[Comment added 26 February 2009: Since first posting this I have been endeavouring to spread the concept of pronoia, inter alia. Here‘s one of the things that has happened. (And I hope to be able to comment on a particularly exciting outcome of this posting at a later point!)]
[Comment added 17 April 2009: Now I can tell you that the posting you can read below led directly to this!]
This picture makes me look like I have a double chin; it’s because I am looking down, I promise you!
On Saturday I went out for a drink with my very good friend, the poet Eddie Gibbons, down from Aberdeen to give a reading (Sunday 22 February) with the Shore Poets. After chatting about various woes in The Stockbridge Tap, Hamilton’s and The Bailie, we waxed more positive, talking about what we would do if we had a million pounds, then a billion pounds. Imagining good things in some detail was energising and therapeutic. Now I’ll need to give you some background information/indulge in a philosophical digression so that you’ll appreciate what happened next!
Not easy being a writer
Earning a living as a writer, or even getting published, is not easy. The media, of course, love stories of overnight success, rags-to-riches, massive advances and JK’s mountains of dosh. Few writers, however, earn more than a pittance. To make it one needs creativity/talent, knowledge and perseverance. (Read Nicola Morgan’s excellent blog for advice, and here’s something about getting published that I prepared earlier myself.) Some say that creativity is linked to sub-mania, and that this is a phase of a mild form of manic-depression (or bipolar disorder). It is certainly likely that most writers experience significant periods of “feeling down”. The chief task of the writer of fiction (and, I contend, of poetry and biographical non-fiction) is to convey emotion efficiently and elegantly. Arguably, therefore, the art of writing fiction, biography and poetry is to some extent the art of managing and manipulating emotion: one’s own (over the long term) and the emotions of one’s readers. (A bit like life, then!)
Because it is so hard to get published/earn a living as a writer, successful writers are possibly better than most at coping with depression and setbacks. (An amusing aside here: I noted that Duncan Jones of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies described writers as “often lonely, fractious and self-destructive”. This was at a meeting of the Literature Forum I attended in March 2008. Gee, thanks, Duncan! Nice to know that’s what the academics think of us.) Not only do they possibly inherently “suffer” from mood swings but in order to achieve success they will have to be tenacious and resilient. Of course, to some extent writing itself can be therapeutic.
Writing as therapy
Poetry is a near-immediate means of turning bad experiences into good. A very short example is this poem, which I wrote about ten years ago, having just had my heart broken. I read it at an Edinburgh Fringe event a couple of years ago and was bowled over by the reaction it received.
A more extended example of poetry as therapy would be Eddie Gibbons’ wonderful sequence, The Republic of Ted, from which he read on Sunday evening. This celebrates the life of his father, and documents his death. It must have been some comfort to Eddie to know that he had immortalised, in a manner of speaking, his much-loved dad. The fact that Eddie was then asked to talk to medical professionals in Aberdeen on the issues it touches on (death and the grieving process), and has had so much positive feedback from readers, suggests that his poetry has also been therapeutic for others.
Angela Bailey‘s consultant psychiatrist explicitly asked her to write down her memories for therapeutic purposes. Her notes formed the basis of Please Don’t Hurt Me, due for publication in April. Writing it was most definitely helpful to her, and we are also confident that it will assist the many people affected by the issues it deals with. (This confidence is shared by, amongst other organisations and individuals, the eating disorders charity, Beat, which will be represented at the Nottinghamshire launch event on 17 April.)
Angela’s book is the outcome of decades of suffering on her part, and years of hard work on both our parts. The details of the former can be read in the book, but I’ll tell you something about the latter now, because it very much relates to the main topic.
When Angela first approached me she had some money from an out-of-court settlement she’d reached with a former employer, and was therefore able to pay me to help her tell her story. When these funds ran out I had a choice: I could abandon the project or I could offer to do it for nothing, apart from a share of the eventual royalties and rights, should we succeed in finding a publisher. By that stage not only had I developed a profound admiration and respect for Angela, but I was also convinced that her story had to be told, for her own good and for the good of the thousands of people who would benefit from it. With her unique educated perspective on her experiences (that of a paramedic) and her detailed recall of events (the outcome of years of therapy), the value of the project was clear.
