Flow and story

It may sound a bit like a Self-Help book, particularly with a subtitle like “The classic work on how to achieve happiness”, but Flow takes a rather more scientific approach than your general “Yeah! Go for it!” self-improvement type of book. (I love what Sarah Millican said on the recent My Life in Books series, that if you read a Self-Help book all the way to the end, it hasn’t done its job. The whole point is to kick-start you with its enthusiasm. But Flow isn’t about that.) In Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sets about trying to see what characteristics are common to all the things people do which they find the most rewarding, and which lead to an experience he calls “Flow” — that state of being “in the zone” when you’re really absorbed in what you’re doing. He comes up with eight:

“When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.”— Flow, p. 49

One of the major differences between Flow and the type of Self-Help book that teaches you how to achieve your business goals is that this isn’t a book about achieving success, but about enjoying what you do, whether it’s for yourself or others, for no money or for millions. The activity I thought about most while reading Flow was, well, reading.

I know that I enjoy some books more than others. Usually the ones I really enjoy keep me reading for a good chunk of time, and make the real world disappear for however long it is I’m reading. That, to me sounds like flow. So, how do Csikszentmihalyi’s eight points relate to reading a good story?

1. “A task we have a chance of completing.” Unless we’re talking about Borges’s Book of Sand (which has pages so infinitesimally thin, it packs as many between its covers as there are grains of sand in a desert, so you’re not likely to get to the end of it), reading a book is a task you have a chance of completing. Simple enough.

2. “We must be able to concentrate on what we’re doing.” The obvious part of this is you must be able to concentrate on the act of reading, and if you don’t, it’s hardly the book’s fault. But there are things a book can do to hurt the flow in this sense. There could be, for instance, typos or spellos of various kinds, or the awful formatting you get in so many free ebook versions of classic novels, or it could just be bad writing — anything which bursts the story-bubble is a sin against the second ingredient of flow.

3. “Clear goals”. A book has a clear goal in that you’re reading from the start to the finish. But a story has a different sort of goal. I recently finished reading a novel where every chapter was a pretty much separate piece of fiction, linked only by the fact that it was told by the same narrator. It was pleasant enough to read, whilst I was reading it, but when I put it down, nothing called me back to continue reading it. Why? Because story is what calls me back to reading — the desire to find out what happens next. You can only have that desire if you have a sense of large-scale movement behind the immediate, little movements of the scenes and episodes that make up the forefront activity of a piece of fiction. In the case of this novel I was reading, the story had no shape, no clear goal, it was just a series of fiction-flavoured slices of a loaf-shaped novel that ended because it hit the crust at the end. I like a story to have a well-defined shape. That doesn’t mean I like to know what’s going to happen, but I do like to know the sort of direction it’s heading in. I don’t have to, for instance, know if the hero’s going to live or die at the end, but I do want to know if this is a will-the-hero-live-or-die type of story, or if it’s something quite different. Otherwise, it’s just so much sliced loaf.

4. “Immediate feedback”. A well-shaped story creates expectations in the reader (“Is the hero going to live or die?”). It may do so only to play with those expectations, but at least there are expectations there to be played with, the reader is engaged. And the great thing is, you win whether you’re right or wrong. If you think things are going to go one way, and they do, you feel rewarded by the intrinsic rightness of it; if, on the other hand, you think things are going to go one way and they go the other, you’re rewarded with a sense of surprise.

5. “A deep but effortless involvement”. For me, this is the same as point 2. Nice writing helps.

6. “A sense of control over their actions.” Your “action” as a reader is your engagement with the story. Those expectations again! But also it’s the way you feel free to let your imagination roam about the edges of the writer’s words or the artist’s illustrations, the way you can add your own value to a story. I love it when I find myself thinking, “What would I do in the hero/heroine’s situation?” In that way, you get two stories for the price of one!

7. “Concern for the self disappears”. This, really, is Tolkien’s “Recovery” — the sense you get, from immersing yourself in a well-told story, that when you emerge you are seeing reality (both of the outer world and the inner you) that much clearer.

8. “The sense of the duration of time is altered.” Well, we all know what time does when you’re having fun. But the great thing about a good story is it seems to pack a real punch of timelessness into however long it takes to read it. A life is a story, but so is a five minute encounter, and both can have the same weight.

