Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Riffing and dwelling

I have *so* not been blogging. Obviously. As I recently learned from a highly scientific test, I am a creature of routine (but no less fascinating for being one!). When my routine is thrown off, say by lots of paying work, which, I hasten once again to add, is a very, very good thing, I start dropping regular tasks faster than famous young movie stars shed their spouses.

But this situation has allowed me to reflect, again, on the topic of how to write when you don't have time to write. It now seems to me that there is a benefit to being away from my writing. I don't mean taking a break from it; I mean being physically away from the text, which, in my case, resides on a computer. Because my other, paying work is on the computer, by the end of the day, I am really interested in being in a different room, if not a different county, from the screen. And that's when I've started to dream up ways to enhance my second novel.

My particular problem as a writer is that I actually write too little in early drafts. As Ann Patchett once said, my writing is like "concentrated orange juice," which needs water. I cram what should be extended scenes into summaries, asides, or complicated metaphors. Usually I am so enamored of these summaries and metaphors that I need someone else to point out the problem to me.

But going back and staring at the text doesn't always inspire expansion. The lines on the screen start to look like the wires of a chain-link fence. Whereas when I'm (say) lying on the sofa, or cooking dinner, or playing with the cats, I can start imagining how I might untangle a tight knot in the narrative. I can "feel" places where the story seems jammed up, and start playing around with dialog, images, etc. The stakes feel a lot lower, and the space for exploration a lot more open. Before I know it, I have written a scene. Then it's just a matter of sitting down and recording it, and which point even more ideas start to occur to me.

I made a note to myself on top of my notebook. It consisted of two words: Riff and Dwell. This is what I need to do in my writing--open up spaces to riff and dwell. And being physically distant from the writing itself, I find, is often a tremendous help.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Advertising, fiction, and Mad Men

So I recently figured out that people want the same thing from advertising as they do from fiction: an emotional experience. In advertising, that experience is designed to spur you to buy, or at least think favorably, about a product or service--which may or may not be an admirable goal. In fiction, that experience leads to ... what, exactly? If there's a purpose beyond giving the reader pleasure (and I don't think there needs to be), perhaps it's strengthening the reader's capacity for empathy. Some studies show fiction actually does do this, although it could still be a chicken-and-egg problem (maybe more empathic people tend to read more in the first place).

At any rate, at the heart of both successful fiction and successful advertising is people's hunger for emotional experience. Not just pure experience, though--it somehow needs to be at a remove, so that it's safe and understandable, as well as powerful. You want the experience plus the meaning, or the solution. Fulfill that hunger, and you've got yourself a happy reader, or a willing buyer.

All of this reminds me of a scene from the first season of Mad Men, which has always stuck with me. Here, Don Draper presents his campaign for the Kodak slide "wheel," which he has renamed the Carousel. I find this a tremendously moving, and telling, scene. It's layered by Don's own nostalgia for a childhood he never really had, and for a family that, even now, is not exactly his (because he cheats on his wife, and, as we begin discovering in this season, he's assumed another man's identity). His longing exists, as perhaps it does for all of us, because he can never have what he seeks: a true home, an ideal past. He can only have a substitute, or talisman--the slides, and the projector that lets him see them. But the scene is also powerful because it illustrates the genuine power of advertising. There may be something sinister or shallow in its motives--the bottom line is always shareholder value, and eventually the projector will end up in landfill, or, as in my family's case, in a box in the garage marked "SLIDE PROGECTOR." Yet the emotion the campaign generates, in Don and in us, is anything but false. And that's why we still, at least somewhat willingly, respond to ads and to fiction: we want this genuine experience, in any form we can get it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Introverts unite! (No, wait, not so close ...)

Susan Cain's book about introversion made quite a splash in January, and the ripples are still going strong. Her work came back to my attention recently, as I've been doing some consulting for schools that help children "come out of their shells." There's much to be said for teaching introverts to advocate for themselves, and to present themselves in ways that don't accidentally put others off. We need basic social skills to function in any society, and enabling people to master them is honorable work.

On the other hand, Cain's right--our culture does have an extroversion bias. When we talk about bringing kids (or adults) out of their shells, we often imply that introversion needs to be treated and overcome, rather than worked with or even celebrated. I notice, too, that Cain points out a difference between introversion and shyness, where shyness is a fear of social judgment, and introversion is simply a preference for less stimulating environments (a glass of wine with a good friend, rather than a big party). This definition of shyness does suggest a problem, a form of self-tormenting that isn't necessary and doesn't do anybody any good. Whereas introversion, properly recognized, can be a great thing for all involved. We like solitude, and we get a lot done that way. We also, as Cain points out, are not anti-social, but differently social (see wine, above). We think before we speak, which others tend to appreciate.

