Relatable

(Scott Dikkers, How to Write Funny)

 

This short page very nicely sums up all the thoughts I’ve had in the past two months that have changed my attitude towards being a writer.

When I wrote of my journey in finding what I wanted to do in life, I forgot to include something. It doesn’t flatter me exactly, but I treat it as a necessity in attaining a more realistic perspective. Thing is, I feel absolutely thrilled and full of joy when I discover some poet has written a bad poem or some comedian done a lacklustre sketch. As nasty as it might seem of me to take pleasure in another’s weaker moments, I don’t do it with malice. Rather, it gives me a warm feeling for the person and humanises those I’ve put on pedestals.

What this little snippet also made me think of was that in poetry, as elsewhere, you can’t always get it right, but need to go for the sum total of your work and maintain the standard of that. Last weeks I’ve written a lot and felt quite pleased that I have managed to lift my overall standard and that some of the atrocities I wrote a few years ago I probably would no longer write. Never say never, of course.

The best poets aren’t known for all their poems but a handful of masterpieces. My recent favourites, Crane and Dylan Thomas, can be excessively cryptic. When they manage to be lucid or hit upon the right musicality, it’s a masterpiece, but when they go too far into idiosyncractic shorthands, it’s a bit of a flop in the context of the rest of their work. Their flop would be my success, though.

Anyhow, this comedy book is quite relatable so far. The intro is nice and his style isn’t a tiresomely witty show of his own personality (which, I believe, a lot of such books, as well as self-help books, do suffer from).

What am I doing developing myself in comedy and poetry when I believe these are among my greatest weaknesses? God knows. Trust the process, I suppose. I want to – is my reason.

Illogicalities

Me: watches Little Britain to excess and writes silly verses inspired by it.

Also me: is put out by swearing in Good Will Hunting and the TV version of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution.

I really can’t stand gratuitous swearing and Good Will Hunting is disturbingly full of it. In Little Britain, it’s organic and belongs where it is and often has a boyish innoncence to it, but quite a few works make me feel like the swearing is just there as a dare, a conjunction, to show that the author can. It’s distracting.

I did not like Good Will Hunting for a number of other reasons besides the swearing. The boys weren’t believeable. They didn’t look like troubled youth, but like the good guys being slightly naughty but then going back to their books and eventually becoming businessmen and lawyers. I didn’t believe the genius character either. Nerds who have read so many books don’t look/act like this. I’m probably stereotyping and can see that under some rare circumstances they could look like the guy that dates the cheerleader, but if that rare case was true, it has to be at least suggested by the story. The plot was also so predictable that there was no tension for me and I couldn’t finish it. Just not my film at all and I wanted to like it.

I did like the caramels line. It’s something I could see myself using. Asking people out for a coffee or drink is tiresome when you could ask them out for ice cream or cat spotting.

Becoming

The other morning I picked up the complete poems of Hart Crane beside me, opened it at a random page and didn’t understand a thing he was saying. Fair enough. It happens with any poet that you sometimes miss their point. I tried another page and poem but didn’t understand a thing either. I tried a third, possibly fourth, until I told myself it could be the early hour and gave it up.

In the afternoon, I casually browsed my old English textbooks, read Skelton, Marvell and the like until Milton. The morning with Crane had depressed me a little beforehand: how can a person like me that cannot understand other people’s poetry expect to write any herself. And now, here was Milton to remind me how pathetic I was.

It is so: I understand what Milton says but I cannot appreciate him. I don’t have the ability for it. I only know that he is great because others say he is, but I cannot pick it up myself. I can pick up Crane’s excellence (in spite of not understanding all his poems, I love how he sounds and the things he does), but not Milton’s. Before the obvious suggests itself, I will counter it by saying that it is not a matter of taste. I dislike T.S.E. but his Love Song of Alfred Prufrock is a masterpiece, and Waste Land is pretty good too. I can keep personal taste out of it.

Obviously I felt pretty downcast and my opinion of myself as a writer sank further until my freshly-found counter-arguments started pouring in:

“Look here, how did you feel like when you opened your neurobiology textbook for the first time? Yes, that’s right, just as you do now – “I don’t understand a thing”. And what happened? By the end of the semester you were able to read it, understand it and do your exam for an A. It just took some work.”

“And didn’t that favourite poem of yours by Crane require a little study too at first? You needed to look up “eidolon” and “cleaving” in the dictionary. Now you know it so well it’s easy to forget the first reading wasn’t 100% smooth.”

