Impulsive Storytelling


June 29, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Word Sprout’s last story slam of the season – the Grand Slam – is this Tuesday, July 1.

I hate it when a slam date falls on the first or the last day of the month, because those are usually grant deadlines as well. But such is life.

The theme is “impulsive,” and I’m once again using this blog to brainstorm ideas for my story.

Hopefully by the time the post is published I will be further along in the process than I am now. But having been the blog resident for Word Sprout last week, and writing three posts about my relationship to storytelling (which you can read here) plus publishing my own post as well, was a lot. So being behind doesn’t feel like anything I need to attach blame to.

Then again, who needs to attach blame to anything.

Very old, the blame game…
Domenichino, The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, 1626

This year all the slam themes have been, at least nominally, based on feelings.

I’ve already had a quibble over this once, when the theme was courageous, essentially questioning whether courageous was a feeling at all. (I know. Pedantic me.) That’s even more the case with impulsive.

The word impulsive is often confused with compulsive or impetuous.

If an action is described as impetuous, my dictionary authorities explain, that always has a negative connotation, whereas an action taken on impulse is in itself neutral – it can be positive or negative, based on the outcome. Unless, of course, you believe our impulses are innately corrupt or debased. Which many of us, either consciously or unconsciously, do.

Several years spent working at a mental health nonprofit (plus a lifetime working on my own mental health) taught me to distinguish between impulsive and compulsive.

DSM categories like Impulse Control Disorder (ICD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) supposedly do just that. An OCD, supposedly is something a person feels compelled to do to protect herself from real or imagined danger; an ICD, by contrast, is an inability to resist an impulse that appears to provide relief from anxiety (but often, as in various forms of self-harming behavior, merely compounds it).

dsm-5-released-big-changes-dsm5Still these categories aren’t all that firm or clear.

The condition I’ve been living with since I was eighteen, trichotillomania, was moved in the last DSM from the ICD section to the OCD section – though I doubt  anyone who pulls out their hair when they are anxious or trying to concentrate believes this action protects them from anything. In fact the determining factor for how a particular condition is classified in the DSM is often the medication it responds best to, rather than any sort of rationale that explains why it is a disorder.

But let’s set the taxonomy of the DSM aside for now, and go back to that problematic word “impulsive.”

Again, I don’t see it as an emotion per se. Instead, it’s a proclivity for spontaneous decisions, which may or may not be emotionally based.

In practice in our Western culture, being impulsive, “acting or doing without forethought” is seen as risky or dangerous – a control disorder from the get-go.  Being “actuated or swayed by emotional or involuntary impulses” is not considered a legitimate exercise of emotional intelligence, but an abdication of free will, a childish trait, a giving in to our baser animal instincts.

We rarely think of impulsiveness as a conduit of generosity, empathy or grace.

Instead we fear being “motivated by emotion rather than thought,” by “spontaneous actions based on desires, whims, or inclinations.” Impulsivity, then, is a failure to resist temptation, with all the religious and psychological baggage you can attach to that.

If you do a Google search for images related to impulsive, what you will find is a lot of women and children: impulse buying, binge eating, throwing tantrums. Images of impulsive men are usually connected to impulsive aggression. This is what stock photography tells us about how we see our world.

I’m not going to show you any stock photography here.

I’d rather let this saucy Eve speak for herself.  Frankly I’d like her to have a talk with the poor wretch in Domenichino’s painting.

French Erotic Postcard, 1911 – 1917.

I am only half joking when I say I need to plan more spontaneity into my life.

I am very much a creature of habit, and most of my habits are helpful to me. Impulsive behavior is less an issue than impulsive speech, usually after I have misinterpreted someone else’s words or behavior based on what baggage that action has triggered in me. Reacting, rather than responding. Thinking that I know the story when I don’t.

And do I know the story now? No. But at least I’ve dived in, and given it some thought. Thank you, blogosphere.

Blogosphere, Bathysphere - well, they're close.   National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1930s.

Blogosphere, Bathysphere – well, they’re close. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1930s.

3 thoughts on “Impulsive Storytelling

  1. An honest post, Paula, and I enjoyed following your fascinating train of thought. From story slams, through mental health, a quick stop off at the Garden of Eden where Eve really looks like she’s enjoying herself – boy, have you been busy. I hope the story becomes clear and you’ll post it for us to read when you’re ready.


  2. Thanks, Teagan. Sorry I missed responding to this earlier – you’re right, it’s been a busy week! The story itself ended up being very last minute; I finished a grant proposal about two hours before the slam. It was respectable, but still needs work. Hopefully now that slam season is over I’ll have time to polish it, as well as the one I did for the “provoked” theme; that one is still a collection of notes!


  3. Interesting post. Giving it some thought, yes, I agree, impulsive is always considered negative. Heaven knows, our society is all about being in control, and acting impulsively is not in control.
    “Why did you do that?” – “I don’t know, I acted impulsively.”
    The only exception I can think of is if you jump up from your table and give someone the Heimlich maneuver to prevent them from choking. Even then, it better not be TOO impulsive or you’ll be sued for man-handling someone who wasn’t having a problem in the first place!


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