Flicking down my Twitter feed, I was caught on the iron-grin humour of a friend’s comment about his experiences in the gym – notably, those inexplicable fluctuations of energy, which carry such pleasure and such pain.
“Some mornings the gym feels good, some mornings it feels like attempted murder. If I don’t make it through the day, tell my wife I said ‘hi.'”
It made me pause, not only to chuckle in sympathy, but to reassess my reaction to his words. I first mistook his meaning for the atmosphere of (any) fitness environment, which – from personal experience spanning a decade, and several locations – is highly mutable in itself. Some days, the gym floor is soft with the faint tinge of music and light, while the chink of weights set back into their cradles is reminiscent of glasses laid out on a pristine table-cloth. Exercise is a peaceful endeavour, and I can retreat inside myself to become a single point of light in sifting darkness.
On other occasions, the music blares across the floor like a rainbow sluice of paint from upended pots; the machines are in full throttle, and the cacophony mingles with the thrum of voices and feet. The air is thick with sweat and bad manners. Some meat axe, having decided to commandeer half the rack of free weights, will leave a heap of dumbbells scattered across the floor like oversized Christmas baubles.
Me: “Can I borrow one?”
M.A: “I’m just about to do another set.”
Me: “How about this one?”
M.A: “I’m using that in a minute, too.”
The conversation that followed on from Chris’s initial tweet, wove an interesting thread of thoughts around subjects like public-area etiquette (particularly in the context of fitness health and safety), and exercise sociability v.s. solitariness. Chris told me of his active participation with other gym users, as a source of mental and emotional stimulus:
“Five years ago, I was one of the usual folks who has a gym membership that they paid for with good intentions but never used. My wife told me that I needed to start using it or we were going to stop paying for it… At work that day, I mentioned at the lunch table that I was planning to start going to the YMCA after work to just walk 2 miles on their track. One of the guys I worked with, who I didn’t know very well, said ‘I have a membership too that I never use, I’ll go with you.’ That’s how it started.”
What struck me, was the catalysing effect of company – the offer of this, from an acquaintance known only by work-association – on Chris’s decision to make exercise a regular feature. This was not always the case:
“I grew up pretty sedentary – never much of a sports player, besides paintball (which I didn’t get into until I was 16 or so anyway), so exercise has never been a regular part of my routine. Even paintball would be a burst of weekend activity, but nothing for the other 5 – 6 days.”
Incorporating a fitness programme into a daily / weekly schedule, can make exercise as easily accessible (and acceptable) as driving to work, or sitting for a meal. One of the main reasons people cite for skipping the gym / avoiding exercise, is lack of time; digging a little deeper, it seems that a sense of guilt for putting personal health and well-being before the needs of others, is a crucial point when it comes to taking steps for setting aside “me” time. However, factoring in the additional commitment of company (e.g. a gym buddy or track partner) with a regular time-slot, sees the chances of exercise falling by the wayside decrease; while the physical and mental benefits become more apparent, if social stimuli generates an energy boost.
Exercise is not only about progressive physical fitness, after all – it’s the release of endorphins, during and after a workout, which are the body’s way of giving us a positivity kick:
“Improved self-esteem is a key psychological benefit of regular physical activity… These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as ‘euphoric.’ That feeling, known as a ‘runner’s high,’ can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.”
Chris found this to be true, once he had committed time to exercising with his colleague – though it is arguably through the realization of willpower, the achievement of fitness levels previously thought to be unattainable, which saw him take the most from this initial change in lifestyle:
“We started by just walking two miles a day, but after a while, Andrew decided we should start running. I hesitated at first, but the track at the YMCA is long enough that 12 laps is equal to one mile, and he suggested we start by running two laps. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did…and he kept pressing me. ‘Let’s do four this week,’ he’d say, and as much as I doubted I could do it I would reluctantly agree… The ecstasy I felt the first time I jogged 1/2 of a mile was amazing. I still remember it. That is something I never in my life thought I’d be able to do.”
Regular exercise is particularly beneficial for individuals suffering with depression and anxiety caused by obsessive compulsive disorder. In my case, it was the presence of anorexia nervosa, as well as OCD, which prompted my GP to issue a referral for my local fitness centre in June 2004. This provided a means of monitoring my (hyper) exercise habit, which was an acute symptom of the eating disorder for purging calories, and was often conducted in secret.
I was by that point an outpatient, with the still-frayed state of mind that demands stability, and craves routine. While the doctor’s decision might sound odd (my mother certainly thought so), the logic ran that – since I had always led an active lifestyle, and would continue to do so (most likely by excessive and surreptitious means) – I should be given the chance to prove myself responsible in a formal setting, under the eyes of qualified staff. Having completed my “allotted time” each day, I would then (theoretically) feel comfortable enough to relax, and focus on other activities. Pivotal to this decision was the maintenance of a healthy weight, to sustain mental cognition and emotional stability, and my continuation of outpatient therapy. Should I choose to let anorexia do the talking, and take advantage of the freedom given back, then my gym membership would be revoked and that outpatient status reviewed by my psych team. These terms were non-negotiable.
Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it looks on paper. The very nature of anorexia is that it will take an inch to run a mile. The real turning point came in 2008, when I took my first full-time job since leaving hospital. As a full-time member of staff in a health spa and gym, I now stood on the other side of the glass, with an insight to both formal training and fitness management. Team members were privy to the usual perks that subsidise such work: unlimited access to facilities, and eligibility to attend promotional training courses. These included Level 2 Fitness Instructor and Level 3 Personal Training, with the option to branch out into more career-based training such as Spin Class and Aqua Fitness.
In July 2009, I took part in a fast-track Fitness Instructor course based in London. The experience proved to be a lifesaver. Returning to work, I found that exercise had become less about perfecting self-destruction with each session, and more about progression of the self as a whole. With weight gain and therapy had come the inevitable rise of memories and emotional fluctuations, which could no more be sidelined in favour of daily hard exercise routines, than I could cut off my own arm. I also had a developing relationship to think about, to make time for. This meant skipping solitary gym sessions, breaking out of OCD routines, and eating and drinking outside of my ‘safe’ environs.
With each relocation (I’ve moved around a fair bit since 2009) and new gym membership, I’ve made a point of giving staff some context, in a rough outline of my past-and-present mental health status. I am exercising on their premises, after all; should I push too hard in any activity, and pass out due to (for example) low blood sugar, the consequences will certainly affect others.
This is not only relevant to my condition: a recent study has further explored the theory that more exerciseis not necessarily beneficial for the heart, and that an “upper limit” might exist for those who are prone to heart conditions, or who exercise at a high-frequency / intensity. Exercise addiction has its own ream of dangers, particularly in conjunction with an eating disorder; but anyone can be vulnerable to injuries incurred through inadequate rest and/or over-training muscle groups, as well as depression, limited appetite, and decreased illness immunity.
All this being said, there is a “comfort blanket” mentality to using the gym, which has kept me in a good place for some time. I still dream of one day owning a house with a basement gym – if only to play my choice of music, and avoid other’s sweat – but there is the lingering thread of wary precaution against returning to exercise that is out of the public eye. The allure of an addiction is that you are never quite aware of its presence until it’s too late to care, and I still hold a fear of crossing back into those bad old days of not staying still until bedtime.
Though I no longer work in a fitness environment, the mentality still carries over; it has the double-edged influence of allowing me to spot a potential accident before it happens … while feeling my hackles rise at the sight of a staff member using a machine as a couch, to text / call on their phone. It makes me feel a bit invasive, not to mention snippy; but I can’t get along with the “sloppiness” of this image, when staff – while not employed to be performing monkeys – are hired on the basis of their accessibility, as well as their knowledge of health and fitness.
