A new piece I’ve written was published last week by the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine. But did I actually write it? No, I’m not making a cute reference to the powers of ChatGPT. Rather I’m referring to the nature of writing and how our brains produce any creative product.

Appropriately, the article is a primer on the psychological concept of attribution – e.g. to what do we attribute our life outcomes to – and at the expense of getting too meta it begs the question of what could I attribute this new article to.

Generally speaking our ability to tell a story, write an article, even have a conversation is reliant on what we can reference or pull from the vast filing cabinet that is our brain. The same processes that we use in our brain to recollect the past is used to create something from our imagination. We are constantly recombining and connecting ideas and words to create something new or novel. Take my recent piece for example.

The article relies heavily on the science and research of social psychologists. People whose work I’ve been introduced to over the last decade or more. I use examples from popular culture like the movie Rocky. I reference a conversation I had fifteen years ago and incorporate other experiences from my own life.

Extract any of those and the article isn’t as strong. Take them all away and there is just a collection of words trying to connect blank spaces where these disparate ideas used to be.

Speaking of words I, of course, didn’t invent any of these words or learn to read or write them on my own. There were teachers who taught me the foundation of writing that now works on a subconscious level. By the way, Google’s spell check just made sure I spelled “subconscious” correctly.

Undoubtedly my writing is greatly influenced by what I read. The vocabulary, phrasing and rhythm within my sentences unwittingly borrow from the work of the hundreds of authors I’ve read over the course of my life.

Finally, there were the editors who reviewed and offered suggestions and their own words to strengthen my writing. Their own edits are obviously the byproduct of a similar life-long process of writing to that which I described above. Some of those editors were from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, who underwrote this article.

John Updike once explained the writing process as leaning over the typewriter and trying to come up with words beyond what immediately comes to mind.

It is an act of recollection, sampling, assembling, and recombining. All in the hopes you create something that may resonate enough with others that makes an impression. One strong enough that perhaps they will recollect, sample, assemble or recombine it with their own thoughts in the future – whether that be in conversation or some positive – perhaps – creative action.

The early reaction to my latest article suggests that this may be happening. Several people, including some with backgrounds in psychology, have thanked me for writing it – as the concept of attribution was one they were previously unfamiliar with but see play out so often in their life.

To that I say thank you to all those who wrote this article with me. And that is what attribution is all about – becoming more aware and grateful for all that helps us along the way.

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