Tag Archives: Stephen Fry

Anxiety vs. Creativity

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Over the holidays, I read I Am Brian Wilson, the erstwhile Beach Boy’s second memoir (after the first, written under the heavy influence of his therapist/Svengali Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson eventually disowned).  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for anyone looking for a deep insight into his process or a comprehensive behind the scenes chronicle of the Beach Boys’ history; it is very much the fragmented, personal recollections of a man looking back through a peripatetic lens from a lifetime’s distance.  To my generation, Wilson is known largely as the subject of a Barenaked Ladies song, and as the Beach Boys’ records fade from airplay on all but the stubborn classic rock stations, he is remembered at a glance more for his struggles with mental illness than his musical contributions.  To his credit Wilson does not shy away from describing the impact of his illness in his book and what has allowed him to manage it.  It is sad that even in 2017 mental illness remains dogged by stigma; one can only imagine with horror what it was like to endure it under the celebrity spotlight in the era where it was still acceptable to call such individuals crazy and fling them into asylums tended by Nurse Ratched types.

In one passage, Wilson talks rather nonchalantly about seeing a report on television about a link between anxiety and creativity, identifying that the very same part of the brain which can cause us to worry incessantly about things that may never happen is what also allows us to conceive of worlds that never were.  Maybe I’d always instinctively known that, given how many creative types throughout history have experienced some form of mental illness (or have even been described as merely having extremely difficult personalities), but I’d never read it put so simply and directly.  It led me to reflect on my own experiences with anxiety over the years, and to think about how the two forces are linked far beyond the daily battles that may be waged in one particular individual’s brain.

My anxiety would not be termed crippling by any means, as it has never been so debilitating that it has kept me from getting out of bed or functioning as a capable adult, not once.  But there was a time when it kept me fairly isolated from the world, where family and existing friends were ignored and the thought of initiating new relationships was as appealing as the proverbial root canal.  On many consecutive nights alone with West Wing DVD’s playing on a loop in the background, disappearing into the fictional worlds I was creating was the only way I could calm a turbulent stomach and silence the mantra repeating in my head about how I was bound to fail at everything lying out there in wait beyond the door of my one-bedroom apartment.  When fingers touched keyboard, those stresses vanished, and while I was in the process of creating, they were kept far at bay, locked in an impenetrable adamantium cage.

As soon as I hit save and close and stepped away, however, the anxiety roared back – questions of what now, assurances that no one would ever like this, that I’d never find a way to support myself with it, and that it was all a colossal waste of time.  I could never talk about what I was working on either, as my fear of the hated “oh, that’s nice” response or that people would think I was weird or simply wouldn’t get it made it easier to gloss that part of me over or pretend it didn’t exist.  So writing became more and more of a narcotic, as I shunned the outside in favor of the blinking cursor, but a significant part of me still wanted that outside, even as much as I feared entering it or didn’t seem to be able to function very well while navigating it.  I wanted to be as confident in interacting with real human beings as I seemed to be proficient in writing fictional dialogue, and I could never quite understand why the two did not complement one another.  Whatever the case, it was not a recipe for happiness.

Even years removed from those lonely nights, when I am now married, a parent, a homeowner and gainfully, stably employed, the anxiety lingers, reminding me how much of a failure I am each day – even though an objective observer would confidently argue the reverse.  With dogged determination, anxiety has crept into the previously impenetrable sanctuary of the creative process as well, leaching away what used to be the most reliable source of my confidence.  If I were somehow able to plug into my thoughts as I write this post, here is what they would be saying:  who are you kidding, this is pure shit.  This makes no sense, this is self-indulgent and pretentious, the writing is godawful, high school caliber, and hell, even high schoolers can write better than you.  It takes you hours what some of your peers can toss off effortlessly in fifteen minutes, and you might as well just delete this post because nobody’s going to read it, let alone like it anyway.  You should give up and get on with your life and leave this field to people who know what they’re doing and actually have people listening to them.  No one cares.  NO ONE CARES.  (Repeat to fade.)

I thought that eventually this would go away as I wrote more and published wider, but it’s gotten worse, to the point where literally dozens of posts have been strangled in the cradle, never seeing the light of day, because the voice of negativity has been too strong to overcome – expanding from mere inadequacy about one’s capabilities to sheer terror that some pissed off Trump-worshiping Internet troll is going to go to town on them.  But if anxiety and creativity are the same part of the brain, then it stands to reason that an increase in one would be directly proportional to an increase in the other.  As ideas spring and percolate and yearn to take shape, so too does the counterforce in equal measure, belittling and slapping those ideas down; apathy rears its slouching head to nip persistently at the heels of effort.  This doesn’t do any favors to goals of becoming more productive and prolific, but it would seem that you have to accept this rather Faustian trade in order to get on with things, and the less time spent bemoaning it, the better.

Towards the end of his documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry ruminates about the possibility of trading away his manic phases to the benefit of owning a more stable emotional state of being, and he offers bluntly, “I need my mania.”  It is a rather potent question to be asked even of those of us who don’t veer to those sorts of extremes:  would we give up our creativity to live without our anxiety and much more confidently, in order to be that guy who can walk into the room and charm the pants off everyone he meets, who always knows exactly what to say in every single situation, who never has the slightest doubt about who he is or what to do next, who never worries about what tomorrow might bring?  If you’re a writer, a painter, a musician or anyone who finds their passion in any creative works – whether it’s a casual hobby or how you put food on the table, could you answer with a yes?  I suspect that for many, there are days that you might, when it all seems to be folding in on you, when the abrupt ring of the telephone is a blade filleting every last nerve into shreds of spaghetti and you can’t fathom how you’re going to make it till tomorrow.  Yet in the calmer moments, you can look back at the impressive body of work that you’ve amassed and shake your head and say of course not, are you kidding me?  It is a lingering question with as many layers of duality as the integration of the two states themselves.

Even after reading his memoir I don’t know if Brian Wilson could definitively say one way or another, if he would have preferred a quiet, certain life over the chance to gift the world with “God Only Knows.”  But there might be a serenity to be found in learning (eventually) to accept that, in the words of Frank Sinatra, you can’t have one without the other – that the pitiless snarls of the beast salivating for your failure are mere fuel for the imagination that will ensure your success.

When you figure out how, let me know.

“Twetiquette” Twenty: Tips for T(w)errific Twitter Time

This post grew out of something I was doing on Twitter this morning.  Someone was wondering if they should unfollow a person who was cluttering up their feed with nonsense and constant retweets – they felt rude about doing it.  I suggested that if it were a TV channel that was playing a bunch of programs you weren’t interested in watching, you’d stop tuning in.  You’d probably even change your cable package to get rid of it (if the cable companies would let you, of course).  So why put up with it on Twitter?  I’ve followed people that seemed interesting at first but turned out to be irritants, spamming up my feed with dozens of retweets and mentions of stuff I wasn’t remotely interested in.  Why was I putting up with it?  No reason to.  Just click unfollow and be done with it.  I’m pretty sure those folks don’t miss me, and I sure as heck don’t miss them.  It’s not like there was any evil intent on either side, just two people discovering their interests weren’t compatible and going their separate ways.  Happens every day.  Anyway, I ended up tweeting a bunch of hints around the subject which I thought I would collate here for easy reference, and lo and behold, a few more spilled out in the process.

Fair warning – this isn’t your typical “How to Gain Followers and Maximize Your Influence” list.  This is just what I find helps me ensure every day on Twitter is a positive one.   But here goes anyway.  Some modest suggestions for your consideration (and disregard, if that is your inclination).  Note:  Each of these is under 140 characters so they are tweetable in their own right, if you want to share them.

  1. Telling someone you’ve unfollowed them is like telling a complete stranger you think you should see other people.
  2. You’re not obligated to follow someone back if you don’t want to.  Don’t add noise to your feed just to bump up your numbers.
  3. 50 engaged followers are better than 50,000 who never talk to you, retweet you or pay attention to you in any way.
  4. Don’t tweet in anger. Nothing in your head is so important that you can’t wait a few minutes to be sure you want to say it.
  5. Mind your manners with celebrities. Why would you want someone with an audience of millions telling them you’re an idiot?
  6. Try to reply to people when they mention you.  They have reached out and deserve acknowledgement.
  7. You’re not important enough to get away with being a jerk so be positive always, and if you can’t, stay silent.
  8. Don’t wade into conversations that don’t involve you unless you’re certain you can contribute in a positive way.
  9. Don’t tweet the same thing over and over; if it wasn’t funny the first time, it won’t be on tweet #78.
  10. We’re all sick of commercials on TV – don’t be one on Twitter with constant links to your product/book/service.
  11. If you don’t like what someone’s saying, just unfollow quietly and forget.  Don’t make a scene about it.
  12. ALL CAPS IS STILL SCREAMING, EVEN ON TWITTER.  PLEASE CALM DOWN, TAKE A STRESS PILL AND THINK IT OVER.
  13. Everyone swears, but dropping those bombs in every single tweet makes you sound childish.  Unless you are Chuck Wendig.  He’s allowed.
  14. No one is that interested in your boasting about how many people followed/unfollowed you today.  Yep, you’re a rock star, whatever.
  15. The guy you just mouthed off at might know a guy who knows a guy who knows your employer.  Maintain your decorum at all times.
  16. Follow Stephen Fry.  Retweet Stephen Fry.  Say nice things to and about Stephen Fry.  Spread the gospel of Stephen Fry.
  17. Don’t throw a Twitter pity party about how no one retweets or responds to you.  Would you talk to such a whiner in real life?
  18. Ignore trolls, block spammers without mercy and accept that not everyone will agree with you on everything.
  19. My old standby:  if you wouldn’t proudly carve it cement on your front porch, don’t tweet it.
  20. Ultimately, no one really knows what they’re doing on Twitter so take any advice about it with a heaping teaspoon of salt.

 

Yes, I would like Fry with that

fry
Credit: SamFry Limited, Creative Commons License. http://www.stephenfry.com

I come to you today with a confession, though not one unfamiliar to anyone who’s peeked at my Twitter biography.  I am an Anglophile.   Although perhaps it’s more precise to say I have Anglophile leanings, or, curiosities, as it were.  I haven’t taken the full plunge yet into declaring an allegiance to a U.K. football franchise, or learned what the hell is going on in a cricket match.  Downton Abbey remains unviewed to this day and I’ve never been able to glom onto Doctor Who (those cheaply made space monsters with the creepy accents scared the piss out of me when I was little.)  I do, however, have an enormous infatuation with certain cornerstones of British popular culture – James Bond, the Beatles, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Eddie Izzard, the original Whose Line is it Anyway, David Attenborough nature documentaries, The King’s Speech.  My taste in music is almost exclusively British bands and performers.  My conversations are peppered with British idioms, and when required, British profanity (nobody swears better in English than the ones who invented the language, you bollocks-arsed wankers).  My sense of humor has always leaned British in its dryness and self-deprecation.  And in this spirit of confession I am forced to admit a massive man-crush on that pillar of all that is magnificent about being British, Stephen Fry.  In fact, one of my little goals for my Twitter experience is to somehow convince Stephen Fry to find reason to follow me – without going the usual route of “hey plz follow meeee back!!!!”  (He follows about 50,000 people while over 5 million follow him – so I figure I’ve got a 1 in 100 chance, hardly impossible odds.)  I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this post is part of that strategy, but what the hell, Stephen Fry rocks, so even if he never sees this, it’s still worth writing.

The name might not be immediately familiar, but the face and voice are – the tall, imposing if sad-eyed figure with the bent nose, the deep, plummy voice you’ve heard narrating the Harry Potter audiobooks.  Stephen Fry has led a remarkably rich if not always charmed life, which you can read about in copious detail on his Wikipedia page.  From humble beginnings (naturally) he has become something of a world-renowned adventurer, not of the climb-the-mountain-while-battling-wild-zebras type, but of the mind, pursuing ventures literary, theatrical, televised, cinematic and everything in between, fueled by a love of language and a curiosity about everything.  As he says on his website, he finds it uncomfortable recounting his achievements, but he has nothing left to prove with a CV so varied.  One of the most interesting facets of Fry, particularly in his film roles, is that his screen time is usually limited, giving you a mere taste – as a result, he is this inscrutable larger-than-life character who never lingers long enough for you to figure him out and thus lose your interest.  You’re always left curious for more.  Indeed, there never seems to be enough Stephen Fry, and he seems to like it that way.  (Twitter in particular is tailored perfectly for people like that – I’m sure I come across as far more interesting in periodic bursts of 140 characters than I do in real life.)

The first time I saw Stephen Fry was in catching up on reruns of Whose Line.  In one episode he took part in a sketch where Josie Lawrence read every other line of a play while Fry was a flustered customer trying to purchase an airline ticket from her.  You can watch it for yourselves here.

His command of language is obvious; clearly a brilliant mind at work, confronting and embracing the absurdity of the premise and diving in with the bone-dry, semi-flustered and entirely elegant phrasing that marks the best of the British sense of humor.  Later, as I discovered and devoured his genius sketch comedy collaboration with Hugh Laurie, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, I could see the man at the height of his creative endeavors.  One of the biggest reasons why English humor often doesn’t translate is that much of it is built on the class system, one social stratum poking fun at the foibles of another.  Fry has the education of an upper class “to the manor born” man but he resents that caste’s appropriation of high culture, and slays mercilessly, on their own terms, those who attempt to use their Etonian upbringing to peer down snootfully past upturned noses.  Check out this brilliant sketch where Fry displays his unbridled love of the English language while mocking the personae of highbrow elocution-happy would-be intellectuals.

So much of popular comedy, particularly on this side of the pond, is based in being crude, breaking taboos for the sake of “oh no he didn’t” shock value, mocking those who can’t punch back, spewing endless profanity at high volume.  What I’ve always appreciated most about Stephen Fry is that he proves by example that you can be smart about being funny.  That in English, we have an enormous, infinitely quirky tool at our disposal that can be bent, twisted, turned inside out, dropped on its head, sent through the post, dusted off, sprinkled with garlic and spread about liberally to uncover some wonderful and unique ways of expressing ourselves in a manner that will always evoke a smile.  Fry loves puns; he loves surprising us with linguistic connections we’ve failed to realize.  Behold, my favorite Fry and Lauriein which this trick was never more hilariously illustrated.

When I’m working on my novel and I write the phrase “He was crestfallen; in fact, his crest had completely fallen off,” that’s me doing my best Stephen Fry impression.  For me, English words have come more alive since discovering the collected works of Mr. Fry – I’m looking for those connections now and holding them up proudly while jumping about like something of a crazed jackrabbit when I find them.  Stephen Fry has also shown us, in his very public struggles with his manic depression, that a flawed man can still achieve great things – in fact, his greatness is emphasized by his ability to manage his weaknesses.  Not defeat them, necessarily, but acknowledge them as an inexorable part of the whole.  In The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Fry talked about wanting to keep his mania phases, even if it meant having to suffer the extreme craters of the other side – a bold choice, to be certain, even if some might justifiably disagree.  Contradictions and all, Stephen Fry remains someone to admire, a man who has been described as one of Britain’s national treasures – one can imagine the bemused smirk on his face at hearing that.  But as an Anglophile, or Anglophile-curious, I can think of few Brits who deserve it more.  So thank you, Stephen Fry, for being you, for the influence you’ve had on this one Canadian whom you might humbly consider lending a Twitter follow to at some point, some day.  Soupy twist!

Fun with words: Fry’s Theorem

As regular readers know, I love the peculiarities – the quirks, as it were, of the English language.  Because to me, English is a bottomless trove of enigmas, a linguistic vein to be mined in endless permutations.  Creatively, it remains an invaluable resource, for if you are ever short on inspiration, you need only dive into its well to uncover a fresh helping of treasure.  Do not fear that bane known as writer’s block.  English will always be there when you need her.  Finding the creative impetus again can begin with something as small as the shape of a single word.