Good gym etiquette doesn’t cost much. It’s the little things – pausing to pick up a scrap of paper towel dropped on the floor, reporting a water spillage to staff (or mopping it up yourself) – that make the difference. It’s about being aware of how bloody heavy those weights are before attempting a lift (and knowing how to do so safely in the first place), balancing this against awareness of the physical proximity of others. It may well be the alternative to someone spending time in hospital after they’ve tripped over a barbell, or caught an infection from someone who has decided to come to the gym when they’re down and out with the ‘flu. The disinfectant wipes placed at strategic points across the gym floor, particularly in “heavy sweat” areas like aerobic stations (treadmills, cross-trainers etc), are a must-use. If dispensers are empty, don’t be afraid to approach a member of staff for more. Those little sweaty angel-wings might testify to a good workout … but they’re also off-putting for the next gym member to come along.
On the subject of hygiene – Chris told me of finding signs stuck upon the mirrors of his own gym, asking members to not spit upon the glass. Exercise is, by its nature, rather vigorous, and projectile saliva can be an unfortunate side effect when pedalling at Mac 3, or running down the last mile on the clock. That being said, the average gym layout tends to position machines at a fair enough distance from all glass panels, for safety reasons. So it’s either an impressive range, or someone has an acute aversion to their own reflection.
Sanitary items were an occasional occupational hazard of my old job in that health spa. First thing in the morning, on an inspection of the female changing rooms, I’d find used/unused items left on the floor tiles. Since sanitary bins were in evidence by the toilet stalls, I can only assume that convenience was the pretext for such actions. I know I’ve wished my own ovaries a thousand miles away on more than one occasion, but have yet to take such an overt stand against the curse of womanhood. Maybe I’m missing a trick.
One aspect of gym etiquette which I enjoy (covertly) watching, is the sociability between new and old members. In the free weights section, it’s not unusual to see a veteran offer to spot for a newcomer; a bridge of trust is formed between two people who are testing both the fitness and self-awareness of the other. Between the sweat-strain of reps, the schadenfreude-shine of grins, and not-so-soft sounds reminiscent of a farm yard, there runs a cunning weave of words to pull together a unique form of companionship found in exercise. Rivalry seems to have a lot to say in the matter; of particular interest are the couples who, on a joint membership, egg each other on to greater efforts, gleefully setting weights higher and ratcheting up the speed of a treadmill, to watch their partner’s face turn pink. The way some words are crossed with knives, I imagine it’s all for the benefit of the other, as well as personal health.
A change in routine is necessary to combat exercise-stagnancy, and the dreaded plateau. While the afore-mentioned regularity of a fitness program keeps exercise at the forefront of the mind, it can also create a complacent attitude:
“What I discovered is that exercising in the morning is awesome. Brad is a pillar of consistency – he had gone for the previous year by himself, though when he started exercising regularly he had an exercise partner as well. I drastically changed my workout routine to match up with what he was doing, and this is where I discovered that I have a love of freeweights and different lifting techniques.”
Exercising at an unfamiliar time of the day, and with a new companion, Chris broke out of his comfort zone by pushing against personal physical and mental “boundaries.” Had he stuck with only the familiar routine of running – an activity he admitted he was not overly keen on – there is the chance that he would not have made progress:
“Andrew loved running, and while I certainly didn’t (and don’t) love running, it felt good to be able to do it. It was also during this time that he and I both started getting complacent. You saw me mention that we were running it three-or-more times per week; that’s because we both started getting lazy. We were comfortable enough with one another that on days when we were both tired, we would decide to skip the run, or just do something “lazy” at the gym.”
Of significant importance when engaging in exercise, is to find an activity and/or routine that does not feel like exercise, but is closer to forming a strong pyramid of physical, emotional and mental stimulation. It must be both sustainable and dynamic – something to be enjoyed, adjusted accordingly when a certain level becomes too easy, that no more benefits are being made.
To leave the gym barely standing was once the daily target (I still wonder now how I made it through A Levels), and if even a scrap of energy remained, I had not done my work well. What eluded me – and still does, from time to time – was the sheer pleasure of feeling my body work as I wish it to. I danced ballet as a child, and those were times when I felt quicksilver with life, fluid and keen – proud of my appearance, as something alive and alert, symbolic of both strength and grace. If any concern for imperfection was felt, it was based more upon choreography than calories burnt.
Movement, for its own sake. For all my strict expectations, each gym session is not a foregone conclusion, but an achievement in itself. The fact that I – and others – have turned up at all, should not be overlooked.
I wonder now whether the reason for my doing so, is rooted in a continuation of this perceived idea of exercise-solitude. For all that I workout alone in the gym, I can guarantee being greeted by name at the front desk, while other members will take the time to initiate conversation with me as well as each other. Out in town, we exchange the gym equivalent of the “biker’s nod,” where a name might prove elusive but the face is indelibly familiar.
Along with the obvious physical benefits, it’s the positive social aspects of exercise which need taking into consideration, for a balanced lifestyle.
“The morning employees greet us by name, and at times when I’ve missed a few days, I always have people asking where I’ve been… With better physical health comes better mental health. It’s nice to feel a sense of belonging at the YMCA, with the morning crowd; that same feeling you get when you see friends you haven’t seen in a while? That’s the little shot-in-the-arm I get, every time I step through the doors and am greeted by some employees or other regulars. I start my day with physical activity, which gets the blood flowing and the brain working hard. I really find it worthwhile for the better sense of well-being, overall.”
Special thanks to Chris for his insight, help, and limitless patience. Chris can be followed on Twitter at @Reckoner67
With parents who had both served in the RAF, I spent my early childhood accustomed to a spotless house and routine lifestyle. This may not be the case in every such military household, but it was standard practise in mine to meet expectations fairly sharpish. We visited outlying family members each weekend when living in the UK, and spent holidays in the north with my Ma’s side, in Cheshire. Yet each situation would find me traipsing off at some point, to be alone, when the colours of each voice got too bright and the company too claustrophobic. I loved them all dearly, but there is always a need to be silent and still when irritation begins to itch behind the eyes. This generally meant hiding behind a floor-length curtain with a book, or clambering up a tree in the green-black woods surrounding my paternal Nanna’s home, or beating a path over the gorse and purple heather on the moors.
To be alone, was to dictate my moods and follow my own thoughts. For the most part, I was left to it – better this than to deal with a fractious and hyperactive child. From my first year to around age 9, I had suffered with universal eczema, and was hospitalized with red-raw skin while we were stationed in Germany. The bandages wound about my fists had not been protection enough; my nails sought out the ant-sting itch that seemed to go as far down as my bones. But for all that – or perhaps because of that – I was lively, over-eager to get into everything, and drove my parents to distraction with the energy of about three children rolled into one. It got to the point where, for fear I would never sleep at night (though nursery school would find me curled up and sparko on the reading-carpet), my poor mother was advised by the doctor to give me a mild sedative around bedtime. Anything to keep me calm, so that the frail skin under my bandages would heal.
Wandering off down the heat-cracked pavements, I didn’t give a thought to leaving a note behind for my parents; besides, I couldn’t write much English at the time. This absent-mindedness went on well into double-digits, until I grew old enough to care about such things as consequences, and other people’s feelings.
But until that point, there were mugs left on my windowsill with old apple cores stuck inside, and books strewn across my bedroom floor. There were midnight-wanderings with no shoes on my feet, to leave dark trails of mud and mulch on the carpet with my return. When asked to help with housework, or to wash up, or to get my homework in on time, I simply rolled my eyes and – as with most things that involve responsibility – wandered away.
Retrospect is a bitch.
Then came my parent’s divorce, and the breakdown of our family unit. Long silences, which weighed out heavy as tarpaulin full of rainwater. My ignorant behaviour became more than just an irritant, then. I will never forgive myself for making the already-fractured lives of my family, that much more difficult. As it was, something dark was crawling out of my mind.
Solitude became isolation.
Creative flare became stagnant silence.
Running for pleasure became training to die.
I turned in on myself, full of hate and guilt for the things I had done (or more comparably, not done). Each moment I was awake and alive, was spent going to every conceivable length to make amends to people … Or so I told myself, and keep on telling myself.