Yes, the book had to be written and, come hell or high water, I was sure that we would find a publisher. In short, the project accorded with my conscience; I was passionate about it. You could say that I decided to work for nothing (and thereby incur debt on my credit cards), gambling on the book being published and the book then selling well. Madness, many would say, but the point I wish to make here is that underlying success, in most cases, will be a writer’s passionate belief in his or her work. If you don’t have that then your chances of making it are slim. Let’s hope that Angela and I are about to make it!
So how did I keep going? Luckily I had an arsenal of “tricks” built up over the long years of working as a vet (a job I found incredibly stressful) while struggling to make it as a writer. (The horrors of the veterinary profession I turned into Pet Hates; it took about ten years from first draft to publication! Incidentally, the picture at the top of this blog was taken last Friday by a veterinary friend who told me that yet another colleague had killed himself. The high rate of suicide amongst veterinarians is discussed in my pseudonymous book.)
Anyway, I was talking about the tricks I use to keep going…
When I have had a setback I tell myself, for example:
(1) That I can always use the experience in my writing.
(2) “This too shall pass!”
(3) The lowest points in one’s life are but a reflection of the heights one can aspire to reach. (An approximation of a quote I remember from the foreword to a Laurens van der Post book. LvdP, incidentally, was a highly controversial character, greatly admired by the likes of Prince Charles but despised by others as a fraud.)
(4) Success is the step beyond failure. I only have to look at a bad experience from another perspective and I shall see the lesson it contains. (Such “re-framing” needs to practised and can take time.)
Getting out of the house and taking exercise is also helpful. For example, I might go for a walk and focus on the beauty around me. Here’s a photograph I took on one such walk:
Keep your eyes open and it’s amazing what you will see. (Serendipity, incidentally, is my favourite word, closely followed by synchronicity, synergy and synthesis. Perhaps these amount merely to the response of a receptive and creative mind to random/disparate/essentially meaningless input, but believing in them undoubtedly helps motivation and boosts creativity.)
Visiting art galleries always helps, too. I love them. These repositories of others’ creativity almost always recharge me and give me fresh ideas.
Going for a jog invariably improves my mood. By contrast, sometimes what I need is rest. Recognising and learning to work with my natural daily rhythm and not against it (I am an owl, not a lark!) relieves me of frustration and distress. Simply taking a nap when my body calls for it is an important aspect of this. I despise the US and UK office culture of low-productivity presenteeism.
I also read motivational books. These are much-disparaged/pooh-poohed but many of their precepts amount to common sense. While, theoretically, it should only be necessary to read one of them and remember the simple ideas it contains, I find it helpful to be reminded of the latter, and also to read how they have worked for others. Not all these books say is gospel. A major concept loved by self-help/motivational gurus is “the law of attraction”, and this is related to the concept of “pronoia”.
The Law of Attraction
This can be traced back at least to Wallace D. Wattles’ book, The Science of Getting Rich, of which a free modern version, The Secret Law of Attraction: The Road to Universal Wealth, is provided online in PDF format by Sean Rasmussen. Napoleon Hill’s famous Think and Grow Rich was certainly influenced by Wattles, as was Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, which suggests the origins are ancient. And here‘s an outspoken critique of the latter, and of “the law of attraction” in general, of which one of the most trenchant lines is this:
…it singularly fails to address instances of mass suffering caused not by being in a wrong place at the wrong time (as in a case of a natural disaster for example) but by active, deliberate pursuit of evil ends by other human beings as happened during the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide or Khmer Rouge murders to pick just three random, obvious examples.
Rhonda has also, I believe, been criticised for her unscrupulous business practices by a former business partner, although I have lost the link on this topic so can’t back this up at the moment. So what is “the law of attraction”? According to the last link I gave you:
The Secret of The Secret is to think positive thoughts: think that you have what you want to have all the time, visualise it, be grateful for it in advance and feel positive feelings as the thinking itself won’t cut it without them. You have two sets of feelings: good feelings and bad feelings. And you know the difference between the two because one makes you feel good and the other makes you feel bad.
