Women: Society, Storytelling, Technology (1)

The Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

At Easter, I was in the Prado Museum in Madrid when I wandered past this version of the Mona Lisa. Until that moment I hadn’t known it existed so it truly felt that I had discovered it, and I was able to look at it, through my own eyes and think my own thoughts without any expectation or expert opinion. It was overwhelming. It is a beautiful version and I am astounded anew every time I look at the postcard I have tacked up above my desk.

It reminds me of Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Tudors. They take the viewpoint of the women who played major roles during Tudor times but who were, because of the way society was organised, denied a voice, particularly the forgotten women like The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary; and Jane Grey’s sisters, Mary and Katherine in The Last Tudor. To coincide with the release of The Last Tudor last week, Philippa Gregory gave an interview in the New York Times saying that she was reading around the topic of medieval women with particular attention to how and why women get squeezed out of the marketplace, out of the law, and out of public service, and out of sight. I can’t wait to see what she has to say.

Just looking at the Mona Lisa, I already have an idea, for the original in the Louvre was labelled as Leonardo da Vinci’s handy woman. For the longest time, no one knew who the sitter was and no one really cared. It was all about da Vinci. The woman – it was decided around 2007 was probably Lisa del Giocondo – has been, for several centuries, an object on which people (let’s face it, mainly men) could project their own fantasies, which was why it was so refreshing to see a different version even though it remains symbolic of the position women have had in society for the longest time. They are silent, the muse of men, there to cater to the needs of men, treated like property, without autonomy, without legal rights. Women were powerless and helpless, and though things are much better nowadays, there is still a hangover from those days.

Life coach Martha Beck says: The most helpless feeling anyone can have in society is that of a little girl, when little boys cry they get called little girls. Little girls are at the bottom of the pile!

Things are changing slowly, with a lot of resistance. We only have to look at the fuss made over the next Dr Who and how a woman couldn’t play a time travelling alien with two hearts. Seriously? And the hatred expressed when Ghostbusters was remade in 2016: Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts. I won’t even begin here my rants about the way women are portrayed in the media and in everyday conversation.

As a mum to girls, I feel that it is important for my girls to see a female Prime Minister, female leads in movies, female scientists, female sports women, female astronauts, female anything that my girls may want to be one day, because seeing a woman doing a job helps immensely. Even Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says that she didn’t think she could teach Buddhism until she saw another woman teach it:

Before, I had felt there was no way could I ever do that, but now I felt like I could.

However, overall in technology and in academia in technology, where supposedly things change more quickly, there are still very few women. I have always felt about technology the way I feel about the Prado Mona Lisa, that there is no expectation and there is no expert opinion telling me, a woman, what I should and shouldn’t be doing or thinking as I spend my days absorbed in IT. However, not everyone shares my opinion. Recently, I was out socially and met several 20-something-years-old women who thought me doing IT was very cool but really hadn’t even imagined it could be a career possibility for them. And, the last two courses I taught this year (1st year undergraduate: Web Authoring and Databases) had only one woman in each course. It is sad to think that this relatively new and constantly changing field doesn’t have anything remotely approaching an equal men to women ratio.

On this blog I have written indirectly about women in storytelling and films but not in technology and just once in society which was really more about what I felt when I suffered through yet another bout of #mansplaining. I have put off writing up the research I have done, as one female academic friend summed it up perfectly by saying: It’s too depressing to think about.

So today, I am starting a blog series to look at women in society and in particular, technology to see if I can understand more about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as women, so I can better explain to my girls how to navigate their way through this world to become anything they want to be. Wish me luck!

Creating space (5): Letting people be who they are

We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future – Matt Licata

The day I rang my dad to tell him what the plan was for treating the cancer I had been diagnosed with, he said: You haven’t really got cancer, have you? Not really. I read about it on the Internet.

I was so angry, I could barely speak: Err, yes I have, that is why I am now starting what will be probably a year in total of treatment (it turned out to be two). But, even though I was raging, he just couldn’t stop himself insisting that I hadn’t really got cancer.