When an anorexic cooks for people, she will not feed herself. She will appear to be catering for the needs of others, while simultaneously denying herself nourishment. “Some persons with eating disorders may get vicarious pleasure from watching others eat, and enjoy being in control while others give in to the fattening foods.”
Whatever symptoms of anorexia nervosa and anorexia athletica – its compulsive-exercise counterpart – are made apparent, their instigation seems to stem from the same source: a desperate cry for order and control, in the face of chaos, emotions which cannot be expressed in words, or trauma. I cannot speak for every sufferer, but I was well aware – even while being admitted as an inpatient – that with the push-pull of Self vs. the Illness, I wanted someone else to take the reins for a bit; to take the onus off me. If I was forced back to health with the threat of being sectioned, I could (reluctantly) cede, and tell myself / the eating disorder, that I’d had no choice.
Then again, there was still the hot-eyed denial.
“Leave me alone. I’m doing just fine. I’m being healthy – isn’t that what everyone wants, to eat well and exercise? Stop trying to control my life.”
Always, other people’s opinions mattered more than my own.
Twelve years down the line, I am slowly extracting myself from the obsessions and neurosis that had fed into the cycle of subsequent compulsions, which in turn had strung up my life on an exhausting loop of starvation and over-exercising. To be perfect wasn’t really the goal; only to be strong, to put up a decent image of mental and physical independence, with the parallel hope that if I trained hard enough no one would want (or be able) to hurt me again. To block out all emotions, meant I didn’t have to give a damn about anyone or anything; the paradox of this being, I cared all the more with every kilo lost, so that the obsessive cleaning and silently-passive behaviour, were my compensation for the shitty attitude of my teens.
I would take that 20-year old by the hand now, and tell her that every adolescent acts up. But I still don’t think I would believe myself. We would end up laughing at each other, with a hollow sound.
I knew a girl on one inpatient ward who, when not required to, would not move an inch. She reluctantly joined us at the dining table, crawling through each meal and snack, until our spines were rigid. The system worked with peer pressure – a calorie drink would be issued to anyone did not or could not finish eating within a set period of time. While this may seem severe, it was essential for regulating the fear that was trying to grind us all down, and to re-teach us how to eat at what may be deemed an appropriate pace, before the food got too cold and was wasted. Aside from this habit, the girl engaged in no more behaviours that might “buck the system.” But to try to get her out on a group walk, or into any kind of physical therapy, was a wasted cause; she would curl into a ball and hide. The same thing tended to happen when she was called upon to express an opinion, on pretty much anything. She was a living shadow, a restrictive type of anorexic.
I was, on the other hand, what the doctor called a “purging type” – which basically means, I restricted calories but also used methods to be rid of them. In this case, exercise came to the fore – and believe me, I played that “I was hyper as a child!” card, as well as “But exercise is good for you!”
Which is true. But, as with anything, too much activity can be a bad thing, whether an individual has an eating disorder or not. Top athletes may work through sustained injuries, only to lose out in competitions due to lack of rest.
Put into the context of an eating disorder, compulsive exercise can be deadly. Which is why I find it startling that the illness is not yet recognized by mental health standards, considering its prevalence among athletes who engage in sports that necessitate a small body / lightweight frame. Training is bloody hard work – so is competition. I once danced ballet, and am well aware of the pressure to stay linear, to appear at once made of steel wires and seashell. To stay in control of racing thoughts, to quell any emotional reaction that might get in the way, I have always resorted to exercise.
That girl was, perhaps on a subconscious level, taking back control in whatever way was available to her, while steadily refusing to lift her voice. I was told by one member of staff that I ought to take notes from her, since it was usually my heels heard thrumming up and down on the thin carpets, pacing away the calories that were supposed to make me well. In practising this illicit exercise, I prolonged my stay on the ward. I wasn’t ready to relax my guard, to admit that the exercise I deemed “healthy”, might actually be doing more harm than good. For a person of well mind and body, such levels of activity would be a positive thing – but I simply couldn’t see my own fragile state. I thought the government guidelines for daily levels of activity in adults, should apply to me too – and then some.
I couldn’t understand how that girl managed to stay so still while so full of food, as I was; with a racing heart and shaking hands, full of (what seemed to me) useless energy, that might well have gone towards a bloody hard run outside. It was for this reason that I was taken off of group walks, and put onto 15-minute checks. My blood results kept coming back with low glycogen and haemoglobin levels – all relating to a low weight, in conjunction with compulsive exercise. The staff tried to keep me alive, while I systematically tore my room apart in a blue-black rage.
Now, twelve years down the line and with a broader perspective of health and experience, I think I know where that girl was coming from, and why the staff were so desperate to keep me still.
Anorexia Athletica – or Hypergymnasia / Compulsive Exercise Disorder, as it is sometimes known – occurs when an individual participates in levels of exercise that may be deemed excessive in light of its effect on social, physical and emotional aspects of life. When a woman takes an evening spin class in favour of sitting before the TV, this is a positive move away from a sedentary lifestyle – particularly if she has been inactive during the day.
But if the same woman takes a spin class in conjunction with not eating enough calories to fuel the exercise and as part of a rigorous training program / in favour of socializing / because she feels “fat/lazy” without the activity, then there are underlying problems, based upon a negative cycle of thoughts —> obsessions –> compulsions.
Post-hospital, my GP referred me to a local sports club to build back up my bone mineral density, skeletal muscle strength and cardiovascular health – though the latter wasn’t such a priority, since it would involve aerobic activities that tend to promote weight-loss, as opposed to the lean-muscle gains he wanted me to make with anaerobic exercise.
My mother was horrified.
“Surely that’s the worst kind of environment for you?”
She may have been right, at least in the early days. I was still fiercely competitive, and watched other gym-goers with the burning eyes of one who knows she can – must – do better. I abused the control that had been handed back to me, by over-training on just about every machine available. Unable to sustain the calorie intake prescribed while on the ward, my weight dropped, and with it my mental health. I stopped attending outpatient therapy, since I was determined to do things “my way” this time … and couldn’t conceive of the fact that what I was doing was in fact, wrong.
Needless to say, the fitness staff and my GP soon amended my view, and took a very stern hand. I was faced with a) Quitting the gym and the A Levels I had recently returned to, and going back on the inpatient ward or b) Listening to staff, and allowing them to take control by plotting out a very basic training programme, aimed at weight gain with the use of resistance machines – while keeping me well away from the treadmills and cross-trainers.
A few years later, working in a health spa, I was sent on a free course for training as a fitness instructor. I had no intention of taking such a role, but the experience proved to be of incalculable value for someone in my situation. I was given the chance to come at the obsessive-compulsions and rigid ideas surrounding exercise, from an entirely different angle. The course focused on the figurative dissembling and reassembling of the human body; on a four-day fast track, we learned the names of every single bone and muscle, their connections to one another and relevant exercises to work them to optimum strength; as well as finding constructive ways to balance mental, emotional and physical health (breaking this down to relationships, employment, leisure time, etc.) It was the equivalent of taking a clock apart to see how each part of the mechanism works, before putting it all back together and listening to the familiar ticking, with an awareness of what to do should something go wrong inside.
If seeing the DEXA scan results of my spine while in hospital was a tap on the shoulder, then that course was a kick up the backside, to keep going. I finally twigged what I was doing to my body – to the bones, muscles and internal organs. The knowledge frightened me, and broke another of anorexia’s chains.
However – there are still restraints. I am not completely in the clear. The crunch-point always comes when I try to take back control by refusing the voice in my head, if I wish to engage in other activities (socializing, dining out, writing.) It’s then that the Panic Button is pressed, with attacks of this kind never a fun experience. The results are invariably worse when there is an external force involved; then, my mind will go into a white-out lock-down. The blinkers will go on, and I become irrationally angry, frightened and desperate for escape.
I once elbowed my way out of a conference, because the press of bodies around me – the sound of all those voices – was too cloying. It felt as though my movements were being restricted, and I had to get out.
