That Jittery Feeling
I noticed a couple of days ago that on waking up every morning, my first thought has something to do with the state of the nation at present: Covid, racial tensions, political strife, looming elections, and Trump. It's not just a thought. It's a real sense of worry, apprehension, and nervousness. The feeling is all encompassing. For instance, besides during hurricane season, when have I ever worried about the people of Florida? Now, my stomach lurches every time Ron DeSantis makes a new, reckless announcement.
I've also noticed an increase in headaches. I am a tension-headache sufferer, but they appear to have become more frequent. Headaches are among a number of symptoms being experienced by many Americans in 2020 under the umbrella of stress, which can cause headaches, fatigue, insomnia, GI symptoms, or chest pains.
Stress is a physiological, mental or emotional tension that develops in response to external or internal events or stimuli. The classic reaction is the "fight-or-flight"("FOF") response, first described by Walter Cannon. It's the initial stage of endocrinologist Hans Selye's three-stage stress response: 1. alarm; 2. resistance or adaptation; and 3. exhaustion or death.Walter Bradley Cannon
In this FOF, the adrenals release cortisol, resulting in a turbo boost of glucose, and adrenaline, which quickens the force and speed of the heart, increases blood flow to vital organs, dilates the pupils, and so on. The conventional wisdom is that this cascade of events served our prehistoric ancestors well as they faced physical danger from multiple sources (for some reason, people always use the example of being chased by a lion.). Once the danger passed, cortisol levels returned to normal levels.
The stress response is familiar to us all. Whether it's a domineering boss yelling at employees or a close call in traffic with another vehicle, we feel that rise of heat into the face and neck, our hearts pound, and our breathing rate increases.
In modern life, we seem to be cycling through Selye's stages repeatedly. Indeed, many of us hover chronically between two out of the three Selye stages, or maybe among all three, but the bottom line is we are sustaining our cortisol at levels higher than we really need. This is definitely a case of "more is not better," or "too much of a good thing." Cortisol increases obesity, decreases insulin sensitivity, decreases lean muscle mass, and increases protein catabolism. Perhaps this is why people practically kill themselves on the treadmill every day and never lose significant weight.
Stress, 2020 style
So, in 2020, the number one stressor has been arguably Covid-19: fear of the disease, anxiety over the unknown, loss of a job. Will my loved one get it at work? Will I get it? What will happen to the kids? But there's more. What about loneliness, and the profound grief from losing a loved one to Covid? These are intense stressors. Suicides and suicidal gestures are up, and so is anxiety and depression. Perhaps some of the anxiety attacks people are experiencing are also stress responses.
Second, and this is most applicable personally to me, witnessing wanton brutality inflicted on black Americans provokes a classic stress response in me, and much of the time I purposely look away from these horrendous images to protect my emotional health. Whenever there's a protest march, I'm afraid of an outbreak of violence and/or chaos from any source. Nowadays, besides shooting, that includes mowing people down with a vehicle.
I can't tell you how high my level of apprehension is at the prospect of electoral dysfunction this coming November and the possibility of gunfights in the streets between pro- and anti-Trump factions. This is not as far-fetched as you might think. Kentucky, for example, is an open-carry state. You can legally walk around with rifle bigger than you. Louisville, Ky, was the site of a recent fatal shooting, and we all remember Kenosha, WA. Whatever is the outcome of the election, it is fraught with the possibility of civil unrest, which could easily involve firearms. The black and white militias NFAC and 3-Percenters are among the most well known and they have already clashed in Louisville. Another white militia group is the Proud Boys, whom Donald Trump stated in the first presidential debate on September 29 should "stand back and stand by," which the group has adopted as part of their new logo and a call to action.NFAC: Not F*****g Around Coalition(Image: Alex Kent Photography/Shutterstock)Proud Boys and Alt Right protesters at a Patriot Prayer rally in Portland Oregon(Image: Eric Crudup/Shutterstock)These groups promise to take action if there is election chaos. It remains to be seen if they really will. I pray not, but in a must-read article by Goldstone and Turchin, who predicted some ten years agothaton the basis of U.S. history, the nation was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years. Some of the factors used in their model included the following: elites seeking to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves; tightening up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny; and doing everything they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits. Leaders who seek to benefit from and widen the political chasms bring the crisis closer. Elites go up against those who want reform, and each side paints the opposing side as a fatal societal threat. The authors propose that these were the conditions that led to the U.S. Civil War. In their model, the "Political Stress Index" has been rising rapidly in 2020 while the "Well-Being Index" has been plummeting.The Great EscapeWhatever happens, if there's a way you can avoid Selye's stress response as we enter this precarious period, do it. Bearing in mind that escaping may be easier for some than others, that could be a nice hike, a movie, spending time with your pets (I am a horse lover myself), and above all, staying away from your phone and computer screen (that would be me.). Writing In The Face Of StressHow has writing been for me in 2020? As far as I can tell, my creativity has not suffered, but the time I spend creating in the face of the distractions of the social and political upheaval has definitely diminished. I'm hoping for a regular, calm, boring 2021. I like boring. Boring is good.
Annamaria on Monday
Today’s blog was inspired by a question I received this past week from Angélica Ramírez - Doctora en Traducción, who is translating my debut novel City of Silver into Spanish. My story takes place in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru (now Bolivia) in 1650. Here is what Angélica asked: “Should we try to take the readers to the past and give them a taste of 17th-century Spanish by using all old forms of respect? Or should we produce a version written in contemporary Spanish that would be more readable?
This is a proverbial question. Those of us who have published in this genre, especially if our books are set deep in the past, often get this question in bookstores and libraries. My favorite all time answer was given at a Bouchercon 2016 panel by my friend Jeri Westerson. Jeri writes marvelous noir mysteries that take place in Medieval England. An audience member asked if her characters shouldn’t talk the way people did the Middle Ages. Jeri said, “I made a conscious decision not to write my novels in Middle English.” The line got the laugh it deserved.
While John Fowles was writing The French Lieutenant’s Woman—a novel which takes place in the 1860s, he kept a diary, part of which was published by Granta Magazine. Here is what he wrote on May 20,1967, along with my bracketed explanatory addition: “I am writing The French Lieutenant’s Woman at the moment; and reading Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton [novel published in 1848] at the same time. Her dialogue is much more ‘modern’ than mine—full of contractions, and so on. Yet in order for me to convey the century that has passed since the time of my book I am right to invent dialogue that is much more formal than the Victorians actually spoke. This gives the illusion better. In a sense an absolutely accurate Victorian dialogue would be less truthful than I am doing.”
Most historical novelists that I admire make the same sorts of decisions. Oh, I am not saying we play fast and loose with the truth. Some, moi included, are so fastidious that—now that we can google it—we keep track of the phase of the moon on the day we are writing about, so we can get that right. You see, I have to feel as if I am there in order to imagine my characters living in my story’s time and place. Until I have done enough research to “go there” myself, I haven’t got a prayer of taking a reader there.
This means that, in all these sorts of decisions, the story must come first. Telling a good yarn while turning the reader into a time traveler is what we historical novelists aim for. Anything that zaps the reader back to the present has to be left out. In sentence structure and word choice, we try to make our prose sound “old-fashioned” and of the time period but WITHOUT causing the reader to stumble over it. Or take too much notice of it. We want the reader to get lost in the story. We want the prose to sing to the reader
What is true—in this context—is not the deciding factor. As John Fowles wrote, expressions that sound too modern interfere with the historic atmosphere. So they must be left out, even if you can prove they were actually used in the period in question. For instance, my novel “Strange Gods” takes place in Colonial Africa in 1911. In researching those times, I read a memoir written during that period where a policeman reported that a gun-toting suspect “got the drop on” him. When the same thing happened to my protagonist, I used the phrase “got the advantage of” simply because the other words sound too modern, which would make the reader think their use was anachronistic.
Angélica, my brilliant translator of City of Silver, knows that, in the 17th Century, Spaniards used elaborate forms of address. Here is what she said:
“…people used certain vocatives to express respect (Vuestra Merced and vuesa merced) that are not used anymore. Nowadays, we use a pronoun, "usted", to show respect, formality, and/or distance towards people belonging to a higher level of the social hierarchy.”
Here is how her translations would differ, depending on what I decided:
“Be very careful, Mother Abbess,” he said. “The Bishop feigns carelessness, but he is a formidable enemy. And you have something he wants.”
In ancient Spanish:
"Tened cuidado, Madre Abadesa", expresó. "El Obispo finge no preocuparse, pero es un enemigo formidable. Vuestra Merced tiene algo que él desea".
In contemporary Spanish:
"Tenga cuidado, Madre Abadesa", expresó. “El Obispo finge no preocuparse, pero es un enemigo formidable. Usted tiene algo que él desea".
Though I am not a Spanish speaker, with my Italian and study of Latin, I can, sort of, read the modern one. The ancient one sounds clunky to even my ignorant ears. Still, what I needed was to give Angélica the right to choose for me. So, I gave her my rule of a rule of thumb: Please use constructions that sound old-fashioned, but not ones that would make the reader think about the language instead of reading on.
On the other hand, as in real life, fictional people should reveal their characteristics by the words they choose. I once heard, in an interview, Stephen Sondheim criticize his own lyrics for a song in Westside Story. In the song “I Feel Pretty,” the young, innocent Maria sings, “It’s alarming how charming I feel.” In retrospect, Sondheim felt the mellifluous lyric was a mistake. Far too sophisticated for Maria. It is a sentence she would never say.
In this vein, in 1913 Colonial Africa, one might have an Oxford educated top administrator use the words “indeed” or “insufficient.” A boorish drunk in a bar or an askari who has just learned English would never use those words.
Whatever the considerations, I feel strongly that the language used must never pull the reader out of the story. That is my ruling principle. But, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles continually pulls the reader out of the story. Oh, not with weird language choices, but with mini-lectures on Victorian life from the point of view of a man living one hundred years later. The beginning of his Chapter 13 is my favorite lecture on why novelists must give their characters free will to do what they want or need to do. Not what the novelist-as-God forces them to do. Lecturing that pulls the reader out of the story is the last thing I think a historical novelist should do. But when John Fowles does it, it delights me.
I wish I could understand how he gets away with it.
-- Susan, every other Sunday
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process, (s)he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back at you."--Nietzche
"Perception of an object varies according to the mind. When the mind is polluted, the object becomes tainted." -- Kōbō Daishi
Today, I am turning my back on the abyss, to cleanse my mind with a (virtual) walk in the woods. I hope you'll join me.Shinrin-yoku (lit. "forest bathing")The Japanese practice of entering nature (specifically forests)for the purpose of cleansing and healing the mind and soul.Take a walk in the trees.Sit in silence. Contemplate the mountain. Breathe fresh air.Listen to the wind in the reeds.Follow a trail to a destination you cannot see.See the grasses turning gold as summer gives way to autumn.Feel the breeze on your cheeks and the sunlight on your head and shoulders.Pause for breath.Find a place to be alone, if only for a moment.No phones. No Internet.Walk off the beaten path, and feel the earth beneath your feet.Go past the place where the trail ends.And when you're ready, begin your return to civilization. Eat the pancake. Drink the coffee. Remember that life is sweet as well as bitter.Remember that when you need them, the mountains and the trees will be waiting for you.And remember . . . it's OK to take time to breathe.