This morning, at 08:47 EST, I woke up to find myself excused from time.
I can picture you perfectly, reading this letter. You’ll be telling yourself I’ve gone stupid with grief, or that I’ve lost my mind—but my thinking has never been clearer. Believe me, Mrs Haven, when I tell you that this is no joke. Time moves freely about me, gurgling like a whirlpool, fluxing like a quantum field, spinning like a galaxy around its focal hub—at the hub, however, everything is quiet.
Locked in a dark room somewhere in Mogadishu, Peter Maguire has ample time to consider the legacy of his three decades on this earth. A journalist with a CV full of danger zones, he has a girlfriend in Paris who enjoys weekends in the Loire Valley and a five-year-old son in Monrovia she doesn’t know about and he’s never seen. He’s been estranged from his mother, also formerly a journalist in West Africa, since she told him his biological father is not the gentle Irishman he’s called Dad all his life, but an American photographer with whom she had an affair in Liberia. If life weren’t complicated enough, his friend and local driver was shot dead when Peter was kidnapped, and he’s about to be sold on to the brutal Al-Shabaab. He finds a glimmer of hope and humanity in the Somali teenager who brings his food, but can Abdi really rescue him from captivity?
I hadn’t been reviewing for very long, when I was invited to contribute to the book recommendation site, Shiny New Books. Honoured as I was, I didn’t feel ready back then, but kept it in mind. After Victoria posted a lovely early review of Sugar and Snails on the site and hosted my guest post on writing about secrets, I resolved to keep an eye out for suitable books to review. I’m pleased to announce that my reviews of The Social Brain and Playthings were accepted for the latest edition so if you’re satisfied with the easy answer to my question you can go straight to the reviews by clicking on the images. But if you’d like to discover another connection, then read on.
Writers of fiction and creative non-fiction know the value of metaphor. So you might be interested in recent research by Adam Fetterman and colleagues suggesting that life is different for people who think in metaphors. Having developed a means of measuring metaphoric thinking style among students, they found that people rate neutral words as more pleasant when they’re printed in a white font than in a black one (evidently, none of their subjects had ageing eyes which renders light print virtually impossible to read); that among those prone to metaphorical thinking, the more sweet food they’d eaten, the more sweet their interactions with others (presumably within limits, I’m not terribly sociable if I’m feeling sick); and that those with a stronger metaphoric thinking style showed greater insight into the emotions of others. As you can see, aside from the fact that many metaphors are actually clichės, I’m a little sceptical about this research but, not having read the full report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I’m not in a position to argue.
What kind of psychologist are you?
I am a retired chartered clinical psychologist.
I worked in a general hospital in the UK with people who had difficulty coping with disability and physical illness. I devised a method of assessment based on the seven psychological tasks such patients face. These are: understanding and managing symptoms, dealing with the medical procedures, relating to hospital staff, managing upsetting feelings, maintaining a competent self-image, maintaining relationships with friends and family, and preparing for the future. I helped the multidisciplinary team in a physical health setting to understand the illness from the patients’ point of view, and what action might help all concerned. I took on a selected number of patients directly for psychological therapy along cognitive-behavioural lines.
I am also interested in applying psychology to my own life, and have kept up a self-monitoring diary for smoking, drinking, and exercise. As a result, I gave up smoking on July 4th 1984. I’ve not touched the weed since. I also applied some principles of sport psychology to help me play better cricket. However my progress was limited by my sporting ability, not by my psychology.
As I rarely, if ever, watch sport, I was surprised how involved I got in the London Olympics. How could I not be moved by such a display of determination and athleticism? But it was the Paralympics I enjoyed the most (despite the slightly inferior TV coverage). Alongside the awe at the athletes’ prowess, were the stories, implicit or explicit, of adversity overcome. On top of that, the games afforded a rare opportunity to look properly at disabled bodies and, with the somewhat complex rating system, to be curious about them without fear of causing offence.
Keep at it! You’ll get there in the end if you try hard enough. How often did I come across such words as I struggled to find a publisher for my novel? And, now I’m published, am I going to regurgitate the mantra to others on the way up? No, I’m not, because – do you know what? – it’s bollocks. While writing a good book, and investing time and money to make it better, and treating each rejection as a trigger to try again, no doubt improve our chances, there’s no magic formula. Success doesn’t happen without an element of luck.
They mean well, those published writers who perpetuate the mythology. After all, the great unpublished are hounding them for scraps of encouraging advice. Looking back on their own rocky road to publication, all they see is hard graft and talent. If that got them through, why wouldn’t others achieve the same result? But history is a story told from the point of view of the victors. The voices of those who worked equally hard without the golden ticket go unheard, save a few brave exceptions. Although his emphasis is marketing, Dan Blank proves himself an ally of the disaffected, picturing success as a function of writing talent, author platform and luck.
Is a background in psychology an asset when it comes to writing fiction? How easy is it to combine a scientific approach to the mind with one embedded in the imagination? I decided to ask professional psychologists who are also published novelists how they do it. I’m delighted to welcome Voula Grand to Annecdotal for the first post in this series.
As a business psychologist, I advise large corporations on executive performance and leadership development. My work has some similarities to sports psychology, as I’m hired to increase the success of executives who are already performing at the top of their game; so doing even better is down to subtle refinements of leadership that can make a powerful impact on business results.
In order to help my clients, I am widely trained in an extensive range of human change methods and techniques, from traditional therapies and psychological frameworks to the contemporary methods of positive psychology that impact the dynamics of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Psychological resilience is a hot topic in corporate psychology at the moment, and I am experienced in the techniques that promote this.
