Friday, October 23, 2015

Experts, Your Gut, Your Pride, and Conniption Fits

When I wrote my manuscript, The Dying Breed, three years ago, I thought making it about a cult was more of a logical choice, not a subconscious parallel to my life. I was attempting to think of what kinds of words people in this dystopian reality would use to describe towns, not liking the word “town” itself. I thought of cult, in which I believe now stemmed from “culture,” as in “bacteria culture”—a conglomeration of bacteria in one little spot.

While it’s entirely possible that the word could evolve, losing its stigma over time, I didn’t see it as being likely. I couldn’t imagine a population willing calling themselves a cult. Instead, I decided “cult” was the word for the exiles to criticize civilization, but those inside it would refer to towns as “communes” and “communities.”

It didn’t seem important at the time. I considered the setting and its history to be a background—pretty details to enhance the plot and characterization. I wasn’t trying especially hard to create an epic and unexpected world, just one that I enjoyed looking at as it passed by. The plot and events were what I wanted to be the main focus.

But over the years, the more and more I edited the piece, I started to realize that it was not just a cult because I liked the word, or because it just made sense for a struggling civilization, but because the cultish behavior tied directly into how I felt college had been when I was writing it.

Raiden, my main character, despises the cult, of course. Grown up as an exile, after losing everyone and being pursued by the Foundation Community who is interested in his almost supernatural ability to create body parts from scraps, he only enters into a remote outpost of the cult because he knew he couldn’t survive on his own. There he falls in love with a member who is more brainwashed than most.

Why would he do that? What was it about her that he liked? It wasn’t as though he didn’t seem to like her; I found his affection and their conversations to be convincing that it was a comfortable but genuine relationship. I still felt required to explain why he loved her, and that necessitated me knowing. Over time, I realized his draw towards Libra was the security in not questioning everything. Never trusting anyone, always having to analyze what you’re being told, needing proof for everything, even your own opinions, can be exhausting. There is something safe and relaxing about being able to just abide by someone else’s advice: do what you’re told without question and honestly believe it will all work out.

I have never been able to outright accept something that someone’s told me. It has to make sense to me, completely, and if there’s anything remotely strange about the opinion, I can’t let it lie until I understand what made it off. If I don’t agree with them at all, it becomes even more problematic. I believe, absolutely, that every opinion has some truth to it, save for the outright lies. If someone says something that seems completely stupid, it’s probably because I’m missing a key piece of information. There’s always a reason someone believes something I don’t, and once I understand that, I am more likely to identify the truth of the situation.

It usually works well for me:

“You should say the singular moon shines through the window.”

No I shouldn’t. “Why?”

“Because you need to set up the scene more.”

No I don’t. “I thought the hut was set up pretty well. I thought it was vivid, grounded, had special continuity…”

“Oh, the hut is perfect. I’m talking about the world. Like is this in outer space?”

Okay, that I see. “So why the one moon?”

“It would say we’re on Earth.”

“I believe pointing out that there is only one moon would suggest we are on another planet.”

“Isn’t Earth the only planet with one moon?”

This conversation was extremely useful for me. He was the first person to begin to articulately explain just what he was confused about when most people couldn’t tell me. They kept saying they didn’t understand, but when I asked them to go through and point out exactly what they were puzzled about, they weren’t able to. They understood everything I said, but still felt confused. I figured out later, via asking questions and trusting my instinct, that it was more of an issue of being overwhelmed and not knowing what type of world this was enough to be able to know what information was connected to other information.

While this man had a very valid and useful point, his solution of saying there was only one moon was flawed. He didn’t understand enough about astronomy to realize that Earth wasn’t the only planet in the universe to have one moon (though after Pluto got demoted it is the only one in our galaxy), or science-fiction enough to realize that most planets in the genre are completely fabricated.

I’ve rarely found advice as originally stated being very useful, but when I examine it, respect the person and respect myself enough to trust my instincts, then I often find each criticism to be useful. Maybe not in its original incarnation, maybe it had to be supplemented by other people’s feedback as well, often not all of it being useful, but generally, unless a person was saying something even they didn’t believe (which happens, rarely), they always had some sort of point.

The issue is I know a lot about writing. I am able to understand poorly worded criticism better because I know enough to figure out what they probably mean. I can consult past experience to determine what I need to figure out what that person wants to be telling me, to understand why I don’t think that it’s true and to ask the right questions. But what do we do when we need to trust someone in a situation we have no ability to fact check? We are so uninformed, do we just accept what the expert has to say?

