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.

A Rare Linky Post

Usually I think of my blog as the place where I put down my thoughts. But things have been so hectic of late that I haven’t really had any that are worth noting. Instead, I’m going to link to three posts that have caused me lately to stop and think.


Andrew Blackman: The Future of Books: Reactive?

This fascinating post reports on advances in technology in ‘reactive media’ in which we get to be hooked up to a machine that stimulates the storyline we’re reading if we get bored, or dials it back if we’re overreacting.

I guess that whether your reaction to all this is “Wow, that sounds cool” or “Please shoot me now” depends on what you want from your media,’ Andrew writes.

No prizes for guessing which camp I’m in.


Dutch Courage (written by my friend Ingrid): Proving Yourself

This is a beautifully written post in which Ingrid considers the subtle difference between ‘justifying yourself’ and ‘proving yourself’, a distinction linked to gender identity that she becomes aware of while supporting her young son as he grows. Masculinity, she learns, consists in part of:

The unshakeable drive to prove oneself worthy of a higher and nobler calling (love), the need to have one’s action’s approved by a band of brothers, that all-in-allness that men establish between each other through competition and the fair fight is absolutely hardwired into them. They could no more let go of it than they could drop down and walk on all fours. To laugh at this drive is to wound a man profoundly.’


The Guardian: Top Five Regrets of the Dying

This is an old post that Mr Litlove alerted me to a while back and which I return to every now and then to check in with and check myself against. It arose out of a book written by an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care. The regrets are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (apparently every single man said this).

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings (many felt that buried resentment and bitterness had played a part in their illnesses).

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends (ironically, while typing this my neighbour came to the door for a chat and after catching up with the headlines I had to shoo her away because I had so much work to do).

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What a salutory lesson those five regrets encompass. I find myself particularly drawn to the last one, although I think that, taken wrongly, it can be made into an excuse for suppressing problems that really need to be dealt with. I’d probably change it into ‘I wish I’d let myself fully recognise what emotions were appropriate to any given situation, and let myself experience them.’

On that note, I will just say that I think my son is beginning to find more emotional equilibrium, and my back is a great deal better. Thanks to the splendid heated band-aid, I did make the event in Heffers last week with Jill Dawson (who turns out to be absolutely lovely). I was not what you’d call comfortable, but I was there. One less thing to regret. 🙂  Thank you all for your amazing, invaluable support; I certainly couldn’t manage without my virtual friends.

When Is A Cliché Not A Cliché?

I seem to be running a one-woman vendetta against the so-called ‘rules’ of writing, which strike me ever more like literary use-by dates, or a way of making decisions that prevents us from engaging our own senses in the matter. Just recently I keep coming across cries of ‘cliché!’ where I’m not convinced that a) it is a cliché or b) that it matters even so.

So, the definition of a cliché is:

is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.’

But how are we to distinguish this from a phrase or an idiom or a maxim? It seems to me that the word cliché gets used for all of them. Where for instance, on the scale of cliché would you place such phrases as: ‘the answer to a prayer’ or ‘to make life a misery for someone’ or ‘not to have a leg to stand on’, all common expressions that I’ve come across recently in literary texts that sounded fine in context to me. Or even trickier, how would you evaluate the way that certain verbs take a limited number of objects? For instance, flirting with death or disaster are the other linguistic options to flirting with people (which tells you all you need to know about flirtation, I think). If we’ve only got two other options beyond the obvious one, should we avoid them through inevitable overuse? On the other end of the scale, taking someone for granted is a well-worn phrase not least because it’s the neatest, most economical way of describing a situation that commonly exists. Does that mean I have to avoid it, and find some sprawling circumlocution instead?

I found this site, a comprehensive list of clichés, and it’s positively enormous. Just from the list beginning with ‘a’, I found the following, which I would argue against as clichés:

Abandon ship – are captains in crisis now supposed to think up linguistically creative ways of expressing this?

Achilles heel – how else would we designate this part of the body? And what other way is there of expressing the figurative idea, except by long-winded explanation?

As luck would have it/As the crow flies – are these really without meaning now, or unpleasant to the ear?

Already got one paw on the chicken coop/As welcome as a skunk at a lawn party – not that I’m enamoured of either phrase, but I’d never heard of them before in my life. They can’t be clichés to me in that case.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it’s a quotation, and unavoidable at funerals.

Then there’s this site, which quite interestingly lists the most disliked clichés, as voted for somewhere or other online. Can we really object to individual words, like ‘literally’ and ‘actually’? We might dislike the frequency or lack of accuracy with which they are used, but that doesn’t make them clichés according to the definition of the term.