I now see that it was just him unable to witness me potentially fall apart, or worse. We had just been through three years of life or death treatment with my daughter and two years of mental and physical illness with my mum and so my news tapped into a hopelessness and grief he hadn’t had space to process and which he could no longer manage which is why he felt the need to talk me out of my experience. He died one year later, his big, kind heart couldn’t take anymore.

Don’t wear your heart on a sleeve

My dad is an extreme example of not being able to recognise or bear witness to another’s fear and pain. But, it is not uncommon. Last week, I went to my uncle’s funeral and one completely lovely relative said to me: Don’t cry, Ruth, – words we say to one another all the time which are comforting, but are really, deep down, a plea asking someone to keep it together, behave better, and stop reminding everyone about the pain and agony in their own hearts.

Anyone who has cancer can tell you how, when you tell someone your news, the person opposite you will chime in – often part way through your story – to tell you about their friend/relative/loved one who has/had cancer too. They launch into a massive tale that you really haven’t got the emotional strength to hear, let alone bear witness to. People can’t stand you. They cannot stand to hear your pain, as it taps into theirs until they just have to share their pain, in the hope of feeling better, which in this scenario doesn’t really work.

After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending?

I know now this is why one wise doctor advised me to be very careful when thinking about telling people I had cancer. After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending? Otherwise, left to their own pain and sadness, people would quite amazingly finish whatever very long, horrific tale with: AND THEN THEY DIED….!!! #ffs. I know more stories about cancer and kidney transplants than anyone in their right mind can bear.

Holding space

It is very hard to watch someone fall apart under the weight of a life experience, to fall into that dreadful emotional agony, without wanting to stop it, to shush it, to shove it all back down to where it is manageable. It takes even greater strength to stand there and share that agony by acknowledging it and being a witness so that you allow someone to express what they must, but I am starting to think that it is the only way to live this life. We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it in a lovely facebook post, so that you can be of service to yourself and others.

Managing others experiences

When my baby had tubes coming out of her and I had no hair at all, I used to watch all the mums going off on their lovely coffee/play dates, as I made my lonely way home. We were not invited. It seemed that we were not wanted because we looked different. We had scars which demonstrated that life can serve up terrible experiences inexplicably, without rhyme or reason, so it was easier not to have us around. No one wanted to be reminded of the fragility of life.This made me feel ashamed as if there was something wrong with me: why couldn’t I just be normal? Talk normally? And, most of all not cry. The rejection scarred me deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel.

One mum kindly admitted last year that people dreaded seeing us as you never knew what terrible thing might have happened to us since the last terrible thing. In a strange way her admission made me feel better. It wasn’t me, it was them. Just the other day I bumped into one of those mums who breezily asked me how our health was, I ignored her (a new skill I have when I don’t want to answer a question which can undo me, sometimes I just shake my head) but she asked me several times. I think she asked because it looked like she would get a safe answer in the middle of H&M, because even now she wants my experience to be one that she can manage, and she can feel she expressed the appropriate amount of concern without me touching her fear.

But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love.

It seems to me that when you get breezy, avoid, or interrupt someone, you are forgetting that they are human, and that they are innocent and whole underneath the wounds which frighten you so much. But it is very hard to not interrupt other peoples’ energy – to let them have the space to let off steam and to let the conversation flow. But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love. None of us get enough love says meditation teacher davidji to which he adds, and none of us breathes deeply enough.

However, if you cannot hold the space, ask yourself what it is that makes you so afraid? I know I am still afraid, still anxious, still hurting after all this time, and I don’t always manage conversations well. Meditation makes it better but it is agony, which is funny as that is the topic of the last conversation I had with my dad, which would surprise anyone who knew him. He was a rock, who could sit in the company of the wounded, the dying and make it right, make it better. He had a magnificent compassion that was pure unconditional love. However, that night, on the phone, he got me to read out the side effects of my latest round of painkillers, in case they would be good for him, he was in pain, and then he said he was having trouble sleeping/managing/being and I said that he had to meditate, ‘cos I had just read a book by Deepak Chopra on it. He said: Effing Deepak Chopra… and there was a load of chuntering on and more swearing until he admitted: Meditation is so hard. And so it is.