This is the reason why, since hospital, I have refused every job that does not involve some physical activity – the livelier and more structured, the better. Weight-training appeals to me on the same basis – the force of the movement vs. the control it takes to lift and lower smoothly, appeals to my nature. However, this does mean that I have put on weight. I must confess to you all that I am terrified, every time I look in a mirror and see this evolved adult form. It feels as though I have lost control; as though I have “given in”, though to who or to what, I couldn’t tell you.
But on the flipside, I am thinking more clearly than has been possible for over a decade. I’m writing this confession down in an article which, among others, I would not have dared to put into print. Not even for the fear of other’s opinions, but for the fear that anorexia would somehow “punish” me.
Now, I have creative sparks that give the same dizzying rush as completing a decent run.
I can wake on a golden Sunday morning, and not immediately leap out of bed to go and do Whatever. Lie-ins are a revelation.
And I have known love.
I wouldn’t have any of these things, had I not gained weight and recovered my health. That being said, it’s also essential for anyone in recovery to have therapy run in tangent with weight gain, to offset the inevitable mood swings and to provide a vocal outlet, as opposed to a physical one. Which is one of the reasons why I have gone back, after ten years without speaking to a professional about what is going on inside.
Still, there is that last wraith of the illness, hovering over my future with its sunken sullen eyes, and a malevolent whisper.
You’ll be unhealthy, if you slacken off the exercise.
Look at all the muscle gains you’ve made (oh it’s cunning, isn’t it) – do you want to see that turn into fat?
But why does it all have to be so black and white?
It never has an answer to that.
My world now, the world of a synaesthete (this too has become more apparent, with improved mental health), is alive and vivid. It is populated with people, some of whom I care for and who care about me; others who couldn’t give a damn, and that’s fine too. I don’t need to please them, or to gain their attention.
There are days, usually after insomniac nights, when I am plagued by self-doubt and the need for reassurance, for someone else to take the reins. Other times, I am red-black with anger and fear, after someone has overstepped a mark and seemingly taken more from me than they deserve -
A hand on my shoulder.
Get. Away. From. Me.
But as a male friend recently brought to my attention, not everyone is out to get me. There are lives, experiences and emotions behind every word and action. A look may not be a leer. A word could be something other than flirtation or slander. A brief touch, is not immediately a desire to control my movements.
Which is what it all comes back to, I suppose. The sexual abuse in my teens, changed me in ways I am only now starting to realize, let alone understand.
But he was right, and I was humbled by his mild words. This passive-aggression is exhausting (adrenalin only runs so far), and is by turns infuriating, upsetting and off-putting for others. Now, with the new therapist, I’m working towards being less reactive, while simultaneously trying to break the last rigid routines around exercise compulsions. I want to try different careers, perhaps to work in foreign politics; to travel, to see the world as I dreamed I would in childhood, when things were so much easier. When wandering off down a sun-struck Mercy Street, veering off the beaten track of humanity and following cats around corners, was as natural to me as blinking, breathing.
To trust everyone at first glance would be a mistake. But to constantly prejudge people based upon personal experiences, would be a far worse outcome. My hope is that if I start laying off on myself about things that cannot be changed, then perhaps I’ll ease up on others, too.
Which is where I’d like to leave you all, with this thought: Where does the buck stop? When do we start taking responsibility for our own thoughts, actions and reactions? The obsessive-compulsive cycle cannot be based upon the future, because it is stuck in the mad rush of instant relief – before the fear comes creeping back in.
Recognizing the problem and asking for help, are the first steps forward. The rest is your own open road.
I wholly admit to being a concept reader and writer. Rather than framing my work in concrete terms, pinned to actual events and circumstances, I work best with abstract ideas. Maybe this is due to inhibitions about the quality of my work; certainly, much of my life has been governed by vagueness, with facts and figures substituted for smoke and mirrors, symbolism.
While ill with anorexia nervosa, struggling to recover, I would ask for permission to eat and to rest, and fought bitterly with my therapist when she suggested that I begin to serve myself food, and take steps towards reducing my exercise. As she put it, “No one can monitor you forever. The details are yours.”
The thought of feeling well again, of having energy, was the image I worked towards; but whenever it came to the crunch (as it were), I would buckle under the pressure of taking responsibility for my own actions. My opinions didn’t matter, much less my emotions, because I couldn’t trust them. They had landed me in hot water before, after all.
The same self-doubt appears to have filtered across my life, like ink spilled over a map. It is something I push against every day, when writing, when socializing on / offline. As much as I would like to talk about our contemporary world, and certain economical / political aspects of it, I don’t feel I could do them justice. Not yet, at least – lack of experience, and self-esteem, cause me to stumble on words that should come easily, and I throw away as many blog entries as I begin.
Maybe one day, I will find a way to meld my concerns, and this flowery prose.
If there’s one thing I hate when writing in free-fall, it is hitting that dead-wall of thoughts – particularly when it comes to description, for it’s here that I’m in my element. With no ready connotations or sensory imagery to hand, the words seem as stick-lines only. While there is a need for a more direct style in certain types of prose, it is not something I can easily maintain. Trying to cut out imagery would feel like cutting off a limb, and I’ve given up trying to walk in the shoes of any author I happen to admire, but could never replicate.
A voice is a voice; mine happens to channel synaesthesia, and it’s to this kind of imagery that I turn when I want to bring a character, a setting or a scene alive.
As someone with Chromesthesia, I perceive colours and shapes/patterns (the concurrent) in relation to sounds and spoken words (the inducer.) Music is a major trigger. A whole song or a single note, the words of a vocalist or the scales played on an instrument – all can spark a response in my mind that is equivalent to seeing the keys of a piano lit up in a rainbow under my fingers, the flick of a whip made of shining copper strands, or a cloud of paint sluicing across the floor.
Vision by Carol Steen; Oil on Paper
I don’t so much “see” these additional perceptions, in conjunction with sound, as acknowledge the presence of them in shapes and colours behind my eyes.
When a new voice is introduced, the sound of a song can lose its original-composition colour. For example, when listening to the lyrics of Nick Drake’s Riverman, the predominant shades are pine green and bark brown; these are the colours of an oboe, which is also the “texture” of his voice, rounded and smooth, lilting.
But channelled through the voice of a cover singer, the words may become copper, or dusky blue, particularly if the instrumentation used is also different.
An artist can have an inherent “colour” of their own, regardless of what they are singing or playing about. In this, semantics have little impact, for it is the sound of the voice / the instruments which creates the synaesthetic impression, with variations of shade depending on pitch and tone; Cat Power is smoky purple in her alto lines, but on the soprano notes of “Colours and the Kids,” her voice comes closer to lilac.
I’m as yet unsure whether these synaesthetic experiences (the concurrent)are due to the emotional reactions evoked by reading a text or listening to a sound, or if is the actual construct of the inducer which is the trigger (the individual graph/phonemes.) One theory points toward crossed-wires activity in the cerebral cortex, which is divided into lobes that govern our thought patterns/processes, and sensory reactions. This would go some way towards explaining how a mood can have a colour – which is my strongest perception of synaesthesia, leading me to wonder whether it is these causing the colour effect, and not the stimuli. But why then should I have an emotional reaction towards the number 3? It is my favourite, and also happens to “appear” to me in my favourite colour, turquoise. Again, this is not something “seen” so much as perceived. The two are intrinsically linked. Likewise, I will avoid the number 5, because it is yellow – a colour I’m not all that fond of.
When it comes to writing, there’s no greater pleasure to be had than painting with words. I mean this in the way that Nabokov saw the Russian word, “Tosca”:
“Toska – noun /ˈtō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.
No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
― Vladimir Nabokov
Such a palette of connotative imagery, attached to one small set of graphemes. I personally “see” the colours deep purple and red, as of an autumn leaf on a bonfire. There is a strong tang of bittersweet regret, like iron rust, in speaking the word aloud.
Nabokov observed that synaesthetes tend not to share the same sensory perceptions, but instead have variations which are unique to them. This discovery was made through the observations of his wife and little boy, both synaesthetes themselves:
“My wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different.”
