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On Narcissism

12 May

By Rhea H. Boyden

‘We have become fatally entangled in the cocoon coils of our conceit’ -D.H. Lawrence

I was recently sitting in a café with two friends and they were arguing over which was the more narcissistic:  Twitter or Facebook?  One of the friends had quit Facebook because she had had a bad experience with it and was claiming how much she hated the self-centred, show off aspect of it. ‘Twitter is way worse’ my other friend contradicted. ‘It is the ultimate self-promotion tool.’  I am the one who had somehow provoked this argument by telling them that I had now joined Twitter as a method of promoting myself more as a writer, but that I was concerned about precisely that: self-promotion. ‘I certainly don’t want to be retweeting everything on to Facebook,’ I told them. ‘I post enough stuff on there as it is with all my articles, essays and poems. I don’t want to overwhelm my friends with even more of it’.

The whole reason this was a subject of discussion at all was because I had, earlier that very day announced on Facebook to my friends that they could now follow me on Twitter and within two minutes a friend of mine commented on my post and said: ‘So you are a proper twat now, aren’t you?’ He is a good friend and we respect each other greatly, and I know he was only joking, but still I took it as a warning. ‘Yes’ I admitted, ‘I am a twittering, tweetering twat!’

I would be inclined to say that online dating is a tad more narcissistic than either Twitter or Facebook because here we bring the sensitive issues of dating and sex to the fore, and of course we want to make a good impression, go on dates, be admired, loved and so forth. Last year I went on one date with a man, and I knew after our first date that I was not interested in him. I had gotten completely the wrong impression from his profile. There was no chemistry, that was that. We had some mutual friends, however, and somehow we remained friends on Facebook even though I had declined his offer to go on a second date. Over the months, despite my rejecting him, he continued to click like on many of my articles until one day we got into a chat and he then attacked me for being completely self-centred, narcissistic and continually talking about myself in my articles. I was hurt, to say the least, so I went on the defensive. ‘I write autobiography and memoir.’ I told him. ‘That is what I do. I take my life as a starting point, then I do some research and weave the research and statistics through my personal stories and essays, and, I might add, I also reveal many of my weaknesses and flaws in the hopes that people might relate to it.’ My pride was hurt. ‘Well’ he said snidely, ‘I prefer fiction’.  ‘Oh really?’ I retorted, now getting a bit nasty with him ‘You say you prefer fiction, but you read my posts anyway?’ This pissed him off and we ended up throwing a good few poisoned daggers back and forth. I told him that I honestly thought he was attacking my writing because I had declined to go on a second date with him. ‘I have been rejected time and time again by men I am interested in’ I told him, ‘That’s the way it works and I am sorry if you are hurt. Your criticism of my writing is not constructive, but if you have something constructive to say about it I will gladly listen to it’. He did not have anything helpful to say, so I did what I had to do: I defriended him. I had only met him once for coffee. End of communication with him.

I have, nonetheless, taken this little episode slightly to heart. ‘So, am I really narcissistic and self-centred? Is what I write and post on Facebook incredibly conceited and all about me, all the time? Do I irritate my friends with my posts? Surely if someone does not want to read my articles they can just ignore me, or heck they can block me or defriend me if they like! I certainly know that there is no universal audience and some people probably hate what I write and post here. I cannot change that. I am not, and probably never will be a fiction writer. I write about what I experience in the world and I put it on my blog and on Facebook and I am not about to stop.  I enjoy it, it is my hobby, it gets me published and it gives me something to do on a Sunday afternoon when I have again failed to secure any kind of date within the confines of the online dating world. Of course I love getting likes and feedback on my articles, and I love getting published. It’s a kick and it fulfills me. I have some harsh critics who bring me to my knees on style and syntax. I have one critic who recently asked me who on earth my audience was for this topic, as he could not understand at all who would want to read it or find it the least bit interesting. That made me pout too, but it made me think about the importance of a target audience.

The successful autobiographer and memoir writer David Sedaris says that his partner Hugh has also accused him of narcissism and being extremely self-centred in his writing.  He takes it to heart but he keeps on writing one successful and hilarious story after the next. I would imagine as long as one keeps the stories of oneself self-deprecating and is willing to expose oneself, then one can hold an audience’s attention and avoid somehow being accused of being completely arrogant and conceited. Writing about oneself is a way of connecting with the world as far as I can see. See here, I am holed up here at home on my own, in front of my computer trying desperately to connect to you, the listener, reader, friend etc. out there. I am so very small in the grand scheme of things and I know it. Do I suppose I have a very unique and above average destiny/life that is worth reading/pondering/writing about at all?  Well, how can I answer that? Doesn’t everyone have a story to tell? In his short story ‘Mister Squishy’ David Foster Wallace depicts his very important character who holds a high position in a company, as sitting in his office ‘sketching his own face’s outlines as he talked on the phone or waited for programs to run’. The character is indeed so self-absorbed, that his sexual fantasies do not involve fantasising about someone else but rather he fantasises about himself.

