Privacy

Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of … self-development. – Julie E. Cohen

Writer Muriel Spark kept her own archives. Every bus ticket, theatre ticket, diary, shopping list, cheque stub, etc., she kept and stored in boxes for years until she sold the lot to the National Library of Scotland.

When I first read about Spark’s archive, I loved her chutzpah. But, in Appointment in Arezzo, Alan Taylor explains that the archive was far from her having one eye on posterity. Spark kept it so that she had irrefutable proof of who she was and the experiences which had shaped her. She could use that archive to know the truth about herself and her past especially when people she had known and loved wrote about her unfavourably.

Nowadays we all have similar archive, online. It boggles my mind how Google has recorded every journey I have ever made when using its maps. Elsewhere I am in databases in the workplace, pension plans, the doctor’s, the dentist, the TFL Oyster card system, and so on. My offline archive is just a mountain of old diaries.

Personal information, like the fields found in a database, wasn’t really collected until after WWII, and even then it didn’t become a commodity until much later on when businesses began to collect it to sell us things. Before that, there wasn’t much anyone didn’t know about you in your community say like your village. I know where I grew up everyone knew everything about me. But there is a massive difference between the facts that are known about me by neighbours and the journals I have kept.

It is the same today. I mean I don’t care if you know where I go, or what I buy, or how old I am. I don’t publicise these things and definitely not online, but even so, if you asked me I would probably tell you. However, if you were to come round my house and read my diaries I would be mortified. They are private.

Privacy is a social construct. Historically people lived closely together so there was no privacy. It was only in the US in 1980, it came to mean the right to be let alone as defined in Samuel D Warren and Louis Brandeis’ article titled The Right to Privacy.

UK and EU law is more piecemeal, we have privacy of information and the right to respect for our private and family life but nothing as clear as the US torts.

There might be lots of personal information about us in databases or in other people’s heads where we fit demographically, but that is not the same as our hopes, our dreams, or our irritating habits, which is why when someone shares that sort of information about us or indeed reads it in a diary, without our permission, especially if it is something we wouldn’t want the whole village or indeed Internet to know, it can feel like a horrible betrayal and a violation of our privacy.

That said, our everyday lives are a constant trade off between privacy and intimacy, between sociability and creating relationships. Privacy is not an absolute state and it can be doubly difficult to figure out where we are, when we are the individuals who have offered up our private space in the first place, which is what we do when we put up pictures of our houses, or our lunch, or ourselves, online.

Knowing yourself in the face of others

Knowing what to keep private can be a hard call and can change from day to day. With people online, whom we chat to, we tend to fall into an immediate trust and share more readily because trusting and sharing is what builds intimacy, and as we have little to go on with a virtual someone else, we may violate our own privacy to drum up a sense of intimacy and trust, and if the other person turns out to be not what they said they were then we may feel a bit foolish, that’s if we are lucky!

We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin. – André Berthiaume

But it is not our fault. Laurence Scott says in The Four Dimensional Human, that the modern message is that we are fundamentally isolated from each other and that when we get online we have the abstract promise of going home, it has become part of the rhythms of almost every waking hour to look for a sign or word elsewhere.

In other words, connection gives our lives meaning and we will readily trade some privacy for the promise of not feeling socially excluded. And, if Scott is to be believed, then technology has trained him to be permanently online hoping for some connection.

The hoped for self

And, if that is true, it is no wonder that Scott remains frustrated that people do not share the things which he feels really need to be shared and instead curate their lives carefully to makes themselves look like they are having a life well lived. In his words: We gentrify our web presence and describes social media as a bit of a stage performance.

But how else are we to behave? Being honest and vulnerable online or off takes courage, so if the person or indeed the whole gang of people with whom you are sharing don’t understand or empathise, and in a worst case scenario, let you know, you can feel crushed and ganged up against. It is only with a strong sense of self can you recover.

Privacy provides you with a space in which to discover that sense of self but if you are never offline then how can you cultivate one? You cannot do it online if you are wanting randomers to satisfy your painful yearnings for connection.

I read something today that the optimum number of friends of Facebook is 300. Anymore and you look like you have no friends. Elsewhere, like Twitter or LinkedIn, lots of followers makes you look fabulous. Connectedness is a commodity and we work hard to keep our numbers up. We cannot win. Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman has said that we are under siege in this pervasive digital culture and there are a lot of rules made up by social media experts for us to manage and succeed online. We need to be authentic, unless of course we are not very nice then we have to hide that and pretend to be nice, authentic, and the same as everyone else.

We like rules to make sense of things and we have long been told how we should live our lives by the media, with social media there are just more ways to be told how to conform.

In Cave in the snow author Vicki MacKenzie, describes how Buddhist monk Tenzin Palmo moved into a cave up the Himalayas so that she could meditate in peace:

She could begin to unravel the secrets of the inner world – the world that was said to contain the vastness and wonder of the entire universe.

More and more I am beginning to think this aptly describes privacy. We could all do with a bit of solitude to build our emotional and digital resilience. The Internet is fabulous as it compresses time and space, great for maintaining friendships, keeping in touch with loved ones, running businesses, and so on. But if all we do is constantly look online to find meaning,connection and validation then we will never give ourselves that time and space to give those things to ourselves.

We don’t have to go mad like Tenzin Palmo and sit in a cave for 12 years or indeed emulate Christopher Knight the man who lived alone in the woods for 27 years and experienced deep transcendental moments in nature. We don’t  even need to delete our social media accounts as Jared Lenier warns us we must. But, we need to protect our inner world, our privacy, so that if we never unravel the secrets of the entire universe, or transcend ourselves watching the fog lift at sunrise, we know enough to love and respect our own dear selves, so that we are able to connect with love and respect to our fellow human beings, by transcending the painful yearning we sometimes get when our needs are not being met.

The man in the woods’s observation of the mobile phone is fascinating: Why, he wonders, would a person take pleasure in using a telephone as a telegraph machine? “We’re going backwards,” he says.

Privacy is the space in which we come on home to ourselves. There’s no need to camp out online in the hope of making a home in a stranger’s photo album.

Creating space (5): When people can’t stand you

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 (2): In daily life

In creating space, I wrote about what happens to me during yoga and meditation and how I have learnt that on the yoga mat when I am struggling,  I can stop, breathe, and create space to reflect on what to do next, which can actually change what happens next.

Taking it off the mat and into the world

This is starting to happen in real life too. I have learnt that when I am having a conversation with someone either in real time or online, I can do exactly what I do on my yoga mat. If someone says something to me which presses my buttons, or something which is the complete opposite of what I believe, I can breath and give myself a space to reflect on why I am so upset, and then I can be more objective and respond better. I know that nine times out of 10 when people say things, it is about them and not me, they haven’t said it to purposefully upset me, and vice versa, when I respond with anger/fear/hurt and a desire to upset someone it’s about me not them, so there is no need for me to get my yoga pants in a twist in that precise moment.

My repetitive thoughts

I have a lot of repetitive thoughts on a loop which cause me pain and when I am supposed to be quiet and observe them, they are so strong, I follow those thoughts straight into my mind, out of the quiet space.

It is the same in my meditation practice too. I don’t ever manage to clear my mind, but what I can do is recognise my thoughts as they arrive when I am sitting still. I have a lot of repetitive thoughts on a loop which cause me pain and when I am supposed to be quiet and observe them, they are so strong that I follow those thoughts straight into my mind, out of the quiet space. I hear the old negative self-talk, the he-shouldn’t-have-done-that-to-me series,  and all the others which have crossed my mind so often and are so familiar I am off before I have had time to catch myself, and I can spend a couple of minutes in the same-old-same-old before I come back to meditating. Thankfully now back in my daily life, sometimes I start thinking something which isn’t good for me from that list of familiar thoughts, and I think: Ah ok, I don’t have to think that thought right now, I am doing ok without it. There is a space within in which I am kind to myself and in which I feel free.

Tolerating bad behaviour

Then, there are the patterns. Often, I will tolerate behaviour which bothers me, because instead of just saying: Can you not do that? I don’t like it. I second guess myself and hear all the voices from childhood telling me to stop making a fuss. But the truth is, if someone is doing something that I don’t like, I can ask clearly, it isn’t making a fuss. It is about feeling comfortable with how people behave towards you. If it bothers me then it is important.

So, just last week, I asked someone to stop touching me. This is someone who greets me everyday by kissing me, hugging me, and touching my hair, which in the given specific circumstance, I find over familiar and uncomfortable. I had until the moment I spoke, hoped the person would have noticed that I flinch every time. Did I ask well? Not necessarily, but it was a first step. Did it go down well? No, the person was offended, and immediately walked away, and hasn’t really spoken since, but then that is their right. However, I got what I wanted, someone stopped invading my boundaries and manhandling me. I also stretched myself further and did something I have never done before. Normally, I apologise for saying what I really think or for asking someone to do the right thing in order for me to feel comfortable. This time I took a deep breath and didn’t apologise for wanting what makes me feel comfortable. So, I sat with the discomfort that I spoke honestly and that this person might not speak to me again.

But then, I did the other thing I do when I feel uncomfortable, I had to seek validation for my behaviour. I told someone else what happened, but picked a person who said: You shouldn’t have done that. Now! I knew that person would respond like that and I wouldn’t feel better. So why did I do it? Why? Because, I still don’t listen to myself. Or perhaps I listen to myself – well my thoughts/my ego – too much, and know exactly what to do to back them up.

All the relationships and interactions in our lives reflect us, and how we feel about ourselves.

Spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant says that all the relationships and interactions in our lives reflect us, and how we feel about ourselves. I definitely believe that. I am proof of that.  I went out and asked the exact person who would reflect what I was thinking: I shouldn’t have done that. Even though in that deepest part of me, that most pure, innocent part of my heart, which I access in those moments of space I create, I know  if something bothers me, I am allowed to say: Enough, please treat me better. Regardless of what the other person thinks, if it bothers me, and if they care about me like they say they do, then they won’t do it.

However, this is a recurring pattern, as Iyanla says, and it will play out again and again with the same story but different scenarios, different actors. I will have the chance to learn this lesson again. What I can do is adopt Byron Katie’s approach in the work and say: I look forward to it happening again, so that I can look at it as an opportunity to create that lovely space in which to question it, free myself and feel better, so that I can learn a new pattern of less compromise, less mental chatter, less external validation. I can hardly wait.

 

Creating space

still from series Being Erica door on beach

In Bikram this morning, I was struggling to get into the full expression of Dandayamana Bibhaktapada Janushirasana (Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose) when the teacher said: Create space.

To me, up until that moment, that phrase has meant that I stretch up and literally create space between each of the vertebrae in my spine before bending forward. When I do this I can see my body change shape in front of the mirror.

Today though, on rounding forward, my sweat was stinging my eyes, my throat was choked so I couldn’t breathe and my tummy was sucked right in – again to create space – so when I arrived at the halfway point just before she said: Create space, I began to panic as I have scar tissue left over from surgery which sometimes hurts and leads to the thought: I can’t bear it.

Giving up the struggle

However, I didn’t want the panic today, I wanted a different option, and not that woe is me thought which sometimes comes up either. So, not really knowing what to do for the best, or how to create any more space, I stopped. I didn’t roll back up or press on. I stayed where I was, halfway to the full expression, and all the way to full panic, and then I took a couple of deep breaths in and out (always through the nose in Bikram) until something magical happened.

I was completely present in that moment with an ease and joy that I can only describe as life affirming, which enabled me to continue into the final expression with grace.

Everything shifted and released. In that moment I created space instead of panic and I let go of the sweat, the stinging, the precious scar tissue, the choked throat, and the need to get into the final expression of the pose. I was completely present in that moment with an ease and joy that I can only describe as life affirming, which enabled me to continue into the final expression with grace. I wanted to laugh out loud!

A new but not new discovery

This felt brand new, because in that moment, which up until then was just like all the other times in that pose and panic, I chose a different option – I overcame my embodiment – and it was brand new. However, the fact that I can create space is not a new discovery or at least, theoretically, it shouldn’t be as I have been meditating twice daily since 1st April, after attending a two day course with the amazing davidji.

Or perhaps, it is the other way round, because I practice connecting to my breath twice a day, it is easier for me now to take a moment to breathe even when I am distressed and about to do something which I have done many times before which didn’t end well.

Meditation is not supposed to be blissful or peaceful, it is boring and painful and we do it so that when we open our eyes we are less demanding of the world.

At this point, I wanted to quote Einstein’s: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result here, but apparently he didn’t say it.

However, I managed as davidji says: To create a pattern interrupt into [my] default mechanism (or response) which led to new possibilities, and this is all thanks to meditation, of which davidji says: Meditation is not supposed to be blissful or peaceful, it is boring and painful and we do it so that when we open our eyes we are less demanding of the world.

The best version of me

That is what happened to me during Dandayamana Bibhaktapada Janushirasana, I became less demanding that the moment should be anything than what it was, or that my body, or the way I felt, should be anything than what they were.

It felt like freedom because now I know that potentially, in any difficult moment, I can create space for myself, and a space for me to consider how best to respond and become the best version of me.

I might not always be able to do that because I am not the Dalai Lama, and I have big buttons that people manage, inadvertently I’m sure, to press on a daily basis. But, just the thought of me being able to create a little more space in my life where I feel ease and joy as I do difficult things with a grace which makes me laugh out loud, is so empowering, it makes me feel like all things are possible, I could be the next Dalai Lama. Watch this space! Or better still, meditate, and create your own.

Designing story (2) : Structure

 

Source: www.la-screenwriter.com

Some plots are moved forward by external events and crises. Others are moved forward by the characters themselves. If I go through that door, the plot continues. The story of me through the door.  If I stay here……the plot can’t move forward, the story ends. Also if I stay here, I’m late. – Prof Jules Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction (2006)

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

In life, stories are the way we communicate, so much so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to a story pattern are the most likely to be believed as truth.

In these uncertain times, thankfully we are questioning the news shown on TV and in the newspapers, because media companies have long used the old adage first uttered by Mark Twain: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But, what is truth? Semiotics, the study of how meaning is created, is the only measure of truth human kind has been able to devise encapsulated in the question: Does it feels right? When the answer is yes, this is because the new data often fits with standard or known truths that we refer to already. It feels true, it is familiar, it adds to our understanding of meaning.

Meaning comes from contrast. The greek god Agon (agony) represents the struggle and wrestling we do in order to create meaning, from light and dark, good and bad, love and hate. We use polarity to organise our thinking.

It works the same way in fiction only in a tidier, yet larger than life, fashion. We have our goodies and baddies. We have our agony and ecstasy. And we, the readers, figure it out because we interpret the polarities and the story structure to derive meaning.

Narrative or story structure

The story of any individual in any narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator.

Normally we have a protagonist (our goodie) and an antagonist (our baddie) in polarity. As the goodie’s situation improves, the baddie’s will deteriorate. The narrator can invert this relationship and create a tragedy. When we are looking at the baddie as our main protagonist from that point of view, we are sympathetic to their plight, they become our goodie. If they do something morally questionable we go on an exploration with them. Often this a cathartic one. Their story helps us negotiate our own conflicts unconsciously or otherwise. Some of our most sympathetic characters are baddies, like Macbeth, nothing he does is admirable, yet we are there feeling for him until the end.

Sometimes the main protagonist gets improved by something coming in from outside the narrative. If this is near the end of a story then we can feel unsatisfied, because it does not feel true, like the Greek deux ex machina  (literally machine of the gods), the equivalent of then we all went home for tea. This rarely happens in life so it doesn’t feel true, unless it happens in comedy like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. In that story though it doesn’t really matter how our ‘hero’ gets saved as we know he would be much better off anywhere else than where he is. It is ok. Comedy aside, if we don’t get to live through the full range of emotions, we don’t get closure and we feel dissatisfied with the ending.

Closure is a psychological term first suggested in Gestalt which explains how incomplete shapes are interpreted by the brain as whole. From the 1990s the term has been used with respect to relationships. So, when a relationship is over, sometimes we need closure to find an answer especially if it ended ambiguously, so we can learn from it and manage our world or people next time, or so we like to think.

Managing expectations

This is because according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we need certainty. We need to feel certain that our physiological and safety needs are met, this in itself feels like a reward. Consequently, in a story we are rewarded by the plot unfolding in a particular way.

But, we are complicated and only want certainty up to a point. Social media shows us that the information we share most often is surprise. For more than anything once we have a low level of certainty we need to be lifted up and inspired. So, in any given story we want it to follow a specific path (certainty) but have surprise twists in the tale. This enables us to transcend ourselves.

It doesn’t matter what story is being told, it matters if it is being told in the right way. As Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said: We don’t need a why, we just need a how. The medium is the message or form follows function, the actual content is to a certain extent, irrelevant, as long as it hits the main beats and has the right scenes with enough surprises in them to follow the story pattern we are expecting but with a freshness that transcends both the story pattern and our thoughts.

We have models to explain the world around us, ourselves and our behaviour. It is the same when we are being entertained. We construct the pattern and the meaning as we go along so that even if a certain narrative merely infers something off screen/scene, we still know how to automatically assimilate it into the rest of the narrative to make it into the complete story. So, when something inexplicable happens either in fiction or in real life, it leaves us baffled and without a way of incorporating it into our explanations.

Ups and downs

The general pattern of life is that we work up to something, we have a beginning, a middle, a climax and an end. The momentum gets going, we have highs and lows – those moments of great joy and those moments when we think we can’t stand it a minute longer, in all of our activities from sex and childbirth to prolonged hospital treatment, shopping in IKEA, and even meditation. Our emotions follow this pattern too. Think of laughter, of crying, or a wave of grief. It is the same so it seems logical that our stories would follow a similar pattern.

Thriller editor Shawn Coyne in his book Story Grid refers to Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief as a useful tool to model change, as all stories are about change and says: Even those wonderful literary novels in which nothing happens… the characters’ moods and ideas are constantly changing.

Patterns and genres

Depending on our reading tastes, we know the stories, we know which pattern to follow and it doesn’t matter where it sits on the often debated scale of entertainment: genre or literary, all action or internal, we feel when something is emotionally true because it is meaningful to us.

Here are some random patterns to think about:

  • Hero’s quest: The hero receives a call to action, goes on an adventure, has trials and tribulations, allies and foes, nearly falls at the end, returns home to great reward.
  • Chick lit:  The girl has problem in life, there is a cute guy, the problem becomes much bigger, everything looks bleak, she pulls it together as she is smart, solves her problem and gets the guy.
  • Thriller: Personal stakes life/ family/career are high enough to make the reader sweaty, often internationally the protagonist is chased about, has a show down with the antagonist, and wins.
  • Murder mystery:  There is a closed setting, a murder weapon, a body, detectives, we then find out the motive, the villain, and tie it up. We can even model it in  a computer (model-based machine learning).
  • Bildungsroman: A sensitive soul suffers a loss or tragedy, journeys to fill that vacuum with experiences,  gains maturity gradually, struggles then accepts values of society.
  • Love story: Two people meet, hit it off, something gets in their way, they are separated, and get back together at the end. Or don’t (tragedy).

There are many others: rags to riches, revenge, forbidden love, unrequited love, sacrifice, rivalry, disaster, recovery from grief, transformation, and so on.

Sometimes these patterns are combined into bigger patterns and in a different world created on another planet or fantasy land, or supernatural events occur. However, even if the landscape and events seems totally alien or paranormal, the emotions and behaviour of the characters are always human, always meaningful, and can always resonate.

If they don’t, we stop reading.

Formula or familiarity

It may seem formulaic but Christopher Vogler says in his book The Writer’s Journey: Unconventional art does not intersect with commonly held patterns of experience.

Rather like design, a certain amount of form is necessary to reach a wider audience who will expect to enjoy it so long as it has something fresh going on within the constraints of the formula. Vogler says that film studios use story design principles to evaluate scripts because they do so many, and the stories which capture us as an audience, capture our shared experiences:

We are all looking for ourselves in a dark wood, in the mirror of others, in the stories of life...

Which is why when we pick up a book or watch a film, we want to connect to a story which has meaning for us or at least for the characters in it, and that meaning is found in structure.

Part 3: Archetypes