My point of view, Writing

Level Thinking: Easing the Uphill Struggle

At times, I run out of energy before I run out of day. When those days happen, it’s terrific to be able to ask my husband to do things for me that I normally do for myself, even simple tasks such as untie my shoes, or hang up my dress, or bring me a glass of water.

A few years ago, a group of researchers, led by Simone Schnalla of the University of Plymouth in England, has demonstrated that approaching a daunting task with a good friend has a measurable positive effect on judging how hard that task will be. Their study, called “Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant” was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Schnalla and his co-investigators did two studies.

In the first, a person was asked to estimate how steep a hill was. Test subjects who had a good friend with them during the test estimated the hill to be less steep than people who were unaccompanied.

In the second study, subjects were asked to estimate the steepness of an imaginary hill, this time while thinking of a supportive friend. In this study as well, people who thought about a good friend, saw the hill as less steep than did the people thinking about a neutral or disliked person. The longer and more positive the friendships, the flatter the hill seemed to be.

Supportive friendships existed among writers long before the Internet made keeping in touch easier. In the nineteenth century, the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and the biographer and social reformer Annie Fields not only shared a house, but kept up friendships—and correspondences that didn’t depend on e-mail, cellphones, or Facebook—with a list of people that reads like a high school required reading list. Among their long-time friends were Alfred Lord Tennyson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Lydia Maria Child, Mark Twain, Mary Ellen Chase, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Wyman Whitman, Willa Cather, and William Dean Howells.

I talked recently to a friend who is a writer, though not of mysteries. Her particular literary neighborhood is going through a dicy patch right now, one of those, “He said,” “She said,” “I never said” fracases, with side orders of name-calling and back-stabbing. She said to me, “Every time we talk, you have another story about mystery writers doing something nice for each other. How do you guys do it?”

The flippant answer is that we mystery writers get all of our hostilities on paper by polishing off people we don’t like, thus leaving us free to enjoy one another’s company as writers and human beings.

However we do it, I’m darn glad we do. So my advice this week is to raise our collective glasses to one another and give a little cheer for making all the hills seem smaller. Let’s keep hiking on together.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

~Anais Nin, diarist and writer (1903 – 1977)

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