It’s also interesting how many clichés first came to life as jargon, particularly in the business world or on the sports field – blue sky scenario, thinking outside of the box, going forward, etc. Is jargon just cliché in waiting? It particularly tickled me to find so many online articles relating to business writing entitled ‘clichés to avoid like the plague’. Do you think they know what they did there? (and is that one still permissible or is it exhausted now?)

And what if you wanted to use a cliché but in an ironic or knowing way? What if you wanted to say ‘better the devil you know’ or ‘all’s fair in love and war’ either because the very triteness of the phrase indicates there is much more beyond it, or because despite the vastness of human nature, it sometimes happens that people behave and situations evolve just as they have always done for thousands of years. I don’t like this thought that whole areas of language have been forbidden to me. I remember Colette saying that it was pointless to search for new and outlandish ways of saying things; the best you could hope for was that one word, by its proximity, would freshen another up.  Isn’t it best sometimes to consider how a phrase works in a passage, rather than condemn it out of hand?

But then, I think my sense of cliché is very different to that of other people. Here’s the sort of thing that bothers me in narrative: when protagonists bite their lip or chew at their thumbnail in moments of indecision, or when they sigh a lot before speaking. I think it should be banned for would-be lovers to hate each other initially, and I’m not sure that vampires can be used for anything at all for at least a decade now. Linguistic clichés can make me laugh, they can have a resonance or a musicality that pleases. Situational clichés, behavioural clichés, I find much more annoying.

The Curse of the Sympathetic Character

Going online to have a mooch around the reviews of a book I’d just read, I was confronted with the stark judgement that ‘the characters in this novel were not worthy of depiction’. Now it was true that these characters were not heroic, or instantly sympathetic in that button-pressing write-by-numbers sort of way. They were people who struggled with their situations and never managed to resolve them, they were people who made mistakes and who were flawed, they were people who either couldn’t shake off unhealthy obsessions or ran away from conventional happiness – but what’s all this about being ‘worthy’? Since when have we decided that characters in novels need to be moral paragons? And yet I do see this more and more in reviews I read, the endless cry for characters to be wholly, engagingly and consistently sympathetic.

So what does it mean for a character to be sympathetic? In its most basic form, it means that the reader has to care about their fate in some way. It means that we are brought to a position of understanding their motives and actions by the author. The adorable Jenny always says that she needs to see that the character is loved or appreciated by someone else in the novel. And my dear friend Fugitive Pieces used to say that she much preferred novels where she could see that the author genuinely liked his or her own characters.

But I become increasingly concerned that what this plea for sympathetic characters actually means is a strong cultural pressure on people, in life as in fiction, to behave according to certain unwritten norms. For instance, I’ve just joined a new writing circle, and one of the authors is writing a book which features a battered wife. She is under a lot of pressure over this character, whom the other writers judge to be ‘too passive’, and ‘too pessimistic’. Opinions have been expressed that this character must at least show a determination to save herself, a strong desire to escape her situation, and full condemnation of her husband’s behaviour. Now of course, if this character were indeed feisty, determined and insightful, she most certainly would not have ended up a battered wife in the first place! Novels have a job to do of broadening our inner horizons and helping us to share experiences we might never otherwise have, and they give voice to people who have none. But can they do that, if we maintain a demand for characters to be ‘sympathetic’ according to cultural requirements that very few real people ever meet? Isn’t the fault at least in part one of intolerance of the reader, a lack of compassion borne from unreasonable cultural pressures that unjustly value extroversion, optimism and pro-activeness and unjustly deride introversion, gentleness and uncertainty?

I also feel dubious about this demand for sympathetic characters when it often seems to mean sympathetic female characters. Men are let off lightly, whilst it seems as ever to be the female protagonists who must bear the burden of society’s behavioural demands. I have to wonder whether this call for sympathetic characters is not in fact a flaw arising from a predominantly female publishing world, and certain genres heavily weighted towards a female audience, in which women are, as ever, brutally hard on their own sex. When I was discussing this issue with Mr Litlove on the weekend, he pointed out that we have to forgive ourselves before we can forgive others, and maybe this lack of compassion for characters arises from the ever-diminishing sympathy we seem to have for ordinary failings, everyday flaws.

People do good things and they do bad things; such is the nature of the human condition. Our greatest qualities can lead us into making our biggest mistakes, our unredeemable parts sometimes turn out to be essential. I think that the best characters manage to awaken a truly complicated sympathy in the reader, where we recognise how impossible it is to make judgements at all. And if readers are often chafing at the bit against characters who do not strike them as people they could care about, then maybe it’s partly because authors, striving too hard to awaken their sympathy, end up manufacturing it in artificial ways that fool no one, rather than allowing it to develop in a genuine way for ordinary, complex, flawed protagonists. Never before have readers had so  much influence over authors; we really must be careful what we wish for.