Glance if you will at the following sentence.  “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”  I borrowed it from a classic episode of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, a sketch involving Stephen and Hugh discussing the infinite capacity and flexibility of English.  Just ponder for a second the absurdity of that phrase and how it could only belong to the Queen’s grand old tongue.  Keeping in mind of course that other languages can be arranged in their own nonsensical combinations, Fry’s main argument – delivered in his unique style – is that because of the dexterity of English, one can speak such absurdities in the certainty that they have never been uttered before by anyone in the history of language itself.  Language is capable of so much more than we realize.  Much like the oft-repeated factoid that humans only use 10% of their brains, in our regular conversations we use only a fraction of language’s potential.  No wonder why dialogue with one another can often feel so stilted, so underwhelming.  Our reluctance to exploit the potential of language to its greatest extent is one of our many failings.  Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about how we converse with each other, and whether we are truly saying all we can say.  Quite possibly, those word-a-day calendars are really on to something.

Realistically, though, one has to wonder if we are an evolutionary downslope when it comes to how we speak to one another.  Slang is a far-too-easy layman’s recourse when our brain’s thesaurus fails to measure up.  Textspeak is another, and to a linguist like Stephen Fry must represent a true collapse of imagination, his well-documented love of technology to the contrary.  Ultimately the best approach on an individual basis is to set a good example, and hope that others may rise to the challenge.  Very likely some may dismiss this as elitism or worse, snobbery.  Whether or not they do is no reason why we shouldn’t still try to raise the game.  Xenophobia, or more precisely the fear of strangers’ reactions, certainly isn’t, in my mind, a compelling argument against it.

You may have noticed, if you are reading astutely, a particular quirk with this post, and you’re invited to submit your best guess as to what it is in the comments.  Zillions of imaginary happy points to the winner!

My mind rebels at stagnation

“Give me problems, give me work” – thus sayeth Sherlock Holmes.  Though possessed of a superhuman enthusiasm and eye for detail when at his best, Holmes could barely function in the absence of a new case or a worthy opponent.  So fares humanity in the face of complacency and routine.  We have become anaesthetized by the apathy afforded to us by our gadgets, by our pursuit of ever more “entertainment” that arouses mainly – in lieu of curiosity – one’s sense of schadenfreude.  We used to dream of setting foot on Mars – now we pine for the iPhone 5.  As much as Steve Jobs deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of technology, the rest of us should be ashamed at how we allow the numbing convenience of that technology change us into passive receivers of information, or worse, robotic consumers valued only for our ability to enter our PIN at the cash register.  Human beings are more than that, aren’t we?

I don’t want to sound like the Luddite pining for the days of the telegraph and the cotton gin as civilization advances around him.  I’m as guilty as the next guy.  I have a smartphone, a high-def television, a PVR, a Wii, a Blu-ray player and Netflix; I tweet, blog, use Facebook, Quora and many other social networking sites.  Gadgetry is cool, there are no two ways about it.  Stephen Fry, who – apart from my friend Tadd – may possibly be the most literate man alive, has long been obsessed with advances in technology but has not let that passion diminish his zeal for the irreplaceable substance of the written word.  There has been more than enough dystopian fiction penned about losing ourselves amidst the efficiencies of the mechanized society.  The challenge is, as always, to integrate that technology into life without abandoning oneself to it entirely – to log out every once in a while and reconnect with the organic.  To look back at where we’ve been and learn from what has gone before.

There is an interesting parallel to this when it comes to writing, especially in the fields of science fiction and fantasy.  Too many authors, it seems to me, get caught up in creating their worlds – crafting unpronounceable place and character names (rife with apostrophes), imagining new systems of religion and government, fanciful creatures, mythical objects and rules of magic.  While those kinds of details are certainly important, they’re the icing, not the cake.  Key to any successful story, no matter the genre, is the humanity of the characters – that their emotions and conflicted feelings can be understood and shared.  I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan; J.K. Rowling focuses too much on weird beings, MacGuffins and deus ex machina for my liking, but the reason Harry Potter works and reaches the audience it does is that everyone can understand the sense of alienation from the rest of the world and the wish fulfillment of finding out that one is truly special after all.  As large book retailers go bankrupt like falling dominoes and e-readers eat up the market, hopefully the humanity of our stories will continue to shine through – from the glowing screen if not from the printed page.  We must take care not to let the pursuit of greater technology become our raison d’etre – if so, we are only the Borg minus the physical implants.  Rather, technology’s aim should be the enhancement of the human spirit – to make our souls shine brighter and stand apart from the darkness.  To do otherwise simply does not compute.

Fun with words: Embiggened English

Last year, when that cunning polyglot Sarah Palin was castigated for her invented word “refudiate,” she invoked Shakespeare and the perpetual evolution of the English language.  While the Bard might execute the expected cemetery gymnastics in being compared to a person who never met a present-tense verb she couldn’t wrest of its “g,” the Barracuda was, to her credit, quite savvy in her assessment of our mother tongue.  Admittedly my opinion is biased given that apart from some passable conversational French, it’s the only language with which I’m intimately familiar, but I find the almost infinite permutations of “the Queen’s” fascinating.  Dialects, accents, patois, cant, slang, rhyming slang, textspeak (editor’s note:  vomit), jargon, technobabble, profanity, and the notion that a person from back-street Glasgow and one from Texas would never be able to understand one another despite using all the same words.  Particularly the profanity.  The great Stephen Fry recently tweeted what has become my new favourite:  “Bollocks arse wank and tittypoo.”  Try it sometime when you’ve just bashed your thumb with a hammer.  To quote The King’s Speech, it flows trippingly from the tongue.

It doesn’t have to be countries developing their own variations on English.  New lexicons spring up amongst even individuals.  As a relationship develops, partners formulate their own code and refine terms that are of use only to them.  Married friends of mine say “Icarus” to alert each other when their child is verging on a tantrum – justified props for the classical reference to the guy who flew too close to the sun on wax wings.  My own better half and I have conjured a host of phrases that are nonsensical to outsiders but capture with craftsman-like precision the very substance of the entity being described, in a relaxed, familiar manner that lets us know just what the other is thinking and feeling at that moment.  I present for your entertainment then, a sampling of our forays into etymology, and trust that you will not come away thinking us insane.  Pronunciation guide added where appropriate.

  • Bluhcky: BLUH-kee (adjective):  Descriptive for inclement weather, particularly that which is a combination of cold, damp/raining, fog or gray.  “It’s a really bluhcky day out today.”
  • Boogloo (noun):  Our cat’s covered bed, which resembles a small igloo, and thus a portmanteau of that and boo-boo-kitty“The cat is asleep in her boogloo.”  An additional note here is that boo- can be used as a prefix for any number of objects that relate to the cat:  Boo-bits (her food), boo-box (where her food goes when she’s done with it), boo-barf (the occasional unfortunate hairball).
  • Burnippy:  BRR-nippy (adjective):  Descriptive of a state of extreme cold.  “It’s supposed to be really burnippy tomorrow.”
  • Dirters (noun):  Portmanteau of dirty and unders, i.e. underwear, used to refer to any form of laundry that needs attention.  “Don’t leave your dirters on the bedroom floor.”
  • Frabjabbits (noun):  Exclamation to be used in situations deemed unfortunate, similar to “goshdarnit.”  “That local sports team lost again.  Oh, frabjabbits.”
  • Poobulasquaooh: POO-buh-lah-squah-ooh (???):  Placeholder for any song lyric that defies comprehension.  This is my father’s interpretation of a hastily delivered, slightly obscure line from Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” which actually goes “The woman is wild, ooh.”
  • Shmorgee-borgee (noun):  A meal consisting of a random assemblage of whatever food happens to be available, usually leftovers.  “We have lots of chicken and veggies and stuff so let’s just have a shmorgee-borgee tonight.”  An obvious if Swedish Chef-ized variation on “smorgasbord.”
  • Showeriffic (adjective):  Descriptive for how one feels after a warm, cleansing and satisfying shower, especially if one was particularly dirty and/or sweaty going in.  “That shower with the sixteen jets is just showeriffic.”
  • Snorfly (adjective)/The Snorfles (noun):  The state of feeling congested due to a cold or persistent allergies.  “Cleaning up that cat hair gave me the snorfles” or “I feel all snorfly after being out in the rain.”

What can I say, they require less spitting and hacking than Klingon.  Seriously though, just try slipping a few of these into your next conversation and let me know about the blank stares you get back.  But don’t tell me you don’t have your own mini-dictionary of words and phrases just for you and yours.  It’s how we personalize a flexible, slightly weathered old horse we’ve all been sharing since Beowulf – how to make a little piece of English, a very common good, our very own.  Sounds pretty cromulent to me.