Still more fascinating is the apparent blending of grapheme-colours in the parental genes, to form a natural progression in the mind of the child – rather like mixing a set of oil paints:
“Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.”
Another author, Patricia Lynne Duffy, tells of a similar experience in her excellent book, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synaesthetes colour their World:
‘My father and I…were reminiscing about the time I was a little girl, learning to write the letters of the alphabet. We remembered that, under his guidance, I’d learned to write all of the letters very quickly except for the letter ‘R’.
“Until one day,” I said to my father, “I realized that to make an ‘R’ all I had to do was first write a ‘P’ and then draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.”
“Yellow letter? Orange Letter?” my father said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know,” I said. “‘P’ is a yellow letter, but ‘R’ is an orange letter. You know – the colors of the letters.”
“The colors of the letters?” my father said.’
My own grapheme/phoneme combinations possess some spatial relativity to one another. 9, for example, is large and purple, quietly majestic with a faint sheen; 6 is little and silly, light green; 3 is turquoise, medium-sized and slender, with just the faintest sheen of silver. The name of my dear friend Nillu Steltzer, appears to me in white and red. My own name is blue and green, as most words/names with the close proximity of letter A and E, tend to be (interestingly, the co-editor of Synaesthesia Magazine, Carlotta, has a dark blue name; but her Twitter handle, @1chae, is canary-yellow and teal.)
These sensory crossovers have crept into our everyday lexicon. There is the “black funk”, the “itchy mood”, the “cold white light of the moon.” Using these concrete nouns to describe an emotional response to a situation, we can cross the borders into the abstract world, where a mood can have a colour or a texture; and back again, into a sensory-overlap, where a name we see becomes something we can taste, of it is described thus. The text gains what can *almost* be experienced as something tangible.
This is just one way of shaking up the descriptive writing process, giving an audience more variety.
A setting that resembles an empty room can be brought to life by the juxtaposition of what a character knows on a conscious-sensory level v.s. what they perceive on a subconscious-synaesthetic level. If the narrative perspective is channelled through one or more characters, whether in first person voice or over the shoulder, an author can choose to employ variations of sense-imagery based upon life experiences / circumstances. For example, a man who has been down on his luck may perceive the world in shades of rot, decay and rust; he may draw the audience’s attention to the rust on his car – its tangy smell, the rough texture to touch, the strange whorl-patterns to look at – in comparison to the sun sparkling on the polish of his neighbour’s vehicle.
Provided there is enough sensory stimulus and crossover, the relevant connotations and memory-triggers can evoke a “mood” in the audience, which is close to experiencing synaesthesia. In the same way, a film director will employ mise-en-scène – props, costumes, alterations in the colour / shade of lighting – and diegetic / non-diegetic sound, to influence the perceptions of mood from one scene to another.
Image courtesy of www.kingsroadrocks.com/
Time can be made apparent in terms of light and dark, with the sun shifting over the far wall in an office throughout a long shift, as well as the systematic ticking of a clock, the precision of numbers (senses Sight and Sound.) A shift in the air – the clatter of pigeons and the whirl of their feathers – can summarize a mood of fidgety discontent (senses Sound and Sight.)
A building may take on a mood, or experience an oscillation of these, depending on the perceptions of the workers within – or perhaps the mood may be unique to the structure itself, as of a sentient being. Your everyday environment can become a living organism, should you choose to open all your senses to it.
At work, I cross all floors of the building at some point during the day. The past 3.5 years have imprinted enough sensory triggers to make a library’s worth of stimuli, ready for recall if I need to describe a setting. The building has the creaking personality and elegance of an aged dancer; she is made up of frayed carpets, panes that crackle and flake plaster like skin, and windows that weep rain. Her coffee rings and energy drink towers, are testament to the state of the shifting moods of colleagues. Standing in an empty stairwell, I have only to listen to gauge the mood of a day (which may remain unchanged for a shift, or change sharply at the turn of events.) There are always little clues to look out for, and it is these shifts in atmosphere – from the normal to the charged, to the downright crucial, that you should make yourself aware of, in your own environments.
Dana Vachon’s “Mergers and Acquisitions” is essentially a book about investment banking; but it is the vibrant descriptions of the characters and settings, and the treacle-darkness of comedy and pathos, which drive the narrative. An average office space is framed thus:
“I settled into the eight-by-eight cubicle whose carpet had once been gray, but over the years had been Jackson Pollocked with tumbling chunks of sesame chicken and spilled splashes of Starbucks lattes.”
Vachon worked as an investment banker, and had apparently stored a vast sum of memories to use as stimuli for later recall, when writing of his experiences on Wall Street. The semi-autobiographical protagonist, Tommy, is not one for emoting with direct words; his narrative is rich with sensory perceptions, which do the job for him.
“She was lying on one of the old, overstuffed sofas, her hair wrapped up in a lumpy, unwashed bun. She wore the same red kimono that she had surprised me with weeks before, but it too seemed different, and as I looked closer I saw that among its bright silken peacocks and dragons were burns from fallen cigarettes and stains from splashed sips of wine….I looked at the frogs and noted that the air in the apartment was nursing-home stale and that the windows had all been closed.”
If your immediate environment is lacking the sparks necessary for a scene, take yourself to an unfamiliar setting. My personal jolt-from-comfort-zone is to wander through the noise and bustle of our local farmers’ market. It’s unnerving – there are a great many people around, with voices thrown like knives – but it’s a feast for the senses, with everything from basic reactions (touch = soft suede, sound = chattering coins, smell = fresh fruit), to more extensive imagery (plums that resemble bullets; a rainbow swathe of macs.)
Make a point of listening to what is expressed through surroundings as well as speech – those pigeons circling overhead, what has disturbed them? Is it relative to the time of day, or to a red kite angling nearby? Can this be used as an image of approaching danger? The slate-coloured nimbus that has gathered on the horizon of an otherwise blue-sky day: how might this shift in the weather be used to convey a change of mood of a scene, from peaceful and scenic to unpredictable and troublesome? Will the characters notice and draw attention to it themselves – as with first person POV – or will the audience be aware of the tonal shift before them, as a form of dramatic irony in third person POV?
In her novel, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman’s teen protagonists have a unique form of image-notation – by jotting down a single, significant word that is relative to a time and place, they are able to recall the sensory aspects of it, and the subsequent mood that was felt:
“Meg and Claire looked at each other. They could hear the clock over the stove, ticking. They could hear doves in the courtyard. They wanted this moment to last forever. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg would make certain they did. She fetched a piece of paper and wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all of the colours of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world…they would have this memory of sitting in the kitchen, being happy.” – pg 133, The Story Sisters
Try this in your everyday experiences – particularly when time isn’t on your side – using a word/phrase/idiom to sum up the moment. I use “lamplight haven” and “orange-black” to help recall the sensory aspects of a night-walk; the stirring wind, leaves rattling along the pavement like fallen bones; steps taken a little more quickly than usual, and that odd halo of claws which tree branches make around a lamp. When writing such an experience into a scene, and stuck indoors on a blistering hot day, such sensory recall is priceless.
The trick is knowing when to jot something down on the spot, to record it before the moment is lost. This does involve a fair bit of diving into stairwells and ducking into alleyways. An audio recording / dictaphone app on your phone, is a good way of catching those emotional inflections which snagged you up – how it all made you feel at the time – to be channelled later when writing. Similarly, a photograph taken in-the-moment can help to trace back to the particular image of stillness in an afternoon, when the sky seemed made of lemon juice and fleece, the rain was silver, and the air was purple with the smell of buddleia.
With regards to how light shifts across the walls of a room, perhaps mark its passage in terms of what a character pays attention to, in relation to emotions – do they notice the ruddy tinge of the sun while waiting for an agonizing shift to end? If they are waiting in expectation of a loved one’s arrival, is the light more notable than the creeping shadows; or if the visitor are late, do the corners of the room waver in uncertainty? Does the smell of wildflowers through the open window, unnerve them in the sense that the loved one may have chosen “freedom”, and changed their mind?