Be not afraid: Energy exchange for the broken hearted

Lately, I have been practising Tonglen a Buddhist meditation technique for overcoming the fear and suffering my dad was swearing about. Danielle La Porte sums it up in the Firestarter sessions as:

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Breathe in suffering— yours, others, the world’s. Breathe out compassion— for yourself, for others, for the world.

Basically when you feel brokenhearted, which I currently do, you breathe in the very pain that is undoing you, and you lean into the unbearable agony of it all, and then you breathe out love. You may feel that you are going to shatter into a million little pieces, but then a little magic happens and you exchange one emotion for another. You do it for yourself, and for all the ones who broke your heart, and for those who broke their own hearts, and by doing so broke your heart so badly that you feel nothing good will ever happen again. And, you keep doing it, in and out, in and out, in and out, until the pain is bearable and not so heart breaking and not so frightening and it has become a noble pain of service. Who knew that the simple act of breathing could be so powerful?

The most often repeated words in the Bible are: Be not afraid and yet it is the hardest thing to be, not afraid. And yet, it is the only thing to be, in order to live life with love and to truly connect with others, we have to learn to be not afraid. As my old dad used to always say:

The only thing to fear is fear itself.

Until you can know that, deep down in your broken, tender heart, the only thing to do is breathe.

Creating space (3): Authenticity

I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing
– William James

In Creating Space (2) I talked about how nine times out of 10 when people say things, it is not intentionally designed to hurt me. The other evening, I got text which fell into the 10th time category. My immediate response was to type a raging text back to vent my hurt and my anger.

I was about to press send and then I remembered these creating space blogs, swore a little under my breath, paused, and then I edited my response so that the texter and I could exchange the information we needed without everything escalating.

I am glad I did. Today as I type this, I have almost forgotten how hurt and angry I was, there is no emotional charge on that memory, whereas if I had gone ahead with my original text response I would have been still talking about who got last word and whose words hurt the most. Whoever said: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me, has clearly never met my family.

Sometimes we need to imagine ourselves a little bit different to how we are in that moment – because there are so many versions of us, but we are aiming for our best – so that we can guide the outcome of a situation. It is almost like creating a space to give ourselves the chance to stay in that different state afterwards. We deserve that nice state.

Getting into a state

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), first invented by John Grinder and Richard Bandler, and extensively promoted by Tony Robbins and Paul McKenna has long promoted the belief that we can make changes in our lives to become more successful/thinner/richer by changing our states which changes our behaviour and thoughts, and then we can go on and also influence other people too.

Like most self-help books, I have always found NLP tiring, all that need to change myself suggests that I am not enough the way that I am and that I have to be something else.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.  

So it has been such a relief to read Danielle La Porte’s  The Desire Map Book, because she says that we want to be more successful/thinner/richer because we want the feeling of whatever comes with that goal: the feeling of power, sexiness or security. Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.

Rather like my text exchange, I had to identify what I wanted to feel after it was over and then act in that way.  Too often, we immediately respond to the world around us rather than pausing to see how we feel, and more importantly how we want to feel during a moment. This is so much easier for me than having to rewire my brain to be a different person.

Confidence, comfort, passion, enthusiasm

davidji says that we must absolutely get clear on what we want because we make too many decisions out of fear and desperation, or in my text case anger and hurt. He quotes the Bhagavad Gita: Yogastha kuru karmani and tells us that we must establish ourselves in the present moment, i.e., create space to pause in and decide on an outcome, before we act, if we want a better outcome in a given situation.

