The Week at Litlove’s

Wednesday afternoon found me ringing up the local doctors’ surgery asking for an appointment. They could fit me in Saturday morning, or if it was an emergency, I could phone at 8am the next day. ‘What seems to be the problem?’ the receptionist asked.

‘It’s only a throat virus,’ I replied, ‘and I wouldn’t normally bother you. But I’ve been spitting a bit of blood.’

‘Not to be alarmist or anything, but you should see a doctor this afternoon,’ she said. ‘Come down at the end of surgery and we’ll fit you in.’

This was gratifying and distressing in equal measure. I couldn’t help but think of all those years with chronic fatigue when I felt absolutely dreadful and no one was much bothered. If only I’d known that all you needed to do to get medical attention was bleed! I duly saw the doctor and I’m not consumptive yet, it’s just a virus. I couldn’t help but reflect, though, on how the experience of chronic fatigue has warped my perception of illness. Anything that happens to me bodily has the effect of alarming me – instantly I’m scared that here we go again, here comes another decade of awful illness. So because of that, when my throat started bleeding on Monday, I spent the next 48 hours telling myself it was nothing important at all. Sure, I felt poorly, but nowhere near as bad as I did in the bad years. Now that I’ve seen the doctor and he’s reassured me, I sometimes feel even more worried: what if he’s wrong? What if he missed something? I wonder if I’ll ever get it all straight in my head again.

I’ve been more attentive than usual to my thought processes thanks to this fantastic book I’ve been reading, Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz. In it, she talks about the way the mind works through inductive reasoning. We make the maximum interpretation on the minimum of evidence, and generally this works pretty well (it’s certainly quick). It’s the essential cleverness of our brains that allows us to make the obvious assumptions, based on experience, reason and common sense. But it’s easy also to see how the system breaks down when our thought patterns are contaminated by emotion, anxiety in particular. Anxiety loves nothing more than to make huge interpretations on the merest hint of evidence, misreading frantically and blowing brief impressions out of all proportion. And because we are activating the same sort of mechanisms we always do, the result feels like a convincing conclusion.

The real problem with being wrong in this way (or indeed in any other way) is how stubbornly we cling to wrong answers. When others challenge what we think we know, we dismiss them in one of three ways – they’re ignorant, and don’t have access to our information; they’re stupid, and haven’t interpreted the information correctly, and finally, the most dangerous one, they’re evil, and are wilfully refusing what’s obvious for their own nefarious ends. Schultz says that just as we say ‘I’m sorry’ when we stand on someone’s foot, we need an easy formulation for when we end up in a hopeless cul-de-sac of our own false assumptions. It would rescue us from our own ridiculousness, she says, as well as make us aware how incredibly common it is, being wrong, how often in every day we mentally stomp on our own feet or someone else’s. And finally, it might make us aware of the limits of our knowledge, which we are all too apt to forget. (She says this most entertainingly, too, never have I laughed more at a non-fiction book.)

All this, and more, has been in my mind as I’m planning to write the next essay for my writing course on chronic fatigue syndrome, on the way it screws with the stories we have for illness and the way those stories hover around false assumptions and the limits of our knowledge. Talking of my writing course, we are at the start of the fourth week and there is a notable absence of bonding going on between the twelve members. In the absence of any knowledge at all, I wonder whether the others are all having a lovely time emailing privately back and forth. But the virtual scout hut where we are supposed to congregate has an abandoned feel. For some reason the practice has arisen that, rather than follow a discussion thread, members post their thoughts in separate threads, some in attached files. There’s a way to kill interchange stone dead.

We’re being forced into some sort of interaction, however, because we have to peer review our first essays. We’ve been put in groups of four for this, and although I’ve written my reviews, the others are lagging behind. We can read everybody’s assessments, though, and by the end of yesterday I realised that there were only three essays that hadn’t been read – mine, the oversharing suicidal guy’s and the retired lady who used to be a life model writing about her trip to Zanzibar. Ever feel like you’re in a club you’re not sure you want to be part of? By this morning, it was only mine whose tally remained a big zero. I’m in no hurry now; having read most of the other essays I am certainly conscious of being three thousand miles away from America, stylistically. One participant suggested that a writer stop using $100 dollar words when $1 dollar words could be found in their place. I passed this on to Mr Litlove who said, ‘You’ll have overspent, then.’ What can I do? I even speak this way, in full sentences with sub clauses and polysyllabic words. No prizes for guessing what inductive assumptions my course mates will make, though. ‘Once you’re over 40, you can’t care what other people think of you,’ suggested Mr Litlove, which is perhaps not exactly in the spirit of a course, but ah well, onwards, ever onwards….!

