Perezhivanie, the gift of confidence and creative collaborations

Sometimes psychology is annoying. For example, when it finds long boring ways to say what my Aunty Freda and everyone on her street knew without having to be told. But the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) is never annoying. He never goes round in reductionist circles. It is a tragedy that he died at only 37. But it is fantastic that his work on emotions is now translated into English and is available to us.

In Vygotsky’s hands words become live organisms.

‘A word’s sense is the aggregate of all psychological facts that arise in our consciousness as a result of the word. Sense is a dynamic, fluid, and complex formation that has several zones that vary in their stability,’ Vygotsky wrote in 1934.

Holbrook Mahn and Vera John-Steiner, who are disciples of Vygotsky, tease out how creative collaborations work. Anyone who uses a workshop method of teaching writing, or anyone who belongs to a writing group would find this exploration interesting.

‘Partners who have been successful in constructing such a joint [collaborative] system are sensitive to the sense as well as the meaning of each other’s language. In producing shared texts, collaborators expand their partner’s early drafts; they strive to give shape to the communicative intent by combining precision – or word meaning – with the fluidity of the sense of words. They live, temporarily, in each other’s heads. They also draw on their mutuality as well as their differences in knowledge, working styles, and temperament.’

One of Vygotsky’s radical ideas was that emotions drive thinking and thinking doesn’t just happen by itself. Writers choose words based on their own full and complex emotions floating under and behind the words in their minds. That is their perezhivanie. Collaborative discussions let that complexity in. Say goodbye to the isolated mind. Say goodbye to the opposition of emotion and reason. Say hello to lived experience poking its nose shyly out from behind words. Say hello to the aspects of social interdependence – human connection and caring support – that foster the development of confidence.

Link to full PDF of Mahn and John Steiner’s book chapter