WIHEA Blog 1:Introduction
Writing, that actual verb of producing words, isn’t that challenging a task. We do it all the time, from scribbling shopping lists to typing emails, or searching for something online, with keyboards and pens, in smartphones and diaries, on our hands or the backs of envelopes.
Telling stories: that’s something else we do all the time, isn’t it? Someone asks you how your day went and you launch into a twenty minute monologue about how you found your colleague asleep in her chair after lunch, or a blackbird flew into the office window making everyone jump. You meet someone new at a party, a conference, a networking event, and within minutes you’re pouring your life stories out to each other or planning a project.
So why does it feel so different when someone asks us to write a story? Is it the permanence of the ink, the record of something in your head out in the world? Is it that we’ve been judged for so long on the quality of our writing, in school and in universities and then at work, that we become self-conscious about it? Will our writing be found lacking, boring, or shocking? Or is it that our experiences, when written down, will seem far-fetched?
Perhaps there’s also the fear of writing making what you’ve been through real, so you’ll have to face up to it. But that’s the catch-22 of the situation, isn’t it? If you don’t face up to it, how will you move on? Writing is more permanent than speaking and it’s harder to take it back, from yourself as well as others. In fact, writing something down could be taken as an assertion of power. It’s there for everyone to deal with, not just you and that can be used to change things for the better.
The Illuminations project is about sharing stories of lockdown and the pandemic. It’s about taking all those thoughts and experiences you've had over the past year, which you've stored up in the dark corners of your memory, and bringing them out to the light, not just for close friends and loved ones, but for colleagues, researchers and, potentially, managers.
This is no shopping list you’re being asked for, no simple email update on a project, or what to have for dinner. This is a request to offer your piece of a large, complex and emotionally fraught puzzle for others to look at and make sense of. Collectively, we need to face up to what has happened and consider how to improve our wellbeing and those of others around us.
Immediately, there’s the challenge of how honest to be and what the stakes are in the writing. Will you be judged? How will you be judged? Will it be good enough? Or perfect? Will it be creative enough, or expressive enough? Doubts emerge: I’m not up to the task; I don’t write much; I’m not sure I have the words to tell my own story. Doubts turn into resistance: reflection is personal, private and doesn’t need to be shared; it’s pointless, it won’t change anything; I’ve lots of other work to do, I can’t afford the time for this luxury, even if it’s good for me.
To help me leave these thoughts aside, I remind myself, when I’m working through something tricky, that it’s necessary work: no one knows what I’ve been through until I tell them, least of all me. Putting it down on paper, stepping back, thinking around an experience: these activities bring me perspective, show me things I couldn’t see before: it’s a way of turning the thing around, remembering its history, making connections between a specific incident and things that were happening around that event to give it context, ground it.
There’s the added value of the health benefits of keeping a journal – or what psychologists call ‘expressive writing.’ Numerous studies qualify the value of reflection to mental health, memory and so on; and countless writers have affirmed their personal experiences with, dependence on, diaries. Reflection, at heart, boils down to three simple questions: what happened? Why did it happen? What sense can I make of it? Yet those simple questions can lead to complex, challenging, but also beautiful and healing places.
A teacher of mine once said (I think quoting another writer), you need to leave your ego outside the room when you’re writing for the first time. Bring it back in later, decide whether you need to share what you’ve written, or whether it’s just for you alone to read. Useful advice. All those doubts and worries occur before you’ve begun writing. You have to write something first before you can answer those questions.
The part about Illuminations that is necessary is that it isn’t just a space to absorb your writing, dispersing your feelings into the ether. This is also data collection designed to feed back into the institutional structures that are a major part of what we go through in our working weeks, our lives. If we only tell people with no power to change conditions around us, then we’re stuck with those situations. This is an opportunity to go beyond venting and, one would hope, to effect some change.
The added benefit of an ethically-managed research project is that you are protected from judgment. No one has to know who you are. No one will judge the quality of your writing, unless you ask for critical appraisal. Of course, saying this doesn’t automatically create a safe space for you.
I began my collaboration with Illuminations by sharing aspects of my writing practice that have helped me to create a safe, private space for myself to write what I need to. Further resources showed how I gradually draw out personal writing into public spaces by degrees, writing alongside others, then potentially sharing that work with critical friends.
Over the course of the the Autumn term, the Illuminations team – Rachel, Elena, Nicholas and the other members of WIHEA’s Wellbeing group – have asked me to extend the initial resources on this blog. My hope is that you’ll use the ideas and prompts on the blog as a way to develop a personal practice and to open up safer channels for your reflection and writing.
Blog 2:Resilience: Overwriting Sisyphus
“The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” Albert Camus, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’
Labouring in isolation can feel like an endless chore – a Sisyphean task. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill for eternity. Each time he reaches the top, the rock rolls down the other side and he must start again.
The nature of academic year tends to bring variations, and so may seem less repetitive. Yet it’s the weight and futility of the term’s labours ahead many talk about. You emerge from a vacation you’ve barely had time to enjoy because you’ve been struggling to catch up on all those things from last term you didn’t want to follow you into the next, and then you’re pushing the rock again.
Or maybe it’s the isolation in the myth that’s most interesting, given how lockdown has cut people off from their colleagues and students. Or the feeling of completing pointless tasks, marking the same standard of essays, processing the same grades, managing the same datapoints for thousands of new students each year. Or it’s the immense weight of the boulders we are pushing, the quantity of scripts to mark, students to support, applications to process.
Lockdown has brought new experiences and ordeals, some positive, some negative. There’s the feeling of having to ‘teach into the void’ for another term – a class of switched off cameras, against the delight of learning a new tool to engage and exchange online ideas and work. The feeling of having to return to the office, face the commute and risking catching the virus, compared with finally having a community of colleagues around you. That feeling of losing precious time at home with loved ones, or finally escaping the extra pressure of home schooling.
Sisyphus is just one metaphor, of course, a myth or warning for how things might be. Working in a university, for all its challenges, can be rich and varied and highly rewarding. And myths are ready-made, archetypal metaphors for these experiences, exaggerated to clarify their warnings. Taking such clichés to stand in for real experiences obscures the uniqueness of what we’re going through.
Blog 3Morale: Star Throwing
Loren Eiseley was an anthropologist and writer from the mid-twentieth century. From among his poems and stories he gained curious fame for one story in particular called ‘The Star Thrower.’
The tale begins with the narrator, later revealed to be Loren Eisley in autobiographical mode, on the coast in Costabel, where, ‘Along the strip of wet sand that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide death walks hugely and in many forms.’ This bleak vision captures a violent world where species feed upon each other. People, too, participate in violence, harvesting and boiling clean live shellfish to sell to tourists.
Amid this vision he encounters the star thrower, who rescues live starfish struggling to survive as the tide retreats by hurling them out to sea. Reflecting on the star thrower’s actions, the narrator first concludes, ‘death is running more fleet than he along every seabeach in the world.’ Reflecting further on his upbringing, his mother, his depression and on evolution, Eisley changes his view of the star thrower, remarking, ‘he had reasserted the human right to define his own frontier’ against death and evolutionary forces in nature, his star throwing ‘an assertion of value arisen from the domain of absolute zero’. Eisley finds in star throwing a reason to hope where he previously had none. Eventually, he returns to the beach and joins the star thrower, saying, ‘I understand … Call me another thrower.’
It’s a story that tries to raise morale in the full face of the bleakness of reality around it. It’s clear Eisley’s reality is driven by depression, possibly one he has inherited from his mother. Yet he still decides to reject the futility of the world around him, taking the story of the star thrower as inspiration.
What kind of story could raise your morale during lockdown? ‘The Star Thrower’ works because of its tangential, symbolic meaning. The starfish are just starfish, but the story’s title turns the encounter into something mythic, fabulous, so that the Star Thrower resembles a cosmic giant hurling suns, or a righteous being rescuing humans from despair. And these people might be any beleaguered individuals: students isolating in halls, or colleagues cut off from socialising for four months, or animals floundering in a flood, or families caught in forest fires. Does this heroic act in the face of overwhelming odds inspire you?
By way of comparison, I’m thinking about the political stories we’ve been told during lockdown. From the onset, the government has used militarised language and tropes familiar from the Second World War, encouraging us to stand together as a nation and fight the virus, as if it were an invading army. Then we were encouraged to celebrate the heroes of our NHS, the brave doctors and nurses. Throughout, people who have stayed in work to keep our economy functioning have been described as ‘frontline workers,’ like soldiers on the front lines.
I don’t, personally, find these narrative tropes all that inspiring. I appreciate the image of people labouring together to pull through a difficult situation, but to position it in a war against microscopic organisms seems kind of ridiculous, like we’re supposed to wrestle the virus, or shoot it. Somewhere between these tropes and images there ought to be something that will inspire us to feel as if what we’re doing is worth carrying on with.
Blog 4Motivation: Perfect and Imperfect Worlds
dystopia: An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible
utopia: A place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions
(From the Oxford English Dictionary)
Imagine returning to work to find conditions have changed dramatically. The emphasis here is on imagine: based on your experiences, your anticipation and emotions about returning to work, or seeing others around you return to work if you never actually stopped, can you envisage a better or worse version of your workspace? And why not imagine both?
One person’s utopia may well be someone else’s idea of a living hell. Plato rightly banned poets from his Republic because of their capacity to imagine other worlds, societies, possibilities, which in turn would ruin the totalitarian utopia he put forward. But let’s just start with your own, private, impossible-to-attain, perfect workplace utopia: what would it look like?
For myself, I imagine the light, furnishings and atmosphere first: a bright place with plenty of natural light, though soft neutral colours, and armchairs that look like they want to hug you. Also, a fair mix of social spaces for exchanging ideas and private spaces for deep concentration. Then the people: no dresscode, plenty of room to navigate, a sense of camaraderie and supportiveness, a pan-access inclusivity to the architecture. Maybe I’d add some aural details: a water feature? Faint sounds of nature? A generally muted, non-invasive composition by John Luther Adams?
Remember, this is only my vision. And now I can invert it to define my dystopia: windowless narrow corridors with small, unnecessary steps at essential entrances. Many closed doors and fluorescent lighting flickering at a rate barely detectable to the eye, but which still gives you a headache. Narrow passages, which have you constantly waiting for others to pass. A rigid conformity to layouts, furniture, clothing. Garish reds and blues. Everything open plan and disorganised. People sweating, red-faced with stress and frustration, a burst of paper flying out of the broken photocopier, people’s hands, colleagues bashing their devices to make them work, broken chairs and wobbly tables, spilled coffee stains on everything... I could go on. But that’s only my vision.
Imagine you are returning to a workplace for the first time after a lockdown. If you’ve been going in throughout lockdown, you’re preparing for lots of other people will have returned. Also, for this exercise, imagine you work in a building with nine floors above ground and nine basement floors (one for each of Dante’s circles of hell). The higher you are in the building, the more utopian things are; the lower, the more dystopian.
You enter the lift and push a button. The lift takes you to the floor and the doors open on a freeze-frame view of your real workplace, adjusted to suit the utopian or dystopian level you are in this building. What can you see from the lift?
Let the doors close and visit two more floors. Each time, spend a few minutes describing the freeze-frame scene as the doors open. It may help you to visit two extremes – high and low, before finding somewhere close to the ground floor. A couple of floors up, perhaps?
Blog 5Repetition with Variation
When the Tate Modern first opened, one gallery was given over to series of box sculptures by Susan Hiller called From the Freud Museum. There must have been forty boxes on display when I visited, though this was only a selection from a larger series. Each box was the same size and presented in the same way, give or take.
The series invokes a museum, as the title suggests, making connections between the various parts and pieces. With the lid off and placed above the base of the box, you were presented with two containers. The contents differed from box to box, but there were repeating motifs across them: in the one box, vials with liquids or sands, or stones, or strange fragments, made or found, nestled in straw or in customised frames. In th othr, found texts, typed fragments or torn pages.
Like many minimalist artworks, the general procedural form repeated with minor or major variations from box to box, each creating a similar piece from a wider atmosphere of myth, psychology and natural, elemental objects. Yet, unlike minimalism, Hiller’s series is lush with ideas, language and sensory data, so that, even behind the glass display case, the objects invoke their smells and tastes and textures. The series also drew me into a sense of flow, erasing time as I became lost in studying each box, like a meditation.
This in turn makes me think about how we engage with routines in our lives. Commutes, for example, are key parts of a working day, repetitive activities treading increasingly familiar routes that commit to muscle memory. In place of concentrating on the journey, we lose ourselves in ruminating about issues at work or home.
When does repetition become a bad thing? From a distance, each box in Hiller’s series is the same. Variation only clarifies with close attention. Perhaps all three hundred students on the same course, or the staff in a given team might seem the same at a glance, but we know they’re each humans with different lives and experiences. Perhaps processing the same scripts or applications or forms over and over starts to obscure the variety of expression in each, just as queuing at the same traffic lights or roundabouts or junctions, or cycling the same hills each day makes them disappear from view.
From a mindfulness perspective, slowing down and paying more attention to our surroundings can boost our wellbeing. Being receptive to our senses grounds us in the world. Familiar spaces are enlivened; potentially numbing, repetitive tasks refreshed by the new things we notice.
I’ve found an environmentalist dimension to this way of thinking too. Instead of constantly craving and consuming new things, finding new ways of experiencing the familiar saves resources and energy (and money). While some things are one-off – fossil fuels, for instance – I find it reassuring to remind myself of the near infinite recombinations and you can find in limited, durable materials
Blog 6Feeling Employment
Olga Ravn’s novel, The Employees: A 21st Century Workplace Novel, offers a compellingly weird vision for future working environments. Reading like raw data for a sociological study, the book contains around 100 transcripts in loose chronological order of statements by employees, human and humanoid, on board a spaceship called the Six Thousand. The ship has discovered strange objects on a habitable alien planet, which begin to trigger strange feelings among the crew.
In the early interviews it’s hard to tell humans and humanoids apart. Some of the humans doubt their own humanity; others claim they’re falling in love with humanoids. Humanoids aspire to or express very human traits, but when they develop emotional attachments to humans, there’s a sense that what’s called love in humans is read as an unhealthy obsession, and so these humanoids are memory-wiped and reinstalled. The different treatment the groups receive, the different expectations placed upon them, exaggerate into inequalities that drive them toward segregation and hostility.
Any crisis puts extra strain on otherwise functional differences between colleagues; it’s easy to see one person’s manageable foibles as unbearable when everything else has become so much more difficult. It’s also hard to know when to declare something intolerable; abusive situations accrue by increments; repetitions of barely acceptable behaviours might never cross a line, but when taken together appear overwhelming. When it’s the environment around you that’s changed, like conditions on Ravn’s Six Thousand Ship, our lines of tolerance move; and how can you call out something you’ve tolerated in the past?
Wider structural problems exacerbate such conditions, making people feel dehumanised or inferior, yet unable to speak out. On the one hand, institutional biases discriminate structurally against certain groups; on the other, perhaps capitalism’s ultimate goal is to turn everyone into units of profitability, erasing our humanity, our contexts and histories. Combined with stress of a pandemic, it’s easy to see tolerance and resolve crumbling.
Imagination’s power, for me, is that it can move us vs. them polarities sideways. Our imaginations are spaces where we can construct other selves to experience exaggerated or controlled versions of our present. Writing our experiences in story-form puts difficult situations into laboratory-like conditions, where we can make sense of them in new ways.
Perhaps then, this post is an invitation to imagine versions of yourself at work. A robotic self, capable of superhuman things. A frailer self, struggling to adjust to the pandemic’s accelerated pressures. Perhaps also you can imagine wilder or boring selves, grounded selves or murderous ones, and so on? What would these versions of you be like? How would they cope with some of the things you’ve been through?
