All posts by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

The shattered realities of William Gibson

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After Patreon: we need a Bill of Rights for creators

We live in amazing times for human creativity. There are more opportunities, for more people, of more backgrounds, to create than ever before.

I think when we look back on the early 21st century, we’ll recognise it as the turning point into a creator culture, in which we value people for their creative talents, over their consumer spending power.

Our entire economy is in the process of reforming around the new creator culture. But when I look at many of the institutions forming to “support” that creativity, instituitions like Patreon, I see the same story.

Exploitation.

Read the full post on Medium.

Stop using guns as a symbol of personal empowerment

We don’t like guns because we like guns. But we DO like guns. Gun manufacturers don’t make $billions every year selling guns to farmers or even armies. The AR-15, America’s bestselling gun, is a sexy-as-hell consumer item. Like a lethal steel iPhone but significantly less useful.

I appreciate the vocal efforts of Hollywood A-listers campaigning for better gun laws. But it won’t mean much as long as Hollywood keeps churning out the high production value advertisements for firearms it calls “action movies”. Matt Damon wants you to do as he says when he says ban guns, not do as he does in a career based on shooting guns while looking super cool.

And super empowered.

I went on a mini-rant about guns-as-power-symbols over at my friend Ahimsa Kerp’s blog.

“Most guns, and basically all swords, only exist to kill people. Only a psychopath believes that killing people makes the killer powerful. And yet in stories we present guns and swords as symbols of personal empowerment, that heroes use to fight their way to self-realization. This is so pervasive, most people actually believe it. Imagine if we stopped using guns and swords as this symbol, and started using books instead? That would be closer to reality.”
–Damien Walter

I hate to break it to the middle aged dad-bods out there, but none of you will ever fight your way up 80 storeys of Nakatomi tower while shooting baddies to rescue your wife from Alan Rickman and save your marriage. You are, literally, 82 million times more likely to save your marriage by reading insightful books than by buying a Desert Eagle .45

And yet, from 24 to Taken, we watch the strange modern day ceremony of average middle aged men shooting their way to personal empowerment. And it’s not just the dudes. You can barely walk into a cinema or switch on a tv today without finding somebody liberating their inner agency by blowing somebody elses head off with a gun.

You could make this symbol ANYTHING. If our media churned out thousands of hours of entertainment a year in which average dudes found personal empowerment through the symbolic device of a monkey wrench, then average dudes all over America would manifest a fetisistic relationship to wrenches. They might even go around hitting people with their wrenches, but with a thankfully lower death toll than today’s sickening gun massacres.

People are impressionable. In the 1920s, an entire generation of women were persuaded that cigarettes, of all things, were symbols of personal empowerment, through a cleverly orchestarted marketing campaign arranged by Edward Bernays, father of “public relations” IE legitimised propoganda.

I doubt any Hollywood movie makers will see this blog post (but share it widely to increase the chances). However, you’ve heard the message here, and the chances are, you’re a storyteller. YOU can help change this situation, by using your gifts to NOT replicate the lazy, lethal story archetypes, that lead us to see the gun as a heroic symbol, rather than WHAT IT REALLY IS – a nauseating symptom of deep social sickness.

Replace the gun in your story with a book.

Or maybe a wrench.

Help me write gun free stories as a patron.

 

What does a nomad writer pack for 4 years on the road?

Hello! My name is Damien Walter, and I am the nomad writer.

I’ve been travelling since November 2013, across Thailand, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. I’m a slow traveller, staying at least two months wherever I go. My main base of operations is Chiang Mai, the “digital nomad” capital of the world.

Read Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin: Digital Nomads are a 21st Century Counter Culture.

My travels are entirely funded by my work as a writer. I make words for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon and quite a few more. I’m a pro blogger / copywriter / wordsmith for more businesses and brands than I care to recall at this time. And I self publish under a few names that, nope, I am absolutely not telling you here!

I also teach writing. My course The Rhetoric of Story is a Udemy bestseller. Before escaping to travel I was director of the certificate in creative writing at University of Leicester, with research published by Oxford University Press and Cambridge. I spent a decade leading workshops and literacy projects as a community worker in Leicester, UK.

