitive-thinking, thought of the performance or habits of her art as being coincident with habits of being. By paying close attention to what occurred in the process of inspiration and performance, she furthered in herself a consciousness that reached an encompassing form or expression, an understanding that illuminated and shaped the original indetermination of her gift, thus firming the point of its activity toward a maximum of perfection.

O’Connor’s famous short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” began for her with an image of “a young woman . . . whose face was as broad as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like a rabbit’s ears” (Flannery O’Connor, American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks, New York: Dell, 1987, p. 378). This image—or picture, for that is exactly what an image is—came to her mind and inspired the story that grew out of it. A writer in unconscious possession of her gifts, or with less intellect than O’Connor, would likely have followed this imagistic inspiration from one image to the next, waiting and hoping for a pattern to emerge. O’Connor, whose inspirations were coupled with a lifelong, rigorous, and heterodox theological questioning on the theme of the Book of Job (Why is there evil in the world, why do good men suffer?), consciously determined the pattern of her story, using a God-like omniscience that guides, directs and totally engages a reader. O’Connor, by applying her thinking to her intuition, transcended the purely personal source of her inspiration and its mode of expression and posed the metaphysical meaning of the image—the all-too-unaware innocent afloat in a potentially malevolent world—as the dramatic argument of the piece. The story is eminently accessible and appreciable at the literal level of what happened and then what happened and then what else happened (the surface of the story) but also compelling at the deeper level of how and why it all happened. The story reaches a moment of confrontation, as much with the reader as between the characters, and we are meant to see that when a moment of grace arrives in the middle of trouble, the outcome is not only dependent on grace itself but on the human ability and decision to support it. O’Connor doesn’t resolve this tension but arouses in us a desire for saving grace and leaves us to wrestle with the contradiction between the ideal and the reality of the human condition.


One of a writer’s main challenges is to build the story, novel, or essay in such a manner that any reader can enter it and live fully oriented in it. That is to say, if a writer writes only from his or her primary trait of personality, any reader whose personality is similar will probably experience an affinity for that writer, but other readers with different gifts may not “get it.” Certainly, this sort of personality-based affinity between writers and readers is to be expected and, in part, explains the varying likes and dislikes of readers. Also, to the extent that there are dominant personality types in the collective, type-affinity may help explain certain trends and popularities as well as dilemmas for the writer. In our culture, for instance, there is a collective bias toward extroverted thinking as the dominant mode of personality and expression, so much so that the term introvert is commonly regarded as a pejorative. Introversion, like shyness, is seen as an inhibition, a weakness or failure to adapt to social norms, and thus as something to overcome.

Our familiar dramatic forms, whether in plays, film, TV, the short story, or novel, tend to be outward-turning. The drama, if not the characters themselves, is extroverted or at least carefully balanced between the inner and outer lives of the characters, which is as it should be since we learn to know ourselves (and each other) both innately and empirically and, likewise, we know characters in a drama both by what they act out and what is inside them. In writing, it is axiomatic that too much interior, reflective narration blurs in the mind of the reader. If one is a writer whose orientation is introverted, one faces particular challenges in writing. The introverted writer will often receive criticism that his or her work is too subtle or too quiet or lacks direction. How to make the work speak to the collective bias while remaining true to the inner promptings of character? There are as many solutions as there are writers to create them. Michael Ondaatje’s popular novel The English Patient offers one example. His novel proceeds from a number of inner points of view, and the authorial point of view itself has the quiet eye of an inner view; however, Ondaatje is careful to make the story active, concrete, and sequentially causal. His method, which is highly descriptive and analytic leads me to think his personality type may be thinking-sensation, which he applies in the following manner:

Between the kitchen and the destroyed chapel a door led into an oval-shaped library. The space inside seemed safe except for a large hole at portrait level in the far wall, caused by mortar-shell attack on the villa two months earlier. The rest of the room had adapted itself to this wound, accepting the habits of weather, evening stars, the sound of birds. . . . The shelves nearest the torn wall bowed with the rain, which had doubled the weight of the books. Lightning came into the room too, again and again, falling across the covered piano and carpet.

