Okay to be unhappy

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In keeping with my recent focus on happiness and passion, I want to let you know that it is perfectly okay to be unhappy.

Really. I promise.

If you’re unhappy, you have every right to feel that way AND to express your unhappiness.

Social pressures

We live in a society that is terrified of unhappiness. Our consumer ways are designed to give you everything money can buy to be happy.

When we see someone who seems unhappy, we try to get them to smile. We ask them what’s wrong.

And in more extreme cases, we try to medicate the unhappiness out of them, the premise being we would rather that you be an emotionless zombie than unhappy.

And rather than face being unhappy, many take to self-medicating whether through narcotics or alcohol, food or sex, or other social mechanisms to display an artificial happiness to the world.

We can be afraid to express our unhappiness with the world for fear the world won’t accept us, that they will take offense at our unhappiness as though we were blaming them for it.

Will my partner think I am blaming him or her? My family members? My co-workers? My friends?

If I tell them I am unhappy and can’t explain why—and often we can’t immediately see it—will they abandon me?

In some cases, with some individuals, the answer may be yes, and that is unfortunate. But in my personal experience, the answer is no.

My unhappiness

I worked for several years with friends on a sketch comedy show. It was a labour of love all the way around, but at a certain point in the project’s development, long after my creative contribution culminated, I became unhappy with my involvement in the process. But I was afraid to say something.

How could I tell my friends I didn’t want to do this anymore, that I didn’t want to participate in our dream project? Would they hate me? Would they tell me to fuck off and die?

I eventually worked up the balls to discuss this with them, to lay out my dilemma. They saw that I was serious and that I was struggling. They asked a few questions for clarification. And then they accepted my decision and continued to love me (and do to this day).

Knowing I was miserable working for one company, another friend got me a position in her company (we had previously worked together). My new coworkers were wonderful, the job was what I had wanted. But six weeks in, I realized I didn’t want to do this job anymore…I wanted to move on to a different dream.

How could I turn away from a wonderful job? How could I betray my friend who introduced me to this company? How I slap these amazing people in the face?

I told my friend I was unhappy and wanted to explore my new dream. She was delighted for me and knew I would be brilliant. I told my new bosses that I loved their company but had to follow my heart. They were thrilled and agreed that I had to pursue my passion.

We often don’t give the people in our lives enough credit for wanting what is best for us. We let fear get in our way; fear of rejection, fear of the unknown.

It’s okay

We are repeatedly told and have come to believe that unhappiness is wrong; it is an aberration; it is an affliction.

It is none of these.

It is a feeling, an emotion, a sign. And we must give it the same respect that we give our other emotions, from anger to joy, from sadness to elation, from frustration to fulfillment.

There are not positive emotions and negative emotions. There are no good feelings and bad feelings.

IT IS OKAY TO BE UNHAPPY!

Until we accept and embrace that we are unhappy, we can never figure out why we are unhappy or what we want to do about that feeling and those circumstances.

Love yourself enough to listen to yourself. Feel what you feel. Share what you can.

Ironically, being unhappy may be your first step to being happy. And if it isn’t, that’s okay, too.

See also:

Happy as a verb

Living happiness

Tales from the Other Side of Freedom (Effortless Alpha)

The Expansion Project

In other words

Word up!

Word up!

According to a Global Language Monitor survey from 2014, there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language. (Not sure what the 0.8 word is.) And based on further research, this tally makes English anywhere from 5- to 10-times larger than most Western European languages.

Depending on who you ask or possibly where, a native English-speaking adult has a functional vocabulary of anywhere from 10,000 to 75,000 words. Thus, on a regular basis, we use about 1-10% of the words available to us.

Many of those words have similar if not identical meanings and can often be used interchangeably with slight variations in implied meaning or significance. Hell, a British clinician with a list-making fetish famously went out and tried to catalogue these word relationships, offering encyclopedic lists of alternates to the most commonly used English words.

A man with a list (or maybe that's just how he sits)

A man with a list (or maybe that’s just how he sits)

So, given this profusion of synonymic wonder, why am I seeing an increasing number of stories—novels, screenplays, etc.—that seem only capable of the low end of the vocabulary spectrum?

And I’m not even talking the big words here. I am talking the simple words we use every day and yet which hold little more meaning than their strictest definition. Words like “said”, “walk”, “enter”.