“You are a beginner. It’s okay not to understand Milton. Everything has its time.”

I felt much better looking at it like this.

And looking at things like this has managed to fix the problem of my debilitating self-doubt. I still got self-doubt, but it’s not debilitating and I can write under it.

I grew up a Wordsworthian. This means, among other things, that I believed poets were born, not made. I had internalized all the myths of the artist of the Romantic era. I thought that good poets just sat down and wrote good things.  That the proportion of effort and study required in comparision to whatever raw talent could produce was low. Oh sweet blessed naivety, eh?

When I wrote a bad poem, I took it to mean that I was hopeless, so I wrote very little or gave things up midway. The natural course of this was that I stopped seeing myself as capable of writing poetry entirely. I used to humorously define myself as having a poet’s soul without being able to write poems. My dream was to be a children’s author and create a character as memorable as Anne Shirley or Sherlock Holmes, but poems were clearly out of my league.

To summarize my error in the shortest way possible: I got the ratio of talent vs. work all wrong. I wasn’t completely insane and did think work/study was important too, but more like in the form of polishing on top of what talent could do.

I feel silly writing about it, but it was, for a very long time, my truth. The new truth hasn’t fully internalized yet, so I do need to have the above conversations with myself a lot. Remind myself how much a beginner I am and how it is okay to be bad.

This stage of my journey has also made me realize that there are some activities out there were beginners get a lot of support, encouragement and appreciation. And then there are those where you are pretty much expected to be good before you come public with your thing. No one expects a first-time surfer to be any good, for instance. If you take up surfing as a hobby, your coach will evaluate you by beginner standards and compare you to other beginners or yourself at an earlier time (not to professionals). Writers don’t really have that. I feel like I need to publicly, explicitly claim my status as a beginner to be permitted to be imperfect. And furthermore, to be permitted to be proud of my improvements too. Even if my work is not yet up to the expected level, if it’s better than anything I’ve done before, it’s an achievement to me. But I feel this all I must forcefully claim to myself.

It is also quite lonely at the start. For many years I dreamt of finding someone who believed in me and would teach me or write with me. I felt I could do nothing without such a person because my self-doubt wouldn’t let me. When I had given up on it, I did find a person who believed in me and who encouraged me to pursue poetry over prose. That was quite a novel thing and I resisted it initially. Probably still do (but I’m studying/writing poetry currently to practice in general). I wrote my best poem to date in response to his excellent suggestions. But he didn’t become my teacher. I have become my own teacher and it’s going well as far as our cooperation goes. My role is mostly to treat myself as a beginner, make sure I compare my writing to my own previous work (not Emily Dickinson’s or Yeats’s!), challenge myself to try writing different things, procure myself new books and authors to learn from and all this with a deliberateness I haven’t felt before.

I have come to see poetry as a craft (like embroidery or music-box making) and myself as a crafter. This is giving me back my ability to be meticulous and slow. When I was about twelve, I was good at embroidery and enjoyed doing it. At about twenty-three, I had lost it. I recall trying to finish an older abandoned project and being frustrated I couldn’t achieve the same quality any more. Partly due to my job, perhaps other factors I can’t name, my approach had come to be about bold sweeping strokes, about getting a thing done. I had an impatience for the result. It was all about making it look good on the outside, while nevermind the minutiae or how one gets there. Obviously, it’s not a good approach to embroidery, while it may work for knitting (it does!). Poetry is closer to the former.

My writing experience these days is approaching, brushing against rather, the feel I had for embroidery at twelve. Not quite there, but closest I’ve been and it feels good.

What else is there to add? Oh yes. Hart Crane. On the evening of that same day, I read that he was actually known for his “difficulty”. Many far more competent people (like critics and such) hadn’t understood all he wrote. This made me cheerfully uplifted. Ah-ha. So mine was discerning criticism then, not sheer incompetence.

It’s a beautiful little craft.

 

Bad dream

This morning I woke up from a very deep sleep. I had dreamt I was dying of the corona virus. It was my second death dream. I had no cough or breathing difficulties. Everyone around me – I was in some strange establishment that seemed like an old-fashioned sanatorium. My mother was there and doctors and nurses. My only symptom was that I vomited. It was black, not chocolatey brown, but a deep black with a hint of rust. It was off-putting but I was quite set in thinking it’s nothing and will go away. The doctors seemed to think otherwise. There was a paper clock on the table. A clock made of paper, yes, thicker paper. It was deep green with a wheel of fortune on its number plate. It listed the descriptions of the young women who’d die next. It mentioned someone with olive skin. And a young girl whose life hadn’t even begun yet. She was going to die today. I thought that could be me. Which is a strange thought given how fine I felt and how I protested the opinion of the medical personnel about my prognosis. Probably one of those things the very ill sometimes do. I asked the nurse and she said no, that wasn’t me yet, the one in three days was me.