At the far end were French doors that were boarded up. . . . The German army had mined many of the houses they retreated from, so most rooms not needed, like this one, had been sealed for safety, the doors hammered into their frames.

She knew these dangers when she slid into the room, walking into its afternoon darkness. She stood conscious suddenly of her weight on the wooden floor, thinking it was probably enough to trigger whatever mechanism was there. Her feet in dust. The only light poured through the jagged mortar circle that looked into sky.

With a crack of separation, as if it were being dismantled from one single unit, she pulled out The Last of the Mohicans and even in the half light was cheered by the aquamarine sky and lake on the cover illustration, the Indian in the foreground. And then, as if there were someone in the room who was not to be disturbed, she walked backwards, stepping on her own footprints, for safety, but also as part of a private game, so it would seem from the steps she had entered the room and then the corporeal body had disappeared. She closed the door and replaced the seal of warning. (Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, New York: Vintage, 1993, p. 11.)

It is the step-by-step, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other specificity and clarity of description, action, and characterization that gives this scene its drama. The scene could have been written any number of ways—as a logical delineation, a pure exposition of the situation and events, or as an impressionistic account from the character’s limited point of view—but Ondaatje wrote it in such a way that while he exercised his primary gifts, he also called on his inferior or subsidiary functions and built the scene so that anyone, no matter what personality type, can enter it and experience it exactly as Ondaatje intended. With precise sensory description, he creates a tangible three-dimensional space, just as an architect might, and places the character and reader exactly in it and then allows the action of the plot to proceed in such a way as to engage the reader’s own imagination. Images, sensations, ideas, and feelings are unified in this short, highly textured scene. Ondaatje doesn’t exert his talents over the reader but rather opens them out and invites us in.

This brings me to a series of observations on how writers develop: There tend to be three stages—(1) the writer discovers what strengths he or she has; (2) the writer discovers his or her weaknesses and learns how to develop them into strengths, or how to work around them; and (3) the writer arrives at a succinct aesthetic statement that is comprehensive and flexible enough to define the form and content of a life’s work. Not many writers reach this third level of development, and of the writers regularly published in contemporary journals surprisingly few reach the second level. Most writers work along on the first level with their given strengths, the drawback of which can be that with increasing age these primary gifts may weaken, and if the inferior gifts have not been practiced, the writer may find less and less to draw on.

All of us tend to rely on our strengths, and consequently, my job often is to suggest ways for a writer to get off his or her strengths and onto the weaknesses. One might think of this process of strengthening and integrating one’s weaknesses in Jungian terms, as the individuation of the writer. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a good example of the process documented in novel form, a book that took ten years to write; Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings is another good example, a book formed from a series of lectures in which Welty, nearing the end of her career, recalled a lifetime. In each of these two master writers’ journeys, and in the work of other great writers, one sees a boxing of the compass of talents so that the various aspects or functions of personality are balanced and each brought into play, as needed, with no overdetermination of the primary gifts.

Welty’s account of her own development occurs in three parts, the first two of which are “Listening” and “Learning to See,” which, as she describes them, can be correlated with a feeling-intuitive orientation. She writes,

Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. . . . The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me.

My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make changes. I have always trusted this voice. (Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984, p. 11.)