So, what does a nomad writer pack for the road? To mark four years of nomadic living, I’m going to show you everything I travel with. And, SPOILER ALERT, it’s much less than you might expect! I am a committed minimalist in nearly all things, especially travel. This level of minimalism, like my nomadic lifestyle as a whole, are only possible because of technoloy and the internet.

Follow all my nomad writer adventures, read all my stories, and get all my courses as a patron. $1 is great, most of my patrons give under $5.

You can find me on Twitter @damiengwalter or on YouTube where I will soon be beginning a new vlog series.

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So. Going from right to left, in a kind of up-down zig zag…

My backpack is a TT Carry-On 40 from Lowe Alpine. Now discontinued, but you can find similar alternatives. To keep travelling simple and cheap, I limit myself to a single backpack that I can carry on to international flights for no extra baggage fee, then walk out the other end without waiting for the carousel. I find 40 litres to be more than enough for my few posessions.

Camphor soap and mosquito spray. The downside of life in Asia are mosquitos and the dengue fever epidemic that they spread. Mosquito spray is always useful, and I buy these little bars of camphor soap wherever I find them because they smell amazing! Actually, the best way to avoid mosquito bites is avoid dusk times 4pm to 7pm when they are most active, so that’s my daily exercise time.

Creative Cards! I use index cards as part of my writing process. I went so far as to launch a kickstarter for deluxe index cards in early 2017, and had this prototype made. The kickstarter failed, but I got a really cool box for my cards.

Tarot Cards. I’ve been travelling with this pack of medium size atarot cards, the classic designs by Pamela Coleman-Smith, since 2011, bought during a three weak stay at Ocean Beach, San Diego. I do occaisional tarot readings for good friends and patrons. (Please don’t call this the Rider-Waite deck. A E Waite basically stole these designs from their true creator.)

Merrell Trail Glove running shoes. Running is, for me, the natural brother to writing. I run most days, although by last year I had lost so much weight that I replaced some runs with yoga or weights. Barefoot shoes are by far my favorite, giving a much closer relationship to the road or trail. They’re also hard to come by in Asia, so I do also have a pair of Adidas, as these old Merrell’s are on their last legs :(

Samsung A7 2015 model purchased in New Delhi for around $180 unlocked. I’d been travelling with an iPhone 4 until buying the A7, so it was a major upgrade at the time. It’s due an upgrade itself now, but I’m waiting for a good dual-camera phone that I can integrate into my workflow for video.

Kindle Voyage. My latest purchse, and an upgrade from my previous Kobo. Reading is a huge part of professional and personal life. It would simply be impossible for me to travel as I do now before the rise ebooks. The Voyage is a really great ereader, although this is probably the world’s most expensive model as I had to puy THREE sets of import taxes to get it to me in Thailand.

Samsung Galaxy Tab-A with S-Pen + Microsoft Foldable Keyboard + plastic stand. This is my main workhorse writing rig for the last year or so. It’s two main advantages over a laptop are a genuine all day battery life, and the S-Pen which lets me handwrite on the screen, both killer features. The Microsoft keyboard is superb, but I actually quite often write using the touchscreen. I’m a convert to tablets, and will likely upgrade this rig with a iPad Pro 10.5 as my next purchase.

Thule Stravan 13″ Macbook shoulder bag. So. Look. I have what I have to describe as a shoulder bag fetish. I spent YEARS searching for the perfect shoulder bag. And the Thule is it. It’s like somebody read my mind for every possible use case I might have, and covered them ALL. It’s also cheap, you can find them under $30 if you look around. Dear Thule…do NOT stop making these!

Mid-2011 11″ Macbook Air. These things are the workhorse of digital nomad’s everywhere. Go into a cafe in Chiang Mai, Berlin, Oaxaca or basically anywhere with mobile workers, you will see these everywhere. They’re lightweight, mobile and remarkably tough. My Macbook has fallen down flights of stars, tumbled onto concrete and had water and coffee thrown over it. In 2015 the Indian heat swelled the Macbook’s battery up into a giant chemical tumour. First the keys started to pop off, then the aluminum casing ballooned into a rugby ball shape. I was in the himalayan hill station of Dharamsala, so it stayed that way for three whole months. When I eventually installed a replacement battery in Thailand, the case popped back into shape and I’ve been using it as normal ever since! Today I only really use it for video editing. It’s perfectly capable of rendering 1080p 60f video in reasonable times. If you’re going nomad, I still think this should be your first piece of kit. But, I suspect I will finally retire my Macbook Air when I switch to an iPad Pro.