I begun to feel worse, tired, but I didn’t believe I’d die. I’d fight it. I went and stood before the green iron bars of my mother’s bed, realising I could infect her and should probably not be there, but she didn’t drive me away like a leper, and I was grateful, very grateful.

Then it became the waiting room and the dream slowly blurred as I got closer to dying. I woke up. Like with bad dreams, it’s always a huge relief to realise that my teeth hadn’t fallen out, I hadn’t accidentally cut my hair to ear-length and whatever misfortunes I’ve dreamt sometimes, but this time I hadn’t this consolation. For the brief interval before my senses fully returned, I thought COVID-19 was a dream too, just as giant snails, the Russian invasion of my home town and the Biblical flood I once dreamt of happening.

Objectively, I do love my more symbolistic dreams. They are like little works of art or potential horror stories. This was pretty good. Iron beds, black vomit and the deep green wheel of fortune clock.

 

 

Things liked in June

  • Fresh freedom
  • David Walliams
  • Dancing!
  • Making nature TikToks
  • Walks out late to the seaside
  • Warmth
  • Beach
  • An obscure Wild West novel
  • Idleness
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Dylan Thomas
  • Orville Peck “Roses are Falling” and “Queen of the Rodeo”
  • ABBA “Dancing Queen”
  • The Animals “House of the Rising Sun”
  • Getting to take off my shoes outside
  • Pop music
  • X Factor and Got Talent auditions
  • Laughing
  • Defining self as writer
  • Having a lot of time
  • Absence of anxiety
  • Having emotional energy for people again

Ugh

I did something stupid yet again. I started writing a story. For practice. And what do I do? I practice in highest league styles of Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf and Dostoyevski.

But the readers of Dylan Thomas and Dostoyevski would find out I’m an impostor, so what am I doing writing like this? I don’t really want these people to be reading me. My only hope as an author is to reach the kind of audience that won’t be able to tell I’m an impostor.

Getting practice is not really a justification as I require practice in my own league very much too. But no, I automatically go for this.

I wonder if my self-doubt is a good sign? Is this encouraging I’ve so much self-doubt? Can I dare to take comfort in it?

Reasoning: it seems not uncommon that those with some amount of talent suffer from great self-doubt, whereas those with very little or none, have buckets of confidence.

Were it so. I don’t know. But hard work can make up for lack of natural talent to some extent, so I’ve chosen writing as my hopefully future job over psychology.

Yes, after 4 years I’ve finally decided that question. Felt good to know.

Truthfulness in personality tests

Social desireability:  this is when you answer questions (either in a personality test or interview (job)) the way you think a good citizen would answer.

Do you drink? Every other night. Socially.

Do you engage in casual sex? Sadly too often. Almost never.

Do you think all people are equal? Not really. Yes.

Episodic memory: memories of life experience, like how you learnt to ride a bike, what the sunset was like yesterday, or how you felt when you were ignored at the party.

Semantic memory: this contains facts and general knowledge, like one’s shoe size, the birthday of your favourite comedian, the capital of Angola, or how people generally feel when ignored at the party.


 

Due to many factors, among them vast experience of taking personality tests, the resulting boredom, my innate tendency to make boring things more varied, increasing ability/tendency to avoid desireable untruth in self-assessment, have led me to answer to personality questionnaires in a different way.

I now use episodic memory over semantic memory. That is, I don’t automatically and without questioning tick the box of “I agree” to socially desireable answers. I try to strike at the actual truth of it and consider if I truly agree, at all times and circumstances, or do I just like to think I agree. Conversely, I suspect (but am not sure) that when people employ semantic memory in answering personality tests, it might be much more prone to error. One doesn’t think then but just goes with things automatically based on one’s identity, which can be quite static and slow to adapt to change. Plus, even if something isn’t part of identity and one would need to employ episodic memory in answering, social desireability would still interfere.

This explanation is tiresome.

But having started to answer this way has led to the exact same consequences I’ve experienced in real life situations, where a truth-sayer is either pitied for having an unideal life or ostracized for negativism, even if all they do is look at life and themselves more truthfully than common or tolerated. Namely, truthfulness leads to peculiar discrepancies.