The progression of time can also be marked as a seasonal narrative – how does this affect your characters? Do they notice when the sun sets further along the western skyline, disappearing behind a different building each night? When the light shifts from spring’s green-gold haze, to the stark gold bars of summer, and thus into the pastels and burnt palette of autumn and the silver-black starkness of winter, does the continuum leave them melancholic, or edgy with the anticipation of change? In this way, the combination of sensory-stimuli and connotative imagery can evoke an emotional response in the audience. Their memories may be triggered; their thinking may turn to aspects of their own lives, emphasizing relativity, by a description framed in synaesthetic imagery, as with Baudelaire’s “Correspondences“:
“There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant.”
As a writer, you have at some point probably spent an agonizing amount of time thumbing through every baby book and name-etymology website you could find, in search of that set of letters which would sum up the person you are creating – whether a child or an adult. The forename is our personal identity – if we choose to keep it – and the ways in which it can be used, added to, altered and spoken aloud, bring to light a lot of the subtle interactions which go on every day, as part of human life. It is our stamp of identity, distinguishable from the inherited family surname, and though it may be commonly used throughout particular cultures / age groups, it still has a unique relevancy to our personalities. It is, after all, one of the first identifiable set of phonemes we are likely to hear and respond to, when we are small. And unless circumstances dictate otherwise, such as a name-change by deed poll, your forename will be what is left of you after death, written in cards and letters, on gravestones, in the minds of others – along with all the relevant memories which are attached. It is these which make us human.
There is much to be said for the word “misnomer” in this context. Some people really do not “look like” their names. You have probably come across at least one person who didn’t seem to “fit” their name, whether through connotative imagery – the associations we make with words, through cultural / historical / social references – or through detonative meaning. My grandmother once told me of a friend called Grace, who was in the habit of breaking more china plates, and bones in her body than anybody else she knew.
This was, of course, not that poor woman’s fault. But it is interesting to note how a name can seem to influence our perspective – and expectations – of others, as well as ourselves. Living up to a surname or title is one thing, but to live up to a forename too? If it has been consciously passed on from one family member to another, or was given in honour of somebody admired, how might this affect our perception of the world, and ourselves?
This is worth paying attention to, when naming your characters and creating people. How might they choose to react to – or disregard – the associations which surround their fore/last names? What is expected of them by others, and how does this shape their relationships? Is there a running tradition of naming a child after a parent (father-son, mother-daughter etc), and if this is not observed, how might the narrative be suffused with conflict as a result? (I had a friend in school whose uncle took such offence at the boy’s father’s disinclination to observe family tradition, that he referred to my classmate only by his middle name – which happened to be his own, carried over by several generations.)
If you’re looking for balance between the projected image of a name, and the context/tone of your work, it might be best to avoid “loaded” names that carry heavy connotations – perhaps from a well-known fictional text (e.g. “Titania”/ “Romeo”, from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet”, respectively) or a period of history (“Hitler”, whether for a protagonist or an antagonist, is not advised.)
Then again, as a way of subtly influencing the audience’s perception of a character – or perhaps to give them a gentle nudge in the ribs – there is always the option of allusion. This is subjective to what the audience already knows, and how they might link this to your work (e.g. if you were writing a tragedy, the name Cassandra would be picked up on by those familiar with the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, of Greek mythology.) As ever, context is a key element.
I am always a bit startled to hear my name in full, because it came to be associated with trouble, in childhood. My parents and teachers were in the habit of calling me “Rai” under normal circumstances, but at times of tension, the simple utterance of my full title would be reprimand enough to pull me up short, since it was used so rarely. Tone and volume of course played their part, but even now, I get an uneasy “uh oh” quirk of the mind to hear it; even when the cause is a simple call for attention in a more formal setting.
Be aware (and wary) when using alliteration in naming characters. On the one hand, this can create a useful mnemonic effect, especially when applied to a role that you want to make more identifiable from others (protagonist / antagonist) – but overuse of alliteration can dilute its effect, with names jumbling into one another if they have too-similar phonemes (e.g. protagonist called Katherine/Catherine, antagonist called Karrie/Carrie.)
Alliteration, and other sound-effects such as assonance and sibilance, can be used to emphasize the sound-symbolism of names. “Salazar Slytherin” will forever be a favourite of mine, with its sibilant hiss referencing the snake motif that is a recurrent theme of the Harry Potter series, which the founder of Slytherin house was associated with – as well as the spitfire language of snakes, Parseltongue. When combined with dialogue and/or narrative that “echoes” the sound-imagery of a name, the effect can be startling.
“‘It matters,’ said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, ‘because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin house is a serpent.'”
“‘They called Slytherin himself Serpent-tongue.'” – pgs 146-9, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling.
The names which J.K Rowling chose for her four school houses seem to fit quite neatly with the general characteristics ascribed to each, through the respective ideals of each founder, and the symbolism of sound (e.g. Hufflepuff = predominance of “soft-friendly” phonemes vs. Slytherin = sibilance, “shifting/sinister”, as of snake movement.)
Do vocalise your own choice of names before applying them to characters. Take into consideration how they sound in your mind, how they feel when spoken, how they look when written out. Do they appear wonderfully exotic, but cause an ache in the mouth just trying to pronounce them? How easily will the audience recall their sound-associations; how can this work in your favour, when trying to promote a certain “image” of a character (more / less appealing) and how might this correspond with their personality / agenda over the course of the narrative? Will reading/speaking aloud the name of one character, be a more enjoyable experience than another – how can this be manipulated for maximum engagement?
As the word “honour” denotes, the use of an honorific is often a mark of respect. The Japanese suffixes -san -kun and -chan, for example, can instantly change the manner of expression between two people, and give an insight into their relationship: formal/informal, person/impersonal. Woe betide the employee who addresses his superior with -kun, which tends to be used between peers of an equal social standing.
In England, our most commonly recognized honorifics include Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr, etc; these can be used in salutations, and dropped thereafter if appropriate (such as when an equal footing is found in conversation between strangers.) Where the honorific is maintained, the mark of respect/authority is made clear – in the House of Commons, John Bercow will be referred to as “Mr Speaker.” In my workplace, the leader of each team is known as the “sergeant” – an honorific which, depending on the level of familiarity between staff, can often be contracted to “Sarge”, which can itself become a type of honorific-nickname.
Depending on your characters and their interactions with one another, consider the following:
* Who is dependant on who? Is an honorific used as part of a plot device and/or characterization, to emphasise the need of one character for the aid of another (sucking up, fawning for favour, flattery – bestowing an honorific which might not be factually applicable.)
* Conversely, is the relationship an antagonistic one, in which a character bestows an honorific to be insulting – either by exaggeration (“his Nibs / her Ladyship” for an overbearing and demanding person) or by diminishing their status in life (the Japanese suffix -chan, applied to a peer with whom one is not overly familiar, would be troublesome; applied to a figure of higher authority, it could spell disaster.)
* Who possesses the higher authority? Do they require an honorific, and if so, how does this bear upon the relationship with others of your cast; can it be dropped in favour of the first name (personal, a warmer approach) or is it required at all times, to instil a continuum of respect? (e.g. the Japanese sensei is often used in favour of a first name altogether, as students would refer to the highest authority figure in a school as “headmaster”.)
* How important are hierarchies in your plot; who adheres to what in the narrative? How sensitive are your characters to social mores, to class status, to the often-unvoiced but very much prevalent plays of power in the workplace? All of these can be conveyed to the audience through the simple act of bestowing an honorific to a certain character … and the choice of another character to ignore this rule (e.g. a student addressing a headmaster by his first name/surname, without due consideration for the latter’s higher authority – unless permission was first given to do so), may provide a nuanced insight to the relationships that form part of the plot.