Macbook Charger. These bastard things are the weakness of the Macbook. I’ve had to replace this FIVE times in four years. They’re heavy, relative to the thing they charge. I’m looking forward to an entirely USB-c future withought bulky chargers.

Terrorist Scarf. So, if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie with a racist depiction of terrorists as the baddies, they will be wearing this kind of scarf. You can pick up one of these for almost nothing in any traveller district of the world. And they are SUPER useful. Worn around the neck you can use this as a face mask against dust. Unfolded it will protect against bright sun or gentle rain. Spray the scarf with mozzy spray and sleep under it if you are sharing a room with bitey insects. Stuck without a towel? This will do the job. Douglas Adams was wrong, a towel is actually a heavy, useless travel item, but a light scarf is essential. WARNING: do not wear your terrorist scarf through security checks…

Patterned Tablet Sleeve. Not an essentail item, but a light weight tablet sleeve is a fine day-carry that you can keep your essentials in if you are cafe hopping. This one is a handsome hand made fabric, but for the life of me I can’t find the maker.

Notebook(s). At one point I was travelling with 4kg of paper notebooks. I have to handwrite, it’s part of my writing process, especially for stories. I also love buying notebooks, so I really have to restrain myself! I now handwrite on my tablet, but always have at least one paper notebook as well.

Lamy Safari Fountain Pen. These are the best pens, bar none. Ink cartridges can be hard to find, so I stock up whenver I do.

Uni Kuru Toga mechanical pencil. These are the best pencils, bar none.

Tin Cup. I drink herbal teas based on nice ingredients from wherever I travel, with fresh cut ginger and lime as my default. I like to have a nice big cup to brew in. This one holds about half a litre!

The photo at the top of this piece is taken on my new camera, a Canon 200d, the lightest dslr you can buy and, as I’ll explore in a seperate feature, the best vlogging camera ever made. But for four years before that I travelled with this Sony Nex F3 mirrorless, itself a very good camera. I’ve published hours of video shot with this, and sold hundreds of photos for features and stock taken with it. Don’t believe anybody who tells you that a smartphone camera can match a dslr or mirrorless. It’s nonsense. For professional use they don’t come close.

Rode Videomicro. Getting good audio is the hardest challenge in vlogging / solo filmmaking. This tiny beast, here pictured with its dead cat windsock, makes it much easier. It’s a tiny, surprisingly good shotgun mic that is powered from the camera, so no batteries needed.

Baby Taylor 3/4 acoustic guitar. I really only do three things in life. Writing / storytelling. Running. And singing / playing guitar. I travelled with cheap guitars for three years, that were abandoned / destroyed in various situations. Last year I stole my brother’s Baby Taylor (actually exchanged for my old Faith Saturn) and now pay extra to ship it when I move, in total violation of my carry-on philosophy!

Things not pictured – various essential documents like passport, bank cards etc. USB cables etc. Clothing…I have some shorts, tees, shirts, 2x jeans, sandals. That’s it.

Things I don’t travel with – Asia is the land of cheap gadgets, so I end up buying things like bluetooth speakers over and over again. It’s actually cheaper to buy a new camera tripod than pay to transport them.

If you have questions about nomad writer life, drop them in the comments below.

Patron support helps me give free stuff to the world, and frees me up from paying gigs to tell more interesting stories. A dollar a month is great.

Read Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin: Digital Nomads are a 21st Century Counter Culture.

Join my online course, The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.

Beyond the Rhetoric of Story

Since I began work on The Rhetoric of Story, a little over a year ago, the success of the course has far exceeded my expectations. Since launching on Udemy, the course has been in the top 12 of writing for 4 straight months! To date over 1600 students have taken the course, and they’ve had some great things to say.

“The lessons are described so as to create a vivid picture of story writing. It’s as if the instructor is bringing alive the story of writing a story…I feel revitalized after feeling lost for so many years.”

“He’s organized and uses his own storytelling mien to deliver the course brilliantly.”

“I’ve read more books on writing than I care to admit…this course though has provided some valuable information on why certain stories resonate with the reader.”

“Damien is so engaging, so personable and presents himself honestly that watching his videos is a pleasure and very a effective way to learn.”

