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.

On Rereading

I hardly ever reread a book these days, but I have just finished Anne Tyler’s brilliant novel, Ladder of Years and frankly I could turn around and start it all over again. I first read the novel in 1995, on holiday in Brittany with Mr Litlove and our six-month old baby. Mr Litlove’s favourite game then was to put one of his dinky socks on top of his head and see how long it took him to a) realise and b) remove it (answer: not long, but with just enough hesitation for comedy). Oh how times have changed. I started the book in some trepidation, afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but it was even better. Now I wonder whether the lure of rereading isn’t actually quite dangerous – why wouldn’t I spend all my time choosing guaranteed pleasure over the potential disappointments and pitfalls of all those unread novels? Well, in part at least because I do possess a lot of unread novels and they represent the triumph of hope. But still, I see I’m reaching a stage where rereading holds a seductive promise.

I thought I’d dig out my old research notes on rereading to see if they could help me gain a bit more insight into its pleasures. Matei Calinescu in his book Rereading, says ‘there are texts that haunt us, that cannot or will not be forgotten, and there are texts that haunt other texts, in the sense that they appear in them as expected or unexpected visitors, and even, some might say, as phantoms or spectres.’ Whilst I was interested in the front end of that sentence, Calinescu is more concerned with the back end. He is mostly talking about what happens when we read experimental or innovative novels, particularly those based on crime fiction. When we read crime fiction, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are experiencing the pleasure of having our expectations met. It’s one of the more ‘rule-driven’ genres, with, for example, the detective as the master reader of clues and suspect’s stories, and the formulaic surprise denouement. Several postmodern authors had a lot of fun with parodies and pastiches of such formulas, and Calinescu is thinking about the sort of ‘rereading’ that goes on as the reader progresses through such a ‘rewrite’, using familiar expectations to both note the places where the narrative goes awry but also recognising what is at stake in such playful distortions.

You could probably apply this concept of rereading to all innovative fiction, which asks the reader to bear an orthodox narrative in mind in order to make sense of the unconventional one by understanding how far, and in what ways, it departs from the original. He’s suggesting that a different kind of attention is required from the reader. Rather than be strapped into the boxcar of your standard story which whisks you off as a pure passenger on a ride, the more experimental fiction requires a kind of textual orienteering, as you study maps of other novels in your head while figuring out where the one in your hands is taking you. It explains, if nothing else, why those innovative novels are a much slower, more careful reading experience: you need to read the ghost of the underlying original as well as the actual story in the present.

Such an activity is not so far removed from the rereading that critics and researchers do, when you study a story over and over. Just reading a novel asks you to succumb to it, to stop thinking about its artificial construction and simply lose yourself in a fictional fantasy. When you read for a second time in a more reflective, analytical way, you’re lifting the lid off the text to see how it works underneath. You want to have a good look at the structure and see why it does one thing and not another, how it makes one argument at the expense of a range of others. I think this is perhaps why for some readers, critical reading is anathema, as much the same thing happens when a story fails to enchant and you are just left staring at cardboard sets and 2-d characters. Disliking a book and analysing a book may fall just too close together for comfort for some people.

But what about those books that haunt us and refuse to be forgotten? The closest I could come to anything that struck home was in the distinction made by another critic, Josephine Hilgard between involvement and absorbtion. Now, you may not agree with these particular terms and definitions, but the idea is that ‘emotional involvement’ means pleasure and enjoyment and a vividly engrossing experience, but the reader is aware that they are reading a made-up story. ‘Absorbtion’ takes the immersion that one step further so that the reader ‘partakes in a reading that is equivalent in grace and creative effortlessness to artistic inspiration.’ Hilgard says this means we can speak of ‘inspired readers’ just as we might talk about inspired writers. I wonder whether this kind of rereading, when you love a story so much you can read it again and again until it is a part of your own world, is such an inspired act. The reader can almost live the story, as if dreaming a particularly splendid dream; they take possession of it in some ways.

Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years is a book I could read repeatedly because it is sort of perfect for me in every sentence. The story of a middle-aged wife and mother who just walks away from her family while they are on the beach and keeps going, eventually locating in a different town and starting her life afresh, has no places where I wish things were different, no dull parts or implausible bits. It feels perfectly whole and necessary and I can sense my own desire to be up close to that. The sheer rightness of it all is part of the thrill. Even though it is in many ways an ordinary story, not one with many layers of implicit meaning that I wouldn’t pick up on the first time through. No, the enchantment is for me about a vicarious sharing of the artistic inspiration that went into it, the sense of watching the story unfold without a mishap, so confident in it that I can lose myself to it. The door is open for me to experience this because the novel corresponds so well to my purely personal and subjective feelings about what’s right and real in fiction; it absorbs me completely. Which of course means that my classic reread would not necessarily be anyone else’s. I’m thinking now about which books I really could read over and over again – surely a short list?