And, this advice is demonstrated by Amy Cuddy in her book Presence. She says that the people who were most likely to be awarded venture capitalist money were the ones who presented their ideas with confidence, comfort, passion and enthusiasm. These people did not spend their time in the spotlight looking fearful or desperate. Their belief in what they wanted sponsorship for came through in their voices, gestures and facial expressions. They were completely present in the moment and demonstrated authenticity. Cuddy says we can all do this. We can learn to tap into that state where we feel confident and passionate, when we need to, to rise to the occasion.

The authentic self

Semiotics teaches us that our only measurement of truth is if it feels right, that is to say: Does it ring true and fit with what we already feel? We live our own stories everyday and have our own knowledge and experience of storytelling so that when we listen to someone else’s story, if it doesn’t ring true then we don’t believe that person. This might be because that person is a bit off, a bit inauthentic, which could be that they or we don’t quite trust ourselves in a given situation.

We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values.

Cuddy’s book and TED talk tell us that we can learn to trust ourselves by believing in our own stories. We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values. So, Cuddy recommends faking it until we make it, or become it. Because, we are not really faking it, we are remembering ourselves in our self-affirming story.

The more powerless people feel, the more anxiety they experience, and the smaller they become. We need to create a space in order to become present, you have presence and you take up the space you deserve and require in any situation to give and receive the very things that the meeting, the text, the conversation came about for, in the first place.

Sometimes we get so lost in a moment, and we feel so desperate and afraid, we forget, why we decided to have that conversation, presentation, text.

Intimacy not intimidation

Taking up space and expanding in the animal kingdom is a way of demonstrating power and Cuddy says that this is not intimidation, for, if someone is too big we will avoid them, instead expanding and being expressive in a given space is a form of intimacy.

For me, the NLP approach which Robbins and McKenna use seems to have a very masculine flavour which needs us emulate the alpha male. Simon Sinek, takes a similar stance, he advises leaders to speak last, eat last – basically have the last word – a total demonstration of intimidation not intimacy. Again, it is an old-fashioned alpha male approach of domination, which makes me cringe, though Sinek says he wants to change the way industries function in order to take better care of their employees. You can’t do that if your leaders pull all the tricks to have the last word.

It is not about winning

It is not about winning! 

So, it is refreshing to have Amy Cuddy explain similar advice but in a different way. The reason we may want to slow down, speak slowly, and take a pause is, that it helps us expand and occupy the space we need in order to choose the correct and appropriate response without anxiety and without anger. We want to know that when we act and speak we have done so as our most authentic selves, the nicest selves we can muster, and that we take the time to think so we don’t do or say anything that we would later on regret. 

Whatever we say or do in any of these spaces, we want to leave them warmer and brighter than they were before we entered them. As we all learnt at school: 

It is not about winning! It really is about the taking part.

Is this progress? Humans, computers and stories

As a computer scientist, I have to say my job has changed very little in the last  last twenty-odd years. The tech has, admittedly, but I am still doing what I did back then, sitting in front of a computer, thinking about how computers can make peoples’ lives easier, what makes people tick, and how can we put the two together to make something cool?  Sometimes I even program something up to demonstrate what I am talking about.

It seems to me though that everyone else’s jobs (non-computer scientists) have changed and not necessarily for the better. People do their jobs and then they do a load of extras like social media, blogging, content creation, logging stuff in systems- the list is endless – on top of their workload.

It makes me wonder: Is this progress?

Humans and stories

As a teenager, on hearing about great literature and the classics, I figured that it must be something hifalutin’. In school we did a lot of those kitchen sink, gritty dramas (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Kes, etc.,). So, when I found the section in the library: Classics, Literature, or whatever, it was a pleasant surprise to see that they were just stories about people, and sometimes gods, often behaving badly, and I was hooked. Little did I know that reading would be the best training I could receive to become a computer scientist.

Human and computer united together

In my first job as systems analyst and IT support, I found that I enjoyed listening to people’s stories in and amongst their descriptions about their interactions with computers. My job was to talk to people. What could be better? I then had to capture all the information about how computers were complex and getting in the way and try to make them more useful. Sometimes I had to whip out my screwdriver and fix it there and then. Yay!! Badass tech support.

