Posts Tagged ‘emotion’

Further reading, for those who want to know more about poor Mary Tudor

I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.

Poor Bloody Mary

Lets start with a history lesson.

Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.

There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.

As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.

Feeling History

Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.

There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.

Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.

And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.

Dealing With the Pain

There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.

And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’

These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?

More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.

I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.

*deep breath*

OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.

And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.

Advertisements

5053522264_5a71268f08_zThere were no blaring sirens or flashing lights as Liv dashed down the Eldontech corridors, but there might as well have been. Data streaming across one side of her goggles told her that she’d triggered the alarm when she took the hard drive stack. She had four and a half minutes until the police arrived.

As she reached the security door she was already sending signals to her devices connected into the system. A crude video relay looped images of the empty corridor into the security camera feeds. The data mining box cut the stream of keyword-laden signals with which it had been scattering the building system’s attention.

Grinning at her own ingenuity, Liv hit the unlock button. How many other thieves would have got in by manipulating the mood of a building’s computer systems? But then, how many other thieves understood the emergent emotional states of high end electronics?

This was why she had been hired.

The door failed to hiss open. She frowned and slapped the button again. Still nothing.

In the corner of her vision, the clock counted down toward the cops’ arrival. Three minutes left.

This was wrong. Scattering the system’s attention had effectively closed everything down. Removing that stimulus should have got the doors working again, along with the security systems from which she no longer needed to hide.

Stiffening with tension, Liv opened a data stream from the probe she had monitoring the building’s software. Calling up an overview, she could see that the system wasn’t scattered any more, but no other mood had come in to replace it. It was simply idling, with no reason to accept or deny any request it might receive.

She had left it uselessly indifferent.

Two minutes left. The thought of jail loomed before her. Years trapped in a cell, without even a data link to set her mind free. She had to get the system’s help fast. She needed it on her side.

At the speed of thought she reached out to the data miner and set it hunting for information about her, true or false, from anywhere in the vast web of the world. Not just her but people like her, ideas that would draw the system’s attention with greater and greater certainty onto how wonderful she was and why it should bend to her will. Fixation wasn’t the same as love, but it was the closest thing in cyber-psychology. The miner fed the links, however tentatively connected, straight into the system, along with her request to get out.

One minute left.

She tried the door again. This time it worked. She dashed through it and across the foyer, as the air conditioners filled the room with her favourite perfume and her most-listened musical track burst from the speakers. Liv grinned. This was escaping with style.

The counter hit thirty seconds as she reached her car, slung the drive in the back and hit the gas. She was out of the car park and into traffic just as flashing lights rounded the corner.

Liv sighed with relief. She’d done it. The units she’d left behind were untraceable. The cops would never find her now.

She looked back over her shoulder for one last gloat, and her heart almost stopped.

Her image was projected in the sky above the building, and beneath it the words “Let Liv Go!”

Maybe they would find her after all.

* * *

This story was inspired by a suggestion from history writer Russell Phillips. After considering the sometimes whimsical nature of search engine optimisation, he wondered if we’d have to start emotionally manipulating computers as they get more intelligent, complex and intuitive. Thanks for the idea Russ.

If you’ve got an idea for a future flash story, or any thoughts on this one, please leave a comment. If you liked this then please share it with other people, and consider signing up to my mailing list to get stories direct to your inbox every week.

Picture by Marie Mosley via Flickr Creative Commons.

I had a couple of moments yesterday that reminded me of the immense power of human creativity and just how awesome that is.

One was posting yesterday’s flash fiction story, ‘Love That Never Lived‘. Months after first writing this story it still churns me up inside, and that’s hardly surprising as my rawest emotions that went into it. But I also got some really touching responses from other people who had been moved by the story. It’s hardly news that a good story can move us to joy or sorrow, but it’s worth being reminded.

Then in the evening I was playing the computer game Minecraft, which I’ve just got into this week. I was building a tall tower to that I could see the surrounding area, and building this tower involved standing on the edge and seeing the surrounding landscape from my character’s point of view. Looking out from up there I found myself suffering a moment of honest to goodness vertigo. Just looking down, realising my character could easily fall and be badly hurt or killed, brought up the same feelings I get if I look down from a tall building. It was absurd but strangely powerful, as if the combination of perspective and movement in the game made it real despite the blocky, cartoonish visuals.

If we ever need a reminder that all forms of creativity are equally worthy of the label of ‘art’, or that they can be powerful forces and not just escapism, it’s moments like this.

What’s moved you recently?

Imagination can be a terrible and a wonderful thing.

I had a phone call this morning from an old and dear friend. His father has died, suddenly and unexpectedly. He was clearly overwhelmed with shock and grief.

After we finished talking I found myself feeling stunned as well. I’d met the Reverend Alexander on numerous occasions in my late teens and early twenties, staying over at his house while his son and I went out drinking. Witnesses tell me that I once vomited all over the vicarage kitchen floor right in front of him, and I can reliably report that, rather than ban me from the house for that incident, he subjected me to the mockery I rightly deserved, or at least what little of it I could stand.

