The Psychology of Hoarding

hoarding

How is hoarding treated in fiction, if at all?

In her short story “Free Radicals“, Alice Munro portrays a woman working through the recent loss of her husband.

First, the way friends react — helpfully and unhelpfully. Funeral arrangements, immediate aftermath.

Memories, both painful and beautiful, mixed in together to paint a portrait of a rounded life.

The lonely act of walking into rooms and finding him conspicuous by his absence.

Then, the following detail stuck out to me:

She did make up the bed and tidy her own little messes in the kitchen or the bathroom, but in general the impulse to take on any wholesale sweep of housecleaning was beyond her. She could barely throw out a twisted paper clip or a fridge magnet that had lost its attraction, let alone the dish of Irish coins that she and Rich had brought home from a trip fifteen years ago. Everything seemed to have acquired its own peculiar heft and strangeness.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”

Alice Munro must have observed that the recently bereft tend to hold onto things.

A few days before reading the story I listened to a completely unrelated interview between Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland. (“I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain”) Coupland happened to get talking about the psychology of hoarding.

Hoarding behaviours are often a way of dealing with trauma and grief. Hoarding tends to run in families.

Anecdotally, hoarding disorder (HD) may have links to autism and other neuro-differences, though studies don’t tend to show this.

So far, HD seems most clearly linked to obsessive compulsive disorders behaviours rather than other forms of mental ill-health.

What I didn’t know before listening to Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland speak on it (at about the 27:30 mark): Certain medications can provoke hoarding behaviours. Coupland mentions a drug for Parkinson’s disease, which also treats restless leg syndrome. This leads to hoarding behaviour in some people. This is not widely known.

Also not widely known: The genetic link between restless leg syndrome and ADHD. I’m sure this all triangulates eventually. (I have all three in my extended family.)

Kim Hill says she’s not ‘hoardy’, but admits that most people don’t think they’re hoardy. Then someone comes round and points out your massive and totally reasonable collection of dishcloths.

Psychology has much to learn about hoarding and related psychologies. But one thing is clear: Hoarding is not a moral issue. A behaviour which can be provoked by medication, or quick and extreme loss, suggests hoarding disorder could happen to any of us. You can almost set your clock to it, Coupland says. “Eighteen to twenty months later [after the loss], hoarding kicks in.” Being self-aware, knowing that you have a predilection for hoarding, makes no difference.

And Douglas Coupland, sometimes accused of being a hoarder himself, counters the museum minimalist types with this: If you live in a white box, you’re just a different kind of hoarder. You’re simply hoarding space.

So what of the proliferation of reality TV shows which make a spectacle of hoarders and their houses? Why is there so much appetite for those shows? Does it say something terrible about our natural human voyeurism? Is it exploitation? Much has been said on this matter already, and I agree with it all, but what lessons might storytellers learn about the content people crave?

I believe it comes back to ‘glamour’, in one specific sense. The archetypically ‘glamorous’ place is the store that sells containers for keeping our stuff in. We walk into those stores and are immediately charmed by the idea that we, too, could be super organised, and this would improve our lives.

We love the hoarding shows because we look at that mess and we see how much better it could be. Just hire five skips, we think. Bleach the hell out of that place and it would look so much better. Audiences widely love Marie Kondo. We love building shows, home renovation shows, move to the country shows and even cooking shows, for the same deep-rooted reasons.

This desire to improve plays into a specific wish fulfilment: for order, for constant improvement, for the opposite of entropy. For safety. For this same reason I loved Little House In The Big Woods as a six-year-old. In the fictional Ingalls’ lives, things were constantly getting better. Log cabins were getting built, food was getting preserved for winter, ground was being covered.

Now, for storytellers to meet that need without real life exploitation.

RELATED

Listen to Australian podcast All In The Mind for an episode on the psychology of hoarding. (There’s also a transcript.)

Header photo by Onur Bahçıvancılar on Unsplash

Fiction by Alice Munro, Nuanced Infidelity

bookstore

“Fiction” is a short story by Alice Munro (2009). From the title itself we might expect it to be metafictional. Sure enough, there are constant reminders to consider the role of fiction in our lives.

