Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Writing can feel a bit scatterbrained, like you’re traveling without a map.

(Title taken from a Joyce Carol Oates short story of the same name)

I recently described my educational background to someone who had a hard time reconciling my BA in Psychology with the fact that I am getting a Master’s in Professional Writing. How does someone go from a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with minors in Chemistry and Criminal Justice to spending her time writing, especially writing poetry? To me, the connection is clear: writing is all about cognition.

Well, cognition and metacognition, which are not the same thing (Tinberg 75). When I work with student essays, I often ask them to identify what they know and how they know it. What they know is the cognitive aspect of writing, a process that begins before the writing itself, from the very moment the student begins reading (Tinberg 76; Dryer 72). How they know it is the metacognitive process (Tinberg 76)—the student must consider how the information is presented and how it structures its message.

Writing, as we know, reflects aspects of an individual’s life and personality. What might not have been evident from that post is that writing—and, by extension, cognition and metacognition—is also a shaping process.

A common method for mental health treatment is called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

A brief explanation of CBT.

I’ve been in CBT a couple of times, and two exercises I completed as part of the treatment were self-esteem affirmations and cognitive journaling.

Journaling: not just for writers anymore.

The long and the short of it is that you engage with the ideas that you write. The physical writing, the words and grammar and syntax, are all part of cognition. The ideas, the notion that you are worthy of love and mistakes do not decrease your value or right to existence, are part of metacognition. When you are asked to journal about your good features or the day’s positive events, you are forced to place more emphasis on these positive characteristics. Thereby, you get used to considering them, and you wind up seeking out those ideas even when you aren’t writing. Have you ever spent a long time reading and started thinking in terms of narration and dialogue? It’s like that. The more you become accustomed to certain thought patterns, the more likely you are to repeat those patterns, and so on.

This process is neutral; recurring cognitive patterns have both positive and negative repercussions. When your thoughts are healthy and self-affirming, they lead to a healthy and self-affirming outlook. When they are unhealthy and self-destructive, they lead to an unhealthy and self-destructive outlook. Similarly, when you write, becoming accustomed to patterns can be useful to learning citation styles and genre conventions, but they can also ensnare you in them. In English: if you don’t want to write a single genre for the rest of your life, it is important to experiment early and often.

Reflection is part of that experimentation. Where I ask students what they know and how they know it to engage in cognitive-metacognitive processes, reflection asks students to consider where they are going and where they have been. This reflection is also a metacognitive process, but it is more focused on the individual than a rhetorical analysis is. Reflection asks you the cognitive question of “what did you write?” as well as metacognitive questions about who you are and what you seek to accomplish. I write in part due to my mental illnesses, because they shape how I view and interact with the world. Both psychology and writing help me to understand who I am and what I want.

So, I leave you with this: where are you going? Where have you been?


Dryer, Dylan B. “Writing Is (Also Always) A Cognitive Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 71-74.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Epoch Magazine, 1966, https://www.cusd200.org/cms/lib/IL01001538/Centricity/Domain/361/oates_going.pdf.

Ragnarson, Richard. “Cognitive Journaling: A Systematic Method to Overcome Negative Beliefs.” BetterHumans, 25 Jan. 2019, https://medium.com/better-humans/cognitive-journaling-a-systematic-method-to-overcome-negative-beliefs-119be459842c.

Taczak, Kara. “Reflection Is Critical for Writers’ Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 78-79.

Tinberg, Howard. “Metacognition Is Not Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 75-76.

“What is CBT? | Making Sense of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” YouTube, uploaded by Mind, the mental health charity, 28 September 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c_Bv_FBE-c.

2 Replies to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

  1. I was hoping to read more about how your background in psychology has affected your writing process. How does that background meld your writing in a way that might be lost as someone without it?

  2. Samantha, I like what you’ve written here and it is interesting to see you relating psychology to your poetic interests. The reflective process is something that we should address in our work and I think you do it well.

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