But my own state of bewilderment at the news of his passing went beyond sorrow for the death of a man I haven’t seen in ten years. Because part of my brain was trying to imagine what my friend is going through right now, how I would cope in those same circumstances. Just approaching the thought of losing my own dad is horrible, but that’s what my imagination is doing.

And this is where the imagination becomes both terrible and wonderful. It puts us through the worst of things, but it does so with purpose, helping us to understand what others are going through, preparing us for what we may one day face.

It’s also through imagination that the people we lose live on. We can summon them up in our minds, reconstruct memories of life with them. It’s a bitter-sweet sort of remembering, but it’s far better than none at all.

To imagine is not just to make pretend. It is to be human, to relate to others and to our past selves. It is to create bonds that mere action cannot, to understand ourselves and the world more fully. And that, as I said at the start, can be a terrible and a wonderful thing.

Today is going to be different. I’m going to talk about depression, without flippancy or silly captions. I’m going to share something I’ve only skirted around here before. It seems the most appropriate response to today’s sad news.

I was in my mid teens when I discovered Dead Poets Society. I loved that film and what it stood for, the idea that we could break the mould of expectation and live the lives we wanted. The film’s ending, which shows how social disapproval can break some people but can never break those dreams, added to the film’s power.

Over the years that followed I lost track of that message, of the value of living the life your really, truly want. That led to years wasted in dissatisfaction, followed by my own fight with depression, a fight that I still face even as I type these words. I am healthier and happier for facing that depression, for acknowledging and coming to terms with it, but it has been, and still is, a terrible journey.

That e-book I’ve been talking about for ages? The one I’ve got a cover for, remember that? The main reason it’s not out there and in the hands of readers is my struggle with depression. Because sometimes, when I get emotionally tangled, a ten minute task can feel like a labour beyond the will of Hercules.

The sad news that Dead Poets Society star Robin Williams killed himself following a battle with depression therefore feels horribly poignant. While I have never felt a suicidal impulse, I understand why someone suffering the crushing weight of depression might take that way out. It is never the right answer, but when you feel an unbearable strain just at the thought of getting out of bed in the morning, of deciding what to eat, of putting on your pants, it’s easy to see how oblivion appeals. I wish that he had found another way. I wish that more people did.

For all that our culture has spent years trying to teach us to follow our dreams, society shows us a very different model. That we should live the lives expected of us. That we should not try to live by our desires or express our despairs. It’s no wonder that depression is so prevalent, or so misunderstood.

Clinical depression is not just a bad mood. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain that can make it impossible to recover without help. It often goes undiagnosed and untreated, festering and worsening.

There is no shame in seeking help when you are feeling down, in seeking medical advice and rest when the sad feelings become too much. The part of your brain that’s telling you to be strong, to pull yourself together, to keep it all in – that’s bullshit, that’s like telling someone with a broken leg to go run a marathon. It’s keeping you from getting better, and it’s making the problem worse.

People around you will want to help. Let them.

I’m going to finish with a section taken from the NHS website on symptoms of depression. Please, have a read, and if you think there’s a chance you might be suffering from depression then go and see your doctor. If there’s someone close to you who you think might be suffering, share the list with them.

I struggle with depression still, but it has got better. It keeps getting better. There is always hope.

From the NHS symptoms of clinical depression page:

If you experience some of these symptoms for most of the day, every day for more than two weeks, you should seek help from your GP.

Psychological symptoms include:

  • continuous low mood or sadness
  • feeling hopeless and helpless
  • having low self-esteem
  • feeling tearful
  • feeling guilt-ridden
  • feeling irritable and intolerant of others
  • having no motivation or interest in things
  • finding it difficult to make decisions
  • not getting any enjoyment out of life
  • feeling anxious or worried
  • having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself

 

Physical symptoms include:

  • moving or speaking more slowly than usual
  • change in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
  • constipation
  • unexplained aches and pains
  • lack of energy or lack of interest in sex (loss of libido)
  • changes to your menstrual cycle
  • disturbed sleep (for example, finding it hard to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning)

 

Social symptoms include:

  • not doing well at work
  • taking part in fewer social activities and avoiding contact with friends
  • neglecting your hobbies and interests
  • having difficulties in your home and family life

 

For a writer, I can be terrible at thinking about the purpose of my words.

I realised this as I was helping everwalker with some editing last week, looking for ways to make one of her scenes punchier. All my suggestions were about taking things out rather than adding them in, because I’m that sort of editor as well as that sort of writer. There’s always a conscious element to the choices I make in that process, but for the first time another part of the process, one that had previously been happening subconsciously, came to the fore.

Not the sort of punch we were after. And please, not the face!

Not the sort of punch we were after. And please, not the face!

I realised that I was thinking about what each sentence did in the reading experience. Not just what information it conveyed, but what it represented as a function in the scene. What changes in this sentence? What emotional impact does it have?