The following interview, from 2006, offers some extra insight into the story, and why Munro may have written it. For a few years she owned a bookstore and people used to come in to the store and tell her, as a matter of pride, two things: They don’t read Canadian books and they don’t read fiction. However, she also says that is no longer the case.

I don’t want to map Munro’s fictional Joyce onto Munro herself, but there are some parallels:

Like Joyce, Munro divorced her first husband during the hippie revolution. Though unlike Joyce, Munro explains that ‘everyone was doing it’ during this era and people who didn’t seemed ‘almost apologetic’ for staying together. Joyce does not feel like that at all. She feels grief and anxiety.

Continue reading “Fiction by Alice Munro, Nuanced Infidelity”

Tom Barling Illustrations?

A while back I blogged about Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton, illustrated by Tom Barling. There is remarkably little on the Internet about Tom Barling considering how much work he produced.

Perhaps you are knowledgeable about this English illustrator and can tell us whether the following illustrations are indeed by him? We have good reason to believe that they are.

But it would be great to have that confirmed and to know which project they were for. Please get in touch if you know anything about them, or would like to hazard a guess!

In any case, they’re beautifully rendered and deserve to be on the Internet. They remind me a little of Maurice Sendak’s work.

The eyes on this girl are quite unusual.

I think I might get nightmares tonight. She reminds me of a Black Eyed Kid of the urban legend:

Black-eyed children (or black-eyed kids) are an urban legend of supposed paranormal creatures that resemble children between the ages of 6 and 16, with pale skin and black eyes, who are reportedly seen hitchhiking or panhandling, or are encountered on doorsteps of residential homes. Tales of black-eyed children have appeared in pop culture since the late 1990s.

Apparently the paranormal stories started around 1996, but these illustrations look a bit older than that to me. What do you think?

But that smile… That pasted on smile…

Is the horse stylised based on cave drawings? I notice the girl’s eyes are drawn differently here.

Is this a piece of jewellery, or a ninja weapon that you throw at enemies? What better image to put on a shuriken than a black eyed kid and her pasted on smile?

The Gendered Appeal of True Crime

psychological benefits of true crime narrative

When I was in Form 2 (now called Year 8), our teacher set a transactional writing exercise: Does violent media make a culture more violent?

I’d never heard of Rudine Sims Bishop who, five years earlier, in a different hemisphere, had been writing about how story functions as a mirror as well as a window, and also as a sliding glass door. I could’ve applied this to violence as well as to representation if I’d known about it. Continue reading “The Gendered Appeal of True Crime”

Passion by Alice Munro

Passion by Alice Munro

“Passion” is a short story by Alice Munro, published 2004 in The New Yorker.  This story has much in common with “What Is Remembered“. An elderly woman looks back to when she was young, in a vulnerable psychological state. In both, the younger woman gets into a car with a ravishing bad-boy doctor, contrasting against the hum-drum of life with her fiance/husband.

I’m making these stories sound like erotic romance, but in these short stories the focus is on character psychology. “Passion” is partly playing on the erotics of abstinence, seen also in works like Pride and Prejudice and Twilight. Will they or won’t they? Salacious interest is partly what gives the story its narrative drive. Continue reading “Passion by Alice Munro”

Cumulative Plots and The Fifth Story by Clarice Lispector

the fifth story clarice lispector

“The Fifth Story” is a work of microfiction by Clarice Lispector. I tend to analyse short stories by looking at their dramatic arc, but what of a story like this? Surely “The Fifth Story” does not fit the seven-step story structure I seem to love so much. (I love it because it works, for both generative and analytical purposes.)

I also love when I read a story for adults which helps me to understand how children’s story works. (It more often works the other way, to be fair.)

If I could persuade the fiction writers of the world to do one thing every year, it would be to read the winners of the Newbery Medal and other awards for best children’s literature. Writers of children’s fiction know that the apparent simplicity of the novel is anything but simple to write. Yet, their accomplishment offer superb models of all elements of craft.

— Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover

In understanding the strange narrative of “The Fifth Story” I’m guided by Jane Alison, who offers this story as an example of what she calls a ‘fractal’ narrative shape in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. John Truby might call it a ‘branching’ shape. Refer to The Anatomy of Story. (I’ve written a lot more about plot shapes in this post.)

