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Write seriously for any length of time and you learn that it’s a lonely business.  Whether you’re writing essays, stories, poems, scripts, or novels, it’s just you and the page every day with no guarantee that your enormous investment of time, emotion, and energy is ever going to reach a satisfying conclusion.  As Charles Bukowski wrote, you’re “betting on the muse.”  And the muse is a cruel mistress.

Even if she’s the love of your life, sometimes you find yourself wishing the two of you had never met.  Maybe, you think, if I hadn’t gotten addicted to writing, I might have made real progress in a day job.  I might even have reached a point where I could have moved out of my tiny apartment, started paying off my student loans, and bought a car less than 30 years old, a respectable adult at last.

Instead, I chose to take all that energy and put it into words.  When I’m lucky, when the muse deals me a good hand and I play it for all it’s worth, the words seem like they’ll never stop.  There’s no better feeling than that.  But no one can be lucky all the time.  And sometimes you just go bust.

It doesn’t matter whether writing is a hobby or the way you keep the lights on.  All writers have to face the same ups and downs, the same uncertainties, the same droughts, the same bad runs, the same unforgiving emptiness of a blank page with the muse nowhere to be found.  Even the most talented among us can feel like imposters when we bet it all on one hand, fold, and leave the table with nothing but pocket lint and remorse. 

But now we’re in a new abnormal.  There’s a virus and civil unrest in the streets.   Everything’s shuttered or broken.  And our homes have become sci-fi biodomes where we drift through the day in a weird online approximation of the lives we used to lead.  Lockdowns do that.  Pandemics can change everything, even our writing habits.   

Attending a poetry reading or just walking through a bookstore can feel like playing chess with the reaper.  Surgical gear is the new black.  And we can’t waste time in a coffee shop anymore, glowering at a blank screen over a latte with enough sugar to induce an intracranial coma in an elephant.  That was the old world, old rules, old normal.  Now everyone’s socially distanced and weird.  Now everyone’s living like a writer. 

We wait for life to reacquire some semblance of normalcy.  We grieve for those who’ve died and want to safeguard the lives of those who haven’t.  We keep in mind that all life is precious and that we’re in this together.  And we hope that those who are now unemployed or alone or going into debt because of COVID-19 can find a way forward.  We hope this for ourselves, too.

Yet, as with any pandemic, riot, or plague, there are darkly amusing dimensions.  As a friend of mine put it recently, “This can’t go on for much longer.  It’s just too stupid.”  I had to agree.  It is.  Then again, he’s not used to betting on the muse, to leading a solitary hidden life with no assurance that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t just an oncoming train.  Writers are especially poised to continue work through a pandemic.

 

State Dependency Writing Works in a Lockdown

Ever wonder why you can’t seem to get into a good flow state without your bagel and cup of coffee?  Why the little rituals and routines of settling down to write seem so essential?  When you look at them rationally, they’re really nothing—small mundane comforts, little observances in your personal space, that pink bathrobe with the embroidered toucan on the back you only wear when you write. 

Was it grandma’s?  Did you get it at a yard sale in 1993?  Or was it always waiting for you up there in the attic, waiting to become the key element that helped you finish your first novel manuscript?  You don’t want to think about it.  It’s your magic writing bathrobe.  If you look at it too closely, the magic might go away.

I understand.  I’m not here to gainsay your magic.  But I will suggest that memory and brain chemistry are part of it.  And this is why it still works when the rest of the world is stuck at home, day drinking and fantasizing about haircuts.  Therapist and licensed counselor, David Joel Miller, calls it “environmental context-dependent memory” or “situational memory.”  And it’s probably why I’ll be acknowledging Krispy Kreme when my third story collection gets taken.

Miller explains it as “an ability to remember information in one situation that you are unable to remember in another.”  It’s closely related to state-dependent memory, which has more to do with internal chemistry than with location.  Generally, we can say that both types of “state dependency” are invoked by our little magical writing habits. 

 

Are We Talking About Trance States?

Yes and no.  If “trance” is defined broadly as an altered mental state, then yes.  We go into trances all the time—driving our kids to school, washing the dishes, binging five seasons of a show we can barely remember a few days later.  When we do anything familiar enough that it becomes rote, we’re probably doing it in a light trance state.