It really has been only in the last few weeks that I've started to consider introversion as a positive trait, rather than something to be "dealt with," i.e., concealed. Perhaps we introverts could have calmer and more productive lives (though many of us have these already, because we seek them) by minimizing the struggle to appear extroverted. That is, we still need to go out in the world sometimes and be friendly. But I suspect there's some wasted effort in dissing ourselves for not being more extroverted, and in trying too hard to conceal our inclinations.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

I am the grumpiest optimist I know

Having weighed in on busyness the other day, I thought I'd take a crack at "optimism." This article, too, is from the NYT. It's by Jane Brody, who I generally think is a good person and a purveyor of useful advice, although the chirpy puritanism of her columns always puts me on edge. I also rather dislike the Good Examples she often serves up, as in this one--as if all we must do is be like these wonderful people (who often include Brody herself)--and all will be well.

OK, I know: would I take health advice from an ironic, crotchety health reporter? Yes, I would, but probably others wouldn't. And certainly the column format is part of the problem. In the piece in question, for instance, along with the Good Examples, we get a series of bullet points on how to be an optimist. To wit:
  • Face your fears. [...]
  • Re-evaluate events in your everyday life. [...]
  • Practice mindful meditation. [...]
  • Take control over how you feel instead of letting feelings control you. [...]
  • Laugh. [...]
  • Be fully engaged. [...]
All six points include1-2 sentence explanations, which I'm leaving out. So the program is not quite this simple. But, you know, bullet points.

Oh, palm to forehead! If only I had known about these bullet points! How could I have been so foolish, and been a pessimist? Optimism is so easy, and therefore I, a sometimes pessimist, am a jerk. If only I had known to laugh, to be engaged!

Here's the thing. I agree with these bullet points; and in the course of a lengthy treatment for depression, followed by finding a really cool guy to marry, and then very gradually figuring out what kind of life I wanted to live, and how to live it, I practiced all of them, and I continue to try to do so. I think being happy is better than being sad. But not because it's my duty to be happy. Being sad is not a failure--it's often an accurate and sensitive reading of your situation, and of the world more generally. If anything, being sad feels like the proper duty, except that it prevents you, often, from trying to make things better. And it sucks. So it's all kind of a feedback loop, and part of the problem is this terminology.

I propose we dispense with the terms "happy" and "optimistic" as the stated goals for ourselves and the surly loved ones we wish to help. As this article sort of gets around to explaining, what we are really talking about is "confidence" and "persistence." A book called The Growth Mindset also talks about the centrality of persistence, and the new, confidence-building feedback loop that's created when we train ourselves--over time--to persevere.

In other words, optimism is not an attitude, but a practice. Sayings like "It's all in your attitude" give us the wrong idea--that we are thinking or perceiving wrongly, and all we have to do is make ourselves see the glass half full. This leads, in my experience, to a whole lot of mental self-kicking (see above), which makes the pessimism and paralysis worse. But persistence is often not delightful or easy. It's hard. That is the point. It is not a matter of flipping a switch in your brain. It means sticking with it for the long haul. It means learning to tolerate the unpleasantness of slogging through obstacles, even or especially when a reward is not certain. Yes, there are ways to do that, including meditation and laughing and so on. But the difficulty of persisting, especially for those who aren't used to it, somehow gets left out of these "just do it" articles.

I speak, of course, for the less chipper beings of the universe. I gather some people are either born with or endowed early on with persistence and confidence and even sunniness, and they can't understand why people like me are talking about having to learn these traits. Why wouldn't you just go out and get what you want? I can't really answer. But I also can't see how this column could help the type of person whom it's aimed at. Sunny just-do-it-ism is either going to bounce right off them, or make them feel worse.

Monday, July 02, 2012

"I am the laziest ambitious person I know."

I very much enjoyed Tim Kreider's piece on busyness in yesterday's NYT. Mostly because it validates me, and the many hours I spend draped on the couch, with or without a cat on my sternum. I am valuable! I have insights, not despite but because of my staggering capacity for sloth! Lazy ambitious people, unite! Oh, never mind. It's too much trouble.

Only one little question nags at me. I used to spend equal if not more amounts of time in a very similar mode (couch, semi-dozing state, though no cat back in those days)--and it was a sign of depression. I do sense a difference in my current way of doing nothing, but the difference isn't quite clear enough to make me feel 100% confident in my new laziness. I suppose, in depression mode, my mind was actually racing and obsessing, rather than drifting and dreaming, as now. I also had a feeling pointlessness, of just wanting the day to be over--of lying low, till the storm that was the day passed--which I don't have now. I like my days.

Still, I continue to suspect my idleness. And I continue to admire the busy, even though Kreider suggests a great deal of busyness is an expression of fear. Idleness can be fear-driven, too.

But hey, at least I wrote a blog post about it!