“By examining some of the most enduring stories of ancient and recent history, Damien has created a great series of lectures on story and what makes a story work.”

“This course is actually very deep with highly useful tips and advice on how to tell a compelling story.”

Of course there were also constructive criticisms, of a few glitches with audio recording and a slow intro lecture. With these in mind, I’ve reinvested in better recording equipment, and have planned out a set of new classes.

Beyond the Rhetoric of Story.

I had two aims in the Rhetoric of Story. After five years teaching creative writing at university level, I saw a profound problem in the way it was taught. The craft of writing, and the art of storytelling, were conflated into a single set of ideas. Story itself is almost entirely ignored within creative writing, which tends to focus on language. I couldn’t change this from within, but by making the Rhetoric of Story an online course, I could reach many more passionate writers.

My second aim was to express a powerful idea about the nature of story that has been gathering influence over some years. That story is how the human mind works, and that far from being “formulaic”, the structures of story reflect basic patterns in human psychology. I’ve spent over a decade studying this idea, from the work of hundreds of writers and theorists. The Rhetoric of Story was my way of pulling all that learning into a unified whole.

But the Rhetoric of Story is still a foundation course. It’s there to give writers a solid base of knowledge in story, that they can then apply in their own creations. With this in place, I want to move onto to more advanced material.

I am planning two new short courses, a new full length course, and a series of ad-hoc talks that I really hope you’re going to enjoy!

Short Courses
In my professional life I’ve told stories for some of the world’s biggest media brands including The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Aeon, The Indepdendent and many more. I work with some very famous businesses in technology, healthcare and finance to tell compelling stories about their industries. In two linked, short courses, I want to share some of the essential skills and techniques I use to make this work happen.

I REALLY want to tell you the course titles, but the branding is so valuable I can’t reveal it until the courses are published. What I can say is that these courses are going to be exceptionally useful for anybody who wants to earn a great living from writing.

New Full Length Course
The Technology of Fiction – in a sister course to RoS, I will be dedicating 7 hours of teaching time to a really in-depth exploration of advanced fiction and novel writing techniques. The novel is at least four hundred years old, and over that time writers have developed a full spectrum of technologies for telling great stories with the written word. Mastering these technologies is the key to writing brilliant, widely loved novels.

How To Write Good…
I love to talk about stories, why they work and how they are made. I’m making occaisional short talks for my YouTube channel that will be asking the question “How to write good…”, the first, I think, will be ” How to write good…Game of Thrones!” because its such a phenomenon at this time, and there’s so much to learn from the books and tv show. These talks are going to be fun, and also free. Subscribe to me on YouTube to get them.

Want to get all these courses, FREE?!
My backers on patreon get everything I make, totally free, wherever possible. Stories, courses, everything! A $5 donation is great, but any level gets you full access.

A sad truth. Readers will always steal from writers.

This is a little story about volition. Specifically, the choices writers make about how we share and “monetize” our work. It’s a sad little tale, but please read to the end for the moral.

“there’s an extra irony here, that these were writers, who no doubt stomp around the internet chanting Pay The Writer whenever that noise startsup”

I’m a pro writer, and what I haven’t been paid to write is a much shorter list than what I have. My personal blog, however, is a semi-professional space. I make some income from posting here, but this is mostly material I want to write regardless of payment.

Yesterday, I decided to share a popular post from this blog on the Medium platform. I’ve made posts over at Medium since it began. It’s a great publishing experience, but has always been problematic, as it struggles to monetize its readership. That struggle took a new turn this month, as Medium opened up a new “clap” based payment system for contributors. It’s interesting, but I won’t share my thoughts on it here. (Maybe in a future post).

As an experiment, I took a popular post from this blog, and placed it behind the new paywall on Medium. As an after thought, I dropped a link to it on a Facebook group for writers I enjoy following.

What happened next was illustrative.

To follow this, you need to know that the Medium paywall allows free access to 3 premium “locked” articles each month, if you sign up to Medium, or unlimited access for $5.

A spate of comments were made on the Facebook group post of this kind.

“Join Medium to read this post” no way

That’s a fair response. But it’s a choice. You either join to read, or you don’t read.

A commenter screencapped the paywall, as a passive aggressive display they thought its existence unfair.