I would like to think we can trust others. I would like to be like Libra, take my car to the mechanic, and then just do whatever he tells me and have it be fixed. But that seems to never happen.

I don’t go to other people for help often. I don’t trust other people, I constantly feel like when I depend on someone else, they screw me over. When people ask me why I don’t self-publish (yet), it’s because I hate trying to get other people onboard. Just because you pay someone doesn’t mean they’re going to do a good job. Or their job at all.

My car stopped accelerating randomly. I would be going along fine and then all of the sudden the gas wouldn’t work. I’d still coast, the brake would be fine, but I’d have to pump it to make it continue even at the speed I had been originally going, and there was no way to go faster until it randomly decided to knock it off.

I got my oil changed, then brought it into the Honda dealership down in California. They stuck it in their machine and when it said nothing was wrong, they assured me that it would probably stop doing, that the change fixed it. I believed them. It, of course, didn’t.

So I took it to a mechanic after I moved back to Wyoming. My father brought it in and had a whole slew of things done. I had said to both Dad and the professional that I just wanted to fix the acceleration problem.

At a tune of 600 hundred dollars, he had corrected everything else. I had no idea he hadn’t even examined the problem when, driving a few days later, it did it again.

I took it in and asked about it. He said that it hadn’t done it for him. Oh, well, then out of sight, out of mind, right?

I had to bring it back a total of three times before he finally had my car stop accelerating. He said, “I can see why you were so scared!”

He fixed it. Meanwhile, I looked up on the internet and I found that this was an extremely common issue for my make and model, and yet I had to go to two experts several times before anyone would do anything about it.

Last year, my cat got sick. He stopped eating, stopped pooping, his hair wouldn’t grow back, he was lethargic. I spent all kinds of money trying to figure out what was wrong with him. One vet was really nice and tried very hard, going to conferences and talking about it, but my actual vet, the one I was supposed to have, came off to me as apathetic. When I said that to my mother, she ended up screaming at me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. When I talked to my friends, some suggested that he really didn’t care about their animals either, but my mom made me feel so bad about considering another opinion that I never tried. At the end, they basically said it was either cancer or irritable bowel syndrome, but either way the only thing they could do was anti-depressants.

Then one day, magically, he got better. Many, many months after taking these pills to little effect, he perked up, his hair grew back, he had a healthy appetite. I took him off the medication and to this day he is a normal little cat.

Not only that, but I have experienced constant pain for at least six years now. I have always had headaches, but now it’s getting to where it’s three times a week. I am chronically thirsty, even if I drink a lot. I lack an appetite and I’m always queasy. I experienced a pain in an unmentionable place.

I went to see a doctor in California several times. She took my urine, but didn’t do much. She was nice, at least. Seemed like she cared. I then moved back to Wyoming and went to my general practitioner. He has this bad habit of doing nothing, jumping to conclusions, and if you make any suggestions yourself, he will never admit that that might be the problem.

He tested me for diabetes, looked for STDs, tested my urine, and then, upon finding nothing, told me that my pain was normal.

I didn’t go back to him, but instead tried drinking more water (which gave me worse headaches), exercising, and changing my diet. This lead to my throat closing up. After many weeks of not being able to speak louder than a whisper, I came to him. When he tested my breathing, he said, “Wow, you really can’t breathe!” like I was lying or something. Then he told me to walk it off, suggesting that I’ll be fine in a couple of weeks. Having procrastinated and hoping that it would go away on its own for over a month then, I was irritated that I had spent seventy dollars to be told that. Then he wanted me to come back and spend another seventy dollars in two weeks if it hadn’t gone away, like I knew it wouldn’t.

So, against my better judgment, I made a suggestion. “I changed my diet recently. Could it be an allergy?”

“Oh, no. Absolutely not.”

Two weeks go by and obviously nothing changed. I don’t go back to him. I change my diet, wait the normal time period to test for allergies, and low and behold, I can breathe again.

For my unmentionable pain, he sends me to a gynecologist who informs me that I was probably sexually molested and I should masturbate more.

I know that people block out traumatic experiences, and that it’s entirely possible that I have, like he suggested. I will not demean the reality of those women who have found sexual molestation blocked out in their pasts by saying that I could know for a fact that I haven’t been. But I feel positive that that’s not the issue, and until we find any remote sort of evidence that it has happened, how about we assume that that’s not the problem and work from there?

