March 01, 2012

Thinking about thinking - and writing

Recently I've been thinking a lot about, well, thinking. For the past five months since finishing my novel, From my Mother, at the start of October I have been trying to start on my next book. While I am writing daily, exploring the various ideas, I have not made much progress in terms of working on a manuscript. 

(By comparison, I realized earlier today that I started writing what became A Hundred Reasons to Run 100km in October 2010 and published it in March 2011, also five months. With a clear idea for a manuscript and a willingness to put in some long days of hard work, it can be done.)

But this time I don't have a clear idea for my next book, though I am pretty sure it will involve running marathons. But an idea as big and vague as that, even if I narrow it down to my marathons and a quest for the sub-3 marathon, does not yet provide a structure for a manuscript.  

I have been reading plenty to help me make up my mind on how I want to write the next book: memoir, personal essays, fiction, creative nonfiction. Here are some of my explorations which no doubt have brought me closer but not yet firmly on my way. 

In her book about writing fiction, Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, Elizabeth George recommends reading up on psychology to help develop your characters. I was drawn to Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide, both of which I have almost finished reading.

The main insight I take away from these books is that much of our knowledge is stored in places in our mind—or indeed elsewhere in the body—we are not conscious of. We have ready access to these places when needed, and when we are open to them. 

"One of the enduring paradoxes of the human mind is that it doesn't know itself very well. The conscious brain is ignorant of its own underpinnings... This is why people have emotions: they are windows into the unconscious, visceral representations of all the information we process but don't perceive," writes Lehrer.

Our brain is in a constant state of battle, as there is continuous adjustment of our knowledge—conscious and unconscious, based on our experiences. We are weighing the pros and cons, what's true and what's not, on an ongoing basis. When we feel conflicted, it is an accurate reflection of our state of mind. When we feel convinced, one side has won— at least for the moment, because it doesn't always mean the other side of the argument has gone away.  

"It doesn't matter if your field of expertise is backgammon or Middle East politics, golf or computer programming: the brain always learns the same way, accumulating wisdom through error," says Lehrer.

When you write about what matters to you now, you soon end up writing about your life; decisions about what to include and what to leave out, how to say what, who to tell it to and why, can take another lifetime if you're not careful.

Many times I've told the story of my start as a runner. To tell it, I choose to explain how and why I quit my first real job, moved countries and began a postgraduate degree in a field in which I was not familiar. 

"What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it," Gabriel Garcia Marquez says in the epigraph of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Writing about your life can be powerful, therapeutic, as we begin to see past experiences in a new light—that of the present. The most interesting point about the way we relive our memories today is how we view them, and how our view of them, changes over time as we change.

"A long, ghostly parade of previous selves trails behind us, as values, habits, and memories evolve to better reflect the current I," writes Diane Ackerman in An Alchemy of Mind, a book that I have just begun reading.

Sometimes we can get stuck in, or too serious about, the stories of the past as we put ourselves in a context which we don't deserve to be. In her essay Street Haunting, Virginia Woolf wrote about the joys of leaving the house for a solitary walk through evening London, shedding the self others know us by.

The context in which others know us—the way we relate to ourselves in our familiar environments—can be confining. Stepping out of the usual frame of reference that keeps us prisoner to a certain self, even though safely housed and well fed, can be liberating.

"Much of a self derives from recollected events, their weight and outcome, and the personal iconography they create. Since others figure in those mementos, the daily acts that impress new memories, other people become integral elements of oneself, an important part of our inner diary and identity," writes Ackerman.

However, there's not just one of us.

"A self is plural," writes Ackerman. "All of our selves seem to inhabit different spaces. The mind needs spaces to juggle its different concerns at once, which sometimes are in sync, sometimes not. When they're not in sync, there has to be a way to proceed fluently, without stumbling every time there is a rift in what one part of you is conscious of emotionally and the other part is conscious of cognitively."

When I go for a run, I step into another self—my running self, though I believe this one to be plural, too.

One of the things I love about running is that it often helps me to turn down the noise of my inner chatterboxes fighting for attention. Running allows me to clear my mind—getting rid of a whirlwind of thoughts when they are driving me crazy. But the opposite also happens; I find new patterns in old thoughts and suddenly arrive at a solution or a fresh idea.    

Running allows me to tap into a self that can be content with simply being. Especially in long runs, I often reach a relaxed and enjoyable state where I just am, as everything in my body works the way it is supposed to without me thinking consciously, or without being conscious of thinking.

Perhaps that sense is simply a consequence of harmony being restored among the inner crowd as my body maintains a steady momentum, gently but firmly rearranging the warring selves within.

"The conscious, preconscious and unconscious conspire to create the notion of self... A self is the trail of bread crumbs we leave so we know our progress and direction," writes Ackerman.

"From moment to moment, the self states mutate. We're usually unaware of a different self taking the helm but that helps explain the phenomenon of changing one's mind. One mental state can make a decision disavowed by a later state."

Many runners talk about returning from their outings at a trot refreshed and renewed. We shed a self that was tired and worn out and come back with another that's full of energy.

And in the process we have created a new take on an old self as we moved independently and on our own account. We have literally jogged our memory.

In Thinking About Memoir, Abigail Thomas writes, "Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by events, not faithful to it. Maybe memory is what the mind does with its free time, decorating itself. Maybe it's the cave paintings. The thing is, I'm old enough now to enough to know that the past is every bit as unpredictable as the future, and that memory, mine anyway, is not a faithful record of anything and truth is not absolute."

Truth is far from absolute, especially our personal truth. The way we choose the elements we share about our life, the same exact life, can paint an entirely different picture—to ourselves, and to others.

Eckhart Tolle writes in Stillness Speaks, "The human mind, in its desire to know, understand, and control, mistakes its opinion, and viewpoints for the truth. It says: this is how it is. You have to be larger than thought to realize that however you interpret 'your life' or someone else's life or behaviour, however you judge any situation, it is no more than a viewpoint, one of many more possible perspectives. It is no more than a bundle of thoughts. But reality is one unified whole, in which all things are interwoven, where nothing exists in and by itself. Thinking fragments reality—it cuts it up in to conceptual bits and pieces."

"The realm of consciousness is much vaster than thought can grasp. When you no longer believe everything you think, you step out of thought and see clearly that the thinker is not who you are," Tolle writes.

One thing I do know is that I'd like to shake up those bits and pieces a little and enjoy the option to adopt a different viewpoint for my next book.

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