Flow applies its ideas to a wide range of activities. Of course, you don’t have to know about flow to experience it, but I find it has clarified my ideas on what makes for a good read, and so what makes for a better reading experience, which can only be for the good.

Full Fathom Forty lineup

Very excited to find I’m going to be in the British Fantasy Society’s 40th anniversary book, Full Fathom Forty. (In the year I celebrate my own personal fortieth anniversary, too!) And I’m really thrilled to find I’m in the company of some of my favourite authors. The full list of contributors is up at the BFS website, complete with ordering details. The book comes out in September.

Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland

This adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was filmed for TV broadcast in December 1966. Director/adapter Jonathan Miller aimed to be faithful to the book, with all the dialogue (except where improvised by the actors) lifted directly from Lewis Carroll’s text. But this, I think, is the adaptation’s main fault. Alice in Wonderland is a curious mix of episodes and skits, not really a story at all, and I think what you need to do with Alice is either find a way of making a story out of it, or to adopt some angle or interpretation to provide a constantly-running theme, something to give it a sort of narrative or spine. The original book wins through on sheer prissy impudence; adaptations need to offer something more.

Miller has two angles on Alice, neither of which really works for me. The first is to connect the book with dreams, and various of his directorial decisions (such as sometimes having Alice’s dialogue overdubbed while she doesn’t move her lips) come from his wanting to make the narrative more dreamlike. But I think Alice isn’t about the dream-world as much as it’s about the world of language, which has its own peculiar logic. Wordplay and double-meanings approached with a literal mind, and the ability of words to be strung together correctly but nonsensically, are what Alice, and other nonsense literature, is about. For me, this puts Alice at the head of a continuing tradition of wordplay fantasy, which includes the Oz books, and Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. It’s that tight-but-illogical logic that makes Alice what it is, not its dreaminess, which is more the province of surrealism. (In my mind, nonsense and surrealism are two quite different things. Nonsense applies logic to things that aren’t logical; surrealism revels in the irrational, with no need of logic.)

Miller’s other approach is to connect the book with “the longueurs of childhood”, a nostalgia for endless summers of blissful boredom, and in his initial edit, he had some long periods in which the actors just sat around doing nothing, in an attempt to conjure this feeling. These were edited out after a viewing by BBC executives, with only a few hints of them left in, leaving some curious points at which conversation lapses, everyone sits around staring into space, then conversation resumes. But I think the book is too energetic, too little-girl curious, for this to feel right. Kids are only bored until they have something to do; Alice, exploring Wonderland, very much has something to do. (It’s teenagers who get bored even when they have something to do; but then again, Miller’s Alice is a teenager.) Lewis Carroll, an Oxford don who could afford to spend entire days picnicking with the Liddells so he could come up with the Alice story in the first place, probably had no need to feel nostalgic for such long-lost periods free of responsibility, so they weren’t part of his book.

For me, Alice is in Wonderland because she’s a child — childhood, and the way a child views the illogical adult world, is Wonderland. All the various creatures Alice meets on her journey are comic versions of adults stuck in their own peculiarly nonsensical worldviews. Alice is the child regarding these adults with a cutting innocence. The book is all about her, in her self-contained bubble of childhood, coming into contact with the dreadfully meaningless self-importance of the adult world, and seeing it for the farce it really is: tea parties and courtrooms at which one must know the nonsensical rules of how to behave, a Queen with the power to cut off your head on a whim, and so on.

Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter

The result of Miller wanting to be faithful to the book is that the TV film feels just like a series of sketches. It relies entirely on the performers’ abilities to enchant with their personalities, rather than a story’s, or thematic argument’s, ability to keep you interested. Thus there are a few highlights that linger in the mind (Peter Cook is excellent as the Mad Hatter, John Bird is funny but too brief, Peter Sellers as the Red King, etc.), but elsewhere a good deal of puzzlement as the film moves from scene to scene without making it clear how or why. Thus, Alice stands outside a door trying to get in, then has a conversation with John Bird, then just opens the door and goes through. Why didn’t she do that first of all? You certainly have to know the book to be able to tell what’s going on, which has the unfortunate effect of making an adaptation nothing but a companion piece to the book, rather than an interesting work in its own right.

