Monday, November 14, 2016

And now with more feeling?

One of the single profound, most eye-opening, things I have learned as a social scientist was the idea that my feelings are like the temperature gauge on my car. They are simple emotional reactions to a real physical situation that tell me when something probably deserves a second, closer look.  They tell me there might be a problem and that I should begin a thinking and decision-making process.  While the temperature might indicate burning oil and might influence my direction and impact my distance of travel, it would be silly to let it decide my ultimate destination.
Yet, sometimes, I do.
There are costs to letting feelings, no matter how justified, dictate our destination:
  1. Immediate blindness. When I revel in the righteousness of my own fear, anger, happiness--whatever--I cannot see the righteousness of others' emotions or comprehend the depth of anyone else's feelings.
  2. Aborted logic. Once I give my emotions the lead, the majority vote, they overwhelm and oppress all attempts to objectively think through anything.  Emotions rule our sympathetic nervous system, which like any good emergency operator puts all of its resources into making the system immediately safe through any means possible.  Our SNS chokes off higher-order reasoning and throws out the objectivity with the bathwater screaming, "This is war, dammit." Even if it isn't.
  3. Escalated emotions, especially the bad ones. Emotional reaction begets more emotional reaction. Sometimes this works in our favor, like when sex and intimacy ramp up our feelings of love and contentment. But usually not. Humans excel at negative pattern recognition.  We hone in especially well to what doesn't feel right or good so that we can avoid it. This is part of why it is so easy to focus on what is wrong with the world and get caught in a downward depressive spiral.
  4. Regret and shame. In retrospect, letting my emotions have the majority vote in deciding my action or reaction to something usually causes me to be disappointed in myself because it usually means I was blind to what others were feeling, I gave in to fear, and/ or I publicly perpetuated a negative sentiment. If my emotional reaction succeeded in persuading others then it did so by somehow appealing to their baser emotions and not by figuring out what is in our best interests or for the greater good (and I have then become my worst nightmare).
In my experience, and in research, these costs far out-weigh the benefits (e.g. temporary satisfaction) of letting my emotions rule my actions.  These costs compound interest as they frequently lead to relationship traumas and social crises, too.  Awareness of all of this is somewhat helpful, but it isn't a panacea.  Maybe there isn't one, but through writing and meditation I have learned some things that help when I want to respond with more feeling (maybe too much):
  1. I accept my feeling.  I don't need anyone else to validate it. They can't. It's mine and therefore it is legitimate, and I  probably have others I need to explore too. Some may even contradict each other.  Ever been crying happy? Raging sad? Painfully pleased? It's just a temperature gauge telling me to explore why my oil is burning--and it is always worth asking if my gauge could be broken or miscalibrated too.
  2. I nurture my curiosity about others' feelings, especially those who seem to be feeling entirely differently than I do.  Part of it is that understanding others enables my compassion, which I know from research increases my odds of living happily ever after.  Part of it is that the larger sampling of what people feel and why allows me to shape my feelings and reactions with more intelligence. "There is no better intelligence than the enemy's marching orders" (Napoleon, I think...). Curiosity avoids aborted logic and the awful art of satisficing.
  3. I chant until I believe it, "It's none of my business what any one else thinks of me, but how I act is entirely my responsibility alone."  I am an existential humanist so authenticity and responsibility play equally large part in giving my life meaning. Having a faith or a core philosophy helps me parse and value my emotions, but I need the reminder that having a moral code doesn't excuse me from having to carefully parse and value each and every emotion.
  4. Always consider the wisdom in doing nothing. Emotions push us to react, right now. Sometimes it helps just to ask myself if there is any harm in waiting to decide how to react, in doing nothing for a day, a week, a month, a year. This also helps me time my reaction better if one is needed or desired.
  5. Constantly solicit advice and insights. Yours. What do you do when your head is hot and your body is shouting at you to do something with more feeling this time? Why? How does it turn out? What would do instead or again if you could?
Accepting and acting on a feeling, like hugging a frightened pussy, can be good for everyone in the right context.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

5 Sure-Fire Ways to Lose at Noveling

Nobody likes to lose and you shouldn't have to when I am perfectly willing to mercilessly unveil my own abject failures to forewarn yours. If I've discovered the antidote, I'll give you that too.