Several sentences in a row can convey different descriptive information while all serving the same function, for example telling you that a character is tense. In a slow scene that’s fine, it adds vividness, but once the pace picks up you really just need to convey that tension and quickly move on.

I’ve never read my own work in quite such a functional way before, but something has clearly clicked in my brain. I expect it will make my writing and editing better, as well as giving me a new perspective as a reader.

* * *

Quick update on the e-book. It’s been delayed by a mixture of other deadlines and technical failure on my part. I wanted to get a mailing list set up before I publish, so that I can direct readers there from my books. But two days after switching domains to andrewknighton.com I discovered that I’d done that in the only way that didn’t let me embed a signup link. Curse my mildly inadequate research!

I then put off solving this for a while, because mailing lists and internet domains are slightly outside my comfort zone. And when I came back to it yesterday I realised that it wasn’t a big problem – I could have a signup page over on Mailchimp and a page here to direct to that.

So yes, I failed at the internet, but at least now I have a mailing list. And if you’d like to receive updates when I have a new story out, as well as occasional free stories and offers on the books I will soon start to release, then please go and sign up.

 

Image by bark via Flickr creative commons.

Body language, and in particular facial expressions, are a vital part of getting across characters and emotions in a story. Lists of their common meanings such as this cheat sheet or the database compiled by the Center for Nonverbal Studies, can be invaluable for writers in getting this right. But as a teacher I saw first hand that there are exceptions to even the most obvious of rules.

To most of us, a smile is a smile. It’s a way of expressing our happiness. Sometimes we fake it, but people can often tell the difference. One small high school class I taught, consisting of only half a dozen kids considered ‘challenging’ in their ability to learn or behave, showed me how many other things it could mean.

Aiming to misbehave

O was your classic troubled pupil. I never found out what was going on at home, but he had the attention span of a fruit fly and the gleefully malevolent humour normally seen in cartoon devils. O could have been a capable student if he could just sit still for three minutes at a time. But O didn’t want to learn. There was only one thing O craved, and that was attention.

When O smiled it was because he knew that attention was coming, and he didn’t care why. As the quickest route to attention was normally to misbehave, 90% of O’s grins meant that he was acting up, or plotting to act up. In a sense, O’s smile was still a happy smile, but it was a dark sort of happiness.

This isn't how O smiled, but it's how most teachers saw his grin.

This isn’t how O smiled, but it’s how most teachers saw his grin.

These things that I have learned

M was an adorable, politely spoken lad with a smile like an angel. You could have sat him and O on someone’s shoulders and thought you were in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. M was also autistic, so far along the spectrum that he could only function in a mainstream school with full time support.

If you’ve watched Scandinavian police drama The Bridge you’ll have seen a detective who is apparently autistic. She doesn’t understand social rules and conventions. She doesn’t smile because she isn’t having the same emotional experience as everyone else. Her face is set to a default.

M was similar, except that his default was a smile. I think he was genuinely happy most of the time, but that smile only showed a surface learning of the emotion. He didn’t understand how it worked in others, or how to expand upon it for himself. He just knew that nice people smiled, and so he smiled.

Smile like you mean it

Q was the most heartbreaking person I have ever met. He and his family had fled Afghanistan at a time when that country was in horrifying turmoil.

Q smiled a lot. It was a huge, nervous grin that split his face in half. He smiled when he was happy. He smiled when he was nervous. He smiled when he didn’t understand what people were saying, which happened a lot because his English wasn’t great. He smiled when he was being told off, which led many teachers to conclude that he was a troublemaker who they needed to deal with strictly. But punishing Q led to more inappropriate grinning, led to more frustration from teachers who thought their message wasn’t getting through, led to more trouble, led to more grinning, led to… You get the idea.

A couple of months after I first met him we found out what had happened to Q and his family in Afghanistan. He had seen horrifying things that had traumatised him for life, brutal crimes committed against people he loved. Somewhere in all of that physical and emotional violence he had learned to suppress his feelings beneath an uneasy smile. For all I know that smile kept people off his back for a while, maybe saved his life. But it made it almost impossible for him to function in the ways we’re used to. Our universal signifier of happiness had become, for Q, a signifier of fear. If he smiled on happy occasions it was just because he feared that the happiness would be snatched away. Most of the time, he was smiling because he was confused and afraid and had no idea what else to do.

Whatever makes you smile

Years later, thinking of those kids brings a tear to my eye, but it also makes me smile. I miss them more than anyone else I ever taught. I miss that whole class – O, M and Q, the sweetly gormless smile of P, the ever-changing expressions of the wannabe-rebel G. They were amazing kids, and ones our education system has almost certainly failed by now.

As a writer it’s incredibly useful to be able to use a single expression as a signifier of a standard emotion – smile means happy. It cuts through the clutter to convey emotion to the audience. But reality isn’t that simple, and if you can find ways to use other forms of smiling, other reasons to smile, then you can show your readers unexpected depth of characters, like I found with the real life characters in that class.

One day I’ll write a story about those smiles.

 

Picture by Randy Robertson via Flickr creative commons