There is a wonderful painting by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio that depicts Narcissus staring into his reflection in the lake. He has been doomed to this fate by Nemesis for rejecting Echo’s love. His reflection cannot reciprocate his love and he eventually dies staring at himself.  The narcissus, which is a beautiful flower related to the daffodil is the symbol of vanity in the Western world. Narcissism has become such a buzzword in our me-centred world, but my gut feeling is that it is deeply tied to loneliness and alienation, and that most people mean well and do not want to only think of themselves but are rather struggling to connect to the world. It may seem a naïve assumption and I may seem to be wallowing in self, but writing this essay and expressing these thoughts have made my solitary Sunday afternoon a more joyful and fulfilling one, and I don’t feel as lonely or lost in my own world and self-absorbed neuroses (which I surely have in abundance) as I write.

Wrestling with Writing

12 Oct
William_Butler_Yeats_1 Maud Gonne
by Rhea H.Boyden
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats- The Second Coming

When my dear mentor sent me back an article I had written covered in correction symbols it felt like a punch in the face. I had genuinely been of the opinion that it had been very good, and nearly ready for publication. How wrong I was. ‘So, I will have to wrestle with this article all night and follow her instructions and disssect and interpret every red mark, green symbol, blue sign and purple arrow’, I sighed in exasperation. She had helpfully included a key to aid me in deciphering the symbols, and told me exactly what I needed to change and how to proceed. I had to do the work though, she wasn’t going to do it for me. I had never been published, and this was my first big chance to get my art show review into a New York magazine, so I was going to heed her rules. I took a deep breath. This was work, much unlike the creative heat of the inspiration of writing a first draft, which is fun and intoxicating. The symbols she had provided reminded me of formulae from my high school maths class which I had hated. Even very experienced writers with a couple novels under their belts, a knowledge of the process of getting a manuscript completed, and a tonne of confidence in their own ability, dread the proofs of their manuscripts being returned to them besmeared with red ink. The accomplished author Zadie Smith (who is my age) talks about her fear of receiving her novel back from editors. ‘Proofs are so cruel!’ she writes in her essay on writing. ‘Breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain. Proofs are the wasteland where your novel dies and the cold reality asserts itself.’ she says. I read this and I wonder if I will ever get my book finished. How is it I came to be writing a book anyway? It wasn’t really my plan. I already have a full time job and a very busy social life. And now I have to spend hours editing in my limited free time? I can only say that somehow writing chose me and not the other way around. Some of the essays I have written just somehow wrote themselves and were stream of consciousness, flowing out of me and onto paper in a river of ink flowing through a burst dam, uncontrolled by me. I am simply a conduit. My article ‘Musings on Modern Gender Relations’ wrote itself as I was under the influence of vodka cocktails on a cold December night. That article ended up as cover story in Gloss Magazine with the Irish Times and the response to the longer unedited version has reverberated throughout this entire year. And everyone had read the unedited version! I have been scrambling to edit it and make it better, but it seems people even loved the unproofed version. ‘It kind of flows and rambles in a very entertaining way, and I mean this as an absolute compliment.’ one friend of mine posted. Why I posted it online the minute I finished writing it, without even editing it or spell checking it is a mystery to me, and one of these crazy ideas of a beginning writer. I am not of the opinion that second drafts and editing are for sissies, and I am, of course, willing to put in the work, but I was just dying to get that essay out there. It couldn’t wait for editing, and the overwhelming feedback on it seemed to confirm this. Scores of people said: ‘What a timely essay, I couldn’t stop reading it.’ Even Gloss Magazine ignored the fact that it was clearly unedited and offered to publish a shorter version of it. This must have been beginner’s luck. I wouldn’t dare send an unedited article to a magazine again. What was I thinking? Even now, when I edit a draft two or three times, glaring errors still become apparent on a fourth read through. I do still post my articles on my blog and on Facebook all the time after two reads through, fully aware that there are still errors, but I think most of my readers are forgiving of this. I do not have the time to stay up til midnight every night, editing stories to magazine quality before I share them. If I ever get any of these articles published in a magazine again, I will go back and rework them. For now, they are good essays for my friends to read and that is fine. Writing is just a hobby that chose me and I was not even intending to get published yet. I started slowly writing an autobiograhy in recipes a year and a half ago for fun with the idea that maybe some day, if I am lucky, I will get it published, and it will be something that will be enjoyed by my circle of extended friends and family. I have no real formal education in style and syntax, neither am I journalist, or in possession of real solid skills that are needed to edit an article to top quality on my own. People keep saying: ‘Rhea, keep writing, you are so talented. Know it, own it, claim it!’ Hearing this kind of feedback is indeed very flattering and motivating, but I know only too well where my weaknesses lie. I need to spend more time studying style and syntax, punctuation and prose style, and all of this takes time. My book, of which I have written 50 pages, has been ignored these past 6 months in the excitement of getting my first two articles published, and then writing lots of other articles and prose poems on the heels of my publishing success. I need to forget all these other projects and get back to my book. Somehow I have developed a fear of revisiting that project though, partly because despite my lack of confidence, I do realise that my writing style and voice has improved a lot since I started that project , due to the sheer number of hours I have been writing. Going back to my book will be going back to a time when I was a worse writer than now, and I will likely groan and cringe at what I have written and realise how much work there is to be done to bring that project up to scratch, and indeed finish it. I completely relate to what Zadie Smith writes about revisiting things she has written and how daunting a task that is. She sums it up nicely in her essay by saying: ‘To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first twenty pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.’ Indeed. Who wants to go back to jail? I need to have a more positive attitude and go back to that project that is dear to me and attack it with all my love. The very act of writing this essay here is yet another writing project I am throwing myself into in an attempt to ignore my book project. I have hope that I will attack it with a happy heart soon, especially as I am reminded by many teachers of writing that it is a good idea to leave things you have written for a spell before going back to them, as you can then approach editing with fresh and new energy that is somewhat removed from yourself and your ego. As Natalie Goldberg, teacher of creative writing and poetry, says in her essay on rereading and rewriting: ‘Time (away from what you have written) allows for distance and objectivity from your work. You can sit down and read something as if it weren’t yours. Become curious. Read it page by page. Even if it seemed dull when you wrote it, now you will recognise its texture and rhythm’. Yes, I must fight the nausea at my own earlier writings that I am bound to experience while rereading them, as Smith so clearly points out, but I can still have the benefit of re reading them from a detached and objective space. Quite apart from needing to squeeze time for writing and editing into an already busy work schedule, I must also find time for reading. Serious reading takes time, concentration and mental alertness. An alertness that is, depressingly, not always present after a long day of teaching. But read I must if I have any hope of being a good writer. My current reading materials are style guides, poetry, essays written by other writers, magazine articles on relationships, psychology, economics and history. I also read memoirs and the occasional novel of contemporary fiction. I have read many of the classics, but sadly my reading still has large gaps in it that I intend to fill when I find time for it. I have not read ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Crime and Punishment’ and neither of these books are high on my list of priority reading, even though I am aware that these are both books that one is ‘supposed to have read’. Both Smith and Goldberg talk about reading in their essays on writing. They both discuss how so many writers fear that their own voice will be lost if they read too much of another author’s work. Goldberg says in her essay that a student of hers complained to her that she was reading so much Hemingway that she was afraid her voice was not hers anymore, but that she was copying him. ‘That’s not so bad’, Goldberg writes. ‘It’s better to sound like Ernest Hemingway than old Aunt Bethune, who thinks Hallmark greeting cards contain the best poetry in America.’ Goldberg states that writing is a communal act, and that no one can lay claim to any voice. Obviously, if all you read is Hemingway over and over again, then you do not develop your own voice. You must read lots of different styles and different authors to broaden vocabulary and ideas constantly. While reading you will never know what will influence your style or not. In my experience, I notice with great joy while I am writing, how the different things I have read influence my writing, and I never have the feeling that it effects my own voice. If anything, all the diverse things I have read strengthen my writing. Surely it is arrogant to say that reading will ruin your voice? I would assume that most good writers have read a fair amount of books in their lives to date, and that all this reading influences their writing. How else have these good writers even developed a sophisticated enough vocabulary to write something worth reading if not by reading a lot themselves? Zadie Smith is also a proponent of reading a lot while writing, and says her writing desk is always covered in open novels while she is in the midst of writing a novel. As she says beautifully in her essay: ‘I think of reading like a balanced diet, if your sentences are too baggy, too baroque, then cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single mark on white paper, stop worrying so much what Nabokov would say, pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of style over substance.’ she advises. Who would worry about your reader thinking you have adopted someone else’s voice? I stand in awe, instead of Zadie Smith, who finds the time and energy to read all these other novels and write her own too. I have another very entertaining and ironic book that I love to read while commuting entitled ‘How Not To Write a Novel.’ by Sarah Newman and Howard Mittelmark. The book lays out, misstep by misstep, how you can sobotage your own novel in laugh -out-loud anecdotes that are easy to digest and somewhat silly, but at the same time very useful. They have one section where they talk all about how they understand how the beginning novelist wants to impress us by proving what an extensive vocabulary they have by wrestling with as many important and big words as possible that even they seem not to know the definition of in their writing. Newman and Mittelmark then offer a simple test that you can apply to any word to see if you know the definition. The test goes as follows: Ask yourself: ‘Do I know this word?’ If the answer is no, then you do not know the word.’ Natalie Goldberg also talks about how beginning writers are intimidated by the success and achievement of published and talented writers. She says simply that you need to subtract rules for writing, not add them muddying your prose with needless clutter. Writing needs to be kept clear, simple and honest if it is to make sense and keep the attention of your reader. ‘Good writing’ she says,’ is more of a process of uneducation than education.’ and her essays and simple tips seem to confirm this. Newman and Mittelmark humourously go on to talk about how confident and published writers have no problem using the speech tag ‘said’ when someone in a dialogue says something. Unpublished and inexperienced authors, on the other hand are uncomfortable with the boring repetition of the word ‘said’ when someone says something and try out every other word under the sun that indicates exactly in what manner someone has uttered something. The following section from their book is entitled: When the author thinks he is too good for the word ‘said’: ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, he divulged. ‘And, far from the coast we had no fear of any sea creature. How wrong we would be proved!’ he appended. She queried, ‘It was a sea creature? How is that possible?’ she further wished to determine. ‘It was a sea creature,’ he affirmed, ‘but one which had subtly mutated to be far more dangerous, far more deadly, than its marine counterpart. For on dry land,’ he uttered, ‘it had become both larger and more muscular. It’s funny’, he smirked, ‘now that I look back from safety.’ ‘Funny?’ she interrogated. ‘Hilarious!’ he expostulated. ‘Surely not?’ she doubted. ‘But how little you know!’ he exclaimed. ‘Says you!’ she objected. ‘That’s the last I am willing to say,’ he concluded. ‘Some listener you turned out to be!’ he snorted. This book wisely says that if we use too many words to say how something is said, we distract from what is being said, and we kill any chance of holding the attention of our readers, let alone landing a book deal. I am a beginning writer and I also get intimidated by all I have not read, all I do not know, and the sheer amount I have to read and learn, but I just try and be patient with myself. I do not have to write if I do not want to. I do it because it brings pleasure and gives me something to get lost in after a long day of work. When I am tired and in a bad mood, or lonely, I sometimes do not write. I sit on the couch, eat cookies, day dream and listen to music. That is ok too. And sometimes I do write when I am lonely and depressed and I find it lifts my mood. Goldberg has a whole chapter on loneliness and how you can write to reconnect with the universe. Smith too talks about how you can fall in line with a feeling, write, and go where it takes you instead of fighting it and going against the grain. Both of their essays on these topics have proven very useful therapy for me when I am feeling blue. In short, writing is therapy on so many levels and it can lift you up and help you process any low feeling you may have, whether it may be inadequacy, depression or loneliness. I live and breathe writing and I feel it is now an integral part of my life and essential for my sanity on many levels. When I was a young student at university in the United States, I did not do a whole lot of extracurricular reading and some would say that I was academically lazy. If I had not had to work the whole way through college, I may have had more leisure time for reading books for pleasure, but it was not the case. I did the coursework, made good grades, and that was that. I read about six novels in my free time for fun throughout my whole university career. I was more interested in going out and having a good time and doing a lot of sports when I was not at work or in class. It was not until a year after I graduated from university that I started reading again for pleasure. The book that set off my post university reading career was an autobiography by a woman named Mary Karr called ‘The Liar’s Club.’ It was so funny and so honest that I devoured it in one sitting and I immediately ordered her other novels and poetry and I have never looked back. Karr awakened in me a mature love of poetry, something which I, like a lot of people, found to be a chore at school. In Ireland we were forced to read a lot of W.B. Yeats and I never appreciated it. Presumably educators realise that the average teenager will not appreciate poetry at school, but will hopefully appreciate it at a later point and their wish is to lay the groundwork for this future appreciation. Mary Karr quotes Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ which is a serious poem about Christ’s Second Coming in the middle of talking about her crazy, hilarious Texan childhood. This was the first time I saw that poetry can come to life and have meaning in the middle of not such high brow literature. It was a revelation to me. Since that time, I have found poetry to be of great solace and find that it is speaking to me in a special language that only I can deciper at