I hope you are all bearing up as well as possible. For my part, I am glad our household owns several of those sturdy stoneware mugs (see below). I suppose we all have to strive for calm, so long as we remember that calm does not imply acceptance or preclude vigorous opposition.
I am a graduate student (in Clinical Psychology, not English or Literature) and have been writing short stories and novellas off and on for about six years now. I worry about how caught up I get in my fiction. I find myself laughing out loud, or crying, or getting turned on, or becoming really angry. My own sex scenes have sent me off to find my partner, or take a cold shower, and one time I got so mad about the way one of my characters was treating his son that I threw my coffee cup across the room, where it smashed against the wall. Is this normal?
Carried away in Carolina
I’m not sure it’s the norm, but many writers certainly do have reactions like yours. I would not worry about it. Instead, be grateful for your powerful imaginative life. I should also think it would be reassuring to know that your work can inspire lust, rage, joy, and tears in at least one person.
But remember that your own strong responses do not guarantee that others will respond the same way. Have you submitted your writing for publication, or presented it in a class or workshop? It could be very useful to see how other readers respond to your more stirring scenes and passages. It can be sobering, but very helpful, to learn that what moves you to tears, laughter, etc., leaves most of your readers cold, or strikes them as overblown. On the other hand, you might learn that a passage you consider merely functional, or not very successful, strikes other people as humorous, witty, full of pathos, or even sexy.
When faced with emotional responses to your writing that differ significantly from your own reactions, you have several choices. You may consider the matter but decide to stand your ground. You may prefer to revise your work in hopes of eliciting the response you originally sought. Or you may find that it makes sense to go back over your work and actually emphasize some aspect of it that your readers saw, but you did not. For example, if people often find your descriptions of mishaps, frustrations and disagreements funnier than you intended, you may just want to go with that, maybe even embellish the humor a little.
So write, cry, laugh, rage, and lust away. One caution, though: unless you are trying to write melodrama or pornography, I would be judicious in my use, and careful in my depictions, of pathos, extreme anger, and explicit sex. Be less judicious about the funny bits, though. As long as they are not dismissive or mean-spirited, almost any laughs are good for literature!
As for your throwing the mug, I suggest drinking from thick stoneware. It’s hard to break that stuff even when you try, so it should survive even the most infuriating fictional villainy.
My cousin Adrienne and I are in the same diet program. She invited me to join her after she hit a plateau, telling me that it would be fun for us both, and could really help her, if she had a weight-loss buddy. She also said that she would try to lose three pounds to every one of mine. (I am overweight but, after heroic efforts and a loss of 50 pounds, she is still just over the morbidly-obese line.)
We have been attending weekly meetings together, tracking our calories, working out at gyms near our respective jobs, and calling each other several times a week to offer encouragement or ask for help or get recipe ideas.
The problem is that, after six weeks, I have lost 16 pounds and she has lost half that. Losing eight pounds is not at all bad, as our group leader has told her more than once—as long as she loses steadily, 1-2 pounds per week is probably optimum. But Adrienne is getting discouraged and resentful over my having lost so much more than she has, even though I have done everything to calm and reassure her short of lying about my weight, or losing less weight on purpose. I reminded her that most of the weight I lost the first week or two was probably just water and skewed my result. I talked to her about how at least she had gotten off her plateau, and about taking the long view, yadda yadda yadda. I found myself apologizing to her for my metabolism, for God’s sake. I don’t even know anything about my metabolism.
Now Adrienne is talking about quitting the program, which would be a terrible idea because it is the first thing that has really worked for her and the meeting place is right near her home.
Last night, our meeting night, she asked me if I would sit this one out. I was so shocked that I agreed before I really had time to think about it, and I stayed home. This morning I ducked out of work for an hour and got weighed at a meeting near my job—which was inconvenient for many reasons, including expensive parking and having to tell my boss I had a medical appointment. Plus I didn’t have time to stay for the whole meeting, just the weigh-in part.
I do not want to leave the program, and I really like the meetings we usually attend. But I do not want to do anything to derail Adrienne, whose weight is a serious health risk and who has never done this well before. I also don’t want to embarrass Adrienne by talking to the group leader about this issue.
What should I do?
Losing in Lewisburg
First, let me commend you for your sensitivity to Adrienne, who is not behaving well at all. I can see why she might be a bit irked by your besting her in the program she invited you into, and jealous that you have lost so much weight when she is the one who most needs to lose it. She may also be embarrassed. But she should have kept her mouth shut, or at least referred to the situation good-humoredly. In fact, although this idea does not seem to have entered her mind or yours, she might even have encouraged and congratulated you. Instead she is being petulant and interfering with your weight-loss efforts.
Is Adrienne’s recent behavior unusual? I ask this because, if it is, you might want to find out whether she has been starving herself over the last few weeks in an effort to catch up with you. Most of us know how crazy even self-imposed hunger can make us. I hold out a hope, though a faint one, that if you could convince Adrienne to meet with you this weekend over a nice cozy 500-calorie-or-more meal, you might be able to convince her that being a diet buddy is actually the opposite of a zero-sum game, and that the two of you should start over with less emphasis on pound-for-pound comparison and more on well-being and healthy eating.
Still, as I said, this hope is a faint one. Even if you get Adrienne to see reason during one or more conversations, reason probably has very little to do with the way she competes with and resents you. I am wondering whether you two have a history. Have you always been the thinner one? Has she ever been jealous of you in the past, because of your weight or for some other reason?
I hate to say this since I consider you the aggrieved party here, but my advice is that, unless you are almost positive that you can both start over as weight-loss buddies without her reverting to competitiveness and resentment, it would be wise for you to leave the meeting and find another one. Strict justice would probably dictate that she be the one to leave: after all, she is the one who invited you to join the program, asked you to work with her, and then screwed things up with no thought for your welfare. Nevertheless, from what you say, it might impede Adrienne’s weight-loss efforts, and therefore affect her health, if she left this local meeting where she has done so well. The stakes, although significant, are probably not so high for you. Besides, I cannot see you continuing to attend the group next to Adrienne’s empty chair. You are far too kind.
If you both stay in the original group, and especially if you keep comparing notes and weights as purported buddies, and if Adrienne continues to lose at a slower rate than you, there is a risk that you will get put permanently on the defensive. There are few things more poisonous than feeling defensive, or even apologetic, over one’s successes. For women in particular, this can be confusing and even crippling. You may be made of sterner stuff than this, but you don’t sound like it; and I would hate to think of your sabotaging your own weight-loss efforts, consciously or unconsciously, to appease Adrienne. You should be proud of your accomplishment—and no less so if you lose the weight quickly and with relative ease. And you should not let anybody slow you down, least of all the person who was supposed to support you.
Unless Adrienne does a really convincing about-face and agrees to take a heartfelt Mulligan on this whole weight-loss-buddy scheme, I am afraid that if you two stay in the same meeting you are doomed to be weight-loss-antibuddies, one full of resentment and the other hobbled by it. It is probably best for both you and Adrienne if you move to another meeting. You say that your original meeting is located near Adrienne’s home. Let’s hope there’s an even better one near yours. But promise that you will stay with the program no matter what. You sound like a weight-loss natural.
Onward and downward!
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.