Continue reading “Cumulative Plots and The Fifth Story by Clarice Lispector”

Talking About Story Pacing

Narratologists have come up with a variety of ways of talking about the pacing of a story. I recently tried reading Gerard Genette and it gave me brain ache. I thought, this is fascinating but I can’t absorb all this. I’ll come back to it.

But this week I’m reading a new book called Meander, Spiral Explode by Jane Alison, about patterns in story. I’m delighted to find that Alison has included, alongside her structural patterns, an analysis of pacing patterns. Here’s a reproduction of her handy chart which she made by combining the work of Gerard Genette and Seymour Chatman.

Story Time vs Text Time

Although this is a chart (and I’ve put the text inside cells to make for easier reading), think of it as a continuum with Gap at one end, Pause at the other. At first these terms sound like the same thing, but they’re opposites.

GAP

Where there is Gap there is no text — ‘the text goes mute’ — and we can leap over many years of story time. Eons, even. In film there might be a very slow fade, a change of hue, differently paced music. We know that a great stretch of time has just passed.

The narratee may find, after a Gap, that they need to fill in what has just happened. The reader must extrapolate. If the storyteller has done their job, the audience has been given enough information to do so.

An example I came across recently was the time jump in “Queenie”, a short story by Alice Munro. Munro is well-known for her ability to perform magic tricks with time, so of course she has the Gap in her toolbox. (The Gap is where the asterisk is below.)

As I had thought of myself being kind to Mr Vorguilla, or at least protecting him, so unexpectedly, a little while before.

*

I was at Teachers’ College when Queenie ran away again. I got the news in a letter from my father. He said that he did not know just how or when it happened.

There are certain parts of story which should be Gaps, when our writerly instinct might be Summary. One of those is ‘Getting From One Place To The Other’. Modern readers are well-versed in extrapolating the content of Gaps, and you can safely pull your characters out of one scene and plonk them in another. The reader will understand that there has been some travel in there somewhere. (Within reason.)

SUMMARY

I’ve encountered the term ‘narrative summary’. Same thing.

As beginning writers we tend to be afraid of Summary, thinking every event in a story has to be a scene, alive with the five senses, showcasing beautiful language. But knowing when to write scene vs. when to summarise is vital. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition by Renni Browne and Dave King talks about this.

Summarising is an especially vital skill for the short story writer. Alison points out that summary can be boring, but one trick is to splice up summary with well-chosen detail. Annie Proulx, who likes to write across three generations of family in a single short story, is a master of this technique.

When a writer creates a summary and splices it up with really minute detail, another thing happens — they have created an Overview Effect for the reader, whereby the reader sees the large and the tiny both at once, and feels a kind of literary vertigo.

SCENE

Around the middle of this continuum, the time it takes to read words on the page pretty much equals the time it takes to play out in the world of your story.

The word ‘scene’ comes from drama, where the pacing is driven, and rather limited, by how fast events can be performed before us by actors on a stage.

When it comes to the written forms of story, Jane Alison offers the transcription of a character’s diary entry as the purest example of ‘real time’, in which there is an exact match between the pacing of the story and the speed at which the narratee experiences the story. (When we read a letter in a novel, and when the character reads this letter in a novel, time matches up. Unless the character is a much faster or much slower reader, of course.)

Still, let’s plonk ‘epistolary material’ right in the middle of our imaginary continuum.

There are parts of a story which we really must turn into scenes, or risk leaving the reader feeling cheated. It’s a natural instinct for writers to want to protect our precious characters in the first draft, but readers really do need to see them come close to death.

That’s rarely pleasant, but if we turn these Battles into Gaps, perhaps because we’ve made the executive decision that there’s too much horribleness in the world already, we’d better line something else up as the Proxy Battle. Alice Munro makes for a good case study in this technique.

DILATION

Now here’s a word I haven’t associated with narrative pacing.  Dilation refers to the action or condition of becoming or being made wider, larger, or more open.

This is where a reader is forced to slow down.

If the printed words showing a story event take more time to read than the event would: dilation.

— Meander, Spiral, Explode

Imagine an app which allows you to watch YouTube videos at a fraction of the pace.  I sometimes watch tennis videos like this. This is dilation. […] Text time is greater than story time.

Jane Alison offers an example involving a man being shot by a bullet. The time it would take within the story for the man to be hit by the bullet is a microsecond. But the description of the thoughts that go through his mind take far longer for us to read than it would take for the character to die.

