Habits and Patterns

Today is the first day of the fall semester, which means that I’m an absolute wreck.

It’s not that I’m especially nervous about heading back to the classroom or anything quite like that (though I’m naturally trying to figure out how I’d like to manage my own masking and COVID care, among other things). The jangly part for me is trying to dial in the shape my life will take–or ideally ought to take–over the next several months.

The summer was loosely scheduled, but the moving parts of each day were decidedly mechanical. I knew with perfect certainty what I’d be doing up until about noon on most days, and in the hours that followed before my partner came home from work I generally knew what I’d be up to. The bad news for me is that I didn’t plan any transitional time into the calendar: I knew I’d be reconsidering my course outlines to get ready for the term in August, but I didn’t brace myself for the temporal lurch that unsurprisingly arrived today. I wrapped up my summer plans on Friday, and today I’ve got to figure out the shape of my days and ways over the next four months or so. A weekend was not nearly enough time to get myself sorted.

Broadly speaking I’m cautiously optimistic about some big-picture prospects. Over the weekend I identified a change in tech that should allow me to dive into some recording ideas I’ve been planning for awhile, and I also came across a movie that perfectly captures the tone I’m aspiring to in both my novel and in the new novella project I started late in July. I feel pretty good about my teaching plans for the semester as well, as I’ve rejiggered many of the moving parts to make them more accessible and student-friendly. I tend to mistrust autonomic optimism, optimism as an unexamined habit of mind, but when enough moving parts align I try to ride out that trust.

To get my mind in some semblance of order–and to capitalize on these strange optimistic impulses–I’m leaning on some old tricks of the trade, which I thought I might pass along today. There’s nothing revolutionary about them, but they are often of use to me when I’m getting ready for change but haven’t quite decided what that change is going to look like.

The first step is broad-based itemization. It’s the kind of goal-setting most of us do when we’ve got longer-term prospects on the horizon. I lost thirty pounds over the summer, for instance, and I’d like to keep that momentum going. I’d like to finish off the draft of the novella. I’d like to figure out how to make better hypnosis recordings. It’s all chunky stuff, stuff that I’ll chip away at over the course of the coming weeks and months–big plot arcs rather than individual scenes.

The second step, then, is breaking apart my ambitions. I find few things more dispiriting than having a long, undifferentiated list of things to do that I can’t actually accomplish in any settled length of time. For me it feels like having a full cognitive inbox, an inbox stuffed with messages that I have no choice but to leave in the hopper. I know folks who regularly open up Outlook and find themselves starting at dozens or hundreds of emails. That’s far too many cathexes for my mind to manage, so I like to break actionable notions down into separate lists. At present, that means I’ve got Optional/Future projects in one (story ideas I’ve got in mind for various calls for submissions, for example, or revisions of older projects that have occurred to me), On-Deck/Ongoing items in another (like the draft of the novella, the refinement of my recording methods for hypnosis content, etc., all of which I’ll nibble at over weeks and months), and Week of August 29th prospects in the third, uppermost list. Those are all items I can reasonably tackle over the next couple of days, like buying a new USB cord or cleaning my computer desktop or getting my books for the term on the right shelf. They remind me that I’m making progress every day, and they keep me from fretting about those pending tasks that would haunt that uppermost list if I were less granular.

Step three is focusing on a) the known and b) the known bits of business that actually fall to me. Left to its own devices my brain can conjure up plenty of junk to worry about, though most of those conjurings belong to the realm of The Unknown. My partner, for example, plans to start up her own business in the coming months, and I intend to help her out in any way I can. But at this juncture I have only a fuzzy idea about what kind of help she might like, so fretting about it inevitably leads me to an array of dead ends. Likewise, I’ll be collaborating with a colleague on a course we’d like to get on the books in 2023 or 2024. Right now, however, the ball is in her court; we’ve got some ideas on the table, but not much progress can be made until we’re both ready to hunker down and get the syllabus written up. I could try to slap some flesh on the bones on my own, but all of that work could be pointless if we decide to move in a different direction. That project, then, gets dropped into the On-Deck file–it doesn’t need to crowd my brainspace right now.

Step four, given the divisions I’ve made, is tackling stuff on the first hop–getting junk done as soon as I’m able. The infinite business we call Adulthood involves the churning of tasks, clearing one item from the to-do list only to add another and another. The longer we leave those items pending, however, the more cognitive energy we expend, at least in my experience (hence the reference to cathexes above). Today I’m meant to blog, for example, so here I am blogging. As soon as I’ve finished the entry I’ll cross it off my list, and then I’ll tackle other items, one after another, until it’s time for me to head to campus. It’s not the sexiest state of affairs, but it will keep me from succumbing from that paralysis that comes with having too much junk to do and too little time to do it. Today could have easily become unmanageable, which would bode ill for the term, but I’m one paragraph away from completing this task and I’ve already got three tasks behind me. Not bad for 8:00am on a Monday, and at day’s end I’ll feel like I’ve made some progress–primarily because I actually have.

The fifth and last step on the day is anchoring the new habits, which I think is important to do any time I alter my routine, the mechanical pattern that shapes my day. It often feels like a cheap trick to me, but it’s really just a substantial, visible reminder of the difference I intend to instate. Right now, for example, I’m drinking from a different coffee mug, a mug unlike the one I used every day this summer. It seems like a trivial change, but every time I reach for it I’m reminded that what I’m doing today is not what I’ve been doing every day since May. Many folks I know consider themselves impulsive, spontaneous people, but I think there are generally underlying patterns–how we eat if not what we eat, how we actually dress ourselves if not what we’re wearing–that we tend to gloss over, some of the foundational habits we have learned to sublimate. Even a slight revision can be enough to remind us that things are a little different, enough to get some new way of living underway.

Practical Magics

Image from NASA via Unsplash.com

I’ve been revisiting the manuscript for the novel over the past week, just skimming over a few pivotal scenes and trying to prioritize edits. I’ve got a handful of higher-order changes to make, and I think foremost among them will be adding proofs of the antagonist’s capabilities. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not terribly fond of endless escalation, page after page and scene after scene of misery that forecloses all chances for the protagonist to win the endgame (except one, naturally), but I do think it’s important to hammer out proportions at the level of overall ability. The antagonist almost always has an edge, usually at the level of ruthlessness; we expect traditional protagonists to care for others and perhaps even exercise restraint when push comes to shove. I’ve established ruthlessness in my villain, I think, but I also need to make clear that, as far as overall juice goes, she’s got plenty of power and wants a little more.

The catch, alas, is that I find power dynamics endlessly fascinating. As subject matter goes, it’s a rabbit hole I can easily tumble down if I’m not very, very careful.

I can’t say I’ve got an especially good handle on the topic, largely because it’s so elusive and pervasive, occurring in a wide variety of forms and shaped by countless contexts. It’s not hard for me to see that most every scholarly or creative prospect I take up falls somewhere on the graph where power and ethics intersect. My approach to education is meaningfully informed by power, from the implied consent that comes with enrollment in a class to the mechanics of grading to the design of assignments. Seemingly simple matters quickly get bound up in questions of preparation, access, and fairness. Hypnosis is knotted up in questions of power as well–how much power is the hypnotee handing over when they enter a hypnoidal state, for example, a question that is itself complicated by my use of hypnotee rather than subject and hypnoidal state rather than trance. It’s a realm of operations where people go in expecting to be manipulated, but only in ways the psyche can accept. I write on BDSM from time to time, as it is an area of inquiry and practice that attempts to make power dynamics transparent but at the same time involves a distinctive kind of ethical negotiation–no matter how participants talk it through, there’s a moment when conditions of possibility change. Games (both video and table-top) are fraught with questions of what players can do, how and why they do it, and the means by which they acquire power for the doing. And storytelling centers on the play of power at the level of knowing and knowledge, as the writer manages disclosure and the reader makes meaning from what they learn along the way, sometimes wresting control of the story away from the person doing the telling.