49 thoughts on “The Week at Litlove’s

  1. “We make the maximum interpretation on the minimum of evidence, and generally this works pretty well…”

    Something I always point out to my students (and to colleagues and to myself) is that the best approach when two pieces of information contradict each other is to assume both are wrong. Works well in experimental sciences anyway!

  2. It will be very interesting to hear what you make of the peer review system (if you ever get peer reviewed 🙂 I have mixed feelings based on courses I’ve done.

    • I well understand your mixed feelings! I’ve had two reviews now and they have been…. a tiny bit helpful. I can’t really get more enthusiastic than that. There’s been a couple of useful points made and then a few quite bizarre ones. I suppose it does remind you how diverse and unexpected readings can be!

  3. I’m a bit scared of reading about why I’m wrong. It will just remind me of the many times I’ve been wrongly convinced of something, sometimes facts, but it’s worse when it’s an opinion, and then been totally embarrassed afterwards.

    Sounds like you need some better peers. 😦

    • Oh bless you! And I feel sure you would be less embarrassed if you realised that everyone around is doing the same thing all the time, day in and day out. We are all wrongly convinced about LOADS of things. You should meet my husband! 😉 I promise you’d feel better after that!

      • I am still in the phase of “can’t believe I was such a terrible girlfriend… and I thought I was right at the time!” post break up blues.

        I am sure you are right though and I can think of other people in my life who are worse than me. It’s like the Calvin and Hobbes sketch where Calvin can’t get anyone to buy from his “Swift kick up the backside” stall, even though *everyone* he knows needs one.

      • Oh sweetie! Break-ups are the worst because they stir up all our abandonment fears, which are the nastiest, scariest, most upsetting kind of fears to have. Any thoughts you have in the period after a break-up have to be put straight in the bin as they have nothing to do with ordinary life. You are a lovely person. That’s all you need to know. The Calvin and Hobbes sketch is funny, though.

      • Yes, it’s the loss of control I don’t like. So I tend to prefer to think that there was something I could have done to make it different, when realistically there wasn’t.

        One day I’ll let go. I just need to remember the good advice I’ve had, like yours.

      • Oh I hear you – I am NOT good with loss of control either, and feel sure I would think exactly the same thing, even though I agree it wouldn’t be true. You’ll be fine in time; be as kind to yourself as possible until then. You deserve it.

  4. I always like to know the right answer, so I appreciate it when somebody points out to me when I am wrong or have made a mistake. I actually care less about WHO is right than WHAT is right.

    • That sounds like you have your ego invested in the right place! The only problem is the way that what’s right keeps changing. Life is so annoying that way! 🙂

    • Lol! Lovely Mrs C! Do you know, if I needed anyone shooting, you would definitely be the woman I’d trust with the job? That’s definitely a compliment, btw. 🙂

  5. “I couldn’t help but think of all those years with chronic fatigue when I felt absolutely dreadful and no one was much bothered.”

    What I can say from my own bout of chronic illness is that I felt doctors weren’t “bothered” not because they didn’t care, but because they didn’t know what to do for me. At what point, it was so bad I spent days on morphine-and it did nothing for me. I stopped going to the hospital unless I was doing things like spitting up blood because that seemed to be the only thing they could do much about (that and stopping nausea). So I very much sympathize, just wanted to offer that perspective that doctors may be more focused on the acute symptoms because they have concrete fixes.

    • Miriam, you are quite right. It’s really problematic that so little can be done about the condition. And poor you! It really sounds like you were put through the wringer with it. I send ALL my sympathy. How horrible that must have been!

  6. Good at that superinterpretation myself. We should form a society called, at the risk of ungrammaticality, Catastrophising is Us. Your group sounds like sad souls in search of a paragraph, excepting yourself, but often that’s who you get. Hope I’m wrong and all turns out well. In fact it must – stop this negativity based on so little. Daughter down with bug at uni – new people and start of term, of course. Hope your son is surviving.

    • Oh yes, please! Catastrophising is Us is a club I really could belong to very happily – shall I make us badges? I am so sorry to hear about your daughter – my son says everyone is coughing like mad in London as the freshers’ germ cloud descends. I have sent him off with a bottle of Sambucol, which I’ve found really helpful the past couple of years. It’s just an immune system boost but it certainly helped keep him healthier. You can get it at Boots. Having a bottle of it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll actually put it down his throat, of course. But one has to try! The course is… okay. More news as it breaks on that front.

  7. That experience with creative writing sounds similar to my own via the open university. Each student group had a virtual forum and we were meant to share our work and ask for feedback. But it was like sending stuff into outer space because v few people did. I think part of it was that they didn’t like it if you gave any criticism of their work which makes me wonder why they bothered to do the course if not to learn how to write more effectively.

    • Oh I know what you mean. On every online writing site I’ve ever visited, the mutual back-scratching can be annoying too. Not everyone does it, for sure, but there’s a fair bit of it about. Mind you, I’ve had a couple of reviews now, but so far they haven’t contained anything really useful. We’ll see what happens when the instructor finally gets around to giving us some feedback (I don’t feel he’s done much so far!).