There’s a risk of dilating in the wrong place. Know what you’re going for on any given page — do you want the reader turning pages quickly? The following advice is from an article about writing page-turners, so bear that in mind, but Jordan Rosenfeld lists 8 Mundane Elements You Should Cut From Your Story. ‘Thoughts in the midst of an action’ is one of the eight elements:

The moment when characters are in the midst of big, dramatic action is precisely the worst time to slow down the energy and momentum of a scene to insert thoughts, especially long, drawn-out thoughts or epiphanies. Yet I see it all the time in my clients’ manuscripts.

Let me give you an example of the difference in what I mean.

With too much thought:

The hillside shook violently beneath him and began to crumble. Julia screamed and reached out to him. A huge crack appeared just feet from him. If he tried to run toward Julia, the earth would swallow him up. This reminded him of one of the times he went volcano hunting with his father as a child. When the ground trembled, his father had simply scooped him up and dashed toward safety. Julia screamed again and he lunged across the crack like a fool.

Revised, with a brief observation:

The hillside shook violently beneath him and began to crumble. Julia screamed and reached out to him. A huge crack appeared just feet from him. If he tried to run toward Julia, the earth would swallow him up. He was a child again, but without his father to rescue him. Julia screamed again and he lunged across the crack like a fool.

Hopefully you’ll have done the work of letting the reader know about your character’s past studying volcanoes with his father long before this moment, making it unnecessary to fill in backstory in a moment of action where tension needs to remain high.

— from Jane Friedman’s blog

 

PAUSE

When I first read about these terms, I thought each end of this continuum must be hypothetical. But no, writers do literally include the Pause in their work. It’s easy to imagine a Pause on film — it would be a freeze frame, like at the end of Thelma & Louise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 400 Blows, Evil etc.

Japanese film-maker Yasujiro Ozu is well-known for his take on the freeze frame, which is not frozen but simply a camera focusing on one specific shot for an extended period.

Other Japanese film-makers have emulated this, including Hayao Miyazaki in his animated films. There’s an entire category of Internet GIFs (often called cinemagraphs) which are basically pillow shots. (I collect the ones and pin them on Pinterest.)

But how does a writer make use of the Pause in a written story? A few blank pages? Well, perhaps. That would be experimental (and also a waste of paper).

Jane Alison offers an example of a Pause on the page: Those times when the reader is told what is not happening rather than what is happening (after the character gets shot with the ‘dilated’ bullet).

Highlighting what’s not happening is one way of freeze framing something in a written story. The reader waits with suspense to find out what IS happening, all the while on Pause.

Perhaps this is a subcategory of Sideshadowing, in which the narrator offers an alternative to the real world story, by imagining/dreaming/hallucinating how things might have been different. Unlike a flash back or a flash forward, sideshadowing can function to emphasise the present moment. This is why I consider sideshadowing a Pause. All the while, the reader is kept dangling, waiting to see what will happen in the ‘real’ world of the story.

How else might a writer achieve the Pause? By describing a photograph is another way. Technically, this is known as ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis was an old Greek pastime, and formed a genre in its own right.

The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present.  In many cases, however, the subject never actually existed, making the ekphrastic description a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer.

Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad stands at the beginning of the ekphrastic tradition. 

You might think modern readers have no time for it. Perhaps in genre fiction and children’s literature, that’s true. But literary writers sometimes make use of it. Alice Munro is a case in point:

He put his hand in a back pocket. “Here. Want to see a picture? Here.”

It was a photograph of three people, taken in a living room with closed floral curtains as a backdrop. An old man—not really old, maybe in his sixties—and a woman of about the same age were sitting on a couch. A very large younger woman was sitting in a wheelchair drawn up close to one end of the couch and a little in front of it. The old man was heavy and gray-haired, with eyes narrowed and mouth slightly open, as if he were asthmatic, but he was smiling as well as he could. The old woman was much smaller, with dyed brown hair and lipstick. She was wearing what used to be called a peasant blouse, with little red bows at the wrists and neck. She smiled determinedly, even a bit frantically, her lips stretched over perhaps bad teeth.