Returning to personality tests, I scored in the bottom 2% for conscientiousness in the Five Factor Model. I was quite stunned by being worse than 98% people in conscientiousness. It has also led to a noticeable drop in my agreeableness/sociability scores. This is such complete bollocks it does not deserve refutation.

It is very problematic for personality tests if a more truthful answering style makes the results much more untrue. It makes me think that I can’t really operate on this level of analysis when test-makers and answerers operate on a lower level. Or there should be a social desireability coefficient (that works!).

Alternatives to personality analysis are something I’d like to know more about one day. To date, I’ve not found one that convinced me and could replace the classic way of thinking (trait theory, I suppose it’s called?). It is too static, too governed by self-schema.

I don’t know much about personality psychology really, but I just wanted to record the anomaly I experienced as I shifted from traditional normal person answering style to very truthful episodic-memory-based answering style.

A negativity shift in testing?

The purpose of this test is to confirm that human beings have many bad traits, but are afraid to say so. If you are a good test subject, pay attention to your desire to answer like a good person and focus on how you are actually like. It’s a dare. Don’t be a coward. Every time you spot yourself at a socially desireable lie and correct it, indicate it.

Leading to….social undesireability bias?

 

 

These days

Me: listens to Hart Crane, one of the most gifted poets of all time, being read by Tennessee Williams, an excellent playwright.

Also me: watches top ten stupidest auditions on Britain’s Got Talent straight after.

 

 

Just something

  • I will henceforth begin to use the word deprivation in a broader context than that of material poverty. The parallels struck me this afternoon, and it seems, once again, obvious in hindsight that different forms of deprivation would have much in common, including and importantly, in the methods the afflicted use to escape their particular deprivation. It was a paradigm shift for me.
  • I also felt a little put off by how I continue to write with great confidence, later to feel embarrassed about my stupidity. It’s the kind of expressive style I have. I’m much more hesitant and doubtful in reality but when expressing something, it tends to require a focus and there one goes. I cannot quite help my passion and emotionality either.
  • I had a discussion with self about the people that have put me down in life or talked to me down or interacted with me as their inferior. And I don’t mean the randoms, them doing it is normal and happens to us all, but people that actually left a mark and knew me. First, I became aware of it. Then I got angry. Then I told myself that look here, it’s not like you haven’t done the same thing to others. It’s insecurity that motivated those particular people just as it does you. Pft, I said, and maintained my right to be angry. They have the same right to be angry in turn.
  • I have copious amounts of free time on my hands right now. It’s great for a change and reminds me of the old days of idleness.
  • Having small, manageable goals instead of big ones agrees with me much more. I wish I had realised it a little sooner.

 

Mood

To write.  To create strings of words never created before. Like this.

It’s been a while. I’ve been busy with my studies and though I’ve sometimes thought of putting down a few general impressions about the whole experience, I haven’t got around to doing it. I might get to it some day. There are things that I’d like to record.

I have been feeling uncommonly content – and dare I say – happy the last two weeks. It’s not something I experienced often. Happy moments, yes, occasionally, but such moods rarely last longer than 3 days. This now lasts, and lasts.  I’m grateful for that space to breathe and for the opportunity to taste what it is like to live as a happy person. The world, and especially people, are a little different through such glasses.

It started like my happy moods often do – with very high spirits, something I tongue-in-cheekly call a hypomania episode. I listen to music a lot in such moods, usually pop, often not very good things, objectively speaking, but their catchy simplicity pleases me. I laugh a lot. Sometimes I daydream wildly, go out at unsuitable hours, smile to myself when walking on the street, and become much more sociable. I try my best not to overwhelm anyone and be tactless. I was also slightly infatuated with David Walliams due to watching excessive amounts of things with him, but this has now passed.

Speaking of passing, the normal procedure is that my cheerfulness fairly soon drops down to the meh mood. And then the depressive slump is just around the corner too. This time around, however, the very high spirits just mellowed into calm contentedness.

And this is already something I’m not used to and almost never have experienced. Not this long. Every day surprises me. The confidence, the calm and the things I can do in this mood. I sleep normally. There was a time I thought I’d never be able to sleep long again. Yesterday I ate a full bowl of oatmeal porridge. Today I feel very prosocial. I like many people and feel a kind of humility I haven’t for a long time. Nothing much seems to disturb my serenity. The world’s madness just makes me shrug. I feel simultaneously I’m turning more towards the world and away from it. Timeless things draw me. People and their ways. Trees and nature.

The only downside is the head aches I’ve been having for two days now.