that time. This of course, is the very essence and beauty of poetry: it is very personal and it is there to be interpreted in many ways. I have cried and laughed at poetry and recently even written some of my own prose poetry, a process which was an incredible experience. Here again, like some of my crazier inspired essays, the poem wrote itself and just flowed out of me with me as the conduit. These are the times when I am not wrestling with words, rather they flow easily through my soul, muscles, blood and sub conscious mind easily, and with great pleasure. As an adult who has suffered unrequited love, I can feel compassion for Yeats when I write my own prose poetry. He was desperately in love with the Irish revolutionary and feminist Maud Gonne, who rejected his three marriage proposals. It seems the best muses for poetry and writing are the ones who are unable to give us the love we so seek from them. I wrote a poem (that I am very proud of) this past summer for a man, and I sent it to him and told him I had written it for him. He read it and politely rejected my advances. He has remained my muse however, as I have not yet been able to lodge him from my head. He has served a good purpose, however, as muse and character in nearly every poem and article I have written since then. If he had said he loved me too, and we had indeed started the love affair that I had built up in my silly head, I doubt I would have gotten a whole lot of writing done these past months. This is my solace. I am productive with my writing while not in love. Rejection breeds fertile ground for writing, and I am thankful to say that the writings inspired by him are merely mournful and hopeful for future reconciliation, and not bitter and resentful. Much of Yeats’ poetry requires dedication and a knowledge of Greek myths and a qualified teacher as a guide if you are to become a dedicated scholar and really get what he is talking about. I have read a lot of his poetry and I get a lot out of it, but a lot is lost on me because I do not have a professor at my side to guide me through it. But that is fine, we do not all have to be academic scholars of a poet to allow their writings to touch our busy lives and feed our souls. Poetry can lift you up regardless. Both Zadie Smith and Natalie Goldberg rave about John Keats and what an accessible poet he is. Smith talks about how she much she can relate to him and how he opened her mind to the beauty of poetry. ‘Keats offers his readers the possibility of entering through the side door,’ writes Smith, ‘the one marked ‘Apprentices Welcome Here’. For Keats went about his work as an apprentice. He took a sort of MFA of the mind, albeit alone, and for free in his little house in Hampstead. A suburban lower middle-class boy, he made his own scene out of the books of his library.’ To this I can most definitely relate. I am a homebody too, surrounded by my books, my ambition to write, and no advanced degree beyond a BA and no more professors to guide me. I do enjoy surrounding myself with my intellectual superiors and I lap up what they have to offer, and do not fear it. Keats’ poetry is so wonderful precisely because it is intellectually demanding, while at the same time unpretentious. He admits the limits of his knowledge and education in his poetry. His sonnet ‘To Homer’ opens with the folllowing two lines: ‘Standing aloof in giant ignorance, of these I hear and of the Cylades’. He pays homage to Homer in this sonnet, but admits his ignorance of the Greek language. It does not appear, however that his lack of knowledge of Greek impedes his own talent for writing poetry. His sonnets openly explore his weaknesses, his fear of not being loved, his fear of being alone and his mortality. These are universal fears whether we can read Homer and understand it, or have dropped out of high school and are struggling for recognition in society. We are all searching for love and are wrestling with whatever comes our way in life and we want attention and to be understood. Goldberg warns in one of her essays not to write because you want to be loved. ‘Writers get confused’ she says. ‘We think writing gives us an excuse for being alive. We forget that being alive is unconditional and that life and writing are two separate entities. Often we see writing as a way to receive love and attention. See what I wrote. I must be a good person.’ I must admit that I am guilty of using writing as a way of getting love and attention. I can hardly deny it after what I divulged above. That I have a muse and I wanted him to love me and my poetry. I wanted him to be a fan of my mind and my body. That is the fantasy that lives inside me. Quite apart from my romantic fantasies, however, I simply hope that people will like and appreciate my writing. I am ecstatic when I get messages from happy readers saying how much they love what I write. How could I not be happy? I have my critics too, of course, and I try and take their advice and learn from it. And I apologise for my terrible syntax and my somewhat perverse refusal to use ever use spellcheck. My writing, I know, swims in a sea of misplaced commas, which could, along with my poor syntax, be a result of my having learned the German tongue fluently, which is a language awash with commas and neverending sentences. I need to bear in mind Natalie Goldberg’s teaching that good writing is a process of uneducation. In my case unlearning German syntax while writing English sentences. It is something I wrestle with every day. But this relentless wrestling with language, writing, syntax and style need not be a tough match that ends in bruises if I remind myself that it is all a learning process that I can do in my own time. I, like Keats can set the pace and do my own MFA of the mind, in my own cozy living room, surrounded by the books and people I love.


Featured images: William Butler Yeats 1920 (Bain News Service) Maud Gonne (Max Elbo Graphics)

We Need to Talk

12 Aug

Talking_lips wikiroxor

By Rhea H. Boyden

‘What size toothbrush do you use?’ My dentist enquired of me as I sat in the dentist chair. ‘I suspect you are using one that is too big with too many bristles, you need a smaller brush’ he counselled. ‘Oh, really?’ I asked. ‘Yes’, he said, you have a very small mouth, you need to use this brush here’ he continued, as he handed me a shiny new toothbrush. ‘I have a small mouth?’ I asked incredulously. ‘Noone has ever said that to me before, I have always been told that I have a big mouth, and I never seem to be able to keep it shut. Whenever I fly back home to Ireland for the holidays from Berlin, I am always bubbling with energy and excitement about seeing my friends and family and telling them all my stories. My jaw is wagging constantly. My dear brother is often the first victim of my motor mouth, as he is often the one who picks me up from the airport. As soon as we set off on the bumpy country road home I am yakking away at a hundred miles an hour which only has the effect of making him drive faster on the dangerous Irish roads, presumably because he wants to get home quicker and have some peace away from me. ‘Rhea, you are full on, you never stop blathering, you are wrecking my head’ he says, or ‘Rhea, you have so many interesting things to say, why don’t you say them once and then move on to the next thing’. My brother and I care for each other dearly and we get on well, but more often than not, we have had a slight argument before we reach home, and usually it is due to the fact that I am blabbering too much, and not only am I blabbering, but I am repeating myself too, making my presence a double torture to him. He is very good for picking me up from the airport, and for that I am grateful. I always bring him a bottle of rum or something else nice to drink as a reward for putting up with me. Usually within a day or two of being home, I have a similar run in with my father. All I want to do is talk and talk to my family when I see them. ‘Why do you always want to read the paper when I want to talk to you? I grumble at my dad when we are sitting at the kitchen table. ‘Rhea’ he says, looking up from his paper, irritated. ‘Why do you always want to talk to me when I want to read the paper?’ Good point. I leave him alone and go and sulk and read my book, alone, and wait until someone else wants to talk to me. I love talking to my dad, but I have to learn that he doesn’t always want to talk. When he is in a talkative mood, he is great. I don’t have to be in Ireland visiting him to bug him with my chatter though. I make plenty of use of my phone to call him up and natter on and on about my latest writing project. I recently phoned him up to tell him about my idea for this very essay that I wanted to write about talking. I told him all about it in great detail. When we were ending the phone conversation he then teasingly said goodbye to me with the following sentence: ‘Great Rhea, now you can stop talking about writing and start writing about talking.’ My grandfather was once visiting Berlin and he made the effort to walk up the stairs to my fouth floor apartment to visit me and see where I lived. I would have suggested he stay with me, but a ground floor apartment much better suited him at his age. He was huffing and puffing from the effort and I proudly led him into my kitchen and offered him a glass of water to provide him some relief. I then proceeded to jabber on and on about my apartment and my life in Berlin. After quite some time he finally got a word in and said: ‘That’s the problem with you single people who live alone. As soon as you have company you need to talk endlessly.’ That shut me up for a few minutes. Presumably this was his way of saying he did not understand why so many of us were choosing to live alone in single households and shun marriage. Of course, what he doesn’t realise is that I don’t only talk when I have visitors, I also talk to myself on a regular basis, and no, I am not mad, at least not any madder than the next person. In movies and popular culture, people are portrayed as mad and eccentric for talking to themselves, but many studies have shown that most people talk to themselves and it is, in fact, perfectly natural and not a sign of insanity at all. Talking to yourself helps relief stress and solve problems with yourself when you have no one else to talk to. And, indeed even if you do have tonnes of friends and plenty of confidants, you don’t even want to share everything with people. Simply talking to yourself is a good way to process things on your own. Numerous studies have also shown that consciously articulating something out loud to yourself actually does help you find a solution to your question. The problem arises when you start answering your own questions out loud or responding to ‘voices in your head’ which could be a sign of a mental health issue or even schizophrenia, but for most of us young and healthy people, a normal dose of talking to ourselves is no reason for concern at all. While watching the Olympic Games too, you can see lots of athletes muttering to themselves in deep concentration right before they begin a race or a match or a run. In psychology, this type of self-talk is called ‘verbal persuasion’ and it is a very useful tool for gaining self-confidence. Recently, a good friend of mine was visiting me from Ireland and I read him one of my short stories aloud. When I had finished he said: ‘You have to lop off the first half of this story and start in the middle, that’s when it gets interesting. You must turn your writing into a pearl’, he advised. ‘It must be condensed beauty of the only thing that is necessary.’ As I was absorbing this lovely metaphor of the pearl, he then interrupted my reverie by adding: ‘It comes as no surprise that you are now writing all the time and churning out stories and articles like crazy, Rhea, you talk so darn much it is good for you to get it down on paper. I took this as a compliment. It also made me think of Mark Twain’s wonderful quotes on being concise in writing such as: ‘If I had had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.’ Yes, everything is in editing, that fine act of reducing what you have written to what is essential. I have a wonderful book entitled ‘Writing Down the Bones’ by a poet and teacher of creative writing named Natalie Goldberg. Her book is filled with lots of fantastic creative writing exercises and she claims in one chapter that chattering and gossiping are the true friends of good writers. We have to talk lots and tell stories and be sociable as much as possible to get our fuel for writing. Only then when we are alone are we able to use all this useful chatter to help us write glittering dialogues and compelling stories. There are wonderfully talented writers who talk little and who are hermits, but there are also authors who are taciturn and talk little, who write scientific journals and other such dry manuscripts that are more effective than sleeping tablets, and not the bubbling, chattering and humourous writings of people who have more active social lives. A friend of mine once gave me a book of short stories entitled ‘Why don’t you stop talking?’ by a woman named Jackie Kay. Was she trying to drop a hint or simply giving me a great book? Regardless, the book is fantastic and Jackie Kay has become one of my bigger influences in my writing. In her short story that bears the same name as the collection of stories, her character, a young woman talks all about how much her tongue gets her into trouble constantly. She says that she gets nervous when she finds herself with a silent person who merely nods and utters one well-chosen word every so often when she is chattering on and on. She also said that she lives alone since she drove her boyfriend mad with her constant talk, making him pack his bags and leave. This I can relate to completely. For some reason, I find myself attracted to really quiet, shy, guys and I have also done a great job of scaring them off. Why do I want to be with these reticent guys in the first place? I really do not want to be the one doing all the talking, as I also get nervous with long, silent pauses in the conversation and so I fill them with my chatter. I once dated a fairly quiet guy here in Berlin and I would send him novel-length e-mails telling him all about my feelings and my philosophy of life. Generally he would respond with one or two sentences to my one or two hundred sentences, which of course had the effect of making me feel as if he didn’t care. The shorter his messages got, the longer mine got, until I finally realised that I had, in fact, written him a good five emails filled with yakking and chatter and news and he hadn’t responded to any of them. I was left with a hanging void of no words, a virtual shaft of nothingness to stare into. He had disappeared without a trace. My talk and words had sent him running to another planet. I finally left him alone, but it left me unhappy and with the feeling that something was left unresolved. It was long assumed that women talked way more than men, but a 2007 study published in Science Magazine put an end to this legend. Researchers placed microphones on 396 college students to record the amount they talked. The result showed that women speak a little more than 16,000 words a day and men a little less than 16,000 words a day which is no significant difference. The three most talkative subjects in the study were indeed men. Women have gotten the reputation for talking more simply because they like and feel the need to talk about relationshipsmore than men. This can all be explained by hormones. Men do not generally like to hear these four words from their wives or girlfriends: ‘We need to talk.’ When a woman says this it is because talking a problem through with her partner produces the hormone oxytocin which helps her relieve stress. Women often want to talk first about a problem and then have intimate contact afterwards with their partners when resolving an issue. Men, on the other hand, are wired completely differently. When there is a problem, testosterone is what relieves stress for them, so having sex is their way of reconciling a problem. Therein lies the problem. The talking/ having sex ratio is often way out of balance and sadly, many relationships end because couples are victims of their hormones. Knowing this fact may indeed help couples save their relationships. Many marriage counsellors have encouraged the more silent men to really make an effort to talk more to their partners, before thinking about having sex. The pay off is then better sex, so a little more talking is worth it. Talking really has been proven effective stress relief for women. How often do you see a group of girls out on a girls night out on the town for drinks? They have fun, laugh, enjoy each others’ company and yes, they talk about their problems with their