DEALING

When life is tough, we all have different ways that we cope.

When the things start to go wrong, how is it that each of us are able to manage the way we react?

The world can be a beautiful place filled with the most amazing wonders but, in the blink of an eye, can become the stuff of nightmares. Stress can build and as each day passes we can feel more and more crushed by the problems we face until, at some point, we could finally snap under the weight.

The human mind has the ability to bend and manipulate as all manner of stresses and sorrows attack it and it’s here that I want to examine the power of the written word.

When you have a terrible time, how do you cope? What are the things that you employ to help defend yourself, to protect yourself and to push back? We all do it. We come under attack from the external trials and tribulations of the world and following day after day of fighting against them, we get to the point of wanting to put the tools down and have a break from the fight. Helping to unwind your mind after a tough day has been called ‘fire watching’ from hundreds of years ago where a person would do just that, watch that fire burn and crackle. Just not having to think on anything and let your mind wander around the pretty shapes and colours gives you the chance to not actively be driving your mind, rather you’re just coasting down the road making the most of the scenery.

A great many people turn to drink, turn to exercise, take a holiday, make snap shopping choices, focus on work or dive into their hobby. I have two things that help turn my mind off. Watching the nonsense videos on YouTube and books.

Watching the contents of YouTube is great. Cat videos and people falling off or into all kinds of things just makes me smile. There’s never any complex narrative to try to wrestle with and there isn’t any need to expend energy on any kind of comprehension of what’s taking place. I can sit and ‘fire watch’ happy in the knowledge that my mind is on autopilot. I’m watching lots of YouTube at the moment.

The situation with books is very different.

Books offer the chance to challenge the mind to keep pace with the story. Rather than just existing, floating in the shallows but not venturing further, stories give you the chance to truly leave your troubles on the shore and escape. When you crack open a book, you’re no longer in the world where job or money worries, family concerns or health issues can get you. Now you’re flying through space, you’re casting magic spells, you’re hunting for the deranged serial killer and the reality just falls away.

I also use writing as a way to get myself through issues. By throwing myself into the worlds I write about, I can slam the door on the brutality of whatever is trying to rip me apart. In any book you read, the world has been laid out for you to explore but when I write, I grasp the added delight of shutting myself away in truly a world of my creation.

We all have our coping mechanisms when the darkness closes in. Whatever it is you do to help keep you ploughing forwards, no matter how small, can be a keystone in keeping everything together. When there’s something awful afoot, I need to close the world away for a while and that time spent in another world, even if just for a short period, can be a lifesaver.

VALUES

I’m not talking about right and wrong as such but more what it is that each of us finds valuable.

The value of something is governed by outside forces. The rarity of something means that it becomes more valuable. That said, I could draw a picture of my cat, making a truly one of a kind piece of art, but that would never mean that it would automatically become worth huge sums. The rarity of a thing is vital but in line with if other people want to possess it. If a great many people wish to posses a thing, it can mean the lengths that some will go to to actually get their hands on it will increase dramatically.

But that value of things spreads further than just being for things.

We’ve all seen comments in various media about the value of time with family, of how much good feeling comes from the warmth and love which is the family unit. What about the value of a child’s laugh? Or the silence of a quiet night on a camping holiday? All of these things are great under the right circumstances but as with the thoughts above, the rarity of these things and the number of people wanting them still drives a relative value.

But then there’s the understanding that the diamond the size of my head may be worth gazillions and gazillions but if I don’t like it, I’m going to view it as less valuable than someone who adores the aesthetic. But if I owned it but didn’t love it, the value of it would remain as it had, if it was in the possession of the huge fan.

How we value things, I think, therefore gives us a more reliable way of understanding where our choices come from. The rarity of something is still going to be important to understand why we place value where we do but so often, that rarity is down to just not being able to achieve it. The classic greetings card version of the family unit can become priceless to those who may never have had the experience as they grew up. The sound of a child’s laugh can take on more weight if you’re unable to have kids, and the desire to experience the calm silence of a night alone in a mountain retreat is utterly desirable if everything about your lifestyle is fast paced and loud.

We place value on different things, a great many of which we share with so many of the population but there will always be the individual things that set us all apart. Now the value of these things can also be driven by the accessibility we have to them. We reach out to chase the things we don’t or can’t have. We yearn for so many things that we don’t have in an attempt to fill that specifically shaped hole in ourselves. Should we be lucky enough to attain it, we savour and cherish it for the mighty value we placed on it.

And the same goes for things we may lose.

It’s only after a thing has been taken from us that we truly get to understand the value of it. Without it, we now identify it’s absence and only then realise just how valuable a thing it really was.

We all have things we value. We all have things that we perceive as the best or the most. We all exist on a continuum of value, running from the things we don’t have and we value highly as we strive after them, through to those things we already possess which we seem to only comprehend the value of once they’re no longer there.

Maybe we should all spend a bit more time appreciating rather than striving.

What do you think?

FATES

We see in stories, a great deal of versions of the idea of things taking place according to an already written plan. That somewhere, at some time, some kind of all powerful being or beings started to pull stings and move pieces to guide or control all of us measly humans.

It’s an interesting idea, that all of the lives we all lead, all of the choices that we could take, have already been laid down for us by someone or something above and beyond us. From there comes two schools of thought.

It’s either good or bad.

Imagine that all of those tough decisions you’ve ever had to struggle with, the awful times you’ve spent forced to crack your head against an impossible choice. Now imagine that those choices and all of the pain and suffering that came with them, were decided by someone else and there was nothing that you could have done to do anything other than what you did? You were always going to do what you did and all of the uncertainty surrounding the choice was nothing but a waste of both time and energy. In short, you have no power. You’re nothing but a mechanism following a prescribed path and no manner of trying on your behalf will allow you to stray from the path.

On the other hand you truly get to say ‘what will be will be’. You can happily forego all of the stressed thought and go with the first thought that crosses your mind in any situation. It doesn’t matter what choices you think you’re making, they’ve already been made for you so you can just plonk along happy in the knowledge that someone else is doing all of the thinking for you and you can just smile and wave from the passenger seat.

But, if all of the events that take place are already known, that means that someone planned out all of the horrors that crash into you and how they’ll turn out. Someone decided that pain was what your life needed at exactly the worst moment. The illness and injuries. The deaths in the family and every possible nastiness has been put there deliberately because someone just fancied the idea of seeing you suffer.

As a story idea, the powers of fate offer a fantastic way to twist the narrative in any way you fancy but the thought that we’re all nothing but pawns is awful. You were always going to watch your parents suffer a drawn out illness. You were always going suffer the injuries and dark times which battered you down and you know what, maybe I won’t lean on the power of the fates in my storytelling. Giving my characters the knowledge that their lives are simply controlled from above seems almost like making them a step closer to a level of self awareness and I don’t think I could do that to them.

HELP

When the world is ganging up on you, your hobbies can provide a wonderful distraction from the nightmares.

My writing has been where I go to close the door on my own demons but over the last few months I’ve struck a problem.

I may be locking my mind in a small room away from the nastiness of reality, but the walls of that room are proving to be very thin. The monsters can’t get to me but I can hear them chattering to themselves. I can hear a hideous breathing and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can hear them all so clearly that I can’t push my mind past listening to them.

Despite my best efforts to use all the tricks I have to stay on track, the things on the other side are all pressed up against the walls, just making more and more noise until I can’t keep my mind on the page I’m working on.

It’s an easy point to overlook in storytelling but there will always be the chance for the monster to triumph.

Sometimes, despite everything we do, all the countermeasures we deploy, the pain of the real world wins.

PLASTER

As I let everyone know last week, our cat Baggins died the previous week and we had a very rough few days dealing with the loss but we’ve since been to the rescue centre and have adopted another cat.

Our new monster, and he is a very big cat, is called Sausage and is a really affectionate little thing. We were sure that we were ready for a second cat despite it being relatively soon after we lost Baggins and we’d reconciled it with ourselves that we wouldn’t be sullying his memory by taking on a new cat. We recognised that there are so many stray or abandoned cats that we were now in a position to help another one find their forever home.

We met Sausage and he took to us as we took to him. He is a very different cat to Baggins but there in is our point. By caring for another cat, we’re able to continue dealing with the loss of such a massive part of our lives, while moving forwards. Sausage has been helping us through the grief of loss by just being himself and we’ve been able to give him a new home.

When we all go through grief of any kind each and every one of us will have different ways of dealing with the pain. People have been known to rely on drink, on drugs or on food to take the edge off. Casual liasons on one end of the emotional spectrum to turning to family for help on the other can all help us conquer the issues we have in our lives.

For us, the act of welcoming Sausage into our family was an act of catharsis. It allowed us to move through the pain towards the acceptance of the loss of Baggins.

When I write, I use the story I’m working on as a way to break through any problems I may be having in the real world. I can shut myself away into a world that I’m creating and forget about all of the problems which may be banging on the door trying to  get in.

It’s also possible to go one step further as an author.

When I was doing my English Literature A-Level, one of the books we read was The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Written in old English it was a journey of translation as well as being a piece to study. I enjoyed it and there was a very interesting point which came from the writing itself but which was explained beautifully in ‘A Knight’s Tale’ the film. The characters in the stories are caricatures with the wife of Bath being well described as being a ‘broad’ frame with gapped teeth who was oft married and not afraid of going after what she wanted but it’s the characters of The Pardoner and The Summoner who get the lashing.

Chaucer gives his opinion on all manner of things which would have been going on around him, making comment about religion and gender roles to go for two of the biggies, but is happy to swing his eye onto a great many other details. He draws images of what was taking place at the time and makes comment through his work, as so many writers do. And it’s this point which gives us the line in the film which I love. Deftly delivered by Paul Bettany, we’re treated to, “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.” We get to see that a writer will exact a revenge on those who have wronged them and turn those poor souls into creeping and shuffling beasts. The brutality of the real world can be re-written to place the bully under the boot heel and we authors can be happy in the knowledge that we worked through our issues while turning our tormentors on their heads.

We all have problems which rear their ugly maws on occasion and it can take all manner of weapons for us to beat back the pain. As a writer, I have an incredible well of resources to help me keep my mind together should it fracture and putting those most awful people to cross my path into the most delightful agony is wonderfully freeing.

LOSS

We all deal with loss in very different ways and we can regularly see loss being given centre stage when constructing a characters driving forces to get things done.

Loss is something that we all go through and have to work our way through be it the death of a family member, the loss of a job, a relationship even an object. What is a minor concern for one person could be a debilitating and crushing experience for another and this gives us a problem.

As a naturally social species, we function so much better as a part of a collective all working together so a shared empathy to pain is vital but not all pain is viewed the same.

When I was younger, I injured my ankle playing rugby and was finding it hard to put any weight on that leg because of the agony. The general consensus was that I needed to get back on the field and at least see the final few seconds of the match out. Happily the clock ran down before I could be returned to the action but for the following week, my complaints of pain were written off as being just an ache and I was told to run it off during the next match. I lasted two minutes because I couldn’t walk let alone run. I was explaining what was happening to me yet other people couldn’t recognise the pain I was in.

Imagining physical pain is one thing but trying to understand the anguish of mental illness is a step even further. There’s still enormous stigma attached to an admission of mental illness because so often, people are unable to understand what those people affected are going through. I’m sure people think that they’re trying to help but ‘just try and cheer up,’ may not be the perfect cure for depression of all flavours. Those who are giving the advice to cheer up get put out because they think the other person isn’t listening or it’s all in their head and the sufferer is made to feel that it’s them that’s at fault, “Other people have it worse than you.”

When I write characters, I enjoy adding in an element of would be negative life experience. That pain can show that these people aren’t always going to be the perfect hero and that can make them all the more relatable to the reader. The problems come from having to always try to find a loss that the readers will believe. The loss of a family member is the classic that we can all picture for ourselves. We see that sensation of hollowness that comes with someone’s death and can relate it to our own lives but other painful experiences may not have the same effect.

We all need to accept that the human race is a complicated thing and we all handle different situations differently. Public speaking can cripple some to inaction while others take to it like a duck to water. We just need to always be thoughtful when dealing with other people’s pain at any loss.

I was cut in two last week when our cat Baggins, died. We’d had him eleven years and he was a major part of our family. When I explained to people why I wasn’t my usual self at work, some were understanding but others looked at me with the classic “Is that all?” expression on their faces.

Loss affects us all at some point so we all have to look after those of us feeling it’s touch.