Do I trust my gut or the expert who I feel is writing me off? Maybe he does know better than me. Maybe I did block it out.

Probably about a year passes after these last meetings with my doctors that left me to feel hopeless and demotivated when it comes to my discomfort.

Then one day I’m in such pain—constantly itching, constant headaches, constant thirst, constantly peeing—that I’m completely fed up. I go online to see if there’s anything I can do, and I find that all of my symptoms are directly related to diabetes. Though I had already been tested for it, and though the internet says you cannot get a false negative, I wasn’t sure I trusted my hospital enough to say that it didn’t just mess up. I didn’t remember some of the procedure I was supposed to do before I took the test, or maybe it’s just something else. The truth is, I was ready to be out of pain, and I needed help, and I was starting to get scared.

I go to the urologist my doctor suggested to me some time before, by my parents’ suggestion.

She walks in, I tell her my problem, she gives me a smirk and says, “You know what I’m hearing?” She taps on her head. “It’s all psychological. Go to a therapist.”

I didn’t say much at first. She had told me nothing. She didn’t even have the results of the urine test because her computer was down. I knew I was going to go in and get the shaft, and yet to have someone do it so abruptly was shocking and insulting.

I started to cry. She told me that crying was just evidence that it was psychological, why else would I be taking it so hard?

Because I was in pain? Because I didn’t trust you, but I told myself I should? I forced myself to go here and ask for advice, spending over two hundred dollars to be told that it was absolutely in my head?

How long would I have to go to a therapist before I knew I needed to try something else?

“It will take several years.”

So, like the two weeks in which I obliged my doctor and spent it not being able to breathe, you want me to spend two years before with constant headaches and thirst and not wanting to eat before I realize that I should be doing something else as well?

I’m not saying that it couldn’t be psychological in areas. Stress exacerbates it, I know. Maybe therapy would help in some ways. But let’s be honest. I have been let down by mechanics, vets, and doctors, people in very scientific fields, and you want me to put all my faith in a random stranger in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, dealing in a quasi-science without explaining to me what I am there for?

She didn’t say it was stress. She didn’t say anything. She just kept reiterating that I needed to see a therapist, wondering why I was so against it, and then suggesting that because I was “doctor hopping,” and had “all of these tests” (what tests?) and tried an anti-depressants for a few months last year, clearly the next step was to assume that my brain was making it all up?

“What do you want me to do?” she demanded. “Cat scan you from head to toe? Give you pain pills?”

I don’t know what to do. That’s why I came to you! I wanted advice! I wanted to take a direction! I have let myself suffer for years because I didn’t believe anyone could help me, and you waltz right in here push me off on someone else, and then wonder why I’m not so keen on to going to them for advice? Especially after you use my going to several doctors and the singular bad time in my life where I sought emotional help as evidence that you shouldn’t try and figure out if maybe it’s not allergies? A thyroids? My body refusing to absorb a certain nutrient—there’s nothing similar to diabetes?

I don’t know what it could be. If I did, I wouldn’t have spent 240 dollars to have you telling me that it’s a product of my mind. Let’s be honest, that’s an easy answer. If I really thought that could be it, I would have tried it. I don’t actually care if it is just a product of my mind. I just want it solved.

But to trust a therapist for two years when I couldn’t trust my doctors is asking a lot of me. That’s why I’m crying. Because I don’t have confidence in Jackson’s professionals.

People don’t know why I’m so upset about it. I’ve cried multiple times in anger and frustration this whole week. Every time I get a headache I remember there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve cried while writing this post. But I have to hide it from my friends and family because they don’t get it, they tell me to get over it, or start telling me to go see this doctor and that doctor and it’s like I don’t want to see anyone right now. I can’t keep spending money, going to these people, getting my hopes up that maybe someone can help me, just to have them say, “Here, go to this person instead.”

Only to then use that reference as evidence that I’m, what? A pill seeker? Refusing to accept anything but the answer I want?

Well, I tried masturbating, that didn’t work. I tried walking it off long before I ever came to you. I tried anti-depressants for my depression, and they did benefit that at least, but it didn’t make the headaches stop or the thirst or the fatigue or the itching or made me want to eat.

I might try counseling. I don’t think it’s completely useless. But I know damn well that there is some reason I am in pain all of the time other than just my mind wanting me to be hurting. I’ll be in pain when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m stressed, when I’m just sitting around feeling nothing in particular.

It upsets me because she embarrassed me. Because I was in a situation, half-naked, where I exposed my vulnerability, put my trust into someone else, and instead of seeing any sort of results, had her humiliate me. But more to the point, it makes me scared. It makes me wonder how can you possibly trust that advice is good when you don’t have any experience in knowing what to think?

It ties directly into my writing and my time in college, the first moment I was made aware that teachers are human too, sometimes horrible people, sometimes good people who are swayed by selfish needs, sometimes just ignorant people who truly believe their advice is useful simply because they don’t have the experience to realize it isn’t.

It was also the first time I started to question my opinions, when I started to understand that subjectivity really does exist, when I dismissed the idea of good and bad writing and became aware just how important pre-existing opinions are.

We would read a play that I would think, “This writer is just being weird for the sake of being weird.” It was boring, trying too hard to be funny or strange, and yet the professor would argue that it was a good play because of all the meaning. He’d sit there and say, “This represents this and that represents that,” and I’d wonder if he wasn’t just pulling it all out of his ass.

Even if it did mean the things he said it did, it didn’t necessarily make me care. Oh, the black grasshoppers represent how a trauma in the world doesn’t ever go away completely? Fine, but that doesn’t make me think or feel about the effects of trauma. I’m sure that you could have changed my perception or made it more important to me through other more direct means. These metaphors, which sometimes seemed to be reaching, didn’t really affect me even after I was told that they existed.

Sometimes I did like the plays given. Sometimes things that I first hated I started to really love later. That is true with even popular fiction, not just the classics.

My fellow students would never say they didn’t like a play. “It was just above my head,” they claimed. Was it above our heads? Would I like it if I just spent more time trying to understand it?

So, I asked my professor, “How do you know a play is worth your time or is just bullshit?” still believing in the principle of “good” and “bad” writing.

He told me I would learn with time. Learn what with time? He couldn’t tell me. We spent years discussing it, and he was never able to say what why this play that did this thing was better than that play that did the exact same thing.

“I’ll never give you a bad play,” he finally informed me.

See, that would require trust, wouldn’t it? It would depend on me having faith in your ability to judge plays, to assume that the play you gave me is just good and then go from there, when I can’t actually find consistent reasoning why you choose the plays you do… outside of pre-existing recognition.

In the beginning, I cared what he thought. I did trust him. I wanted him to believe that I was a talented writer, and so I tried my hardest to understand the difference between good and bad plays, not even just as he saw them. But I began to realize that he liked what he was told to like, that the critics’ opinions were the most important aspect. There was a reason he always hated the student’s plays, that he would say he didn’t want to do a certain script but with “professionals.”

This mentality was common, many of the theatres I worked at thinking professional and Equity actors were obviously better. I’d watch producers pay out the nose for some great resumed man only to then have to fight with him about arriving on time, learning his lines, and the obvious fact that he’d only acted on film, not stage.

When you have the experience to know what you want, to know what questions to ask, getting advice isn’t so difficult. You grow less frustrated and more clear over time, can identify ego, laziness, competition, naivety, differing priorities or experiences and determine the accuracy of the opinion from that. But sometimes you’re going to get advice that you don’t really understand, that you don’t have the wherewithal to dissect. Maybe it’s just the issue that you’re the na├»ve one in the situation, that this editor from HarperCollins has just more experience in unpolished fiction and knowing what sells. That they know something you don’t, and you can’t even begin to understand what that is enough to ask.

What worries me about experts is that I want to trust other people. I know I don’t, I know I rarely feel I can depend on anyone, and so I try and balance that out by giving them the benefit of the doubt. But then I start to ignore my gut. I make more mistakes when I didn’t trust myself than any other time. Yet that doesn’t mean my gut always has an opinion—I don’t care if we use “slightly” or “lightly,” and I’m just not sure why you do—or that I can always tell if it’s just my pride talking and not instinct. Maybe my doctor was right and my abrasion to therapy says that I need it. Or maybe I’m right in that I don’t see a compelling enough correlation with psychology to think it’s the whole issue.

In science, things are true whether we believe in them or not. In art, belief controls reality. So if my doctors and mechanics and professors are so controlled by apathy, pride, and laziness, how is it that we can trust the opinion of someone about art?

Trying to trust gut over experts, experts over pride, and just getting enough information to do both can be overwhelming, disheartening, and lead to so many conniptions we just don’t know what to do with ourselves.