Another commenter then escalated this rhetoric, calling the paywall a “minor betrayal”

These kind of comments continued. Then a commenter suggested I should copypaste the post for the group. The next commenter went further, demanding that a Medium member screencap the post.

Emboldened by these demands, a commenter found my blog, located the original post, and linked it in the comments. Virtual cheers went up. Hooray! The mob had what they wanted.

I woke up to this mini-drama, and made a few responses as it unfolded, while chuckling about the whole thing. The incredible sense of entitlement, displayed with so little self-awareness, was pure comedy gold. I’m not going to post the screencaps. It’s not my intention to shame these people, because their behaviour is faaaaar from unique. Granted, there’s an extra irony here, that these were writers, who no doubt stomp around the internet chanting Pay The Writer whenever that noise startsup. But let’s be honest here, this behaviour is the norm. And as readers, we’re probably all guilty of it.

I’ve written a number of times on book piracy, and met with controversy every time. To clarify, I’m neither for or against piracy. I simply take the realistic position that, the internet being what it is, and people being what they are, that most folks will always dodge paying when they can. And given that reality, the emphasis is on us as creators to find the most constructive response.

The real issue at the heart of piracy is: volition. The power of a creator to choose how their work is shared and monetized. My decision to put my post behind a paywall was, in a matter of hours, openly violated, by my fellow writers, who then celebrated the act. These are the people who should be most sensitive to this issue, and even they don’t care. Given that as context, what chances do you think there are of ever dissuading the huge majority of people from stealing content whenever they can?

It’s a sad truth. But readers will always steal from writers. Your volitional power to choose how your work is published and monetized in this digital era is very limited. Denying that only reduces your options even further. Embrace the reality, use platforms like Patreon to work around it, and the advantages of this new digital era soon outweigh problems…even when that problem is your fellow writers being thieves!

Odd Gods

Gods are an irresistible subject to writers. They were, after all, the first characters, in the first stories. “In the beginning was the word” is both true, and a clever way for ancient scribes to improve their job security. God is, when all’s said and done, whoever is writing.

I found myself writing these stories of Odd Gods in the gaps between other things. Eventually I decided they deserved more attention, and am slowly writing them up from their often quite raw form. I swear I scrawled something blasphemous about Jehovah on a napkin, but I can’t seem to find it now.

Perhaps for the best.

The gods of my stories tend to be self-centred, shabby, outsiders to whatever cause they’ve been presured into serving. Which, I suppose, says more about their author than anything. But then, isn’t that true of all gods? And all stories?

Odd Gods so far…

Pandora Unboxed
Pandora rubbed a hand over her husband’s bald head then scrunched his beard. She did love the old goat, and had to admit he worked very hard.

Shiv the Destroyer
Shiv was late.He was on the wrong side of the galaxy, with eighty trillion stars, and a few thousand black holes, between him and his appointment.

Dysorder
He’d been flicking through tv channels for two hours by then, so the bell was a welcome summons back to reality.

These are currently behind the paywall on Medium. You can also read them all as a patron.

One very useful thing to know about depression

Through the month of September 2017 I fought a small scale conflict, against an army of negative thoughts and emotions that had claimed the territory of my mind. I recognised this mental state well. It was what we commonly call depression.

To win this fight, I needed strategies. I went back and reviewed the best thinking on depression that I have found over the years. And with that work under my belt, I want to share one insight into depression that I find very useful to know.

Like many people who experience childhood depression, it began for me with a parent. My mother had all the symptoms of severe depression, and in my early teens I experienced severe depressive episodes. I went from an A student to a school dropout, and by age eighteen I was was living alone, working minimum wage jobs, struggling with drug addiction, and caught in a trap of poverty and zero self esteem.

The path out of the place was long and tough. It involved many insights and changes, too many to talk about here. By 30 my life had improved a lot. I had returned to my life’s passion – writing. A stroke of good fortune had sent me to America for a summer writer’s workshop. I enjoyed the experience hugely. One morning I woke up to the bright San Diego summer, looked into the mirror and thought.

This is what it’s like to not be depressed.

My second thought was…I will not go back to being depressed again.

I had many more life changes ahead of me to make good on that promise to myself. But, with some lapses, it’s a promise I have kept. I just turned 40, and for almost all of the last decade, I have been depression free. When I have had minor relapses, as occured last month, I’ve been able to go back to the ideas that helped end my depression. And in particular, one idea that I want to share with you.

“Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it.”

Depression is a subtle and complex opponent, with many causes. But the experience of depression is quite consistent. The mind falls into a negative state, it becomes hard to see anything positive in life, and an overwhelming feeling of “depression” permeates all of our experiences. Depression, while it may be a slightly vague word, is about the best term we have for this state.

It’s my personal belief that many people, perhaps even a majority of people, live with depression without ever recognising it. Many people self medicate their depression with alcohol, or over eating, or other coping strategies. Others angrily deny that depression even exists. These people, in my experience, are victims of the worst forms of all engulfing depression.

So, a happy thought for those people honestly and openly talking about depression…you are ahead of the game. You recognise the problem. However severe your depression is, once you see it, you have everything you need to escape it.

Almost. Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it. I did a lot of reading to try and understand the causes of my own depression. I found compelling arguments for the physical causes of depression. And I found equally compelling arguments for the psychological causes. Both are useful. Then I found one idea that, for me, pinned together both – physical and psychological – into a unified model of depression. That’s the idea I want to talk about.

Among the most established treatments for depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a solution for many people. But it is also controversial. CBT trains people to examine their thought patterns, and to change or stop negative thoughts that might cause depression. I’ve never done CBT. I know some people swear by it. I know for others its ineffective, and can sound like a kind of “brainwashing”.

One issue with CBT is relapse. People often experience a cessation of depressive symptoms, then some weeks or months later, the depression returns. In an attempt to tackle this issue, a scientific study was conducted into combining CBT with Buddhist “mindfulness”, also an established treatment for depression. The approach proved successful, and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT is now a widespread treatment.

This post is not an advertisement for either CBT or MBCT. I have done neither. It’s also not an argument for Buddhism, mindfulness, or meditation as the solution to depression. I am a Buddhist practitioner, but I don’t believe it’s a path for everybody. Instead, this is about one idea, that I first encountered when reading about Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, that I believe is very useful in understanding depression.

Anti-depressant drugs are the most widely used treatment for depression. They work, in many cases. I have never used them, but I am absolutely not here to argue against their use. Anti-depressants work by replenishing chemicals in your body and brain which, when their levels drop to low levels, seem to be associated with the depressive state. Topping up those levels can provide some level of relief from depression.

There is an ongoing debate about whether depression is caused by the negative thought patterns that CBT treats, or by the chemical imbalances that anti-depressants treat. The research into Mindfulness and CBT revealed a third possibility, that I find most useful. It’s the idea I’ve been working toward. It’s a little hard to explain, not because it’s complex, but because it doesn’t quite fit with how we think about thinking. In a single word the idea is.

Rumination.

Imagine a motor car, left switched on, with its engine running. With enough petrol the engine will run indefinitely. That is until it burns through its supply of oil. With the oil gone, the pistons and other moving parts in the engine begin to grind against each other. When that happens, the engine quickly starts to damage itself, becoming less efficient, and finally breaking down.

On the chemical level, your brain ia a little like this car engine. Your brain has chemicals that work a bit like oil, easing the connections between brain cells. In normal operation your brain can produce these chemicals at much the same rate it burns them. But when you start thinking really hard, you burn these chemicals at a faster rate than you produce them.

This is one reason why intellectual effort is literally tiring. As you exert your brain, these chemicals burn out, and thinking gets harder. Eventually, you have to stop thinking so hard and do something that uses little or no brain power, like watching Game of Thrones. Of course your brain is still doing things, even when you sleep, but at a sustainable level.

The real problems begin when your brain enters a state in which it can’t or won’t stop thinking too hard. One example are states of high anxiety. If you’re really worried about, say, a trip to the dentist, your brain can just kick into a high gear that you can’t switch off with an episode of Star Trek. We’ve all been there, and it can be awful. High anxiety can incite periods of depression. But usually these states are temporary, and the depression often passes with them.

A more dangerous situation arises when the brain begins to obsessively think about an issue on the unconscious level. Maybe there is a difficult situation at work. Consciously, you think about it now and again. But unconsciously, your brain is chewing it over all the time. And it’s burning brain oil* in the process. One name for this persistent, often unconscious thinking, is rumination.

