Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.

Issue 4 Goes Live

 

And indeed, we are live…!

SNB-logoIssue 4 of Shiny New Books is now available for your delectation. To help you get started here are a few of my favourite reviews written by people other than myself!

Fiction

Harriet’s review of Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

David Hebblethwaite’s review of Bilbao-New York-Bilboa by Kirmen Uribe

Rebecca Foster’s review of Some Luck by Jane Smiley

 

Non-Fiction

Jenny’s review of In These Times; Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars by Jenny Uglow

Rebecca Hussey’s review of Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Annabel’s review of Armchair Nation; An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV by Joe Moran

 

Reprints

Simon’s review of Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Lory Widmer Hess’s review of The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

Karen Langley’s review of In The Twilight by Anton Chekhov

 

BookBuzz

Neil Ansell’s article: The Art of Memoir and Narrative Non-Fiction

Michelle Bailat-Jones’ article: On Writing Fog Island Mountains

Marilyn Dell Brady’s article: Reading Diversity

 

I could have picked so many more, but for now: Enjoy!

Almost There

We’re almost at the publication day for Issue 4 of Shiny New Books, which will go live on Thursday. Due entirely to my own miscalculations, I’ve been lashed to the keyboard for several days now, typing and typing and typing. I think I’ll get everything done – just. But inevitably my mind wanders to the distant future lying at the end of the week, and all I’ll then be able to do….

1. I’ll be catching up on the virtual conversations that I’ve abandoned this week. There were several ongoing that I had to drop out of, once I’d looked at my to-do list. In one, I was right in the middle of throwing my psychological prowess around *cough* and David, I’ll be back. (Bet you can’t wait!)

2. I’ll be reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory for a new virtual friend, Andy, and Ali Smith’s How To Be Both for one of my longest-standing virtual friends, Stefanie. I think they are going to be amazing books.

3. I might finally manage to review Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World, and be able to change the books in my sidebar, which I’ve been looking at for more weeks than I care to think about.

4. And yes, Mr Litlove, I will restock the house with groceries. And maybe run the vacuum cleaner around, although between you and me, I’m hoping for a better offer to distract me by then.

5. I might even be able to respond to comments here, and leave comments on my blog friends’ sites. I did quite well with reading if not commenting up until last weekend, and now I don’t dare look at my feed reader.

Bear with me, dear friends. The new edition of Shiny is looking wonderful, so it will all be worth it in the end!

Fifty Shades of Torture

andy millerEven though I tell myself to behave nicely, there is something about reading books about reading that makes me very precious. Perhaps it is simply because I have spent so much of my life reading that I struggle to find anything said about the activity which strikes me as new or profound. And perhaps also it is because I used to teach literature for a living, and so bring to reading a schoolmistress’s approach: I like readers to sit up straight, focus and make an effort. Halfway through Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously; How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life, I was itching to change the subtitle to: How I Made An Unseemly Fuss About A Few Classics. ‘It was only reading books,’ he writes, ‘yet in my head I seemed to be engaged in a heroic struggle…’ Let’s be clear, there is nothing dangerous about the reading Miller does, and his life is not saved in any effective way – unless we count jacking in his job as an editor and turning freelance, thus saving himself a commute to London that sounds tedious and tiring.

For yes, the premise of the book is Andy Miller’s shameful secret: he is an editor at a publishing house who has not in fact read a large number of the books he claims to have done. The rot set in at his previous job as a bookseller (at what sounds like Waterstone’s). He grew weary of customers asking for his opinion on books he hadn’t read or had disliked. ‘It was kinder, and cleaner, to answer all such queries with a ‘yes’. The customer rarely wanted the honest opinion of a shop assistant anyway.’ And once you’ve started to lie about these things, it’s easy to keep going. At the time when he began his reading project, Andy Miller and his wife and small son had just moved out of London and to the South coast. In the three years since his son had been born, he realised he’d hardly read anything at all, and given the commute, and demanding jobs and childcare, it was a stretch to fit reading time into the day. However, to ease his sore conscience, Miller put together a ‘List of Betterment’, a series of literary classics that he felt he had to read in order to gain a little more congruence between inner self and outer projection of identity. ‘These were all books, to a greater or lesser extent, that defined the sort of person I would like to be. They conveyed the innate good taste someone like me would possess, effortlessly.’ And they included books like Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice and Beckett’s The Unnameable.