Now, I am not suggesting people necessarily have to write with a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus next to them, something of which I have been accused on occasion. But while exsanguinating your latest cerebral machinations into the fibrous folds of the human record—sorry, I digress—why not make the most of the words that are at your disposal?

For example:

Hearing a cry from the other room, Cecily walked through the door.

Now, Cecily may indeed have “walked” through the door, but that tells me absolutely nothing other than her transitional geographic location.

What was Cecily’s emotional state and how eager was she to discover the source of the cry?

There are so many other words—common words—in the English language that will tell us so much more about Cecily than the fact that she moved.

What about strutted, strode, skipped, crashed, bolted, dashed, raced, blasted, crept, snuck (sneaked?), sauntered, staggered, bounded, tripped, stumbled, inched, crawled, or fell?

Each of these words tells us so much more about Cecily’s relative state of confidence and sense of urgency, and any one of these in place of “walked” prevents the writer from having to later explain her emotions with a second sentence.

In some cases, people will append adverbs to offer greater insights into the emotional state of a character, but again, even this can often be avoided through use of more descriptive verb.

For example:

“You’re crazy,” Philip replied angrily.

Definitely better than just “Philip replied”. But what if Philip did more than reply? What if he screamed, shouted, barked, bellowed, screeched, roared, or cried?

Again, each word offers a slightly different take on Philip’s emotional state and gives us a sense of whether he is angry at his target or terrified by her.

All the kids are doing it

All the kids are doing it

And what holds true for verbs, also holds for adjectives, and particularly as some of the simpler ones can be relative.

The precise height of a tall man varies significantly between someone who is 5 ft 2 versus someone who is 6 ft 1. And again, the adjective has an opportunity to add an emotional or psychological angle to the description.

Rather than “tall”, what about towering, mountainous, tree-like, statuesque, cloud-scraping, looming, or neck-straining?

Or instead of a specific age (unless the precise number is vital), what about world-weary, worn down, spry, vivacious, ancient, wizened, infantile or cadaverous?

Got your back, kid!

Got your back, kid!

Again, I don’t think we need to discard the presocialized anthropoidal biped with the bath water, but particularly in our writing, I think we need to make better use of the wealth the English language affords us and open ourselves to more precise and effective word choices.

Together, we can strut the walk and hallelujah the talk.

Two’s company, three’s a story

As I read through a lot of early-stage screenplays and stage plays (including my own), I have noticed an interesting trend: Any scene that only involves two characters is boring.

No matter what the posturing, no matter how violent or loving, no matter whom the characters are, a scene with only two characters quickly loses steam for me. The dynamic peters out, and I find a lot of writers try to overcompensate for that by simply making the characters’ gestures larger. As though they believe talking louder to someone who does not speak your language will make you any more intelligible.

I speak for the trios: Turns out there may be some behavioural psychology behind this…at least, if you’re a rock hyrax—no, no, not “Lorax”.

Last week, a research paper was published in the journal Animal Behaviour that looked at the dynamics of triad relationships between these small creatures living in the hills of Israel, and the results were fascinating.

In a dyad relationship (two individuals), the authors say, you cannot make any predictions about the future other than friends will likely remain friends and enemies will likely remain enemies. With a triad (3 individuals), however, a social power dynamic is established that can morph in any number of directions, although some directions are inherently more likely and more stable than others.

The researchers found plenty of examples of the standby relationships, such as the friend of my enemy is my enemy (+ – -) or the friend of my friend is my friend (+ + +), and found that these relationships were highly stable in that they were likely to remain unchanged from year to year for any set of three individuals.

Enemy mine: What was fascinating, however, was that the seemingly unstable and counter-intuitive state of the enemy of my enemy is my enemy (- – -) occurred a lot more often than expected by chance and that it could be quite stable from year to year. This completely flies in the face of the standard that the enemy of my enemy is my friend (- – +).

From a story perspective, however, it can make complete sense. What if all 3 of you are vying for the same objective? As one of the enemies, you have to be constantly wary that any effort to thwart one enemy will provide an advantage to the other enemy.