The Jury Is Out

The last post and the comments it provoked had me thinking about the way that ideas of motherhood and parenting have changed dramatically over the centuries. The notion of childhood didn’t exist at all before the 17th century, and it took that monumental sulk, Rousseau, to flesh out the concept with his woebegone belief in a halcyon period of freedom and joy before the traumas of adulthood set in. Since then, opinion has gone back and forth over who should care for children, mothers not always qualifying for this role, and how much care should be lavished or not on the child. It’s a vast topic so I thought I would simply let some of the ‘experts’ speak for themselves:


1762   ‘Fix your eyes on Nature, follow the path traced by her. She keeps children at work, she hardens them by all sorts of difficulties, she soon teaches them the meaning of pain and grief. They cut their teeth and are feverish, sharp colics bring on convulsions, they are choked by fits of coughing or troubled by worms, evil humours corrupt the blood, germs of various kinds ferment in it… One half of the children who are born die before their eighth year… This is nature’s law; why try to contradict it? … Experience shows that children delicately nurtured are more likely to die. Accustom them therefore to the hardships they will have to face.’  Rousseau


1829   ‘A great deal in providing for the health and strength of children depends on their being duly and daily washed, when well, in cold water from head to foot. Their cries testify to what degree they dislike this. They squall and twist and kick about at a fine rate, and many mothers, too many, neglect this, partly from reluctance to encounter the squalling, and partly, much too often, from what I will not call idleness, but to which I cannot apply a milder term than neglect. Well and duly performed it is an hour’s good tight work; for besides the bodily labour, which is not very slight when the child gets to be five or six months old, there is the singing to overpower the voice of the child.’  William Cobbett


1886   ‘[A mother] was bound to feel in and for the baby too deeply to carry calm pulses and judgement through the daily routine of “taking care” of that which is a dearer part of herself…. Babies who are entirely tended by their mothers are almost without exception troublesome by reason of their ceaseless exactions.’ Marion Harland


1890   ‘Adaptation to the wants, feelings and nature of the infant – so different in many ways from those of the adult – ought to be made the leading principle of our management… accordingly the child ought as far as possible to be allowed the choice of its own occupations and amusements and to become the chief agent in the development and formation of its own character. In later life, the independent child will show far more promptitude and energy than the ‘puppet’ dominated by parents and trained in moral slavery.’ Andrew Combe


1896   ‘Let no mother condemn herself to be a common or ordinary ‘cow’ unless she has a real desire to nurse…Women have not the stamina they once possessed: and I myself know of no greater misery than nursing a child, the physical collapse caused by which is often at the bottom of the drinking habits of which we hear so much.’ Mrs Panton


1896   ‘The dreams that a young mother is supposed to dream over the cradle of her new-born baby are about as real as her supposedly passionate desire for children. She dreams principally about herself, she longs to be out of bondage. A little indignant at the manner in which the child engrosses everyone’s time and attention, the while she is abjectly terrified that everyone who touches it will do it a mischief… wondering how many more minutes it is going to live. She even wishes she never got married… These thoughts may not be noble, but they are universal, and therefore the girl who feels them agitating her breast need not write herself down as a monster – the phase will soon pass.’ Mrs Panton


1928   ‘The sensible way to bring up children is to treat them as young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behaviour always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extremely good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.’ J B Watson


1934   ‘Truby King babies are fed four-hourly from birth, with few exceptions, and they do not have any night feeds. A Truby King baby has as much fresh air and sunshine as possible, and the right amount of sleep…. After he has gone through his regular morning performance of bathing and being ‘held out’, and has had his breakfast, he sleeps all morning. If he wakes a little before his 2pm meal, all that one knows about it is a suddenly glimpsed chubby little leg or foot waved energetically from his cot for inspection, or a vigorous jerking of his pram.’ Mary Truby King


1951   ‘[T]he child needs to feel he is an object of pleasure and pride to his mother; the mother needs to feel an expansion of her own personality in the personality of the child: each needs to feel closely identified with the other… The provision of mothering cannot be considered in terms of hours per day but only in terms of the enjoyment of each other’s company which mother and child obtain….such enjoyment and close indication of feeling is only possible for either party if the relationship is continuous….The provision of constant attention day and night, seven days a week and 365 days a year, is possible only for a woman who derives profound satisfaction from seeing her child grow from babyhood, through the many phases of childhood, to become an independent man or woman, and knows that it is her care which has made this possible.’ John Bowlby


1982   ‘Many women from [the upper class] and much further down the social scale, when faced with the necessity of caring for their own children, as they mostly were after WW2, had mixed feelings of fear and excitement tied with remnants of their own childhood and the idealized views of mother which they had developed in the nursery… Once she was actually caught up in the business of childrearing as a 24 hours a day, seven days a week occupation, she was likely to deal with this by idealizing it even more. For by that time she had discovered that rearing children was not easy at all, that machines could only help with washing and cleaning, not with unrelenting exposure to babies and children, continual interruptions or the constant necessity for watchfulness and attention. The only thing for many mothers to do at that stage was to idealize it still further or else have a nervous breakdown.’ Ann Daly


1994   ‘The grieving of a baby who loses her one and only special person – her lone mother who dies, for example, or the lifelong foster mother from whom she is removed – is agonising to see because we know we are looking at genuine tragedy. But the pain of separations we arrange and connive at every time we change caregivers or leave a baby in the day care centre that has new staff – again – or with an agency babysitter she has never seen, may not be as different as we assume.’ Penelope Leach


1996   ‘[T]he historical construction of intensive mothering demonstrates that its early blooming was directly connected to the ideological separation of public and private spheres, a separation according to which the values of intimate and family life stood as an explicit rejection of the values of economic and political life….The relationship between mother and child continues to symbolize, realistically or not, opposition to social relations based on the competitive pursuit of individual gain in a system of impersonal contractual relations. In pursuing a moral concern to establish lasting human connection grounded in unremunerated obligations and commitments, modern-day mothers, to varying degrees, participate in this implicit rejection of the ethos of rationalised market society.’ Sharon Hays

On Focus

Just lately, everything I read provides another example of extraordinary creative productivity. Agatha Christie, for instance, passed through amazing periods of writing, Between 1930 and 1940, she published 27 novels or collections of short stories, and that’s not counting the plays. And these were her magnificent years, the years of her best work, not just the best speed of production. One of the novels she published under the name of Mary Westmacott she wrote over the course of three days on holiday. How could anyone do such a thing?

But she’s not alone; there’s an anecdote I always remember about Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. Three weeks after war was declared, he went to see Harold Nicholson in his chambers at the Temple, and commissioned him to write a Penguin Special of 50,000 words entitled, Why Britain Is At War. He took delivery of the manuscript a fortnight later. Then there’s the extraordinary women of the 19th century: Mary Braddon, who brought up 11 children, five dating from her common law husband’s first marriage, six that she gave birth to herself, while writing over 80 novels. Or Fanny Trollope, author of a whopping 100 volumes, who also had money problems and numerous children, a fair few of them languishing towards death while she wrote in the other room.

Now me, if I get 5,000 words a week, I figure I’m doing quite well. I often don’t.

I’ve been puzzling over this, wondering why it is that we are such slowcoaches compared to those 19th and 20th century authors. (Who are the big-output writers of the contemporary culture? Ruth Rendell, perhaps, Lee Child? I can’t think of anyone headed towards 80 novels.) Nor do I think I’m alone in being a slow writer, in fact, most writers I know or know about produce more or less the same number of words. Partly it’s because we are expected to do more towards the business of living, despite all those so-called labour-saving gadgets. No servants these days to cook and clean and look after children. All those emails and phone messages to answer (although the authors I mention often wrote quite a few letters), the internet to surf. But it still doesn’t quite account for what I feel in my bones is a more dissipated way of living in the modern world, in which our focus is fragmented time and again over the course of each day.

Reading one of my student’s essays today on Foucault, I got excited about what felt like a revelation. And perhaps it isn’t; maybe it’s just me following some little jumpy idea around, bedazzled by its lustre. But anyway, it was an essay on surveillance, and the way that changes in the systems of discipline and punishment had resulted in changes in the way we govern ourselves. So the example most people know of Foucault’s theories – if they’ve heard of him at all – is the panopticon. This is the prison arranged with a central viewing tower and cells surrounding it. Each cell is visible from the central vantage point, but prisoners in the cells do not know if they are being watched or not. All they know is that they may be under observation at any time of day. In consequence, they tend to internalise discipline, rather than have to have it imposed upon them by punishments. They are more likely to behave according to the rules ‘just in case’. The system of justice is only one example of a society ever more concerned with policing its citizens closely. Take health care, for instance. Nowadays it’s not enough for us to be healthy; we have to engage all the time in health-promoting activities, just in case something we are doing may be killing us. It’s not enough not to smoke; we mustn’t even feel urges towards our vices. Agatha Christie was not bothered about getting herself to the gym, or eating well-balanced meals. It must have been a weight off her mind. And she lived to a fine old age, regardless.

We live in a world where increasingly we could be guilty at any moment – guilty of not doing or thinking or feeling the things we ought. And I wonder just how much of our energy goes on self-surveillance, and on trying to do things or stop doing things, that our society censures. The rise and rise of attachment parenting must be contributing to this, because what attachment parenting means is that the child is constantly observed by its parents. Darwin was the first to promote observation of small children. He motivated an army of mothers to watch and note down their children’s growth and development. For the first time, unsurprisingly, the children began to suffer from anxiety, having been made aware of themselves and their potential to do things wrong. Of course, children who are neglected get anxious too – it’s a fine balancing act, weighing enough concern against enough healthy neglect. But I do think it leads us to watch ourselves more closely as adults. What is social media, after all, other than a form of self-surveillance that we hold out to the attention of others? Why would people post status updates on facebook about the nice piece of toast they’ve just eaten, or their relief at having finished filling in tax forms? All this requires time and energy and attention. If we weren’t paying so much time and attention to policing our inner worlds, wouldn’t we have more energy and focus to give to projects outside of ourselves?

(And given that blog posts can also be a form of self-surveillance that wastes energy, I apologise to all my friends waiting for emails from me – very busy week! So sorry! Will write soon!)