I could go on and on, which is perhaps why in my own storytelling I find it difficult to manage power with a light touch. And that catch itself comes with a catch, as power often operates on us invisibly, in ways we don’t always recognize until it’s too late. There’s no such thing as fair play when it comes to narrative, but the teller’s power only goes so far. The trick of telling, I think, is to arm the reader with all the information they need, and to trust that they are going to use that information as you intend. It’s a big swing and a big risk, but it’s one we have to accept if we expect magic to happen.

The Oedipal Dilemma

Today’s post is a little about hypnosis, a little about fiction. Sometimes you’ve just got to cross the streams.

The hypnotic portion of the program comes from Discord, where this morning folks were discussing some of their favorite paradoxes. One of the premises most hypnotists build on (which is not altogether true, but we’ll just roll with it for the moment) is that a hypnotist can’t make a hypnotee do anything they don’t want to do. There are some asterisks involved, as you might imagine, but the focus of today’s discussion centered on the layer cake that is human experience: sometimes we really do wish we could be to be made to do certain things, and there’s a real anxiety about the possibility that a hypnotist could actually slip their way past those superficial inhibitions, reveal something we’d rather deny about ourselves, and oblige us to commit to the intentions we work so hard to suppress. That’s in many ways a more alarming prospect than some of the stuff we see in stage hypnosis, when a hypnotist gets hypnotees to do absurd things but those things, because they are so distant from the reality of who we are, don’t hit in the same way.

I’ve been thinking about that mechanism in terms of fiction lately, if only because the dynamic we so often lean upon is one of escalation and conditional catharsis. I think the latest season of Stranger Things makes for a pretty vivid example, especially since we can see some of the worst available outcomes on the horizon so plainly. Each step and each complication in the plot leads to more tension, more fear that the outcomes we don’t want to see will come to pass. The olde skool idea, however, is that the ending will get us to something like catharsis: that we’ll get relief by the end of the last episode, and that the denouement–given our readiness to deal with our apprehensions all season–will reward us with some outcomes we actually want to counteract all that felt pressure. Because this season essentially dovetails with the next, we don’t quite get there. We’re left with a system even more completely disordered, with new threats and tensions on the horizon.

The grandpappy of this approach to storytelling is Oedipus Rex, which can make for an excruciating reading and/or viewing experience. Early on we figure out that Oedipus is hunting Oedipus, that he is heading inexorably toward his own self-destruction, but his essential qualities of character (a bit of stubbornness, a bit of pride, a bit of unstinting intellectual curiosity) prevent him from turning back even when he’s on the cusp of horrific discoveries. Our relief, such as it, comes when there’s nothing left to discover, when all the horrors have been exposed. The tension that comes with anticipation is gone, and we’re left with the sense that the spell of the play has been broken, that a new order can now replace the old.

While it’s a time-honored sort of story structure, however, I feel like the journey it sets the reader on might be a bit too much for this particular moment in time. These days we’re beset with uncertainties at just about every level of experience, and I find that reliable, relentless escalation makes me more inclined to tune out than press on. Moving from crisis to crisis to crisis–especially if the best available outcome is to have the next crisis deferred or temporarily averted–is exhausting, especially if there’s no prospect of restoration or redemption on the horizon. That’s doubly true (at least for me) when the prospects for agency, for acting meaningfully on the world, reveal something less than appealing about ourselves, excavate those impulses we struggle to deal with on a daily basis.

These days I’m attracted to more optimistic modes of telling, even if the endings they arrive at feel contrived. As someone who writes dark fantasy and horror more often than not, it still feels significant to arrive at destinations where good things seem possible, however qualified or limited those goods might be.