* not actual brain oil, metaphorical brain oil

Rumination has many forms. We ruminate on short term problems. We ruminate on childhood traumas. We ruminate on imagined futures. You name it, your brain has a habit of ruminating on it. Sometimes rumination is conscious. You know you are doing it, but you just can’t seem to stop. Distraction doesn’t work, your mind carries on ruminating behind the scenes. Even when we sleep, the rumination just carries on.

Rumination places your brain into a state of overwork. Hours, days, weeks even months in this state use up the brain’s resources, and it begins to degrade. Like a dysfunctional app on your laptop or smartphone, a ruminative process can eat up all of your brain’s processing power and destroy its chemical balance, leaving you tired, unfocussed…and depressed.

Rumination opens up a different, and I believe very useful, way of understanding depression. Negative thought patterns and chemical imbalance aren’t sole root causes of depression, they are parts of a depressive cycle of which rumination is also a key driver. It’s not what you think that’s the issue, it’s the sheer repetitive length of time you spend thinking it.

Rumination overworks your brain, this depletes important chemicals, without which your brain functions poorly, which create negative thoughts, which you then ruminate on, which overworks your brain, which…creates the negative feedback loop that makes depression so very dangerous.

Rumination is the idea I find very useful to know about depression. It is not in itself a solution to depression. But many of the recognised treatments for depression intervene in the cycle that rumination causes.

  • Anti-depressants replace the chemicals that rumination depletes, but they don’t stop the processes depleteing them.
  • CBT and talking therapies unpick the negative thoughts that we ruminate on, but rumination will always find a new focus.
  • Sleep slows rumination and gives the brain time to recoup, but rumination can keep going even when we sleep.
  • A piece of cake, a pint of beer, a shot of heroin, provide a pleasure hit that can disrupt rumination, but it often comes back.
  • Distractions like a good book or video game session can push rumination aside but it can, again, keep going in the background.
  • Solving the problem that you are ruminating on helps, but a brain trained to ruminate will likely find another fixation to continue ruminating on.

If we can reduce the rumination itself, all of these treatments become much more effective.

I do not present rumination as equally useful for everyone. We all have our own ways of conceptualising the world, and rumination will not fit the model that everybody works with. But. If you do find the idea useful, I think there are two ways that it can help reframe depression in useful ways.

First. You do not have to stop having negative thoughts in order to stop being depressed. Which is good, because we all, however happy we are, have all kinds of negative thoughts. Negative thinking and depression are not the same thing. You can be happy, and yet often worry about whatever it is you worry about. These aren’t mutual exclusive states.

Second. You can’t think your way out of every problem. In fact, there are whole categories of problem that are completely insoluable to thought. When we’re depressed we often believe that if we can just think of a solution to this or that problem, then that will resolve the depression. In fact, thinking too much about the problem, IS the problem.

If rumination is the problem…how do we stop ruminating?

There is no way to reboot the brain. Stopping ruminative thought processes is very hard. I haven’t found an answer to the problem of how. My personal path to escaping the depressive cycle, and limiting rumination, included counselling, meditation, exercise, healthy diet and making important life changes. I don’t believe there is a singular “magic bulket” treatment for depression.

But understanding the role of rumination in the cycle of depression was, in and of itself, an important breakthrough for me. It reframed depression from a scary happening that I had no control over, to a recurring problem that I understood and could begin to control. And learning about rumination lead me to ask, when I felt depression approaching, what am I ruminating on? Identifying ruminative thoughts is, very often, all that is neccesary to defuse them.

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The full research on MBCT and its insightful model of rumination and depression is available in a new editions: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression.

If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness further I recommend reading Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen vietnamese monk who founded the Buddhist sangha I attend in the city of Chiang Mai.

For a deeper exploration of meditation, I recommend American teacher Jack Kornfield.

I hope this idea is of some use to you as a reader. You can talk to me about this on Twitter @damiengwalter. And you can help reduce my existential angst about turning 40 by backing me as a patron.

Can you name a story where nothing changes?

Two old tramps stand in a field. One struggles to take off his boot. The other does nothing to help. They talk, but they don’t listen. They are are waiting for somebody. Whoever it is does not arrive.

And that, folks, is the whole of Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s play is one of the most infamous in the history of theatre, because it breaks the most fundamental constant of story. It’s a text for the theatre in which, famously, nothing happens.