I spend my working days in close communication with executives, either one on one or within their teams. Understanding the organisational context is important, and I need a good business grasp of the strategic aims, culture and goals of the client company, and of the broader corporate world.
Today’s the day that the internet is going to zing with antidotes to the mammoth cruelty and indifference to suffering that exists in this world. The 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion blogathon, launched by Yvonne Spence just over a month ago, has rocketed through the airwaves (or do I mean fibre-optic cables?), enthusing a galaxy of bloggers and tweeters to join in. As a warmup, Charli Mills compiled a virtual anthology of the Carrot Ranchers’ compassion-themed 99-word stories. Mine focused on compassion within marriage (after all, it was Valentine’s Day when I posted) and the self-compassion that’s needed for compassion for others to thrive. My contribution to the 1000 Voices is to elaborate the ideas behind that flash.
It might seem contradictory to focus on the self when the genesis of this movement was to combat the despair at an apparent lack of compassion for others. Yet one of the examples that Charli gave in her post introducing the compassion prompt made me think about how people can find compassion for others difficult because they haven’t experienced sufficient compassion themselves. Even if compassion doesn’t require them to do anything, it might feel too big a burden to take on, especially if they’ve been shackled with caring for others when they were desperately in need of care themselves.
I’m not exactly sure why moving house is such a stressful life event, up there with death of a spouse and divorce. It might have something to do with the fact that, like a marriage, we invest a lot of ourselves in our homes. When we leave, we take with us what we can, but some of the essence of what we had and what it meant to us is fixed in that place, embedded in the floorboards, the bricks and mortar, the grouting between the tiles.
My last house move, nearly 15 years ago, was pretty stressful but I remember how reassured I felt when friends from where we’d previously lived came to visit and could see the fit between the new place and me. Although the houses were radically different in style and layout, both were mirroring some of my character. When Hildy Good, the estate-agent narrator of The Good House by Ann Leary, says that she only has to walk through a house once to understand the psyche of its occupants, she may be exaggerating, but not very much.
Moving house can have different meanings at different points of the lifespan: a young adult might need to flee the parental home to unleash their creativity; for an older person, moving might present risks to their health. In my short story, Spring Cleaning, a daughter and granddaughter’s attempts to give an older woman’s home makeover while she’s in hospital proves to be disturbing enough. In Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing, Maud is confused and disorientated when she gives up her home, despite her daughter’s attempts to smooth the way.
Despite my smug response to Norah Colvin’s question for the Liebster award, I’m dreadfully pushed for time at the moment. Novels to read and review, blog posts to read and write, the eternal submissions before I can even consider writing fiction. Then there’s the rest of my life, the garden especially frantic at this time of the year. I’m not sure I’ve even got time to write this post. But no point complaining; you’re probably in the same boat and I’m grateful to you for reading. How did you make the time?
I wonder if skimming the blogs was one of the items on your to-do list today? Perhaps you’ll feel a warm glow of well-being when you tick it off? If that’s your general style, you might be one of life’s precrastinators.
Yup, you read that correctly. No, my spell check hasn’t gone on the blink. This is just the snazzy new term for people who tend to knuckle down to tasks prematurely, for the satisfaction of having got them out of the way. Perfectly sensible, you might be thinking, except that in the research that spawned the term, people were prepared to expend more effort completing the task early than they would have needed had they put it off until later.
Does this mean that we should all congratulate ourselves for our tendency to procrastinate? Probably not, but we might consider whether “clearing the decks” before settling down to “the real work” is not only a way of avoiding an unpleasant or daunting task, but actually creating more work for ourselves.
What do you understand by the term “a good child”? Does it imply a particular proficiency in getting up to mischief and other childish things? Or does it mean, as for the Saddeq children growing up in Lahore in the new nation of Pakistan, suppressing their own inclinations and desires in favour of their mother’s strict demands? In a divide-a-rule regime reminiscent of the British Raj, the boys, Sully and Jakie, are destined to be doctors, their learning beaten into them by a tutor they nickname, appropriately, Basher, while the girls, Mae and little Lana, hug their mother’s shadow, dressed up like dolls in scratchy frilly dresses unsuitable for the suffocating heat. Until the day they can escape their manipulative mother through marriage for the girls and education abroad for the boys, they have no choice but to comply.
How well-prepared are such good children for their future adult lives? As the novel explores, children who are discouraged from questioning authority might struggle to protect themselves by appropriately saying no. On the surface, the Saddeq offspring are successful: they have careers, relationships, children of their own. But, in different ways, they are still, even in late middle age, the insecure children their mother created, maintaining as wide a distance as they dare from their parents, still scared of their mother when duty calls them “home”. Compulsive helpers, workaholics, conflicted about intimacy; even into old age they continue striving to be good rather than happy.
We’ve had some interesting chat about appearance on this blog recently: how much, as readers, do we want to know what characters look like and, as writers, whether it’s okay to allow our characters to check their appearance in the mirror.
This week, I’m continuing the theme from a different angle over on the Black Fox Literary Magazine blog. Do pop across and share your views on whether the clothes we wear to tap at our keyboards can impact on the fiction we produce.
Staying with matters sartorial, who can say they’ve never felt anxious about choosing the outfit for an important event? As I explore in my short story, A Dress for the Address, even prize-winning physicists aren’t immune.
finding truth through fiction
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of three fiction books.
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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
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GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
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The Best of Fiction on the Web
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Read Shall I show you what it’s like out there? my latest short story hot off the press.
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