The thing that struck me the most was that people anthropomorphised their computers, talking about them needing time to warm up, being temperamental, and being affected by circumstances, as if they were in some way human and not just a bunch of electronic circuits. And, that the computer was always the way of progress, even if they hated it and didn’t think so.

I think this is partly because it was one person with one computer working solely, so the computer was like a companion, the office worker you love or hate, who helps or hinders. There was little in the way of email or anything else unless you were on the mainframe and then it was used sparingly, especially in a huge companies. Memos were still circulated around. The computer was there to do a task – crunch numbers, produce reports, run the Caustic Soda Plant (I did not even touch the door handles when I went in there) –  the results of which got transferred from one computer to another by me, and sometimes by that advanced user who knew how to handle a floppy disk.

Most often information was transferred orally by presentation in a meeting or on paper with that most important of tools, the executive summary whilst the rest of it was a very dry long winded explanation, hardly a story at all.

Human and computer and human and computer united

Then the Internet arrived and humans (well mainly academics) began sharing information more easily, without needing to print things out and post them.  This was definitely progress. I began researching how people with different backgrounds like architects and engineers could work together with collaborative tools even though they use different terminology and different software. How could we make their lives easier when working together?

I spent a lot of time talking to architects and standing on bridges with engineers in order to see what they did. Other times I talked to draftsmen to see if a bit of artificial intelligence could model what they did. It could up to a point, but modelling all that information in a computer is limiting in comparison to what a human can know instinctively, which is when I realised that people need help automating the boring bits, not the instinctive bits.

I was fascinated by physiological computing, that is, interacting using our bodies rather than typing – so using our voices or our fingerprints. However, when it was me, my Northern accent, and my French colleagues, all speaking our fabulous variations of the English language into some interesting software written by some Bulgarians I believe, on a slow running computer, well, the results were interesting, to say the least.

Everyone online

The UK government’s push to get everything electronic seemed like a great idea, so everyone could access all the information they needed. It impacted Post Offices, but seemed to free up the time spent waiting in a queue and to provide more opportunities to do all those things like pay a TV licence, get a road tax disc, and passport, etc. This felt like progress.

I spent a lot time working on websites for the government with lovely scripts to guide people through forms like self-assessment so that life was easier. We all know how daunting a government form can be, so what could be better than being told by a website which bit to fill in? Mmm progress.

Lots of businesses came online and everyone thought that Amazon was great way back when. I know I did living in Switzerland and being able to order any book I wanted was such a relief as opposed to waiting or reading it in French. (Harry Potter in French although very good is just not the same.) Progress.

Then businesses joined in and wanted to be seen, causing the creation of banners, ads, popups, buying links to promote themselves, and lots of research into website design so they were all polished and sexy, even though the point of the Internet is that it is a work in progress constantly changing and will never be finished.

I started spending my time in labs, rather than in-situ, watching people use websites and asking them how they felt. I was still capturing stories but in a different way, in a more clinical, less of a natural habitat, way which of course alters what people say and which I found a bit boring. It didn’t feel like progress. It felt businessy – means to an end like – and not much fun.

Human -computer -human

Then phones became more powerful and social media was born, and people started using computers just to chat, which felt lovely and like progress. I had always been in that privileged position of being able to chat to people the world over, online, whatever the time, with the access I had to technology, now it was just easier and available to everyone – definitely progress.   Until of course, companies wanted to be in on that too. So, now we have a constant stream of ads on Facebook and Twitter and people behaving like they are down the market jostling for attention, shouting out their wares 24/7, with people rushing up asking:  Need me to shout for you?

And, then there are people just shouting about whatever is bothering them. It’s fantastic and fascinating, but is it progress?

The fear of being left behind

The downside is that people all feel obliged to jump on the bandwagon and be on multiple channels without much to say which is why they have to do extras like creating content as part of their ever expanding jobs. The downside is that your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times. The upside is that people can say whatever they like which is why your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times.

Me, I am still here wondering about the experience everyone is having when this is all happening on top of doing a job.  It feels exhausting and it feels like we are being dictated to by technology instead of the other way around. I am not sure what the answer is. I am not sure if I am even asking the right question. I do know how we got here. But is this where we need to be? Do we need to fix it? Does it needs fixing?  And, where we should go next? I think we may need a course correct, because when I ask a lot of people, I find that they agree. If you don’t, answer me this, how do you feel when I ask: Is this progress?

Designing story (5): Possession, the relations between minds

Sexy, funny, lovely: Still from Possession (2002)

He felt that he was prying, and as though he was being uselessly urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity  – not greed, curiosity, more fundamental even than sex, the desire for knowledge.  – Possession,  A S Byatt (1990)

[ Part 5 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5) Possession, the relations between minds]

I have read many a How to write a bestselling... novel/book/etc. I love them inexplicably, though, I have never written (or published) a novel/book/etc., bestselling or otherwise. 

In all of the how to books I have read, they identify the bestselling pattern, after the fact, after the book has been hailed as bestselling, which I think is cheating a little, especially as the author who identifies the bestselling pattern is never the one who has written the bestselling book under analysis. Personally, I would love to have someone write a how to, then wait a while, and then afterwards, publish a best seller. How cool would that be?

We all want to be seen, heard, and matter

As usual, I was wondering why the need to write (or publish) a best selling novel is so compelling and, why how to write a bestselling… books are so successful. Finally, the reason I came to is the one I always use for everything, probably now and forever, on this blog, in conversation, on social media, and it’s what I murmur during my sleep which is: We all want to be seen and heard, we all want to matter. So, if we write (or publish) a bestselling novel, then of course, people will take notice of us, we will be seen and heard, and we feel like we matter.

The closest thing that I have read to a how to by a best selling novelist is A S Byatt’s Possession and all the wonderful things she said about writing it during interview. Byatt said that she set out to write a bestselling novel. And, I believe her. It is very different from her other work. (Just an aside, if you are thinking of Stephen King On Writing, as good as it is, a) it is part memoir, b) he wrote it long after he had written many a bestselling book and, c) I’m psychic.)

I first read Possession in the midst of completing my PhD in Engineering and it was the only novel I have ever read before or since, that made me wish I’d stuck with my original plan of doing a degree in English Lit (I have A levels in History, French and English Literature and I have degrees in Computing, Artificial Intelligence,and Structural Engineering – I know!). Even today, as I am rereading Possession, whilst wrapping up this blog series, it still fills me with that yearning for things lost, you know the one.

A yearning that I’ve always known and always had

For me, it is brought about by the first spring evening when the clocks have gone forward, especially on a day like today (Mother’s Day) – a flash bulb memory causing you to remember all the other days you have lived through when you experienced that yearning, which somehow includes the promise of light, of life, of creation. Or, the other one which undoes me, sometimes in the middle of a pub, or a conversation, when I forget what I am saying because I hear a key change in a song, it might be a bridge, or include a certain phrase in a chorus, it’s that change which causes an uplifting and undoing all at once. It reflects a yearning that I’ve always known and always had, even before I had reason to yearn.

Possession makes me yearn too, for it is a fantastic novel of love lost, of lives not lived out loud, and it demonstrates all the things I have spent ages fathoming out whilst writing about what makes a good story, which begs the question: Did I write this blog series with Byatt in mind? I don’t think so. However, her desire to write Possession, began with the very nature of the question: If you spend time considering other people’s words then who possesses whom?  In Byatt’s words: Possession is about the relations between […] minds.

Truth is what feels right to us, the only truth we know

Possession starts with a familiar genre: the detective story. Byatt said she had been asked to review Umberto Eco’s Reflections on the Name of the Rose, and she liked the detectives, and how in order to destroy a library with fire, Eco had to design it so it could easily go up in flames.  To detectives she adds a quest for the truth after a serendipitous discovery of an unsent-beginning-of-a-love-story-letter in the London Library. And, then very cleverly she includes 1,700 lines of short story, poems and letters, so that we the reader find our own truth in these writings, knowing what we now know between the two authors, because truth is defined in semiotics, by what feels right to us. It is the only truth we know.

Mr and Mrs Smith in a B&B

Then, she describes the time and place so perfectly, we feel that we are researching too, in the British Museum, or that we are in Victorian times doing, as my mum would have called, a Mr and Mrs Smith in Whitby (alright: a euphemism for booking into a hotel to spend time together). Indeed, the still above is the two of them travelling up north in a train carriage, and it portrays that sense of intimacy which two people who have never been alone before, but who have corresponded for a while, experience on meeting for the first time, and which we sometimes feel online nowadays, before even meeting.

Archetypes and the twists in the tale

And, we have our archetypes: the academics, the feminists, the down trodden scholars, the women who endure, each which bring their own energy. Byatt provides twists on them, because although we like what is familiar, we want a twist in the tale. We want surprise and we want our archetypes to be just that – archetypes not stereotypes. The found letter is a catalyst, a herald of change archetype, for everyone involved in the story. And, to that mix, Byatt explores lesbians, spiritualism, and gothic grave digging in the present day and Victorian times to juxtapose living between the ages, with our liminal women who live enclosed lives, and our different ways of managing life, birth and death, influenced as she said by Henry James The Bostonians.

We feel the intimacy of the trip, the intimacy of a séance even written in the omnipresent third person. We feel happy escaping there, even when Byatt presents us with those polarities of life and death, of love and pain, of agony and ecstasy. She describes them exquisitely.

Creativity: sex, life, and rock and roll

I once saw Byatt at the Oxford Union and remember her saying that she reads The Lord of the Rings when she is ill because it is comforting, because it is asexual. I remember giggling a bit at the time. But, now I get it. I often watch The Two Towers when I feel too ill to do anything. So much of life is about creativity which of course is inextricably linked to sex, the ultimate act of creation, to life, birth, death, and all the big questions such as: Why are we here? So, no wonder, grappling with all that, everyone needs the day off feeling sexy sometimes. Byatt writes about sex beautifully too, yep I know you were thinking about it.

So, how is this answering the question I started with in Part 1: How do we design a classic story? The answer is, we write about the emotional truth of a situation. We write about what touches us most and we do so with an open heart, with vulnerability, we lean in and we love, and we capture it, along with our regrets and the things we mourn, with a sense of significance. Stories matter, so we must do it in a way that uplifts us so that regardless of what happens, we can still look on life with a shiver of awe.

Sexy, funny, lovely detective work

And, this is the thing about Possession, a lot of the reviewers said that the book had a big heart, as if it was a surprise, that someone so erudite could be so sexy, funny, and lovely, but Byatt leaves us clues all along, even fusty, dusty James Blackadder thinks about learning things by heart, as if poems are stored in the bloodstream, and then quoting Wordsworth: Felt along the heart. Byatt knows that we all want the same things. We all feel the same way. We are all experiencing the human existence, even the seemingly fusty, dusty characters (and that is just one point of view of a person) want to feel sexy, funny, and lovely sometimes.

And, we the reader spend the whole book reading the poems and short stories, and then finally, letters (which Byatt achingly holds out on us for the longest time) trying to see the sexy, funny, lovely parts of the interaction between the two people who wrote them, mentally intertwined but physically far apart, after their passionate time doing a Mr and Mrs Smith in a Whitby B&B.

And, don’t we do that with any book we read? Whether it is part of the English Literary Canon, the one that Byatt knows so well, and wears so lightly in this book that it dazzles us. Or, any other story from anywhere else literary or not? We are looking for a resonance, an intimacy, a connection, we are looking to fulfil our Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (‘cos I never miss a chance to mention that either in any blog I write). And once we close the book, armed with that new knowledge gained by violent curiosity, we too feel sexy, funny, and lovely, and can dazzle and feel dazzled in return, in and amongst the intimacy and connection which makes our world a brighter, better place.