And nothing changes.

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Gandalf and Jean-Luc Picard as Vladimir and Estragon.

A story without change is a like a wall without bricks. Change isn’t just a part of story, it’s what story is made of. To tell you a story I have to tell you what changes.

Jack was lazing on the sofa when his mum threw him out the door and said “go sell that cow!” Jack took the cow to market but nobody wanted it, so on the way back he traded Betty for a bag of magic beans! Jack’s mum saw the beans and went crazy, “you stupid boy, I don’t love you any more!” Jack wanted his mum to be proud, so when the beans sprouted into a giant beanstalk, he climbed up it.

And the rest, as they say, is a story.

Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the all time great stories. According to the Aarne-Thompson classification of folktales, we’ve been telling the story of a boy who steals from a giant for at least 3000 years. Will Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games last that long? They already have! You can find stories just like these modern blockbusters going back thousands of years.

Stories that last, and stories that become bestsellers, blockbusters and box office gold, are stories about the kind of change that lots of people can connect with. Jack and the Beanstalk is a story about growing-up and becoming an adult. Jack starts as a lazy young boy, and ends as a man grown, with money, a big house, and a pretty wife (depending on the telling). Children hearing the story see the change ahead of them. Adults remember the changes behind them.

Universal, archetypal change is the material of every great story ever told.

But not all change is equal. Some changes effect the entire world. Other changes are felt inside a single human soul. When I’m crafting a story, I think about change on four levels: Physical, Social, Interpersonal and Psychological.

Physical – An earthquake flattens your village. The Vogons destroy your planet. You find a gold nugget in the forest. These are physical changes in your world that imply a story. Physical change can produce a great spectacle. Disaster movies like Titantic often focus on a big physical change, like a sinking ship. The cinema screen is the perfect place to show physical change. Most stories have some physical change. Jack can’t begin his adventure without the beanstalk shooting up into the sky. But on its own, physical change is flat. For it to have impact, we need to know how it effects people.

Social – Your king is killed by a rebel lord. The corporation you work for is bought out by asset strippers. A tribe escape slavery and cross the desert to freedom. Any storyteller worth their salt, the moment the see any of these social changes, will imagine the story around them. Unless you are a hermit in a cave, you live in a society of people. And for better or worse, our society shapes our lives. And change in our society will effect us deeply. Television is a great medium for social change, with HBO style tv shows like Game of Thrones or The Wire exploring dynamic changes in societies both real and imagined. War & Peace is a classic novel of social change. But to really engage with social change in a story, we need to see how it impacts closer to home.

Interpersonal – Your parents are killed in a car crash and you’re left an orphan. The family patriarch is dying and the kids squabble over the inheritance. A young daughter can only marry once her elder sister is married. Interpersonal change is about family, and tight knit friendship groups. It’s at this level that the real beauty of life unfolds, and the most blood is shed. From Cain and Able to Six Feet Under, interpersonal change is a well spring of great drama. Theatre, with its small cast, limited locations, and intense bond to the audience, is the natural medium explore dynamic interpersonal change at its most intimate. But as Shakespeare knew, when he gave Hamlet and Macbeth time on stage alone for a solioquy, there is an even deeper and more essential level of change.

Psychological – A man is convicted of murder and, alone in his cell, finally admits his own guilt to himself. A young lady rejects a marriage suitor three times, then realises she loved him when he marries another. An office worker realises he can do better and quits to become a writer. We all lead rich internal lives, and go through profound psychological changes. When we see that level of change reflected in a story, it tears open our emotions like nothing else. Love, hate, guilt, redemption, shame, healing and hope are all states of psychological being that change like the seasons. The novel, written in the language of our inner monologue, is the medium that dives most deeply into the psychological landscape of our lives.

It’s useful to seperate these tiers of change, so that as storytellers we can think about how they work in seperation. But the real beauty of story is in how changes interconnect. A volcano explodes on a small island. A nearby village is forced to evacuate. One family are torn apart in a desperate ocean crossing. The oldest daughter must come to terms with the loss of her parents, and take responsibility for three young brothers. Once you think across the levels of change, beautiful stories leap our everywhere you look.

Take a deeper dive into change, and the seven foundation sof storytelling, with The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.

Some thoughts on the fracticality of story.

Come and tell me your thoughts on Twitter.