Nicknames / terms of endearment
Opinions differ when it comes to the giving / receiving of nicknames, and terms of endearment. My aunt is forever reminding people that her youngest daughter was baptised “Jennifer”, thereby cancelling out all diminutive forms such as Jen/Jenny. I have no argument with that, since it is a lovely name. But nicknames and contracted forms of a forename, can serve their purpose in the right setting – such as a fast-moving game of football or basketball. I speak from the experience of having a team mate back in school, who insisted on being referred to only as “Sebastian”, and refused to acknowledge all variations. Words can tumble about when you’re trying to run and yell at the same time. We opted for hand signals in his direction, not all of them polite, depending on how he was playing.
Friends and family often use diminutive forms of a given name, to strengthen the bond between them (Jim = James, Gabby = Gabrielle.) This can vary between social circles – online, I’m more commonly known by my Twitter handle, Raishimi; this wouldn’t be applicable offline, at the Nick for example, where I’m known as Rach. But to family, who have of course known me the longest, I will always be Rai (pronounced Ray), which was apparently how I referred to myself as a baby.
Keep in mind how a name can be used as the smallest citation of an emotion – the equivalent of a hand’s compression on the shoulder, or a long look. The less people there are who hold the meaning behind a nickname, the longer its secret emotional attachment may be preserved.
Shared life experiences and circumstances can form an attachment that is best summed up by the link of a nickname. A gang member may refer to his/her companions only by their street names when in that setting, to preserve the mentality – should they wish to avoid drawing attention to activities, they may automatically slip back into the names which their families are familiar with, when at home. This forms a contract of code, with the names becoming symbolic of another lifestyle.
Having grown up in an environment where it was quite common to be known as anything from “sweetpea” to “darling” – that’s before we get onto the nicknames, which we won’t – this now translates over into how I interpret / convey levels of familiarity in social interactions.
“Liebling” (German, “darling”) is one frequently used when talking with friends on Twitter – though it is generally reserved for those who understand what it means, in terms of language-translation and the symbolism behind it. German tends to sneak into my speech when the setting is casual (on Twitter, or when speaking with family), but in a professional capacity or when speaking with those of higher authority, it makes less of an appearance. For me, the second language – in particular, the use of its endearments – has become symbolic of familiarity and affection. I still refer to my ex as “Liebs” – a contraction of “Liebling” – which became something of a nickname while we were together, and has now stuck. It is equivalent to calling someone “hon/hun”, a contraction of “honey.”
“Liebe” – Love – is the strongest sign of affection I can give, and is used rarely. It holds the same symbolic power as the use of a first name, which generally happens when I wish to make a point, either in written text or in dialogue. This can be a useful angle when there is the presence of subtext, either in an implied emotion or message.
Repetition of a name can enforce the presence of personality; it can ascribe all the nuances of life to something that might otherwise be viewed as an inanimate object / subhuman being:
“Catherine is my daughter’s name. Please, show us your strength,” Senator Martin said in closing, “release Catherine
“Boy, is that smart,” Starling said. She was trembling like a terrier. “Jesus, that’s smart.” …
“Why did she keep saying ‘Catherine,’ why the name all the time?”
“She’s trying to make Buffalo Bill see Catherine as a person. They’re thinking he’ll have to depersonalize her, he’ll have to see her as an object before he can tear her up. Serial murderers talk about that in prison interviews, some of them. They say it’s like working on a doll.” – Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs
With regards to how your characters address one another, keep the following in mind:
* Levels of authority, hierarchies of power – when is it permissible to relax these boundaries, to allow for such terms of endearment in social / personal / professional interactions?
* How might contracted versions of an endearment / honorific become nicknames (e.g. a uniformed sergeant being referred to as “Sarge”, or sometimes “Skipper/Skip” (as in the nautical “captain.”)
* How can the use of endearments/nicknames convey intimacy in a relationship – or conversely, how might their omission display an emotional reserve, as with professional/impersonal boundaries? If two characters who were once friends then fall out, how might this be reflected in their manner of addressing one another? (honorific-surname brought back to replace a term of endearment / first name / nickname = cold civility. “Mr — was just leaving”, in lieu of former warmth found in the use of a forename.)
* When does it become permissible, in the development of your narrative/plot, for the use of first names in social interactions between characters, if such an observance of etiquette must be made?
A name can be altered with personal choice, by deed poll; it can be adapted to suit the mutual agreement of intimacy between friends and lovers. But the act of taking away a name – of denying its use to the original bearer – can create a striking message of possession and adversity.
In the Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away“, the heroine Chihiro Ogino comes up against the witch Yubaba, who controls a bathhouse for the spirit world, in which the latter may come to refresh themselves. When Chihiro approaches Yubaba to ask for a job – as part of the rescue mission of her parents, who have eaten food meant for the spirits and have subsequently been turned into pigs – the latter agrees, with a highly symbolic condition: she claims for her own, with magic, some of the characters (kanji) which make up Chihiro’s name.
Thus does Chihiro become Sen; her true identity belongs to Yubaba, for as long as the witch holds onto what makes up her name. The kanji becomes a written representation of the girl’s identity, which in turn is bound up in the existence of her name – both of which she must strive to remember, if she is to escape and succeed in rescuing her parents.
The simple act of acknowledging a name in conversation can be a gift of subtle intimacy – particularly with its repetition – or it may serve as a marked point of reference when drawing someone’s attention to a thought / idea. In creating characters, you leave their thoughts, memories and ideals behind the identifying stamp of a name, for the audience to find and latch onto. You are taking someone who was a work of fiction, and turning them into a reality.
You will probably have encountered the conundrum of defining your own Writer’s Voice at some point. This is the distinct signature of an author, stamped upon every written page, and can be viewed as being parallel to the auteur theory of the cinematic world, wherein a director (and quite often an actor or actress, too) will leave their indelible mark upon each film, regardless of genre. The Writer’s Voice is not to be confused with the Narrative Voice. The latter is the perspective through which the audience views a story / text.
If the plot is a road, then the narrative can be viewed as the person(s) walking down it, and it is through their sensory perceptions that the audience will “feel out” the way. Based upon the author’s cast and/or choices of narrative mode (first person/personal, third person/omnipresent, etc) the perspective may shift between chapters or even between paragraphs. This should be noticeable in the opinions given, the elements of life which are prioritized vs. what is overlooked; what is revealed to the audience vs. what is concealed, or is apparently unknown.
For example: I have been (at least) two people in this lifetime – the Anorexic Me, and the Healthy Me. The former, being in a constant state of starvation due to malnutrition and low bodyweight, was wound up in a constant state of nerves and adrenalin, with a distinct fear of losing control of any situation I happened to be in. What this translated to, was an avoidance of any scenario where food / restriction of movement might be involved – say, a crowded room at a party. Paradoxically, every sense would be on high alert, with sustenance the main focus, since the human body is fine-tuned for survival.
I would walk into that room and immediately zero in on any scrap of food / drink, with senses sight and smell in particular having a heightened stimulus effect on concentration. While distracted by this sensory overload, I would be unable to focus on anything else occurring in the room. I would pay little attention to, say, art on the walls, or my host’s choice of furnishings. The language of those around me, vocal and physical, would seem at once cloying and intimidating, even if they paid no attention to me whatsoever – their very presence in the room would be overwhelming, when all my body would be focused on was how to get at the food made available, while my mind (the anorexic part) sought to take me as far away from the situation as possible. Thus runs the paradox of sensory overload / self-denial and control. In this state, I would be unable to appreciate what could be important information passed around, and entertaining company. Since setting, dialogue, subtext etc, make up vital elements of the reading / writing experience, a narrative perspective seen through that Anorexic self would be something like tunnel vision.
Nowadays, in a more healthy state, I am able to notice and appreciate the wider scope of the world, and am constantly in awe of it; finding symbolism and figurative language in nature, listening between the lines of what is said around me in society. Essentially, walking out of the tunnel.