Welty’s statement is not a psychological one but an expression of self-knowledge gained through careful attention to her habits of being. And the intuitive aspect of her nature, as it expresses itself to Welty in words, emerges almost simultaneously with her feeling. She writes,
My love for the alphabet, which endures, grew out of reciting it but, before that, out of seeing the letters on the page. In my own story books, before I could read them for myself, I fell in love with various winding, enchanted looking initials drawn by Walter Crane at the heads of fairytales. In “Once upon a time,” an “O” had a rabbit running it as a treadmill, his feet upon flowers. When the day came, years later, for me to see the Book of Kells, all the wizardry of letter, initial, and word swept over me a thousand times over, and the illumination, the gold, seemed a part of the word’s beauty and holiness that had been there from the start. (Welty, op. cit, p. 9.)
For Welty, images expressed and gave form to feeling, and where feeling might be slow and shy, intuition was quick and daring. Welty recalls,
From the first, I was clamorous to learn—I wanted to know and begged to be told not so much what, or how, or why, or where, as when. How soon? Pear tree by the garden gate,/How much longer must I wait? This rhyme from one of my nursery books was the one that spoke for me. But I lived not at all unhappily in this craving, for my wild curiosity was in large part suspense, which carries its own secret pleasure. And so one of the godmothers of fiction was already bending over me. (Ibid., p. 22.)
Later, as Welty wrote one story and then another, she experienced a series of breakthroughs that were, I believe, the result of an increasing ability to bring her thinking to bear on her primary gifts. Given her feeling connection to language, her stories were often suggested to her by an overheard remark, a line of dialogue, or other words that carried, as Welty reports, “lyrical and mythological and dramatic overtones” (ibid., p. 87). These inspirations usually led her directly to an image. She recalls writing one story and reflecting on the initial image as it was transformed by the dramatic movement of a story until her eyes were opened to its meaning. She says, “And I had received the shock of having touched, for the first time, on my real subject: human relationships. Daydreaming had started me on the way; but story writing, once I was truly in its grip, took me and shook me awake” (ibid., p. 87).

This awakening led Welty to further discoveries, in this order: the use of point of view, plot, and characterization. She writes, “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame” (ibid., p. 90).

The idea of the infinite nature of the self is integral to any discussion of personality types and writing. The paradox between our finite and immortal selves, between what is known and what is unknown, and between what can be said and what is wordless, is the tension on which all stories are built, and from which all worthwhile inquiries proceed. Fiction writers often ask me about the applicability, the suitability, of using personal or autobiographical material in their fictions, and I often respond that only God creates out of nothing; the rest of us work with what we’ve been given. However, the test to apply to one’s writing, and I think this is as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction or poetry, is to ask, when regarding a finished piece, Is there more here than what I started with, more than what I was given? If the answer is that there’s not more, or only as much as what was given, then the work has not yet succeeded. And by “more” I mean more inspiration, more possibility of life and connection to its meanings, more insight and understanding. The only place this enhancing element can come from is the self, or the character of the writer. It is by the addition of one’s own being to the material of art or inquiry that something new and valuable is created. This addition is not so much of the will or ego, which are ordinarily expressed through one’s primary gifts, though those are required to get the work done, and certainly not necessarily of the literal aspects and details of the life, but rather of the spirit and of the state of mind from which everything that is in the character can be freed and given over wholly, impersonally, to the work and to the readers who, though they may come to the work for diversion and knowledge, also come for just that gift of transcendence.

A few examples of well-known writers given in terms of their apparent personality types may help make the connection between typology and writing a little more concrete as well as provide definition for a few more of the types. When writers write about Tolstoy, they usually mention his ability to create a real world—a tree in a scene by Tolstoy is the physical essence of tree. At the same time, Tolstoy’s work pursues philosophical inquiry. His gifts seem to have been extroverted sensation with introverted thinking as an auxiliary function. Some readers are of the opinion that his introverted thinking ran away with him in parts of War and Peace and, later, in some of his more polemical works. By comparison with Tolstoy, the modern short story writer Raymond Carver seems to have been an introverted thinker with extroverted sensation as his auxiliary function. The surface reality of Carver’s stories, not unlike Tolstoy’s, is built from sensory description and activity, to which Carver applies an inner, thoughtful voice that questions experience. These discriminations of type are, of course, speculative. I am assigning Carver and Tolstoy similar types, but viewing Tolstoy as an extroverted character and Carver as an introvert. Both writers had plenty of extroverted sensation—appetite for food, drink, women, life—and though in Carver’s case I view his introverted thinking as his primary gift and extroverted sensation as the auxiliary, the extroverted sensation would have been the natural vehicle for him to place himself and his characters as actors in the outer world, so that anyone looking at Carver or his stories might receive the impression of an extrovert, just as anyone looking at Tolstoy in his purely philosophical or ascetic aspect might view him as an introvert.

Hemingway, with whom I am very familiar, having edited a sizable mass of his work, I can say with some confidence was an introverted feeler with extroverted sensation. As with Carver and Tolstoy, there is in Hemingway’s work a strong element of sensation, the physical world described and physical life acted out, but Hemingway’s primary power is in his lyric ability to express feeling.