  8. Randomly constructed peer review groups are silly in my experience. I’ve wasted plenty of time and effort on lazy and pretentious people, who don’t seem to care about deadlines or helping anyone but themselves. Sadly, in classrooms, you’re stuck with them.

    People in peer review groups seem to represent the populace as a whole. It’s like handing your essay to your neighbor who plans his life around his favorite TV shows. Never a good match. To find your “like,” you can’t just throw a dart into a crowd and hope you strike the one reviewer that gets it. You have to meet Luck in a dark alley late at night, and pay him off.

    I also dislike peer reviews because, frankly, I don’t much like my peers; so I don’t much feel I need their criticisms. I need reviews from people who know how to read (not just process text), who don’t just scan for grammar and punctuation then zap off something meaningless in order to get back to, “Now what’d they say about MY work?”

    I found two people that have been with me for years. I would pit them against professional reviewers any day of the week. They know me well enough to be totally honest; but they are different enough from me that they can’t always follow my train of thought, and they force me to clean it up a bit. The rest of the group you just mentally block out, as if they were background noise. Because, well, they are.

    Good luck with your course. The dynamics will change a lot by the end. Hang in there. You’ll be brilliant because, well, you are.

    Oversharing guy? Yeah, there’s always one, and he needs a different kind of group.

    Non-lit aside: Seriously? Blood? What about blood that’s inside suddenly appearing outside is ever not a big deal? My lord, woman. Put the surgery back on speed dial and just be happy that you can!

    • Oh I think I love everything about this comment. But maybe particularly the bit about the neighbour who watches TV. That is SO true. Finding good crit partners is like finding life’s soulmates – it takes an awful lot of looking and vast quantities of good luck. I don’t think I’ve found any in this group, though of course, I keep hoping. I’m also feeling incredibly British, as this bunch seem more American than your usual Americans if that makes any sense at all. One person wondered if ‘having a cup of tea’ was a phrase, as in the passage I end up with a bottle of water. Yes, well. And I will duly put the surgery back on speed dial, if I can stop laughing long enough to plug in the numbers! 🙂

      • Um…yeah. I was gonna tell you to just start drinking now because you’re in a group with Yanks. We’re not your go-to pool when choosing close-knit, community members. We don’t really much give a sh*t about you and your problems, but we’d appreciate it if you could invest all your time in ours.

        And yeah, “having a cup of tea” is pretty damn Limey unless you wear socks with your sandals and shop exclusively at the co-op. But even that we’ll hip-check you for, “Okay, but seriously, ditch the ascot. And get your bike helmet off the table.”

        Keep your chin up my friend; good lit-help is out there. Some of us are actually head over heels for Brits! Your Manchester fans can swear up a storm and still sound classier than some of our Ivy Leaguers.

        Oh, here’s my favorite UK thing:
        “Sorry.” “Sorry?” “Oh, yes. Sorry.” “Ah. Okay, sorry.” “Right then. Sorry!” And then you wave goodbye, or set a lunch date. It’s the best!

        In the interim, I guarantee you’ll learn what not to do from your fellow writers. That will definitely put you ahead of the curve 🙂

      • Ha, I was talking just about their literary style – which is all I know about them at the moment! 🙂 But forewarned is forearmed. Generally I love Americans for their generosity and friendliness (and you are all that and more). As for your hilarious ‘sorry’ moment, that’s pretty much the soundtrack to my life. Have you been installing CCTV in my house?? 😉

      • HAHA no, but I was reminded of it by my Anglo Saxon prof. He’s a Brit, and he had us falling off our chairs laughing, describing how he was trying to snap a pic of a sword pyramid from the Staffordshire hoard that was sitting on a glass table. He was crawling under the table to get a photo of its base and all the while he’s apologizing to people in the crowd that he was bumping into, and of course then they’re all apologizing back. It was hilarious!

        I love the way you do things. US crowds act like hockey players, and next thing you know we’ve started a brawl at the Mona Lisa. We’re really quite hopeless at times; but yes, at other times we will sell our house to help a stranger pay for a new kidney.

        Thank you for noticing 🙂

  9. You write so well about CFS that I would love to read it (whatever your new peers might have to say). Maybe they put this one off to last because they thought it would be tiring and difficult to read. I think Denise might be right that you need some new peers. But just take a deep breath and let us know how it goes!