But it was the younger woman who monopolized the picture. Distinct and monstrous in a bright muumuu, her dark hair done up in a row of little curls along her forehead, cheeks sloping into her neck. And, in spite of all that bulge of flesh, an expression of some satisfaction and cunning.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”

Jane Alison offers the example from The Lover by Duras:

She goes on to a new block describing a photo of herself with her mother and brothers, a picture capturing her mother’s despair. These portraits aren’t decorative: like the missing image, they’re potent. Studying them, she find secrets, deep character traits revealed in eyes or mouth. Later she creates a long sequence of verbal portraits of women (I call it the “Catalogue of Women”). They portray, out of the blue, two expatriate women in Paris the narrator came to know decades later, as well as girls and women in Indochina, M’s friend Helene Lagonelle; the madwoman of Vinh Long; a beggar woman; and the “Lady of Savanna Khet,” whose scandalous affair ended in her lover’s suicide. These portraits seem detached from the drama: Duras lets them float in white space like postcards.

Why all this seemingly tangential material in a narrative about M and her lover? Why so much about photographs? And why does Duras keep switching between first person and third? […]

M turns herself to an object most often when speaking of herself as a writer. And she uses language that not only objectifies but makes legendary the girl and her world: they are the girl, the mother, the lover, “the famous pair of gold lame high heels.” This makes them singular worth regard. […] We’re with her looking at a picture, and she chooses what and how we see.

— Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode, pp 128-9.

Aside from literary fiction, popular songs can slow the pace of narrative right down to a pause. An example would be “The Box”, by Fad Gadget.

The camera pans across the room
And finally comes to rest upon an old picture frame
The photo shows a man in hat
A dog at heel
The man is fat
The dog is the same
Let me out…
Let me out…
Let me out…
I can’t stand the dark anymore
A POV of man in carbon monoxide fumes are choking him
His face turns pink
And now we see him winding down
The window streaked excretion brown
We watch him sink
Let me out…
Let me out…
Let me out…
I can’t stand the dark anymore
The shot a wide angle now
A man is banging on the door
Of a chrome elevator
Lights go out no air inside
Get no lift from this lost ride
On a cracked generator
Let me out…
Let me out…
Let me out…
I can’t stand the dark anymore
Now focus out
The lift goes down
Night creeps in
The screws go round
Blood runs cold
And now we stare up from our hole
Theme tune in, the credits roll
The story told
Let us out…
Let us out…
Let us out…
Someone gotta let me out!

The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte

POKER FLAT BRET HARTE

If you like playing Red Dead Redemption, if you enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I recommend “The Outcasts of Poker Flat“, a short story by Bret Harte, published in the late 1800s as the century was coming to a close.

This short story was adapted for film in 1919, 1937 and again in 1952.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat movie poster

But the version with the highest rating on IMDb is the latest one — a TV movie from 1958. Good luck finding it, though.

Then [in 2009-10] the composer Andrew E. Simpson wrote a one-act chamber opera dramatizing the story. It was performed most recently in 2012 (to positive reviews), and from the summary appears to follow the source material much more closely than any of the cinematic adaptations.

Poker and Pop

This story remains interesting to a contemporary audience for its reminder that we thought quite differently about what it takes to live a good life, just 120 years ago. I really enjoyed most of it, though I want to rewrite the ending.

Content note for suicide, with a large dose of sexism near the end.

STORY WORLD OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”

The setting is a very specific November 22 1850, in a town called Poker Flat, in Northwestern California.

There are two towns that are known as “Poker Flat” in California: one that is located in Calaveras County and one that is located in the Sierra County near in the Sierra Nevada. While there has been minor dispute over which Poker Flat Harte’s story is set in, it likely depicts the latter town in Sierra County because Harte’s characters are forced to traverse part of the Sierra mountain range.

Owl Eyes

Here it is on Google Earth, if you’re viewing this in Chrome. There’s not much there now — but I do spy one ambiguous human structure. I hope there’s at least a plaque which mentions the short story.

I’m thinking of a town a bit like Deadwood (South Dakota) — full of men, drinking and gambling, without the moderating influence of ‘Sabbath’. The illegal town of Deadwood popped up 20 years after this story is set, comprising squatters after gold, and the services around them. While Deadwood has remained in our collective memory as a lawless, wild Western town, there must have been many more like it.

Continue reading “The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte”