Do you want a psychological marriage?

I found this article (‘How we end up marrying the wrong people‘) interesting. It’s about how easy it is to get involved with the wrong people. marriage

Plus, what do you think Charles and Diana have just been fighting about? She looks pretty pissed, and he looks like he’s already offered a thousand apologies!

I liked the idea that we’re all unbalanced, neurotic and mad in specific ways. The issue then becomes one of finding someone who can accommodate our particular insanities: “A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.”

This is all true, but I found the notion depressing. It all seemed like so much hard work. First, one has to work out exactly how one is insane. As the article points out, your friends won’t tell you, because they don’t care. If you live mostly on your own, then you’re not rubbing up against people and so, like cats, you remain blissfully unaware of your imperfections. Finding out one’s own brand of insanity is often time-consuming, expensive (assuming you’re going for therapy) and painful (assuming you’re gaining self-knowledge through multiple, dysfunctional relationships).

Then, once you have some understanding, you have to go and work out, psychologically, how someone else works. That’s hard to find out and takes a long time. Even after a lengthy relationship, we can still be surprised by how others behave, think or feel.

Lastly, and call me childish, I quite liked these criteria for determining rightness (they also come from the article and are seen as ‘romantic’ rather than ‘psychological’):

– one can’t stop thinking of a lover
– one is sexually obsessed
– one thinks they are amazing
– one longs to talk to them all the time

I’ve never thought of myself as romantic, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I don’t know myself after all.

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Faults and Flaws

Another way to think about writing memoir is to write about the present or even the future rather than the past. I almost prefer this idea, because memory is shaky, and this makes memoirs hardly any truer than novels.

I took this, Happier at Home, out the library, mostly as a joke, a few days ago. The list on the cover – kiss more, happiness2jump more – hardly inspired confidence as a route to home happiness, but I do like the idea of a documented self-improvement project.  I think these make great topics for memoirs.

Take the guy who decided to follow the tenets of the bible. His book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, led him to tend sheep in the Israeli desert, battle idolatry and worst of all, tell the absolute truth in all situations.

I’ve been tempted to try small-scale self-improvement projects but not, so far, to write about them. Every now and again, I have a ‘faults and flaws’ day. Faults are entrenched personality deficiencies like neuroticism or pessimism – of course, I don’t have these faults, but if I did happen to have them, they would be impossible to change.  Flaws, however, are much more focused problems like being online too much or not putting the lid on the toothpaste. Again, not that these flaws are at all recognisable to me.

However, I’m thinking bigger than this for my next memoir. I don’t just want a touch-up job, like something you’d get at a shady panel beater; I want a complete engine rehaul, a new personality in 365 days. I just need to to think of the right experiment.

Memoir writing and mental illness

One of the things I do, besides setting up rigorous social experiments on Facebook involving lemon meringue pie and oral sex, is tutor a memoir-writing course. Here are a few things I’ve noted over the years:

  1. Many people who want to write memoirs are keen to write about their mental health issues. These often involve a combination of bipolar disorder, depression and addiction.
  1. These kinds of stories tend to get shoehorned into a narrow channel: that of illness followed by redemption. I understand why this is the case, but I’m sceptical about whether this is the truth. Of course, it’s a problem of plot. If there’s no redemption, where’s the story? (Plot is frequently tricky when it comes to memoir, perhaps more than with fiction.)
  1. It’s difficult to write about mental health issues. One of the reasons for this is that often very little is happening in the external world, because people have turned inward when the way they are experiencing the world is both painful and distorted.

Somehow, the memoir needs to find a balance between events in the external world and the person’s thoughts and feelings about them. Too much interiority, if that’s the right word, and the reader’s mind begins to wander. Boredom sets in. Too much external event, and you get an unstructured  story of this happened and then that happened and then that and that. My children tell me these kinds of stories all the time. Sometimes they just peter out into nothing.

  1. Some of the best creative non-fiction I’ve read is mostly metaphorical (it also involves sex and drugs). But back to the metaphors for a moment. It appears to be about very little – say a person getting lost in a city, because they’ve taken a lot of drugs – but is really about how we lose ourselves with strange obsessions, fall down rabbit holes, and find it difficult to come out again. In other words, it’s writing that is occurring on two levels: the overt and the covert. It’s actually got four cross-cutting levels: overt, covert, interiority, exteriority. Getting that balance right is a big challenge of memoir, particularly when you’re writing about mental health.

Sneeze = Ejaculation

On the weekend I was out with some friends. One of them – apropos what, I don’t remember – said that an ejaculation was like somebody sneezing on your body, and who would want that?  She had a point: from a certain perspective, an ejaculation is like a sneeze. Although – and I know this is sneezing man2overly pedantic – it seldom occurs on your body. It’s more like somebody sneezing into a body part, which is gross.

From there, the conversation meandered down the well-worn tracks of love and lust: not worth it, naturally, if an ejaculation is a sneeze. But anything can be reduced to its lowest common denominator: 8/16 = ½; ejaculation = sneeze. When you keep reducing things down – lust to muscle spasm – the world feels very colourless, and who wants to live in a colourless world?

Novelists (and psychologists) like to work the other way around:  an apparently small thing is turned into a big thing. A joke is not a joke but an attempt to dominate. A dream about driving through the countryside is about your mother or your father or your murderous intentions towards your sister. When you can make a squash game last about 20 pages, like Ian McEwan in Saturday, you know you can make a small thing into a big thing.

Sometimes we regard big things as small in order not to notice them properly. Look at a steak wrapped in plastic on the shelf of a shop. The apparent triviality of a wrapped steak serves us well. Nobody likes thinking about what it means: the life behind it, the industrial processes from birth to butchery, the way we use our power over animals. When big things are made to seem small, we lose the details, and that is just what we might want.

An amazed optometrist once said to Greg, while recording his responses to an eye test, ‘You know, you prefer seeing worse!’ Apparently, the tests revealed that Greg should have been seeing better. The guy shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Playing the game

The other day I was rummaging in my mother’s house when I found these old Monopoly cards. monopoly2The street names of my childhood were different: the South African set had Groote Schuur, Strand, Roeland Street. But no matter. I loved Monopoly passionately. I’d play with anyone; I’d wake at five in the morning to play with the younger sister of a friend of mine. Whoever, whenever, I didn’t mind as long as I was buying the little green houses and the big red hotels. I once read – or perhaps I’ve made this up – that the best way to decide whether your work is right for you is to recall what you enjoyed doing before puberty. Once that hormonal bell clangs, everything changes. You have to do X to get Y, where Y is sex / love, and X is everything you need to do to get it – like smell nice, or have a prestigious or lucrative job. Your true interests lie before the clanging of the bell. There are a lot of career tests. I’ve administered many of them. With career assessment, you measure – as though these things are straightforwardly quantifiable – interests, aptitudes and values. The theory goes that the perfect job lies at some intersection of these variables. My test is simpler: think back to when you were eight, nine, ten. What obsessed you? Now the only problem that remains is: what kind of career can you make from Monopoly? .