No discussion of this topic is complete without a mention of the charming Lilou Mace, whose YouTube postings are a constant joy. Here she is discussing the difference between positive thinking and the law of attraction, and here is her response to being sacked.
I was introduced to this concept by an artist I once knew. She told me that she lent her own copy of Rob Brezsny’s Pronoia is the Antidote to Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings
to a friend and never heard from him again. “It has that effect!” she said with a laugh. Heedless, I ordered the book, appreciated its witty hippie vibes, and digested its central thesis that every component of the universe (everything that happens to you) is conspiring to make you happy, healthy, wealthy etc.
A good thing about Rob Brezsny‘s book is that it implicitly does not claim to be relevant to those living in desperate circumstances; it is written for the relatively well-to-do who really have little excuse for not thinking positively about their prosperous (by world standards) lives. This is made clear in the “Glory in the Highest” section, pp.4-6, which takes one through the many things that go right in the average reader’s life:
…in your bathroom, the toilet is functioning properly as are several other convenient devices. You have at your disposal soaps, creams, razors, clippers, tooth-cleaning accessories: a host of products that enhance your hygiene and appearance.
What I really think
What do I really think about the above concepts? Well, I think that if we are only on this planet for a few years we should make the most of them. Pessimists and optimists do not, objectively, experience different “luck” in terms of day-to-day events; the important difference between them is that optimists persevere, and make the most of what opportunities arise, so they are more successful in the long term. I know which category I want to be in. Why not learn to manage your emotions so as to be happier and more fulfilled?
You don’t need to be a spaced-out flower child to see that there is at least some common sense in the law of attraction, despite the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo about vibrations and the like in which it is often wrapped. If you come across as needy and desperate you are not likely to appeal to your dream lover. If you are anxious and depressed you will not appear to others as a good person with whom to do business or give a job to, nor will you be able to think clearly: depression lowers IQ. On the other hand, a confident and happy person will be alert, receptive and outgoing, and is attractive and reassuring to others. People will instinctively feel at ease in that person’s company. Good things are obviously more likely to happen for him or her.
It’s surely helpful to approach most things that happen to you believing that they are for your benefit; it can only be good to discipline oneself to see every problem as a potential lesson.
In South Africa there’s a pithy saying – ‘n Boer maak ‘n plan – which translates literally as “a farmer makes a plan”. It implies that there is a way of overcoming most obstacles and setbacks and that one should simply get on with it! This is different from the law of attraction in that the emphasis is on doing, rather than on feeling/being.
An important personal spin-off benefit of reading literature dealing with the above topics (and, bien sûr, watching the ever-delightful Lilou Mace’s YouTube broadcasts) was that I became qualified to help people write books on personal development and the like. I currently have one excellent commission with an inspiring but practical exponent of this industry (someone with a credible track record of impressive achievements), and may well land another soon. Through this commissioner I met Judy Barber, whose excellent book, Good Question, I have just read. Meeting great people is perhaps the best spin-off of all!
Now, at long last, you have sufficient background to understand the physical, mental and emotional state I was in after drinking with Eddie. Pumped up with pints (“Midnight Sun”) and mental pictures of my new billionaire lifestyle, the embodiment of pronoia and positivity, oozing the law of attraction from every pore, certain of the beneficence of a bountiful universe, and believing that good things would manifest for me virtually immediately, I bade Eddie good night and set off on the short walk home.
I found not one, not two, but THREE gifts from the gods along the way: a packet of Walkers crisps (vegetarian, despite being steak and onion flavour), a packet of Hula Hoops, and a Twix (only 98 kcal, according to the wrapper). I scoffed the Hula Hoops when I got home, the perfect post-pints pick-up.
Bet that Semtexed your sceptical smug smile!
P.S. Eddie’s poetry reading went well too!