This is not inducing a David Lynchian out-of-body dissociative episode where we have a conversation with a dead prophet on top of an Aztec pyramid and realize the existential meaning of our lives.  We’re awake.  We’re functional.  We’re just in the flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the founder of Positive Psychology, describes as a period of total absorption.

He calls flow “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”  That sounds like my compulsive writing habit, my ongoing love affair with the muse.  I also know that, when she deals me a bum hand, flow is impossible.

So just as a gambler will blow on the dice, keep a lucky talisman in a vest pocket, or say a quick prayer to Our Lady of the Full House, we fire up a triple espresso and get a chocolate iced glazed donut.  We creep up to the attic and put on our toucan bathrobe.  Because these invoke our situational memory of having written, of being in that enjoyable flow state.

 

Speaking of the Devil

Legendary writer and Iowa Writers Workshop professor, Madison Smartt Bell, recommends everything from post-hypnotic suggestion to binaural beats.  In a 2011 New Yorker interview about his novel, The Color of Night, he notes that  “Normally most writers don’t say, ‘I’m going into a mild hypnotic trance.’ Typically they don’t know how they do it. . . . Most people, when they have a good experience writing, they’re well placed in that state, which is also sometimes called a ‘flow state.’ If you don’t have trouble, you don’t have to think about it. But if for some reason you can’t get into that state, then you start to have writer’s block.” 

Most of my pragmatic fiction writing teachers didn’t like to talk about writer’s block.  Often, they denied its existence completely.  I think it was because they were superstitious.  Speak of the devil and he might appear.  The most instruction I ever got along these lines was in the last year of my MFA, when the leader of our advanced fiction workshop said: “Your job as a writer is to go into a trance such that, when you come out of it, there are words on the page.”

So here we are in this afraid new locked down world with non-writers drinking wine in our attic and sad news on television.  In times like this, writing is as essential as any form of art.  And we’re the ones to do it.  

We simply have to remember that even though the muse is fickle, even though sometimes we’ll hit a bad run, we can improve our odds by sticking to our rituals.  When we can forget what’s going on in the outside world and enter flow, we won’t be writing in spite of the lockdown.  We’ll just be writing.  And that’s a wonderful place to be.

After the fifth movie in the series, Kate Beckinsale said she’d never be in another Underworld sequel, which was wise.  The trouble with Beckinsale wasn’t that she got old or outgrew the original concept of Selene, the heavily armed boarding school goth, who falls for a hunky ER doctor in the middle of a werewolf war.  It’s that she never seemed young.

At first, Beckinsale was perfect for the role because, although Underworld played up her waifishness and had her dress like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, she radiated a natural depth of character that went beyond Blade cosplay into actual acting.  Unfortunately, as the highly stylized sequels dragged on, actual acting seemed increasingly verboten

By the fifth, Underworld: Blood Wars, everyone seemed fatigued, even the new additions to the franchise.  They were all a bit glazed, as if they’d been frying crullers in hot grease and were now told they had to put on the leather, bring out the fangs, and make with the sexy banter.  No one wants to sexually titillate adolescents for pay in a monster movie sequel that follows three consecutive stinkers, certainly not Kate, who impersonated driftwood for most of that last film.

Part of what made the original Underworld seem like such an artifact of late 1990s / early 2000s pop-culture (and made its sequels come off like shoddy tin replicas) was the casting.  And Beckinsale, who attended Oxford University and went on to act in many stage plays, radio productions, British costume dramas, and about six feature films before donning the Pfeiffer bodysuit, did a good job with what they handed her.

She always seemed slightly elsewhere—which is oddly consistent with her character.  Only in a movie equivalent of Vampire the Masquerade meets La Femme Nikita in gothed-over Budapest could there be a character like Selene, who comes across as two parts slick fashion model, one part roleplaying game convention nerd.

She’s an interesting mixture of traits and tropes, carefully designed, no doubt, to appeal to the movie’s general demographic: frustrated guys who dig pale girls majoring in English and the pale girls who would prefer to meet Mr. Darcy instead.  Guys who never miss a Comic Con.  Guys with a fantasy life all out of proportion to the topography of obstruction and despair that they consider to be “real life.”  Trust me.  I know this group well, having been in it for most of my youth.  For this type of young college guy, Selene represented the Hot Girl With a British Accent Who is Unbelievably Into Nerd Culture and Therefore Understands.

Ah, yes.  That.

And while I like to think of myself as being immune to that kind of Hollywood syrup, I have seen all the Marvel movies; I did take my sad self to Van Helsing (when I knew it was bound to be a flaming train barge of crap); and I did think Underworld was pretty cool the first time around.  I even found a way to enjoy Blade: Trinity after a bit of fair-minded self-talk and some alcohol.

So can I automatically conclude that Selene—the girl you really want to invite over to play Dungeons & Dragons but won’t because maybe she’s busy reading The Mysteries of Udolpho in the library and doesn’t want to be bothered and anyway probably has a boyfriend in a band—wasn’t part of my subconscious calculus?  Evidently, I cannot.  The jury remains out, 17 years and running.

But this is the heart of the problem, isn’t it?  This is why we have to return to these films and think about them, even if we’ve since dismissed them as insubstantial Hollywood distractions.  We’re hearing messages in films like Underworld that are phrased in a language we only partly understand, subliminal messages crafted by experts who know us better than we know ourselves, who speak to the inner Dungeon Master instead of to the slumbering adult.  The only way we can truly understand is in retrospect.

Underworld, like The Matrix, could never have been made in our viral, post-covefefe 2020s.  These movies are too sleek, too manicured, too self-satisfied and sure of their own epic stylishness.  It’s the super-sweet junk candy you liked as a kid but now can’t tolerate.  It’s finely crafted garbage.

Oh, sure, the werewolves, I know.  One shouldn’t overlook them.  On one hand, Selene was a “Death Dealer” vampire ninja, capable of throwing rigid hand strikes to the temples of giant, slavering, vaguely Neil Young-looking beast men in spite of her delicate wrists.  On the other, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) is so impossibly dreamy and sensitive that what upper-division English student wouldn’t fall hard? 

He’s a doctor (smart, admirable) but just might be the chosen one (special) who, by virtue of his DNA (gifted), could unite the werewolf and vampire bloodlines and end the war.  And so, unto this, the two dark, star-crossed lovers, cast about on seas of passion and uncertain destiny, risk all to unite their people.  That’s pretty special.  It doesn’t get more special than that.  It’s also grossly saccharine.  It makes you want to focus on the violence as a palette cleanser.  Bring on some more of that sweet vampire-on-werewolf sewer-tunnel violence so I can push down my gag reflex.

As someone who loves science fiction, I think carefully about what it means when a vampire movie from 2003 sticks in my memory beside Romeo and Juliette.  As someone who loves vampire stories in which the vampire is evil and not just a form of relief from post-industrial anxiety, I think carefully about what it means that early vampire myths and films depict the creature as a hideous cannibalistic corpse, while modern ones turn him into a Dionysian sex god or an introspective Byronic sufferer or her into an immensely relatable, dateable, heroine.

We all want to be special, to be beautiful and admired, to be gifted and immortal—because we’re trapped in our lives and we feel time passing.  Most days, we do not feel special.  We know we aren’t beautiful.  We doubt our gifts and (quietly, secretly) believe our lives will be too short to have romantic adventures with all the people we’d like (or, in some cases, anyone—save vs. despair).  But we won’t admit that, even in our most private moments. 

We’ll go to a movie like Underworld instead and project all those grinding anxieties and unfulfilled desires onto the characters, who’ve been put there precisely with that in mind.  Maybe the actors just fried up the dramatic equivalent of a glazed cruller.  But, to us, they’re a magic mirror: “My Queen, you are the fairest of them all.” 

You know, mirror, I like you.  Tell me more . . . 

So go put on your black leather catsuit and ruby earrings.  And don’t forget to load up on Uzis and Ginsu knives and long spiked whips.  We got us some lycans to kill and I’m feeling sexy.

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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.

— Madeleine Chapsal