Friend of a friend: What was also interesting was how gender played a role in the evolution of the unstable triad the friend of my friend is my enemy (+ + -). In females, this triad tended to morph toward (+ + +), while in males, it tended toward (+ – -), suggesting the need for female cooperation in raising young and male competitiveness in breeding. Typical men, eh?

From a story perspective, though, consider the power of (+ + -). What if the friend of your friend pushed them to do something contrary to your desires? This would make them your enemy—whether you’re being altruistic or selfish. A much more interesting dynamic as you may inadvertently push your friend into making a choice between the two opposing forces.

Dynamite dynamics: Regardless of the way your scenes play out, the triad dynamic gives you so much more room to play with emotionally and socially than a dyad. At any given moment, one of the trio can switch poles and the dynamic changes. With a dyad, the sudden switching of poles better have a good rationale in your story or it won’t be believable. That brings me to my next point.

Two characters: Now, before you go out and scrub all your two-person scenes from your screenplays, novels and stage plays (because yes, my hubris states I am that influential), let me remind you I said two characters, not two people.

Environment, situation and unseen third parties can also be characters in a scene between two individuals. It is those subtextual elements that convert a vomitously dull scene into one that sizzles. The challenge is in making sure the reader/viewer knows it’s there through carefully selected word choice and narrative (NOT exposition).

Two friends meet, but one hides a secret from a previous conversation that muddies their exchange in ways unexpected by the ill-informed (- + – or + + -) (e.g., plot to every spy movie ever made).

Two men with diametrically opposed viewpoints have to set aside their differences to deal with an external threat (- – -) (e.g., Hooper’s shark to his Quint is his enemy), which turns into (- + -)).

So, when you find yourself creating a scene with only two people, ask yourself who or what is influencing this scene aside from the two people and remember to incorporate them or it into the dialogue and narrative.

As Jed Barlett said to Sam Seaborn while playing chess in a scene from West Wing, “Look at the whole board.”

Didn't want to play your silly games, anyways

Didn’t want to play your silly games, anyways

(Re)Learning to Swim – Art vs Technique

I love to swim. It is one of my favourite activities and one of the only forms of exercise I don’t begrudge, perhaps because I can’t tell if I’m perspiring. I am by no means athletic or proficient with it, but I enjoy doing it and have decent stamina.

Several years ago, a friend of mine decided she wanted to learn to swim. As an adult, however, she was embarrassed that she didn’t already know how, so she asked if I could help her learn the basics. Being a good friend—and not just a little bit infatuated with her—I said sure, happy to help.

A few days later, we got to the pool and I tried to break things down for her. Unfortunately, unlike many other exercises, with swimming you are in water and therefore much of the mechanics are difficult to view directly. Thus, I had to show her the mechanics above water, as though swimming to the ceiling. And that’s when everything started to fall apart.

No sooner did I begin teasing out the various movements in swimming than I realized that I was rapidly losing the ability to swim. Eventually, I just had to thrash about for a bit to remind myself how to do it.

It was unnerving.

I had been swimming (swum? swam?) for so many years that it was just something I did. It was never something I analyzed. You get in the water. You swim. It was muscle memory.

In teaching my friend to swim, I had separated the technique from the art, and for a brief few minutes, lost the art in the process.

The same can happen with writing.

In the earliest phases of our development as writers, it is important to develop a basic understanding of the mechanics of writing and story, to have someone walk us through the process. But at some point, we have to step forward and simply practice our art.

If writing is purely a mechanical exercise, then it is very dry and boring. It lacks the spirit that it needs to live. It is the difference between an animatronic deer and a biological deer. They may look very similar, but one is alive and the other is inert.

As a more seasoned writer, I have found that there will be times where I try to focus on the more mechanical, structural aspects of the stories I am writing. I want to make sure all the right elements are in the right place. But when I read the material over later, it always sounds forced, wooden, bereft of life.

In my effort to teach someone how to write properly—in this case, teach me—I have, however briefly, lost the ability to write. I have sacrificed the art for the technique.

Technique and process are vital, but they are not art. Art comes as you build the spiritual, intellectual, psychological muscle memory to allow yourself to immerse yourself unthinking into your writing and simply allow the story to flow.

As I’ve said before, story before structure. Art over technique.

Do fish ever think about swimming? And if so, do they then sink to the bottom? (Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica)

Do fish ever think about swimming? And if so, do they then sink to the bottom? (Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica)