Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Amnesia as a genre

Hands up if you know anyone who has ever suffered full-on amnesia. I’m not talking the “I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman” kind so favoured by politicians, but the kind where someone has an accident and wakes up missing the last several years of their life.

Don’t know anyone? How about celebrities then? Have you ever read about this happening to a well-known person? You’d think it would be in all the papers, wouldn’t you. No?

Me neither. So why does it happen so very often in fiction? It could practically be a sub-genre all on its own.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I love a good amnesia story. It’s like the ultimate mystery, where the puzzle the detective has to solve is their own life. I never get tired of it.

I read a couple last year, which made me think about how often I’d seen it used. There was The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson, a slightly science-fictional Young Adult contribution to the genre. A teenage girl comes out of a long coma with no memory of her life at all. She has to watch family videos to relearn her history. But why doesn’t her grandmother seem to like her? Why are her family hiding her away from the world? There’s an awesome moment when you find out what’s really going on.

About the same time I also read What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, a more typical entrant in the genre. There usually seems to be some crucial emotional entanglement the heroine (and yes, the amnesiacs are always women) has forgotten. In this one Alice has forgotten the last ten years of her life, so she thinks she’s happily married and expecting her first child. In fact she has three children and she and her husband are separated.

Or there’s Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella, where the heroine thinks she’s happily married because she’s forgotten the existence of her lover. Or Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult. Who wouldn’t want to wake up with no memory only to find they’re married to Hollywood’s most gorgeous star? Until you start to remember what he’s really like …

It was also a popular plot device in the Mills and Boons I read as a teenager. A particular favourite, whose name I’ve now forgotten, involved a woman who lost her memory in the same car accident that killed her husband. Later on she discovered, in very dramatic circumstances, that the child she’d thought was her husband’s was actually the hero’s. She’d forgotten that her marriage was unhappy and she’d been about to leave the husband for the hero.

So why do you think it’s such a popular theme in fiction, when it never seems to happen at all in real life? Is it a kind of wish fulfilment? A chance to see what life would be like if you could start fresh with a clean slate? Are there a whole bunch of women out there wondering if they would still have married their husbands if they met them as the people they are now? (and just in case you’re wondering, dear, my answer to that would be yes).

Anyone got any other good amnesia books to recommend?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Get Everything Done by Mark Forster

I’m feeling evangelical today, so let me tell you about my experiences with two very different books in the self-help organising/time management genre.

I read Getting Things Done by David Allen at the end of 2008 and found it full of great organisational ideas. I particularly liked the one about getting all your mental to-dos out of your head and into some centralised list so you don’t forget anything. This frees your mind from the stress of trying to remember all these bits and pieces, and allows you to focus on whatever your real tasks are.

Good idea, I thought. Must try that. If using a paper-based system rather than a computer program, he advised getting a diary big enough to fit weekly lists. So last year I had a lovely big diary with lots of room for writing lists and notes as well as my appointments. I’m a stationery geek and a listophile (if that isn’t a word, it should be!), so it should have been a great system for me, right?

Sadly, no. The beautiful diary, which I really did love – so many extra features! – was too big to fit comfortably in my handbag, so most of the time I left it at home. Can you say Diary Fail? I never had it with me when I needed to check or add appointments. So this year I’m back to my usual small, un-beautiful diary.

The other big problems with the system, for me, were:

(a) I’m a procrastinator; and
(b) I’m a procrastinator.

I’m sure there are people for whom the system works beautifully, and I’m not knocking it, per se. I’m just saying I’m not one of them. I loved making the lists, but as the year marched on I grew more and more depressed about how few items I was crossing off. Nor was this a new experience for me. See (a) and (b) above.

What I needed was not a system for planning and organising what I needed to do. Being a listophile, I’m quite good at that part already. What I needed was a way to make myself do the things on the list.

Enter Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play by Mark Forster. Who could resist a title like that?? I read this one towards the end of last year, and have since reread it, highlighter in hand (which felt vandalistic and shocked my children, but there were so many passages that seemed to be written just for me it was like a religious conversion. Praise the Lord, I have Seen the Light!).

Written by a procrastinator, for procrastinators, it points out what I had already discovered from my list-and-diary fail of 2009. Organisation systems, priorities, schedules, etc, are great for people who have no problem getting stuck into action, but they don’t really help people whose main problem is with the actual starting.

So instead of these, it offers strategies to help you actually do the things on your list. One that is working really well for me helps with that perennial problem of having so many things to do that you don’t know where to start and instead do something else, so none of them get done and they’re still hanging over your head. (I used to think I was the only idiot who sabotaged myself like that, but after reading this book I realise I’m not alone here!)

I pick three or four main tasks and set the oven timer for 15 minutes. Until the timer goes off I work as hard as I can on the first task. At the end of the 15 minutes I stop immediately, reset the timer and start work on the second task. I go on this way, rotating through all the tasks. It sounds daft, and I do feel a bit stupid setting and resetting the timer, but it really does work.

It’s the power of the deadline. I can do an enormous amount of work if I have a deadline. Make a quilt for someone’s birthday next week? No problem. Write 50,000 words in 30 days? Sure thing. Yet without a deadline I flounder around and fill up the days with busyness that doesn’t achieve anything.

In three days, my trusty oven timer and I cleaned out the pantry, a horrendous job I’d been putting off for six months, just by alternating that job with working on my revision of Man Bites Dog, making a quilt and a couple of other big tasks. Knowing that time is literally ticking away motivates me to focus on the task, so I get much more done in these short bursts than if I just allowed myself to work on it till it was finished. Plus I don’t get bored. This trick also helps with that panicky feeling of being overwhelmed by all the other jobs that are still hanging over your head, by allowing you to make progress on several things at once.

And this is just one of the helpful strategies in the book. If you’re a procrastinator like me – and I think there are a lot of us out there! – this is a truly useful book.

I’d tell you more but the oven timer is ringing …