A good example of another type—extroverted intuition with introverted feeling—is the filmmaker Robert Altman, whom I met in connection with his filming a version of Carver’s short stories. Extroverted intuition, with its immediate ability with images from the psyche, naturally finds expression in photography and film. And Altman’s films are strong on images and lyric expression, if a little short on plot and characterization. Also, his films often demonstrate the judgmental harshness that occurs when the archetypal ideal of feeling is offended or, in other words, when feelings are hurt.

I’m not posing these types as an exercise in labeling or categorizing individuals but as a means of suggesting that a writer aware of how his or her writing arises is in an improved position to make decisions about how to work with the material. It is useful to know, for instance, the difference between inspiration that comes as spoken words and that which comes as images. I remember one of my teachers, the southern short story writer Peter Taylor, saying to me in conference one day, that a story of his had come to him in a hypnopompic state as the image of the face of one of his father’s friends. Peter asked me if my stories came to me in that way, assuming that they did, and when I told him that, no, my material usually came to me as dialogue, as characters talking to each other, he looked perplexed, and I looked back at him perplexed, and the moment passed without insight. Neither of us completely understood our own process nor the other’s, and I suppose that as long as the process works, there may be no reason to understand it. There’s the old saying about the mysteries of jazz: Those who say don’t know, those who know don’t say. In other words, unconscious art is best left that way, and if you mess with it, you’re likely to mess it up. I hold the opposite view—the unconscious is infinite and there’s no possibility of encompassing it, but the more consciousness one brings to relating with the unconscious the more interplay and possibility one experiences. In the study of the lives and work of writers, especially in the second half of their lives, this point of view holds up.

Young or beginning writers ordinarily model themselves on writers for whom they experience an affinity, and while some learning occurs by osmosis or transference, how much more learning occurs when the affinity with the model is consciously appreciated. In studying a great writer’s work, the student moves from the discovery of a particular technique to a recognition and statement of a general principle embodied by the technique and, having done that much, can then freely transform and adapt the technique into his or her own work. The recognition, for instance, that patterns of imagery take on symbolic value through the transforming movements of plot and character, and that the images are intuitive expressions while the sequential dramatic movement of scenes is the result of directed thinking, is a powerful tool for a writer. Without effecting this process of awareness, the student can imitate the great writer’s work and perhaps make spontaneous leaps but will be hard-pressed to turn material to hand in a consciously orchestrated manner.

If a formal approach to reading for technique—by which I mean deliberate focus on the formal elements of prose writing, just as poets focus on prosody—is an effective key to learning, then an awareness of the play of personality types, or gifts, across the modes of expression can open routes of natural development for a writer. In point of view, in tone, touch, an overall modulation of effects and a structure that provides a place for the reader, the best writing achieves a graceful balance between passion and disinterest. If not ordained as a spontaneous and encompassing gift in the writer, as in some great writers it is, this balance is often the result of a deliberate detachment on the part of the writer and a movement of attention between the reciprocal points of the writing itself and the personality from which it flows.

When the poet John Keats coined the phrase negative capability to describe an attitude favorable to creativity, he had in mind the ability to be in a state of paradox or contradiction without becoming anxious or irritable. The difficulty of being directly in the writing as it’s occurring and simultaneously being outside it, of being both hot and cold, or perhaps, more accurately, of being hot by being cold, is a constantly unfolding challenge of clarification. I once had a young, middle-aged writer tell me, as he contemplated having to revise his work yet again on the basis of what his work was saying to him, that he was tired of working on his own character. He didn’t say it miserably but with a kind of energetic desire to live without further reflection, to have things just happen. He had come, as all writers do, up against his own limits, and the tendency is to stall or turn back—to regress. Acceptance of the limit is sometimes the right choice, but even so, it is at just that point of recurring impasse that clarification of the relationship between the personality and the work becomes a valuable means of growth. Before I could answer him, he let down a bit and laughed at himself. By having accurately located his resistance, he had opened a door to pass through.

The article was originally given, in a slightly different form, as a talk at the fall 1999 convocation of the California Institute of Clinical Social Work, Berkeley, California, and later published in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal.