How to stop sweating the small stuff… once you’ve already started

angry womanTragedy, like blame and Brunelleschi, is so often a matter of perspective. Ever wonder why it’s so hard to be rational about stuck lids, traffic jams, and computer crashes? These paradigm dependent annoyances are essentially arbitrary; it’s the timeless universals triggered deep in our limbic brains that cause all the huffing and puffing. So how can we tame our reptilian responses and learn to follow Miranda Kerr’s (who better than a supermodel to guide us plebs) most recent life advice and stop sweating the small stuff?

Let’s take a classic example – wish it was hypothetical. Two days ago I turned on my office computer and discovered that an entire chapter of my work-in-progress novel had vanished into thin… into… if I knew where, even metaphorically, I’d be ahead of the game. Instantly, I felt my whole body reacting: sweaty palms, nausea, teeth gnashing rage… the works. My prefrontal cortex couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I knew my only hope of regaining perspective on this paradigm pitfall was to engage with my system as a whole.

Exercise in Engagement: How to stop sweating the small stuff… once you’ve already started

1) (Optional) Begin to loosen paradigm associations/restrictions by performing a quick sense scroll mindfulness meditation – preferably, but not necessarily, in paradigm neutral territory (aka nature).

2) Identify the universal human theme that has been triggered. Since I was already blasting my way through the 5 stages, it was easy to identify ‘loss’ as my emotional theme.

3) Since our brains already process our lives through story, it’s only logical to make use of storytelling as a practical psychological tool. Determine the historical/geographical/situational paradigm that best fits your body/brain’s current system state reaction. My reptilian brain tends to be a bit of drama queen, so my go-to paradigm for almost any piss-off is medieval London during the plague years – not exactly the swingin’ sixties. Story a situation that truly reflects your emotional state, thereby acknowledging your initial reaction with respect and permission. What are the sights, sounds, smells? Characters? Dialogues? Really push it.

4) Take your universal theme into an entirely different paradigm and a story that would warrant an emotional reaction on the opposite end of the spectrum. Play around. Journey your piss-off through time and space to find multiple comparables. Someone stepping on a clay pot I just made in a Roman pottery kiln. Losing my latest obsidian spear point… and finding it again. Change the ending. This is your story. The purpose is to flood your brain with conflicting sets of information to clear the stage for conscious re-framing of your initial circumstance.

5) Return to your own paradigm and decide how big of a deal this really is. I do mean decide. By respecting your initial reaction, and giving it the neural space to temper through alternative storytelling, your thinking will be directed towards a more neutral, rational objectiveness. Any novel necessitates rewrites, so this is just an inevitable part of the process – plus, I’ve still got the handwritten draft. Also, because you’ve loosened your associations, certain paradigm privileges will start to peek through. My office’s air conditioning for one!

This entire process can be performed in under 5 minutes and can save, not just your composure, but your whole day, not to mention more than a few marriages. By some sweet miracle of storytelling come to life, the next morning I found a hidden typed hard copy of my lost chapter in a place I swear I’d already double-checked. But something tells me I’ll be storying new troubles back to the ol’ Thames before the week is out. Must be a human or something… sigh.

3 thoughts on “How to stop sweating the small stuff… once you’ve already started

  1. “Bring out your dead…” “I’m not dead” “You soon will be…” – had to say it, the vision of medieval carts with bodies always makes me think of only one movie. Ahem. Apropos losing part of the WIP – ouch (but good outcome on the backup copy). Great way of re-conceptualising a response to the moment.

    A thought, though: if you’d lost it altogether – unrecoverable – the only option is to re-write. Yet that opens up a potential for new thinking. In that sense, would a re-write be affected by re-casting relative to loss? Would it be better than the lost version, because of the prior practise (a ‘take 2’) – or simply different? The thing I’m getting at is HOW we conceptualise stories – the way in which our life-of-the-moment can help frame the specifics of how we write something down. There’s no single answer to that one, of course, it’s one of those ‘pondering points’…and an ‘alternative pondering point’ at that, given that you found the MS…

    • Thank you Matthew! I’ve always found it strange how so many people are able to devote their precious time and energy to writing as a thing-in-itself, without ever asking… “Why?” “How?” Personally (and I feel as if I’m dishonouring some unspoken code by admitting this), I can’t help finding the process even more fascinating than the product. Why are word games (eg: stuck lids, traffic jams, and computer crashes) intuitive for some brains and not others? How does this facility reflect the neural landscape of concepts and symbols in the brain? What impact might this genetic structural framework have on our processing of sensory input, of relationships? Can the same internal motivations/facilities that drive us to write be redirected into storying our realities? If so, where do we draw the line between strategic re-conceptualization and isolating self-delusion? …etc.

      Your comment is brilliant! All your not-so-hypothetical questions were buzzing in my brain, because “…the way in which our life-of-the-moment can help frame the specifics of how we write something down.” (I have my theories on the specifics of why this is true, but that’ll have to wait for another post) Yes, I knew it would be different, because if I tried to re-scribe (and I do mean ‘scribe’) the chapter, the plot would be the same, but the language itself wouldn’t have the spontaneous energy needed to beget surprise. I can only hope it would have been better, because of the loaded emotions tied to the chapter’s physical history through time. Thank heavens I don’t have to find out!

      I know this is terribly cliché, but I didn’t know how much I valued the project until this happened. Because who are we kidding, the ‘process’ is never enough. After all the metacognition, procrastination, and nitty-gritty grunt work, there’s nothing like feeling the solid weight of your words in your hands.

      • It’s not strange at all to think about thinking – and think about how we think, thence how we do EVERYTHING! 🙂 The way we write fascinates me, I am convinced that the words are shaped, in the immediate of their assembly and creation, by so many factors, including whatever’s happening in the moment. The way in which they are re-shaped if we re-write something is indicative of the complexity of the process. For instance, as you say, the plot of a re-written piece might be the same, but the specifics of the wording could differ. Spontaneous energy is one of the factors – the excitement of the idea, transferred to the page, becomes a form of emotion that the reader can pick up.

        I think I can feel a blog post about it coming on…

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