Writing your life: handling contrast

I’m learning to handle contrast (unwanted experience) better, and it reminds me of my writing experiences.

In the past I didn’t handle contrast very well. I was like a writer who recoils at his own clumsy self-expression and gives up on it immediately.

I’m becoming more like an experienced writer who knows that not every idea will work, and who doesn’t expect a first draft to be perfect. A writer who doesn’t give up just because the words don’t yet flow effortlessly into their final form.

But where I’m heading is the kind of mature writer who knows that it is never going to be “complete”, because the very act of writing expands my skill, heightens my expectations and refines my judgement.

Isn’t that why early drafts look bad? By the time we’ve finished the draft we are a better writer than before, and we see more room for improvement. Our ideas are more developed and nuanced, so we find better ways to phrase it. And sometimes we’re just done with a story or idea and we want something fresh and new.

Why is there contrast?

This applies to contrast in our lives too. Contrast will always be part of life because we will never stop expanding and growing.

But it’s up to us whether we think of contrast as a catastrophe, a reflection of our failings and a reason to give up like the writer who excoriates himself for a dissatisfying first attempt.

Or if we instead start to view contrast as part of the process, and even a sign of growth, expansion and development.

Contrast is inevitable because we are always moving forward, always deepening our expectations and refining our preferences.

Must contrast be painful?

It’s our thoughts about contrast that make contrast painful. If you think unwanted feelings and experiences mean you’ve failed, you’ve f***ed up, you took a wrong turn, you don’t deserve better, you’re a bad person, then of course you will feel terrible when contrast comes.

If you are afraid of contrast, afraid of the unwanted in life, then your experience is going to be uncomfortable, like a would-be writer who doesn’t ever want to reread or edit his own work.

This all-or-nothing attitude makes contrast painful. It is itself a form of contrast, reflected in the rigidity and fear and anxiety that governs your world.

And yet it is liberating to know that contrast is not even bad. Unwanted experiences are not truly unwanted, they are part of the dynamic, how the whole of reality works.

Because you could not form new preferences without releasing old ones. You could not refine your desires without your unrefined desire being discarded. You could not expand without your prior existence seeming too small.

But that doesn’t mean you have to hate and bemoan where you are/were. Instead appreciate how it has fed and informed your expansion. And see if you can at least not freak out when contrast happens again!

Temperament Project 04: Excitability and Duration of Impression

We’ve mostly forgotten how to think like our ancestors, which is why concepts like “heat and moisture” don’t make immediate sense to us.

Jakob Henle

But alongside modern medicine, interest in the four temperaments persisted. That’s how we end up with interesting cases like the 19th Century German-Jewish anatomist Jakob Henle, for whom the Loop of Henle in the kidney is named (and whose marriage to a maid and seamstress was the inspiration for Pygmalion, and thence My Fair Lady).

Henle was at the forefront of cell physiology using microscopes, became a proponent of the then-unpopular contagion theory of infection, and developed the four basic categories of tissue still used today.

Henle also wrote on temperament, and sought to explain the widely accepted four types in more up-to-date biological terms, specifically in terms of the nervous system.

Excitation

When nerve cells receive a stimulus they become excited. Excitation in this sense simply means activity.

Henle believed that a person’s temperament was a reflection of the tonus of their nervous system: how easily excited the cells are, and how long they remain active or excited after the stimulus is removed.

Cholerics are excitable and form enduring impressions. This means they react strongly and quickly to stimuli, and their reaction lasts for a long time.

Sanguines are also excitable, but their impressions are comparatively short-lived, leaving them susceptible to distraction. They react strongly and quickly to one thing after another.

Melancholics are not very excitable. Our reaction to stimuli is comparatively slow and weak, but like the choleric our reactions last a long time.

Phlegmatics are not easily excited either, but unlike the melancholic their impressions are short-lived.

Worldview

Each temperament’s way of seeing the world can be viewed as an outcome of these characteristics.

Why are cholerics “ambitious”? Because they have strong quick reactions to stimuli and these reactions last a long time. What we mean by ambition is strong desire that endures.

Why do sanguines like nice things and good experiences? Because they too react strongly and quickly to stimuli, but because their reactions are brief they are constantly drawn to new and exciting things.

Why are melancholics “idealists”? Because we aren’t excited enough by stimuli, so we are drawn to ideas that magnify the significance of everyday life. A new car doesn’t excite us much. But a new electric car is enhanced by ideals like environmentalism, game-changing technological advancement and breaking of tired conventions. Now that’s exciting! (And I don’t even own one).

Why are phlegmatics easy-going and rule-abiding? Because they have slow, weak reactions like the melancholic, but these reactions are brief like the sanguine. They aren’t strongly excited by anything, and they don’t dwell on things either. Following the rules is just the obvious thing to do, especially if it helps everyone get along and avoid conflict.

Temperament Project 02: the Four Temperaments at a Glance

We have to start somewhere so let’s begin with a brief depiction of each of the four temperaments.

Cholerics see the world in terms of ambition, accomplishment, and standing. They have high self-esteem and naturally put themselves forward. They are proud, and angry when thwarted. They like to compete, love to win, and will gravitate toward success and leadership.

Sanguines are drawn to nice things and good experiences. They love having fun, are quite easy-going, and while they can quickly become angry, especially at perceived injustices, they just as quickly let go of their anger too. Sanguines tend to be more easily bored and distracted.

Melancholics are drawn to meaning and ideals. They are reflective and often hesitant to act, inclined to pessimism and dwelling on their own failures and shortcomings. Melancholics love authenticity and hate inauthentic situations and people, yet they struggle to authentically express themselves and are prone to try to fit in with other temperaments.

Phlegmatics are generally very placid and easy-going. They are not strongly excited by anything, but hate conflict and being put on the spot. They love to follow the rules and will happily do their own thing or go along with the crowd.

More to come

There’s a lot more to come, but this should serve as a basis. Consider yourself and the people you know. Are they:

Ambitious and strong-willed (choleric)

Idealistic and cautious (melancholic)

Fun loving and easily distracted (sanguine)

Placid and rule-abiding (phlegmatic)

These four characterisations aren’t perfect, but we will refine them and expand on them in future posts.

Temperament Project 01: Getting Started

Blogging has helped me stay focused on some subjects, so why not use it to focus on writing my book about temperament? My aim is to write regular blog posts that will help shape and inspire an eventual book. Hope you like it!

What is temperament, and why should I care?

Temperament is the foundation of your personality. It’s the part of your personality hard-wired from birth, biologically based, that determines how you respond to the world.

It’s significant in the same way that physical attributes like height are significant. Some people are taller and some are shorter; and while your height doesn’t dictate anything about you, it does shape your experience and make certain outcomes more, or less, likely.

Being tall will give you an advantage in basketball, netball, swimming and some other sports, but it might be a disadvantage in weight-lifting, ballet, gymnastics or horse-racing.

Temperament is more complicated than height, but it has an analogous impact on your choices in life and the shaping of your personality.

Life-long traits

Contemporary psychology has studied aspects of temperament and found that traits identified in infancy will persist throughout life.

The ancient Greeks observed this too, and in their own proto-scientific context they came up with theories to explain these fundamental differences in temperament.

If the world was made up of four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water, then obviously the human body must be governed by four basic substances too.

Blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile were the four fluids or humours that determined health or illness, as well as the foundation of the personality: the temperament.

The word temperament itself means blend or mix and refers to the blend of humours within the individual.

We each have all four humours within us, but one or two tend to dominate. Depending on the blend, individuals are categorised as sanguine (blood), phlegmatic (phlegm), choleric (yellow bile), or melancholic (black bile).

A perfectly balanced person would have all four in proportion. But most of us can be described by a primary-secondary blend. Thus a person with primary choleric and secondary phlegmatic is a choleric-phlegmatic.

But Greek medicine was wrong…wasn’t it?

Absolutely!

There’s no such thing as black bile, and there’s no indication that the other bodily fluids mentioned have any impact on personality or behaviour in the way the Greeks envisaged.

But observations are still valid data, even if the theory that attempted to explain those observations has been discarded.

In the case of temperament what we have inherited from the Greeks and the civilisations that adopted Greek medicine is a robust yet pragmatic set of observations spanning millennia.

We may not know yet what causes differences in temperament, but we do know that such differences exist, and the four temperament model remains a valuable framework for understanding, interpreting, and responding to those differences in ourselves and others.

Show and Tell

Some people say “show don’t tell” but most fiction contains both showing and telling.

It’s really a question of how you impart information to the reader at any given time. Is it better to be descriptive and show the reader what is happening? Or is it better to be direct and tell the reader what is happening?

Depending on the circumstances, your story will call for different techniques at different times.

For example, sometimes it’s important to tell the reader directly:

War was coming.

But to keep it immersive, you would surround it with details:

War was coming. He could see it in the grim frowns of the soldiers at the gate, their weary eyes scanning the horizon for tell-tale signs of the encroaching violence.

If the coming war is an important point, you would go on to add further immersive details that build evidence for the reader.

Children skulked indoors, peering out through windows and doors as the city streets filled with soldiers, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms, boys and old men drafted to man the walls while the real warriors fought hand-to-hand in the open field.

Even though that is somewhat immersive, it’s still a lot of information packed into one sentence. It’s still telling a lot more than it’s showing.

If we want to show more, we’d need to expand it more, and at this point you’d be thinking of the best way to convey the information immersively from whatever perspective you’re using, eg. I’d have to place my point-of-view character somewhere near these events in order to ‘show’ them more effectively through his eyes.

Tom frowned. From a distance they looked sound enough, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms as they stood at ease in the courtyard awaiting orders. But as he approached them Tom spotted the grey hair of old Mr Jones poking out from under his shiny black helm, and the pimply face of a boy scarcely older than Tom, his wide eyes glancing this way and that as if expecting the enemy to jump out at any moment.

Tom’s heart sank.

There were too many of them, faces old and young scattered throughout the garrison. Grandfathers and mere boys called to man the defences against an enemy they barely knew, let alone knew how to defeat.  Where were the soldiers? The real defenders?

As you can see, it’s possible to turn a few words into a few paragraphs if you so choose. The real question is whether you need to for the sake of the story. How much detail is too much? How much is too little? You want the story to be immersive without dragging into pointless details.

Even though that last excerpt shows more than the one before it, it also adds more telling. It tells additional details that didn’t exist before. This is why “show don’t tell” can be confusing, because they will almost always coexist and depending on the style of the text it simply won’t be possible or desirable to eradicate all telling.

Ultimately, what matters is how well the text reads, and how immersive it is. In my experience, excessive telling or insufficient showing suggests that the story has not been plotted or drafted enough. The plot is, in a sense, the ultimate tell. My suspicion is that when people tell too much in a draft, it’s because they haven’t first laid out those very direct details in a plot and instead they intersperse the narrative with character, setting or plot points.

While it’s still early days for me, so far my plot and my drafts have all moved in the direction of greater elaboration and showing. In plot form, the excerpt above might be as brief as “Tom realises that the defenders aren’t professional soldiers, and so he….”

This is enough to further the plot, but obviously not enough to interest or immerse the reader. Hence the first draft is an attempt to convert these plot points into immersive scenes, like story-boarding a screenplay.

That’s how it’s turned out for me, anyway. But you could argue that all these ideas are subordinate to the simple imperative of writing a readable story, using whatever works for you.