Behind such imaginings lie the very real things you have or may still be experiencing. And, of course, all writing of this nature involves reflecting on your own situation, thinking about how things might have gone, and how they might go in future, which is, for me, a vital part of storytelling.
Blog 7Bridled Repetition
In an earlier post I mentioned Susan Hiller’s From the Freud Museum, comparing the boxes’ lush mix of artefacts and texts to minimalist art. Yet minimalism tends toward simple, restricted forms and colours, or musical patterns, repeated over and over again with minor variations over long sequences. You might say such creations start with limited palettes, or notes; something like Terry Riley’s ‘In C,’ which uses only one note across its maddening, engrossing composition.
In language, Oulipo has done similar things. This group of writers, thinkers and scientists used mathematical rules to restrict their writing palettes, while still aiming to write readable poetry or stories. One recent example is Christian Bök’s Eunoia, with five chapters, A, E, I, O, U, in which he attempts to use every word in the dictionary in each chapter with only that vowel. Chapter A begins: ‘Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A dada bard as daft as Tzara damns all art that lack an ‘A’ as a standard hallmark.’
Such restrictions can be liberating. Watching the French Revolution turn from liberty to violence, William Wordsworth rejected complete, unbounded freedom, both in society and for the ‘unbridled imagination.’ Placing limits on the imagination gives definition to the mind’s infinite space within which our selves and our writing can play.
Writing constraints come in many forms, from restricting use of the alphabet to controlling word count or time limits. And the best way to understand their effects is to have a go at it yourself. So, take this prompt as an invitation to have a go yourself; feel free to bend the rules as you go, but see if you can keep to the general spirit of it
Describe a task that you or an invented character has to complete over and over again. It might be something from a daily routine, like brushing your teeth, or preparing meals. Else a task from work might jump out at you. Focus only on describing the task from start to finish and do so in three sentences of any length. If it helps, you can think of the three sentences as the beginning, middle and end of the task.
Then describe completing the same task another 29 times in three sentences. But don’t do it all at once! You might want to write one per day as a little routine writing doodle, or a few a day at lunch. You can reuse the first sentence each time if it makes sense to you, but try to add new details in the second and third sentences. Perhaps you’ll also want to reuse the third sentence occasionally. See what works for you.
Blog 8Pack Running
There’s a very telling true story of a man who recently broke the two-hour barrier for running a marathon using a very strange technique: other people. Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge used a team of 42 pacemakers, including many worldclass athletes, to sustain a pace of over 13mph (21kph) for one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds.
What does Kipchoge’s staggering feat say about us as a species? That we’re inherently social, community-driven? That our morale, resilience, motivation, endurance, performance can be lifted to heroic levels when we have a good team around us? While Kipchoge’s time hasn’t been counted as an official world record for marathon running due to the unofficial technique his team used, it’s still incredible evidence of the things people can rise to with the right support.
Our tribal, family-oriented origins are still fundamental to us today, but can be detrimental or beneficial, depending on the kind of community we have around us. In Humankind, Rutger Bregman argues compellingly that our species’ kindness and compassion has been more important to our evolution than brute strength or greed because community has been more vital to our survival.
And yet, it goes both ways: without community, or with communities that encourage competition for resources and hierarchy, the opposite can be true in terms of resilience, wellbeing, performance and chances of survival. In their groundbreaking book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson dedicate a chapter to exploring our species’ social inheritance. Comparing human society to that of two comparatively distant ape ancestors, bonobos and chimpanzees, the fomer focused on friendship, the latter on social status, they note:
“We have become attentive to friendship and social status because the quality of social relationships has always been crucial to wellbeing, determining whether other people are feared rivals or vital sources of security, co-operation and support. So important are these dimensions of social life that lack of friends and low social status are among the most imortant sources of chronic stress affecting the health of populations in rich countries today.” (198)
It’s never so simple to classify the people around us as one or another type. We have good days and bad days. Some people might be very encouraging and supportive at some tasks, but worse than useless at others. But taken over time, how do your communities, at home or at work, strike you? Are they more competitive, more geared toward social status and hierarchy? Or are they supportive and sharing? What qualities have you found most memorable – both negative and positive – over the past year?
Blog 9Changes as good as rests: Shinrin-Yoku, and other pastimes
There’s plenty of research to say being in nature is good for our wellbeing. Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing, for example, can positively improve feelings of depression, anxiety and anger in the short term (according to, e.g., Kotera, Richardson and Sheffield’s systematic review).
The relaxation natural surroundings bring is relatively modern. Nature used to be full of wildness, a place where wolves roamed and people could easily become lost, mentally and physically. Now it’s our cities that are dangerous with their traffic, pollution, crime and chaos. Perhaps it’s merely the majority of us live in built environments and retreating to the calm of a wood, or open fields, can be invigorating.
I also wonder if it’s the change itself that stimulates the body to begin mending: the change of responsibilities, communities, culture, environment. For myself, any planned change can feel restorative. Taking a holiday from your regular home, space, or routines triggers the imagination and senses to respond to unfamiliar sights, people and wildlife, streets and architecture. By contrast, routines and repetitions numbs us to the world, sends us into our thoughts.
Without a car, lockdown trapped me in the familiarity of my locale. Ventures outside were limited to what was accessible on foot or by bicycle. Not that that’s something to complain about. I found new areas nearby to visit and began noticing new details around my neighbourhood. Being forced to stay in one area pushed me toward being more mindful of my surroundings. More than that, I began changing my behaviour in my neighbourhood, running, climbing trees, writing outdoors, following new paths and exploring at different times of the day and night.
There’s something a little faddish about forest bathing and the many paid experiences that have sprung up with it. The part that’s valuable to me (and becomes clearer in Kotera et al.’s systematic review) is that it encourages you to change how you inhabit a space. Shinrin-yoku is programmatic, involving ‘breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, walking, aromatherapy’ (Kotera et al., p. 2) and so on. you could add many more suggestions: qi gong, foraging, bird-spotting, practising a musical instrument, mushroom spotting (I’ve heard too many bad stories about untrained mushroom pickers ending up in hospital, so won’t risk it myself), dancing and so on. In groups (such as, for example, the Walking Forest project) you might also engage in bushcraft, wood carving, or storytelling.
Interruptions, Real and Imagined
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
K. P. Kavafis, ‘Ithaka’ (trans. Edmund Keeley)
While managed change can serve to refresh us, there’s that other kind of change that serves to disrupt, unsettle. The pandemic threw most of our lives into chaos, breaking routines, cutting off access to loved ones, to healing spaces and to a sense of freedom. Interruptions to routines bring uncontrolled change and you might say they are a fact of life. In university contexts, it’s unlikely a person will get through three years of study without some kind of life event cropping up. Learning to cope with such changes in your environment is a vital part of maturing.
But why should we wait for major events to happen, cross our fingers and hope we’ll muddle through? To paraphrase Sir Philip Sidney’s arguments in ‘The Defence of Poesy,’ imagining things before they happen can help us sound a moral path through such things, concocting possibilities and playing through potential behaviours and outcomes. Imagination is part of what makes us human, allowing us to plan, create, strategise and negotiate risks. We can also take things we have experienced and reimagine new outcomes from different decisions we might have made, for better or worse.
So, this final blog is another invitation to imagine, in writing, putting yourself through a simple, small interruption. Start by describing a routine journey you are familiar with – commuting to or from work, or a school run, for example. Include concrete details of things you pass: buildings, particular trees or roundabouts or turnings that stand out – anything memorable.
Something interrupts your journey. What is it? How serious, or trivial? How do you respond? Describe your feelings, actions and words. Who else is there? What are they doing and how helpful are they? Draw out the emotional dimensions of the interruption – not all interruptions are unwelcome, so explore the different facets.