How To Eat An Elephant, writer-style

How to Eat an Elephant, writer-style

You probably all know the answer to this riddle, don’t you?

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

It sounds silly, really. If you are a member of the !San people https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_people, the method for eating an elephant (generally one slain by others) was to get every family you know together and commence an eating marathon (see the film, The Gods Must be Crazy 2 for this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gods_Must_Be_Crazy_II but as I am sure you realise, I’m not talking about a real, literal elephant.

So many things in life feel overwhelming and unachievable, and the classic way to face them is to break the task down into a series of smaller, more achievable stages (bites!), and it’s a good way, as long as you can just keep “eating” away. When I began learning Tai Chi, a little over three years ago, I got very, very frustrated because we’d spend what felt like over half the lesson on warm-up exercises and on Qi Gong exercises (largely Eight Pieces of Brocade), and very little on learning the form, which was what I (and other members) had come to learn. It took more than a year of weekly lessons before I began to cotton on that I was learning Tai Chi; I hadn’t really understood that the form was only one small part of Tai Chi. I’d focused on what I saw as the cool bit, the graceful, disciplined sequence of moves that everyone thinks is Tai Chi; I’d not understood that all the exercises we’d done were to improve our chi, aid our balance and strength and to build us up so we could incorporate it all in the form. (After two years, we lost our regular instructor and have been without a regular teacher ever since; but we’d learned enough to persist, helping each other, and getting the benefit of this martial art. We have a new instructor coming later this year.) Each stage built on the ones previous and slowly, very slowly, I learned and am still learning.

In the list of overwhelming things for me, housework and gardening are close to the top. I have limited energy and I’ve been learning the hard way how to pace myself: do a task but stop before I start to feel tired or things begin to hurt. I used to be a great gardener and it did me good, mentally, physically and spiritually, but my hands and my back (oh, who am I kidding?) EVERY bit of me hurts when I do much in the garden. So I decided that I would aim to do no more than ten minutes at a time; that way, if done every day, that ten minutes adds up over a week to more than an hour. But it’s frustrating; I have to leave tasks unfinished, messy and I don’t like that. If I just finish this bit… usually results in a lot of pain and reluctance to tackle anything again. So I’m setting myself a limit. I’ve recently begun to explore how using the concepts from bullet journaling can help me, rather than make a rod for my own back.

Bullet journaling has become a big thing, with blogs, articles, videos on You Tube, Instagram and so on leaping on the bandwagon. I read a couple of dozen articles and got cross; none of them, despite saying they were going to make it easy, made it easy. There was a lot using bright markers and stickers and so on, and happy little designs that made me cross because I’m not 12 any more and I was never one of the hangers-on for the girls with the nice handwriting*. I don’t have time to plan things out like that and I certainly don’t want to ruin a journal by getting it all wrong **. So I didn’t buy a dedicated bullet journal but a Rhodia Dot Pad with perforated pages so I could work out how I wanted to use it without making a pig’s ear of it. More on that perhaps another time.

* You know the ones; they had lovely neat handwriting that always got gold stars at primary school.

** This is one of the most gutting experiences a stationery lover can have when it comes to journals. I had it happen last year when I bought a lovely Leuchturrm journal to work through the exercises that came with a book on the Enneagram. After a few days I realised I could find nothing of value in the book, tore out the few pages I’d written in the journal, and felt horrible.

But writing is not like eating either a literal or metaphorical elephant. That’s the problem. There’s lots of advice that goes along the lines of WRITE EVERY DAY WITHOUT FAIL OR CTHULU WILL DEVOUR YOU. You are exhorted to write, even if it’s only for ten minutes each day because it will all build up. Except that’s rubbish for many of us. It’s rubbish for me. I do write every day. Every. Single. Day. I have kept a daily journal for some years; I write in it just before I go to bed, recording my impressions of the day, even if it is just about the weather, what I ate or how terrible I feel. It doesn’t amount to anything but a rather banal account of each year that is occasionally useful for checking what I cooked for guests so I don’t repeat myself.

In the past, when I had a work in progress rolling along, I’d work on it every day, almost without fail. But that was when I knew where a story was going, roughly, or sometimes precisely. I can’t do that at the moment, for all sorts of reasons. I have an uneasy feeling about even trying, because it seems as if it’s too likely to take a book in a direction it ought not go in, solely to advance the word count or the flow. It would become a book that is somehow off-kilter. I can’t explain it very well; if you write a book to a well-established template, there’s a clear path forward. But I don’t. I write the strange ideas that bubble up, and the knack is recognising where those strange pieces fit and whether they actually fit in the story I am writing or in another one as yet unstarted and perhaps at that time, even undreamed. So you can end up using an idea, an event, a character who belongs somewhere else entirely.

I’ve had to go much more slowly, because I’m not longer confident of my ability to know without too much soul-searching where a story is meant to go. If you know anything about morphic resonance, you’ll know that when a new compound crystalises, it may take any of the possible crystal formations but once it takes a particular form, it can’t take another. That’s how it feels about writing a book of the kind that’s lurking in my unconscious, my subconscious, and sometimes, quite powerfully, in my conscious mind.