A term that seems to crop up a lot on social media, is “reader’s hangover”: a story creates such an impression on the audience, that to finish it and be forced to find other books to read, is some kind of mental torture. Nothing else will suffice. It’s the itch between the ears when a song becomes so addictive that it must be listened to on repeat, until the damn thing has finally lost its appeal. In childhood, I would simply go back to the beginning of a book, getting a little less pleasure the second or even third time around – because of course, the words (for all their appeal) were still too fresh in the mind. Peeling myself away, I’d let time pass so that the words might collect dust for a bit and blur in the memory, before the book could be pulled down off the shelf again.
Nowadays, I don’t order books according to alphabetical arrangement, but in terms of what their Author’s Voice means to me. The genre of each text might be very different from the ones either side of it, but the written style of the authors are remarkably similar. Whenever a case of “reader’s hangover” crops up, I tend to sift between the culprit’s “compatriots”, to stave off the itch. It’s also a refreshing way to deal with writer’s block.
Who are your Influences?
Alice Hoffman. Truman Capote. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Joanne Harris. Jeffrey Eugenides. Peter S Beagle. These are authors I will return to again and again. They are usually often found lumped together in book-stores and online, in the genre known as General Fiction.
Me, I prefer to know them as the “synaesthetic” authors. Their diction and syntax, have the knack of creating quite vibrant and refreshing colours/patterns in my mind. They are the writers with distinctive Voices, often using symbolism / a cross-over of sense-imagery in their diction, to illustrate a point.
– “Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling ‘Helpme helpme helpme!’, and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard’s castle. A wet, slow smell found the unicorn. ‘Where is the Bull?’ she asked. ‘Where does Haggard keep the Bull?’ – pg 69, “The Last Unicorn.”
Syntax tends towards a simplistic construct – and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, but in the free-flow of reading, found in an uncluttered sentence / clause. There are few stumbling blocks; you get the sense that each word has been carefully measured out and chosen for its unique ability to convey as much meaning when stood alone, as when strung alongside others.
- “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.” – pg 1, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote
- “Royal’s house was like a house of flowers; wistaria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door. From the windows one could see far, faint winkings of the sea, as the house was high up a hill; here the sun burned hot but the shadows were cold. Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers. There was only one room; it contained a stove, a teetering mirror on top of a marble table, and a brass bed big enough for three fat men.” – pg 9, House of Flowers, Truman Capote
These authors write about the nuances of life, picking out the seemingly mundane and turning it into a work of art: brown silt and river water, transmuted to gold by the evening sun. In cinematic terms, this would translate to a keen eye for subtext around dialogue, symbolism in misc-en-scene, body language of actors/actresses, the cinematographic choices of camera angles and filters, etc.
- “She held my hand impersonally, as a promise that she’d take care of me in a minute, and gave ear to two girls in twin yellow dresses who stopped at the foot of the steps.
‘Hello!’ they cried together. ‘Sorry you didn’t win.’
That was for the golf tournament. She had lost in the finals the week before.
‘You don’t know who we are,’ said one of the girls in yellow, ‘but we met you here about a month ago.’
‘You’ve dyed your hair since then,’ remarked Jordan, and I started but the girls had moved casually on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket.” – pg 51, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Complex and technical language are kept to a minimum, with the thesaurus apparently thrown aside – something I am training myself to do when searching for that one perfect word, which was actually stuck between my ears the whole time but had been dismissed, due to my belief that it was far too simple a choice. But why hamper the audience with a stumbling block? Why not string together a perfectly reasonable set of words, to create an image that is still original, still glowing with beautiful colours and pathos?
- “Elv had begun to whisper Arnelle stories to her sisters during the bad summer when she was eleven. It was hot that August; the grass had turned brown… all she’d wanted was to lock herself away with her sisters. They hid in their mother’s garden, beneath the trailing pea vines. The tomato plants were veiled by a glinting canopy of bottle-green leaves. The younger girls were eight and ten. They didn’t know there were demons on earth, and Elv didn’t have the heart to tell them. She brushed the leaves out of her sister’s hair. She would never let anyone hurt them. The worst had already happened, and she was still alive.” – pg 7, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman
These synaesthetic writers are at once easy to read, and rather mysterious; equivalent to the portrait of a woman with beautiful, regular features … and the smallest hint of a dark smile.
After years of battling with my Voice – trying on various guises, as is necessary to discover whose shoes you are most comfortable walking in – I know that it is alongside these “synaesthetic” authors I would prefer to be shelved, should I have the luck of being published. It is through their respective Voices – each one unique, and somehow familiar as candlelight – that I have stitched together the components of my own.
They are the mainstay influences, but this is not to say I would ever restrict my reading / writing habits to only their work. Going with the analogy of shoes, I would say that while the synaesthetic authors are the hiking boots and Converse, authors such as Dr. Hunter S Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk and John Wyndham are the kitten heels. I love their work, but couldn’t begin to emulate their styles. My feet just won’t fit, and the walking is precarious.
When writing became more than a hobby, it was an essential exercise in discovering Voice to write through as many authors as possible – the more distinctive, the better. It’s just as vital to write across a range of forms, to develop audience awareness and an eye for self-editing.
Writing across this “vocal range”, is not plagiarism. It’s not copy ‘n paste. It is simply defining who you wish to sit alongside, who you would deem your contemporaries and influences to be – taking snippets from their respective styles, and stitching them together to form your own. This doesn’t just aid your prospective target audience, when they seek out authors of a similar “flavour” and whose work they can’t help but return to again and again. It can also help a potential agent to find where you might fit into the literary market.
If a Voice does not sit comfortably, and you find your nerves are frayed from trying too hard to be someone you’re not, then the writing experience will be a tedious one indeed. The forced Voice may waver between works-in-progress, as of a mask slipping. I’ve walked away from stories, believing them to be impenetrable, and blaming my own ineffectiveness to get down the vital message; only to return some months later, when a particularly influential / distinctive author I had been reading at the time, was finally out of my head. Their style was pressing in on mine, and though enjoyable to read, it was not something I could hope to replicate as a writer.
In blog entries, there is more chance of achieving an authentic Voice. You’re not trying to keep in character, and are not fretting about plot / narrative. Emotions and ideas are allowed to free-fall. Think back to the blog entries you may have rattled off – the sticky details of childhood life, the golden-hue moments of nostalgia, covered in dust motes, or tears. How easily did these outpourings come, when you were perhaps half-cut at 3am and coming off the rush of a night out or the viewing of a film which had touched your mind; the attached feelings you then just couldn’t keep to yourself, and were forced to offload in a blog entry before you forgot what it all meant?
Think about how that writing experience was, how every image seemed to slot into place – how when, reading it back to yourself in the early afternoon (waking to a faceful of old makeup, wine-stained lips and a head like Vesuvius) you’d felt the strange tang of seeing yourself outside yourself, and wondered where on earth had all this came from? How could it be that this was so easy, when (if you’re anything like me) trying to drag out fictional work can be akin to being prepared for the canopic jars in Ancient Egypt?
Those blog entries hold the Voice that is yours alone, when you weren’t trying to be someone you’re not; you were too excited and pissed to think about anything but getting the message across to your audience. YOUR perspective, YOUR experiences, YOUR views – all of which can be tweaked and filtered according to characterization and narrative perspective, and indeed, the same holds true for anyone in your reality who might have struck an influential spark, and deserves a place in your narrative.
Look at your voice on social media. This is you, taking part in written discourse in what may be a near-immediate environment. How do you instinctively respond to people when they speak to you? What language do you use to pitch ideas and thoughts? Are you pretty stark in delivery, or prone to using imaginative subtext? When I’m writing a blog entry, that Voice is pretty much what you’d get in real life. That’s my choice of delivery. The trick is to keep the trend going, when it comes to writing fiction – admittedly, something of a task, particularly when a multiple-member cast gets involved.
Finding your Voice is putting that stamp on your work. It is defining who you are, where you stand among other writers, how you might relate to them or indeed, be set apart. Crucially, it allows any audience member who might read your work, to come to know what to expect from you in the future.