    • Pete, I am going to take you up on that, if you don’t mind. I would love to have your thoughts. You’re not far off, I think – one person commented that because she knew the piece was about Jung, she’s braced herself to be bored and been a bit surprised she wasn’t. So, that may have had a lot to do with it! You and I know that Jung is fascinating, of course. 😉

  10. It’s interesting that the latest literature MOOC available on Coursera has moved away from peer assessment. The tutor reckons that it took him several years before he felt confident about making comments on people’s essays and so doesn’t feel he can ask others to do it with no experience at all. I have to say the element of MOOCs I have been most concerned about is that of assessment and the peer route isn’t one I like at all.

    As for the bleeding throat this has been my party trick for the past four decades. So much so that new acquaintances have to be warned not to call an ambulance when I start tossing up blood unless I tell them to. It is very frightening when it first happens but once you get used to it nothing more than a very literal bloody nuisance:) Hope you’re better soon. The Bears say remember the honey.

    • Well both very interesting pieces of information, thank you! I am never sure that writers should read other writers. If doctors assess other doctors, they’ll talk about the accuracy of the diagnosis and treatment. If patients assess doctors they’ll complain about their cavalier manner and never being given enough information… Which is to say that it might be better to get readers to read writers, if only you could. I will have to ask you more about your bleeding throat in a different venue – I am most curious to hear all about it. Love to you and the Bears.

  11. OMG, Litlove, you recapitulate so much of what I’ve experienced lately. Good, knowledgeable, intelligent friends here in California who believe they live in a liberal “bubble”, far superior to the rest of the world–yet they pass judgment on other regions, also possessed of similar complexities. It reminds me of a news story I once saw about the hatreds and prejudices of the middle east and how they are fueled by educated people amassing enough “data” to feel superior to their similarly judgmental enemies.

    • Oh Ben, the Being Wrong book is amazing – I think you’d find it really interesting. There’s a good bit where the author is describing a discussion about string theory she had with a couple of lawyers and some other random folk, none of whom she believed was capable of solving a quadratic equation. She said it gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘theoretical physics’. But that’s the funny side – it’s scary when you see what we do with our assumed certainties.

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  13. I’m always right. Just ask my husband 😀

    Seriously though, so sorry you are still suffering with the throat virus. At least your writing class is online and you don’t have to sit in a classroom and try to look perky and actually talk to people. I suspect if the class all knows you were in academia, they are severely intimidated by you. Don’t take it personally!

    • Lol!! There’s a great bit in the book where the author describes how being contradicted by someone like, say, her mother, can move her from uncertain to evangelical in a nanosecond. I think you’d like this one, too. You are quite right that the absence of a requirement to look perky is a huge relief. And whilst I haven’t breathed a word of my academic background, the piece I wrote involved some stuff on Jung and the file name gave that away – and is I think at least partly responsible for the hesitation! But Jung is lovely, how could anyone think him dull??? 😉

  14. The book sounds wonderful. I know there have been times lately when I think the same old thoughts, and suddenly a completely different interpretation has occurred to me and it’s like a zap of wake-up juice. The surprise is that there even is another possible, believable way to look at things! Oh, and keep your polysyllabic, clause and sub-clause way of writing. It’s delightful.

    • Bless you, dear Lilian. And I know just what you mean. I used to love it when I read a different interpretation of a book I hadn’t thought of. Suddenly the world opened up and I loved that expansive feeling.

  15. >>Schultz says that just as we say ‘I’m sorry’ when we stand on someone’s foot, we need an easy formulation for when we end up in a hopeless cul-de-sac of our own false assumptions.

    I agree with this so much! I wish there were more societal models for how to respond when someone says “you are wrong” — surely it can’t all be human nature? Surely there are learned behaviors we could pick up to respond to wrongness besides defensiveness & digging in our heels?

    Poor you all sickly! I hope that you have received relevant medicines and are spitting no further blood. That never ends well for ladies in novels.

    • Lol! It doesn’t end well for ladies in novels, but thankfully I seem to be on the mend. 🙂 No writing poetry on the sofa for me just yet! We so need ways to deal with average wrongness – ‘I’m having a jackass moment’ might do the trick. Wouldn’t it be great if we could hand this stuff down through the generations – forget global warning and financial meltdown, our generation would actually achieve something miraculous if we could change this.

  16. I’m interested to read Being Wrong. Thank you for continuing to write about CFS and anxiety. There isn’t enough said about either subject and you write eloquently and beautifully about it.

    • I so often think of you when I’m writing about CFS and anxiety because I’ve appreciated your support and encouragement more than I can say. Thank you. And Being Wrong is a fantastic book – it should be part of everyone’s education, as useful as long division!

  17. The writing workshops I attended for my MFA at the University of San Francisco were based on a very clear and humane protocol of first going to the strengths of a piece of writing and then the areas that were either unclear or confusing to the reader. People avoided saying “l like …” and never said “I don’t like”. I thought it was a great way of avoiding the pitfalls of unconstructive criticism and I’m British! Plus being there in person is very different. I think it’s hard to value criticism from people who you don’t respect in some way.

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