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=W14oDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT106&lpg=PT106&dq=morphic+resonance+crystals&source=bl&ots=DKLXqAkBnr&sig=FTtNhxdKdZzdVIQH8tvILyfgBtI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjVxPir_-HZAhUDJsAKHUCYCwQQ6AEISjAD#v=onepage&q=morphic%20resonance%20crystals&f=false

I don’t want to eat my elephant in the wrong order but I can’t swallow it in one go, not now. So I have to sit and let the pieces sort themselves out while I work on shorter things, things I can produce in one go, and hope that one day I’ll be able to create what’s nagging away in the background. I might tell you a bit about that another time.

“The Idiot Brain” and me ~ a review and some thoughts

The Idiot Brain” and me ~ a review and some thoughts

Everyone likes a bargain, don’t they? When I was browsing the reviews of another book on the brain, a negative review of that book suggested that readers would find more of real use in Dean Burnett’s “The Idiot Brain”. Since the kindle version was on offer at that point (I recall it was 99p but I could be wrong), I snapped it up. You can read my Amazon review here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Idiot-Brain-Neuroscientist-Explains-Really/product-reviews/1783350822/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_ttl?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews&sortBy=recent#R2IXXQ0TD557Y0

I found it a light-hearted, easy read that was heavy on the humour (to the extent I guffawed out loud despite being in the process of slogging away on treadmill or static cycle) and relatively light on complex technical matters. There are enough of those to give the book credibility but not so many that you get bogged down trying to remember terms. For a broad overview of the complexities of the human brain this was a book that intrigued but did not frustrate; however, as with many such things, the areas that caught my especial interest were dealt with in too few words. Not the fault of the book, but rather the fault of the reader here, I suspect.

Around three quarters through the book, I found something that had me tripping over my own feet with the realisation that it described something I see on an almost daily basis. Having explained that the brain has an inherently egocentric bias, Burnett goes on to explain that part of the brain is dedicated to correcting this bias (largely an area called the right supramarginal gyrus) towards one of empathy. This area can be disrupted, and can be confused if a person has insufficient time to think about the issue. Data from various experiments show some of the limits of this correction mechanism and how it can happen. Using the method of exposing pairs of people to tactile surfaces that vary (they had to touch something nice or something gross), the experimenters showed that two people experiencing something nasty will be very good at empathising correctly, recognising the intensity of feeling and the emotions of the other person. But, if one is experiencing pleasant things while the other is experiencing the opposite, the person experiencing pleasure will vastly underestimate the suffering of the other person. Burnett concludes that, “So the more privileged and comfortable someone’s life is, the harder it is for them to appreciate the needs and issues of those worse off. But as long as we don’t do something stupid like putting the most pampered people in charge of running countries, we should be OK.” Did I mention that Burnett is also a stand-up comedian?

I am sure you have witnessed this sort of blindness, especially if you are affected by one of the many conditions/illnesses which have no obvious visual marker, the so-called invisible illnesses. On a personal level, it’s bad enough, but on a national and international level it’s catastrophic. Witness in the UK the number of seriously ill and suffering people that the DWP have decided are fit for work. Burnett has just explained, though, how this level of atrocity can take place, especially in people who would ordinarily consider themselves decent, compassionate people.

Related and equally insightful is Burnett’s exploration of the brain’s other cognitive bias, called the “just world” hypothesis. It argues that the brain assumes that the world is fair, that good behaviour is rewarded and bad is punished. There are social reasons why this idea has evolved; it aids in the smooth running of communities. Indeed, various apes and monkeys have been shown to adhere to this hypothesis (though Burnett does not mention this). It’s seen to be a motivating factor, for if you believe that existence is random and all our actions are meaningless, it’s going to make it hard for you to function at times.

Of course, the world isn’t fair or just. Bad things happen to good people, as we’ve all observed, and bad people get away with bad things. This sets up a dissonance in our brains, because the fair world hypothesis is deeply ingrained, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, our brains come up with one of two things: first is the idea that the victim of something nasty must somehow have done something to deserve it. The second is that the world is cruel and random after all (something I am tending very much towards.)

Burnett also goes on to explain that people are more inclined to blame a victim if the victim is someone they can potentially identify with strongly. There’s complex reasons for this but in essence it boils down to fear. A fear that if someone who is essentially the same sort of person as you can have something that horrible happen to them it must be their fault in some way, because if it could happen to them (ie, random chance) then it could just as easily be YOU.

In my experience, this has been something that faith groups are very, very prone to; the idea of secret sin, of someone actually deserving to be punished by horrible things occurring to them, is one of the most damaging and hideous things. The tendency to blame the victim is so common among various wings of the Christian church, I suspect it’s one of the reasons many walk away. At university, a close friend’s mum was dying of cancer; the family church accused the family of some undisclosed sin they needed to repent of, and when she died, they told the two sons that they had not prayed hard enough for her to be healed.

At the end of this chapter, Burnett concludes with this rather scalding paragraph: “It seems that, despite all the inclinations towards being sociable and friendly, our brain is so concerned with preserving a sense of identity and peace of mind that it makes us willing to screw over anyone and anything that could endanger this. Charming.” It may seem unduly pessimistic but I can only agree with him that the human brain is flawed. It’s the spirit and soul that must mitigate against these flaws.