Progress is initially rocky, but encouraging. ‘I would start on a book; after a spell of bafflement or boredom, steady persistence would start to pay off, giving way after several days to hard-won but tangible pleasure, which in turn spread into a blush of accomplishment’. Literature as medicine, then, which you may have to choke down, but which will do you good in the end. Some of his strategies seem self-defeating – unsurprisingly, his attempts to drown out the noisy commuters on his train sufficiently to read Beckett’s The Unnameable – which he does by listening simultaneously to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music – end badly. But then he has the bright idea of listening to an audio book while walking around London, which ends well. It’s all a bit of a struggle, though, with only Anna Karenina providing solid pleasure out of his initial thirteen choices.

But he decides to extend the project to 50 books, having got his reading muscles back in shape again. Though I cynically wondered whether the real inspiration wasn’t the thought of writing a book about what he was doing. He joined a book club and began a blog about this point, neither of which enrich his reading in any way. The book club provides him with the usual disquieting experience of arguing that Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale is a bad book against a solid wall of Maugham defence by the other members, and having his own choice of Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black trashed. The blog is, he says, merely an annoying distraction which leads him to think too much about what he’ll say about the book he’s reading in a post, with again those pesky dissenting voices in the comments. Plus he absolutely can’t understand doing anything for which he doesn’t get paid. The internet is where ‘comment is free, everyone is entitled to a wrong opinion, blockheads write zealously, copiously and for nothing.’ And he bemoans the poor old ‘old media’ those professional critics with their ‘skill in fine phrase-making.’

He really should not have done this. What I had noticed increasingly through the book was the absence of anything of interest said about the books themselves. This is a memoir essentially, 80% about Andy Miller, his life, his experiences and his feelings, and most of the books earn a bare synopsis. When he gave up the blog he turned with relief to a book ‘I could enjoy without having to worry what I might write about it later or what anybody else may think.’ When I thought of all the book bloggers I knew who had said so many intriguing things and all out of generosity and passion about books, I could not help but think that here was a man who was intellectually lazy, essentially, unable to make a profound comment about the literature he’d absorbed, but still wanting to get paid for it.

This was followed not long afterwards by the only epiphany he has while slogging through his list. He absolutely loves Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, and the chapter devoted to it takes the form of a fan letter, for better or worse. Atomised – the most unrelenting representation of the dark side of the male ego – is the book that ‘felt like life’ to him. No wonder he nearly abandoned Pride and Prejudice. But the experience brings him alive, makes him remember why we really read (not just to produce memoirs), brings him in touch with the early death of his father, and seems to provoke way too much discussion about Neil Young and his music.

And finally I understood why I was resisting this book with every fibre of my being. Andy Miller can only read in order to find himself. Ultimately, that’s the point, and that’s why it’s such a slog. Although I would never discourage reading on any grounds, I shudder at such solipcism. I read in order to expand myself, to understand and experience difference. I read to escape the confines of my own mind, not to find them delineated in someone else’s prose.

So let’s be fair here: there are good things about The Year of Reading Dangerously, though you really should not expect any danger to threaten. The essays Miller constructs around the experience of reading are often nicely shaped and thematically interesting. His chapter which compares The Da Vinci Code with Moby-Dick is excellent and original. He is consistently mildly amusing. There are lists in the back that you can have fun arguing with. His description of a 70s childhood rang very true and I enjoyed it. And finally, at the very end, his account of the five times he met Douglas Adams – the author who is his greatest inspiration – provided an occasion where I felt he spoke about books he loved with sincerity and engagement. I wished he had written just about books he loved that reflected the person he is, rather than get muddled up with books that stood for the person he wanted to be, but who he is not. That might be a lesson in reading for all of us.