  1. Start with a blank page. Blank pages are intimidating.  They look so large and perfect and you're about to scribble it up to shit, and that can really dampen your courage and kill fledgling inspiration as mental rats scurry about ranting, "I have no idea where/ how to start this right." My antidote?  I learned it from a sketch artist. Draw a baseline/ just put down random notes in any order that you can delete or reshape later as needed.  It helps to leave these on that big bad blank page as long as you can, until the end of the project so that you don't experience #2.
  2. Ignore your progress.  Writing is an all out bloody war with your best and worst inner demons.  It is a journey of millimeters, one freaking sweaty alphabet letter at a time.  Sometimes even thinking in terms of number of words a day is just too bone-shakingly overwhelming. Antidotes? Mini-reward yourself for each paragraph, or dialogue (i.e. I get a lemon drop as soon as I finish writing this description for the first time, even if it sucks). Find your most unconditionally supportive friend (i.e. Polly Always Positive) and text her a line saying you just conquered the hardest sentence ever.  At the end of each hour, look at the shear number of characters you have managed to fling against your inner demons and that imposing blank white helps if you shout out like Alexander the Great or Rocky, "I am a conqueror!" (Don't worry about the folks and critters who live with you as they already know you're're a writer.)
  3. Doubt your motives. Some people say you should only write for yourself.  Some say your should only write for others.  And yet some people say you should only write to serve a worthy purpose.  Writing is a noble endeavor and I don't want to belittle it by committing the worst treason and writing for the wrong reasons at the right time (note: that is a muddle  of  a T.S. Elliot quote). I cripple myself at times by trying to figure out why I'm going into screaming battle wielding my keyboard.  Soul-gazing is good sometimes, keeps us humble and compassionate, but not when we're painted-blue and naked running at the idea of NOVELING like a wild Pict toward a Roman legion. There are many antidotes for this, including Hemingway's trick of imbibing enough bourbon, but not all of them are healthy. So I suggest the simplest: be kind to yourself.  Trust that you have many motivations for trying to slay the Novel dragon, and the nobility is in the effort--in the fact that you are running naked at the Roman legion. Later, when anybody asks why you wrote your complete novel or what motivated you to keep going, then you can narrow it down to the right, most noble, reasons.
  4. Berate yourself today for messing up or missing yesterday.  The old crying over spilled milk makes you fail twice.  I saw it a lot on the softball field.  The short-stop is so busy fuming at herself about missing the throw to second base that she gets smacked in the head by a line drive during the next play and lets two runs score.  And yet, even though I know better, I still do it. The only antidote I know of is cultivating your self-awareness enough so that you can recognize you're doing this and stop it before you fall into another screw-up today.  Five to ten minutes of meditation a day has helped me a lot--forcing myself to just be in the moment has strengthened my ability to focus.
  5. Tough it out alone. One of the things I learned working with high-performing teams in extreme environments (e.g. astronauts) is that the hardest and the most critical thing to do is to take care of yourself first. Put on your own oxygen mask in the airplane before assisting your child with hers. We've all heard it, but we've also heard much more frequently something along the lines of Nike's Just Do It or, "Don't be a pansy." In extremely tough environments (and I do believe writing a novel is definitely one of these), toughing out an injury or sickness may kill you--but more importantly, it makes your whole team vulnerable. If you are struggling, then you owe it to your teammates (your friends and family) to let them know you are struggling so that you can decide as a group how to deal with it before it snowballs into disaster for your relationships and your writing (It's damn hard to take the time to focus on putting words on paper when you're worried about the health of your marriage).  The antidote is recognizing that writing is a team sport and playing it like one.  You feel like a lone, naked, conqueror; but you're not. There are armies of armies chaotically flailing all around you in similar and competing directions and if you coordinate with those closest to you, then you significantly up your chances of winning as well as surviving.

Bonus Helpers:

I like the old adage (or maybe it's a misquote from one of the Roosevelt's) -- If you never try, never start, then you have already failed in the most miserable way imaginable.  The good news is that like most failures, this failure too may be overcome by applying fearless effort.
While there are hundreds of ways to lose at writing anything, there is ultimately only one way to win: apply your ass to a chair and start slashing at that big white wall in your own proud warrior fashion. You are mighty every single pen stroke and keystroke, forging something tangible out of seemingly nothing.

Have you discovered alternative antidotes? Please share them.

"This is my pen. There are many like it, but this one is mine...
 I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my pen is useless."

Popular Posts