It’s easy to be too reverential to the book that’s the source of an adaptation. I enjoy watching film adaptations of books I’ve read, not to quibble with how they’ve departed from the text, but rather to see what they’ve made of it, what their interpretation is. An adaptation is a thing that exists alongside a book, and only subtracts from the original when, by being too literal, it reveals how shallow that original was in the first place.

For a more positive view of Miller’s Alice, see Jonathan Coulthart’s blog post on it. (I really like Miller’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You adaptation.)

The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aiken

If there was any need to prove J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books weren’t created ex nihilo, but as part of an existing tradition of magical fantasy in English fiction (which includes Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, and Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (filmed as Bedknobs and Broomsticks)), here it is. Joan Aiken‘s Armitage Family stories have very much the same feel of institutionalised magic, where spells work just like recipes, where fantastical beasts are as likely to wander into the story as their mundane counterparts — and just as likely to be adopted as pets, or hatched from the egg and raised till they get out of hand and have to be released into the wild — where BBC 13 is the radio station to listen to if you want to learn about magic (which you can also do by a home study course), where there’s a charity for replacing the worn-out wands of “fairy ladies” (the polite term for witches), and a Board of Incantation that can requisition your home to use as a seminary for young magicians… It all sounds and feels so Potterish, yet the first Armitage Family stories were published in 1958, and Aiken continued writing them throughout her career (the last to be published during her lifetime was in 1998, and this book collects them all, plus four previously unpublished).

There are differences, of course. Aiken’s stories, being short stories, don’t build up into an epic battle against evil, but are, rather, about the more mundane conflicts, botherations, quibbles and quandaries of childhood and family life. Mark and Harriet are perfectly normal children, constantly engaged in their own projects and interests, but quite level-headedly dealing with curses, spells, hauntings, and visits from fantastical creatures, sorcerers and minor gods, as well as that more fearsome antagonist, the awkward relative, in their four-decade long childhood (whose background details get quietly updated as the stories go along, so there’s mention of computers, and the wearing of jeans, though it never breaks the spell of timelessness around their childhood. There seems to be no TV, for instance — Mark and Harriet are simply too busy to watch it).

Andi Watson provides some wonderful illustrations to the Armitage Family stories

Aiken writes with a light narrative tone, perfectly suited to the air of casual, childhood magic and nonsensical surrealism she creates, and that tone never wavers, even when there are touches of genuine tragedy. There’s not a lot of tragedy, nor does it involve any of the main characters (unless you count Walrus the cat), but there is a rather awful, casual destruction of a magical portal (built using sections collected from the backs of cereal packets), that separates two lovers, perhaps forever; and elsewhere, a harmless minor character gets killed so suddenly in a road accident you can’t quite believe it’s just happened (nor that it’s not about to just as-suddenly un-happen, which it doesn’t).

Aiken’s Armitage family stories are full of magical invention, weird characters, and a sort of enduring faith in the resilience, adaptability, open-mindedness, and fair-mindedness of her child characters. (Who, I can’t help feeling, would deal with Lord Voldemort in somewhat under seven pages, never mind seven books!)

The Film That Changed My Life, by Robert K Elder

I was once asked, in an interview for a job in a bookshop (which I didn’t get), whether a book had ever changed my life, and if so, how. I remember being completely stumped by this (unprepared, as ever). The answer to the first part, I knew, was yes, several times over, but the how of it felt just too immense for a quick, slick answer. It was more the sort of thing I’d want to retreat and write about for several hours, editing, thinking, then leaving for a few weeks before going back to it and writing some more, perhaps producing something of a moderate book length by the end of it. Which is one of the reasons I was so interested in this book, The Film That Changed My Life, in which critic Robert K Elder gets thirty filmmakers to talk about the film (or, in a couple of cases, pair of films) that they think changed their lives.

Of course, as they’re all filmmakers, the answer to the first part of the question (did a film ever change your life) is always going to be yes, if for no other reason than there must have been a film, at some point, which made them realise they wanted to make films, or showed them the style or approach that best suited them — in other words, that provided them with some technical release, some final polish to themselves as filmmakers. And for many of the interviewees in this book, it’s that film — often seen in their late teens, or while at film-school — that they talk about. But there are others (and these are my favourites) who talk about a film they saw, usually as a child, which just blew them away, not for any technical reasons, but for the sheer magic of it, and which has remained as magical throughout their lives. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that the three obvious ones of this type, Brian Herzlinger on E.T., John Landis on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and George A Romero on The Tales of Hoffmann, are all fantasies.) Herzlinger says “when I left the theater, I just wanted to go in again. I’ve never done any drugs in my life, but I think that is what an addiction feels like.” Romero says, “I was just blown away. I was in a great theater with terrific projection, a really big screen, and it was just beautiful. I was knocked out.” And Landis: “The film itself just made a huge impression on me in creating a completely different world. Instead of being this little kid in a theater in west L.A., [I was] being transported to this magical place, really going on these adventures.” A later, more mature reaction, though of a similar type, comes from Frank Oz, who says (of A Touch of Evil), “I don’t remember the first time I saw it. All I remember is every time I look at it I am never ever bored with this thing.”

I think the answer to the question of how a book or film can change your life is difficult because books and films don’t so much change you as bring into the open what was already there but hidden, or not understood, but which was waiting, if not bursting, to find a way of coming out. That’s why, looking back on a life-changing encounter of this sort, you can’t articulate what it was that changed, because as a result of the encounter you are simply more truly yourself, and in order to articulate the change you have to remember (and explain) a time when you were less yourself, which is really quite difficult to do.

Books, films — everything arty — are really only about one thing, when it comes down to it, and that’s how to be human. How to exist in this world, caught between your imagination and whole inner world on the one hand, and reality on the other. The great thing about art — films, books, etc. — is that it works at bringing the inner (imagination) into the outer (reality), and it’s when you see it being done in a way that reflects (or releases) your own attempts, your own style or personality, that a book, or film, or act of cake decoration or whatever, changes your life. And, really, the only way to explain that is to either make someone watch the same film (or read the same book) but as you, and as you were at the time, (which is of course impossible), or to make your own film, or book, and use that to put them through the same process.

Perhaps it’s simply that the best, most life-changing, books and films simply leave you speechless.

Anyway, I don’t think that answer would have got me the job in the bookshop, but it’s the best one I can come up with!

Children of the Stones

Oops, a bit more 70s TV. This 1977 series belongs to that subgenre of horror/science fiction stories (which includes John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon, and the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story The Daemons) in which a village is isolated by a magical barrier, so that some evil/alien force can gather its strength before moving on to take over the rest of the world. With Children of the Stones, the evil force is, oddly enough, happiness; those villagers affected greet each other with a “Happy Day”, know what each other is thinking, and tend to be inordinately good at maths. But of course the reason this happiness is evil is that it’s one man’s idea of happiness, imposed on its subjects without their consent.

It’s the end of this 7-part series that really makes it a children’s serial. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just that you need to have a certain amount of awestruck credulity (or childlike sense of wonder) to accept the final explanation for what’s going on. The bowl-shaped rock beneath the village is a transmitter for pure evil? So that it can be sent towards a black hole? Right.

I’m not ruining the story by revealing this, because Children of the Stones is best accepted as you’d accept a weird dream — for its sense of mystery and menace, not its logic. This is particularly true for the way the story comes to an end, because I really have no idea what happened there. Something to do with time. All very odd. But before that you have plenty of the sort of thrills and weird chills any devotee of 70s horror TV and film will love: a mysterious stone circle, an old painting depicting an ancient ritual being held there, a mad lord-of-the-manor type with an oddly purposeful interest in astrophysics, a boy with burgeoning psychic visionary powers…

Peter Demin and Gareth Thomas as son and father in Children of the Stones

For me, the best part of the series was the relationship between the two main characters, the father and son who arrive as outsiders in the village. There’s something very affecting about the way they get on with each other, how naturally they work together, and the trust they have in each other, that takes their characters that little step beyond the usual sort of stock relationships encountered in this type of story.

And here’s a nice little YouTube clip of Stewart Lee using Children of the Stones and The Changes (reviewed on a previous Mewsings) to discuss how the representation of teenagers on TV has changed from the 70s.