Book Review: Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig

Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful NarrativeDamn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third or fourth writing book that I’ve read. Two have been on technical writing and one has been on the Snowflake method. Each book is useful in a specific context. The first two were for helping me professionally to create great help site material. While the Snowflake method has helped me with the managing the structure of the store. This book is something else. It’s about how to tell the story that goes within that structure. Which, given that I’m working on a book right now, is really helpful.

This is not a dry technical book. It’s not a “theory of writing” book that you might find at a university that sucks the life out of writing. It frames writing as means to tell a story. It does this through a lot of stories. Funny stories. Stories Chuck has lived. It also does this through stories most people have read or, at least, watched. So if you haven’t seen the original Star Wars trilogy or Die Hard you’re in for some serious spoilers.

The book provides a number of story telling rules, which I plan to reference frequently. Some of these, I think, are pretty intuitive, some are not. Or maybe, I’ve just gotten lucky with the writing I’ve done so far and happened to stumble upon them.

If you’re thinking of doing any story telling, either as part of a white collar job or as a professional story teller or just want to tell more interesting stories at parties, this book is for you. He uses stories that he’s told at parties a ton of times as a way to frame many of the rules he offers. So this book can certainly help with your boring stories that make my eyes glaze over.

View all my reviews

Book Review: God’s Last Breath by Sam Sykes

God's Last Breath (Bring Down Heaven, #3)God’s Last Breath by Sam Sykes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the great conclusion of the Bring Down Heaven trilogy. I loved it. At the end of book two, the characters were scattered to the wind and it looked like there was no way for them to ever have closure in a meaningful way with each other. Sam skillfully managed to do this. His characters grew in unexpected way, where one was full of hubris at the beginning of the trilogy and thoughtless to other people’s emotions, they became much more empathetic. Another character may have felt helpless, but was able to rally people to their cause in a manner that would have felt absurd if it was told that after starting the first book. Sam made these transitions feel authentic and earned.

This book did a fantastic job closing the series which I loved from beginning to end.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Armored Saint by Myke Cole

The Armored Saint (The Sacred Throne, #1)The Armored Saint by Myke Cole
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is a fantasy book that every woman and girl should read. The main character is such a believable character and I think we can think of a number of women in our lives that are as brave and bold as her.

This book is a fast read. Only took me a couple of hours to read. However, those few hours went by way too fast. The style is easy to read and could certainty be read by anyone in middle school or older (based on the style). As the blurb about the book states, this world is a pretty dark place. if this was set in the future, it’d certainly be a dystopian future. The world is controlled by a puritanical religious order with strict rules about how people should live. Which includes roles for everyone and a religiously entrenched Patriarchy.

Heliose chafes under the Order, as its called, because she doesn’t want to be controlled by a husband nor does she think the Order is truly just. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of the villagers, don’t truly believe in the religion as deeply as they should to avoid the Order’s wrath.

Heliose causes change by being herself. By standing up for what she believes in, even if it causes her and her loved one’s pain. However, she’s truly altruistic in this (even if they get hurt) because she’s doing this for them or her love for them. This is complicated by who she loves, which is something society rejects.

I cannot wait for the sequel to this book. It was a fun book dealing with weighty societal issues, done in a sensitive way, in an engaging world, with an exciting climax. Highly recommend for generally light quick reading.

View all my reviews

Review: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaThe Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel A. van der Kolk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this book after reading Lost Connections. I discussed Lost Connections with my therapist and he recommended this book to me. I have to say this book is emotionally difficult to read. The author does everything he can to make the book easy to consume. I think just about anyone would be able to read this book, but there are some difficult medical terms and you need to remember some acronyms, but beyond that, it’s fairly easy.

This book focuses more exclusively on trauma and recovering from trauma, while Lost Connections is about depression. So if you’ve read that book, then think of this as a book on the trauma section in that book.

If you’ve experienced trauma in your life this book will likely cause you to feel anxiety as you read it. However, I think it’s more important for you to read this book than anyone else, because it provides you with tools to discuss with a therapist. I would suggest pairing this book with some meditation and to read it over the span of several weeks rather than sitting down and plowing through the book. I also suggest that you plan some time after you read to decompress and think about what’s happened. Meditation will certainly help with that.

On to the book itself. It provides a great history of psychology and psychiatry from the start (with fewer details) and in great detail from the late ’70’s to 2014 (when the book was published). The author goes into great detail about the history of PTSD for soldiers and how he was able to successfully apply the same treatments that were effective (or more effective) with soldiers to children that have had traumatic experiences.

He goes into great detail explaining that the body is essentially trapped in the moment that the traumatic event happens. That people who are having flashbacks or are triggered are physiologically going back to the moment of the event. This means their brains are literally shut down in some ways. That their heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline are all acting as if they are currently in the traumatic experience. The brain that shuts down always includes the part that is capable of telling the difference between past and present. This is a key part of treating PTSD, you need to get the person grounded back in reality for them to process the trauma at all.

In terms of Triggers and micro-triggers, he doesn’t directly deal with them in a way that would support a conversation with a tumblr that is aggressively anti-triggering. However, he does talk about how to deal with being triggered. First, if events do trigger something, you need to get treatment for it. You need to find someone that you can trust. Then together you can come up with a treatment plan.

Many of those techniques do not include medicine. They include meditation, Yoga (in many cases it works best if you do therapeutic Yoga – since some positions in Yoga can trigger people that have been raped), a therapy that uses rapid eye movement while talking about the event in a safe environment, and many others. The author went from being a strong advocate of better living through chemistry, but has moved into spaces that help people manage it.

The reason the book is called The Body Keeps the Score, is that you need to heal the body and mind to heal the person. It requires a holistic approach.

View all my reviews

Talking About Depression: On Being Defined by Trauma

I saw a tweet last night that went something along the lines of “People with trauma are afraid to get help because they’re afraid of who they would be if they weren’t defined by their trauma.” At first, I thought that this was an interesting thing to say. Yea, people need to get help and people are afraid of who they’ll be without their trauma. However, I think, for most people, they are terrified for their trauma and don’t want to be controlled by it. They have no real way of effectively dealing with their trauma. I’m going to use Shawshank Redemption as a way to talk about Trauma, it’s probably going to offend some people, but I think it will help people that don’t understand trauma how much it controls your life. I’m not even someone that has PTSD, but I understand how small trauma adds up through growing up in an unhealthy environment.

When you have trauma, you’re like Andy from the Shawshank Redemption. You were wronged in someway that takes your freedom away. You are basically imprisoned by that event. You aren’t able to mature or grow as a whole person. Like Andy, you do change. You learn new skills, you progress in your job and craft. In his case he learns how to break the law for the Warden, while you or I, might get a bachelor’s degree or become successful in our chosen profession. However, like Andy, you relive your traumatic event on a regular basis. In the movie, this can be represented by his rapes in the laundry room or his hopes being dashed when the Warden kills a man that could have vindicated Andy.

For a person, you’re stopped in physiologically, in such a way that when you are triggered, your mind and body returns to that point of trauma. There’s no light switch to get past it. You don’t want to be reminded of your trauma, but you have to deal with the fact that the trauma existed. In cases where people have defined their life by their trauma, it’s not a badge of pride it’s a coping mechanism. You’re trying to find a set of people that allows you to talk about your trauma and actually listen. For people with depression and trauma, you don’t want to feel like a burden on your friends and family. In cases of extreme trauma, people don’t want to hear about how nasty and horrific the events were.

Confronting these events in an attempt to heal from them and put the trauma behind you is terrifying. Therapy may look very clean and clinical, but that’s because that’s the physical location. It’s designed to provide a very safe space for you to work through your trauma and root cause of your depression. Psychologically it’s closer to “crawling through 500 yards of shit and stank” to get to freedom. But those 500 yards could take years to move through. You could get stuck in there. You have no idea where the end of the pipe is, if you’ll make it the whole way through, if what’s on the other end is really worth it.

Being able to make the plans to escape is terrifying. I haven’t had the trauma that a lot of people have had out there. I know how difficult it was for me to start therapy. For someone with a history of rape, molestation, child abuse, or survived a war it must surely seem insurmountable. You have to find someone you can trust. You have to feel safe. You have to be helped through a flashback when the trauma is too much to handle. You have to be able to afford it.

Defining your life by trauma is a coping mechanism. It’s driven by fear in a lot of ways, but saying that the person is afraid of not being defined by that trauma shows that they don’t truly understand trauma and the amount of effort that a person goes through to survive the trauma, let alone to address the trauma.

I definitely recommend, when you are experiencing an overwhelming flashback, to pull out an app like Headspace and do the one minute SOS meditation. Then, two minutes, and finally three minutes. By the time you finish with those 6 minutes, you’ll have centered yourself on your breathing and helped yourself to comeback to the present and out of the past. Physiologically, it’ll help get your blood pressure and hearth rate under control. As well as giving you a sense of control of your mind and body.

This advice is going to be nearly impossible to follow if you’re not already building the practice into your life already. So, start with doing daily meditation before you beat yourself up when you don’t do it. It’ll take time to get to the point where you even think about something like that. Don’t feel embarrassed about needing to that take minute for yourself (or longer), you’re going to take it anyway. This will help that minute be much more meaningful in dealing with your trauma and anxiety.

Talking about Depression: You aren’t “Broken”

I’ve wanted to write this one for a while now. It’s a common theme in books, songs, and movies that if you have depression or PTSD that you’re a broken person. A shell of who you used to be. Yes, you’re different than you were before the trauma or the start of your depression. You aren’t broken though. I think about this every time I hear lovelytheband’s song broken. Which talks about how a couple gets together because they were both depressed in a similar way. This is the basis of starting a relationship together.

I find this problematic, because it implies that a very natural reaction to stressful situations leads us to be broken that everything is our fault and that there’s no systemic problem at play here. For example, calling a solider with PTSD, broken may make it harder for them to get help because it puts the burden on them. The fact that they have PTSD is solely their fault when it certainly wasn’t their fault. There were a whole slew of reasons that lead them to enlisting in the first place. They were not the person making the decision to go to war. They weren’t the one making the decision to lead them into the battle that caused them to experience the traumatic event. Even if they were in charge, it’s impossible to know a priori what sort of event would trigger PTSD for a given person or themselves.

When it comes to more general depression due to the general factors controlling your life, think of that friend you know that never seems to have luck and ends up working at some shitty gas station. The one that was super smart that everyone thought would do really well for themselves. But then one thing went sideways, maybe they got sick, then their future collapsed into a single point where there’s no way out. Their going to be depressed. They aren’t broken, even though they have been beat up. They are reacting in an emotional way and a natural way. That person isn’t in that position because they wanted to be there. Their life isn’t what they wanted it to be. That doesn’t mean they are a broken failure of a person. Lucky always plays a role in anything that happens in our lives. For some people, it’s a case of bad luck that leads you to where you are. Other people they get a lucky break a different way and end up with a very different life.

I bring up the job example, because I watched a really interested video on YouTube, by a channel I enjoy watching, WiseCrack. They looked at the psychology and physiology of being depressed and what can cause a person to feel depressed. They typically explore themes in pop culture using philosophy and they’ve explored the Philosophy of One Punchman before. This time they use the same character to investigate depression related to not being properly challenged in your life. In this context “properly” can mean the amount of stress you’ve experienced across your life, it could be too much or too little. Each resulting in differing negative consequence when you’re stressed in the future. The other context for properly challenged means that even if you had been stressed in a healthy manner growing up, that in your current job you could be insufficiently challenged leaving you without a meaningful life.

Neither case means that you’re broken. You are reacting to what your body has been trained to respond to its entire life. Which isn’t being broken. Society is broken though. There are so many things that don’t align with our intrinsic values or needs, that we can’t help but look broken if we’re doing something that runs counter to that societal norm.

Anyway, I plan to revisit this topic again in the future. In the interim, check out some of the science of depression due to missing meaning in life.

Talking about Depression: Explaining to a pair of Friends

Last night, while having a few drinks, I followed my own advice and talked about my depression with two good friends visiting from Austin. The conversation started because my wife is considering starting a business around helping people deal with their depression. Which naturally result in a conversation about my depression, since she, ultimately, wants to help me and people like me. Which is just about the sweetest reason to start a business.

Anyway, I started the conversation with points from Lost Connections. Which helped them understand that there are multiple types of depression and that most of these are very natural reactions to problems that we face in every day life. I explained how I would feel and how that sensation wouldn’t go away. There were definitely points where I was on a bit of a diatribe, but they asked some good questions. Specifically about how I felt and if it was easy for me to identify the root cause of my depression. At that point I explained how meditation had helped me figure out some of that. Because it allowed me to sit with my emotions and sift through them. To hold a thought, feeling, or memory then to let it go through returning to focusing on my breathing. It allows me, as my therapist puts it, to chew on those things, digest them, and then shit them out. Which is a lot better than just “burying” the emotions and things that had happened to me.

All in all, the experience was a really positive one for me. I’ve unconsciously (and in some cases intentionally) pushed people away my whole life. Much of that is related to my depression and the pain and hurt I experienced while growing up with a household where fighting was the norm. So, this was a big step really letting two of my friends understand what I’ve gone through and how I’ve been working through addressing it. Explaining that it’s a long journey and I’m a year into it and I know I have more things to work through and more time to take to fully heal.

Having this conversation was both easier and harder than I thought it would be. First, it was certainly easier because I’ve been writing this blog for a while now and because I had been drinking for a bit at that point. Second, it was harder because, even though I’ve been writing this blog, it’s still hard to talk about some topics. So I ended up glossing over them or skirting past them. Similarly to what I do about some harder topics with this blog. However, I felt good this morning for having talked with them. I wasn’t judged (I didn’t expect them to judge me) and my friends cared about my wellbeing and want to see me be healthy. They really didn’t know what was happening or understand it. They attributed some of my behavior before to being drunk or something immediate going on. So, I think they appreciated a deeper understanding of me.

I hope that you take the time to talk with a friend or loved one about your depression. If you think that’s too big of a step, writing about what you would say, even if you delete it immediately afterwards, can help a lot. Write it by hand as well, so that way you don’t have to worry about the internet machine gobbling it up and saving it somewhere. According to “The Body Keeps the Score” writing can really help processing trauma. So, give that a try. Write it down, throw it out, do it again tomorrow.