boyfriends/husbands. They rarely find any concrete solution to their problems, but just sharing their stories is immensely useful and helpful when processing relationship issues. Knowing that they all share the same problems and trials in relationships forms strong bonds and gives them strength and hope. Unfortunately, women have gotten the reputation of being loud-mouthed gossips because of this fact. But, most women are not evil gossips and it is not their intention to spread evilness. Men should not be too threatened by this at all. If anything, these girly nights out make relationships stronger in most cases. Men talk just as much, but they talk about different things and in different situations. Men talk more at the workplace, and they talk more about sports, gadgets, data and numbers. They don’t generally talk to their male friends about their relationships unless they really are having a crisis and need advice and support, a fact women find hard to understand, but what can you do? Men should be happy when their girlfriends are talking to them as it is a sign that the woman cares about the relationship. Men should worry when their previously talkative girlfriend stops talking and becomes withdrawn. This is often an alarm bell that the woman has given up and is thinking of terminating the relationship or considering cheating on her man. All a man can do in this situation is to talk to her. Talk is her stress relief. To go back to Jackie Kay’s short story again, her character talks about how she regrets having such a big mouth, because as she looks around her she perceives that it is the silent people who have the power in the world. They choose their words carefully and when they speak, people listen because they are not yakking constantly. Some of us who talk a lot watch these people with a mixture of admiration, envy and contempt. I realised at the end of my relationship with my quiet guy that I really didn’t know a whole lot about him at all, and it made me pretty angry. And it was not only because I was talking all the time, it was simply that he did not want me to know more about his life. I can only wonder what it was he was hiding from me. His silence was, I now surmise, a way of retaining power. It ended badly with us and I never got the level of communication from him that I desired. He is probably like this in other relationships too, so it’s not all my fault for talking all the time. I admired him greatly too though, for his calm, quiet and organised work ethic. He was an introvert and he got a lot of intense work done on his own. I recently read a short article in ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ by Susan Cain that proposed that introverts should be hired and left alone to work. She quotes research by Wharton management professor Adam Grant who claims that ‘Introverts are persistant-give them a puzzle and they will stick at it longer. They are careful risk-takers, and are less likely to get into car accidents, participate in extreme sports, or place out-sized financial bets than extroverts. Introverts are also comfortable with solitude-a crucial spur to creativity.’ I remember saying to my shy and quiet guy how I envied him being so comfortable with solitude. He certainly didn’t seem to get as lonely as I did, that much I could see. I need constant interaction and chatter with people. And as much as I enjoy my solitude at times, long stretches of it do not suit my extroverted, sociable and talkative nature. Recently another longer term online friendship with a shy and quiet I quite liked ended. Here again, when I review our chats I was the one using way more words than him. It was a nice correspondence while it lasted, but it ended when I told him my feelings for him-I am a girl driven by oxytocin, remember- and how I would have liked to meet him again in the real world. He was unable to reciprocate this and he said very little at the end which has left me disappointed, of course. Again, I am left staring into a void of nothingness and silence with no more response from him. I talked a lot to him, and I miss his presence now intensely. I know from my chats about relationships with my girlfriends- that’s what we talk about- that I am not the only girl who gets bitterly disappointed and frustrated by mens’ silence on emotional and relationship issues. Men do seem to communicate in some kind of unspoken language that we don’t often pick up on when we are nagging or talking to them. But can we always be expected to just understand what it is they are trying to say to us without words? Of course not! We can try, but it’s not easy to decipher silence. Silence can be more irritating than talk at times. There has to be some compromise between the sexes. I do want to learn to curb my tongue more, but I also hope the next guy I date will open up a bit more. I have experienced special moments with guys I have dated where I have kept my mouth shut and the whole moment was fused with goodness and understanding, and not the awkwardness of trying to fill a void with meaningless chatter. The same pearl that my friend proposed my writing must be condensed to, could also be used to good effect perhaps, when I am next sitting with a man I admire or hope to date. Maybe, just maybe, I could cherish that moment of silent communication and unspoken chemistry between us, as he had suggested when he spoke to me about the pearl. Talking, like writing ‘must be condensed beauty of the only thing that is neccessary.’

Talking Lips Image by Wiki Roxor