Strange Pleasures Part Two *

Dark stripes watered into a garden plot.

The stripes in this dirt bring me pleasure. A strange pleasure? Perhaps, but not to a gardener.

To continue my study of strange pleasures, I took to the web in search of others’ ideas and insights on the subject.

I found some interesting ideas at Wooden Boat Forum where a discussion of enjoying things from the past brought up the strange pleasures of: cutting grass with a scythe; doing laundry by hand; muzzle loading  a shotgun; smelling of fireworks and rowing instead of using a boat motor.

Over at Vinted forum, I found a discussion of strange pleasures. After pages of what to me were very tame and usual pleasures (morning coffee, sunshine, etc.), I found some interesting entries: the smell of gasoline; popping knuckles and ankles weirdly; chewing on plastic; the smell of brand new backpacks; the smell of a new box of crayons and a parent smelling her children’s feet.

At Cloudcap Games I found a nice post about the strange pleasure of watching other people enjoy board games. This could be taken as the pleasure of board games, a rather mundane pleasure as board games are created to be pleasurable, or the pleasure of voyeurism which at its extreme can be criminal, a strange pleasure indeed.

Speaking of strange pleasures that may be criminal, I found an interesting statement at We Will – “the joy of the thief in stealing”. If one follows the theory of Hedonic Motivation that I talked about last time, criminal activities would somehow bring the criminal pleasure and/ or decrease pain–something to think about for your antagonists’ motivations.

I even found an article in the Huffington Post about the strange pleasures of literary trickery, an intriguing article about why readers enjoy the unreliable narrator (something I’ve been studying, but not finding pleasurable, in my reading).

I really enjoyed an article at Dissonant Symphony about the pleasure dandelions bring to children who then grow up to spend time and effort  trying to kill this “weed” that steals space and nutrients from the grass in their lawns. Since discovering homemade dandelion root tea, dandelions may be one of my strange pleasures.

For fun, I have assigned some of these found strange pleasures to the characters from my work in progress.

Anna – digging up dandelions to eat and make tea; the smell of a new box of crayons; cutting grass with a scythe; rowing instead of using a boat motor; her boyfriend, Ben, loves the smell of campfire and fireworks, she does not. The smell of fire makes her anxious that a fire is not being tended properly. She has a deep rooted fear that she will set the house on fire. Thus, Ben’s strange pleasure could cause conflict (And every story teller is on the hunt for conflict– Oh, strange pleasures, the gift that keeps on giving).

Brittany – Board games remind her of better days with her family. She finds great pleasure in watching happy families doing things together, especially in the park or eating at a restaurant. Chewing on any plastic she can find–she has an oral fixation, but doesn’t want to gain weight. She loves the smell of gasoline; it reminds her of summer.

Rick – popping knuckles and ankles weirdly; smelling his children’s feet; voyeurism; the joy of the thief in stealing.

Now, along with the strange pleasures from last time, I have many interesting ideas for unusual hedonic motivations for my characters. Time to apply all this learning and practice to my manuscript.

Here’s a section, from Rick’s point of view, that could use some explanation of hedonic motivation:

As Brittany talked, Rick walked over to the mailbox. It was large and silver with fading sticker stencils reading STARK, barely legible on the side. He pulled out a large stack of mail and started to leaf through it. Maybe that lady didn’t live here after all, at least not full time.

Rick’s strange pleasure is manipulating others; he likes to make others believe his lies and what better lie than identity theft. This also goes with the found strange pleasure above “the joy of the thief in stealing”. Here’s a re-write acknowledging his strange pleasure.

As Brittany talked, Rick’s attention was drawn to the old-style no-lock mailbox. People who didn’t put in even the least amount of effort to secure their stuff, didn’t deserve to keep it. He felt pleasure in the anticipation of discovering someone else’s letters and, of course, the personal information they contained. His rising excitement became physical tingles as he lowered the door and saw a large stack of mail. He cracked his knuckles for emotional and physical release and set to examining his haul.

Okay, maybe I over did it a little there, but it’s a start.

I’ll try another one:

If it wasn’t prostitution, it was definitely a case of infidelity, the conversation continued, so another solution would be getting his license plate number, finding out his address, and giving pictures to his wife. These were also ideas Anna had thought of, but playing detective could be dangerous. The “bad guys” knew where she lived, so retaliation could be very unpleasant. Anna realized that she had been focused on retaliation which made her feel helpless.

In this example, Anna has gone to an intimate dinner party, so her hedonic motivations include both pleasure: making people happy; positive attention; good food and drink; and avoidance of pain: her discomfort around people; fear of judgement; her need to seem “normal”. Though in further revision, this scene may be mostly dialogue and Anna’s anxiety and pleasure will be understood through her actions at the table, for this example, I will attempt to insert Anna’s hedonic motivation to the above paragraph.

If Anna’s driveway wasn’t passively participating in the business of prostitution, it was place-holding a case of infidelity. Anna enjoyed the camaraderie as the diners continued to contribute suggested reactions to the intrusion. They agreed that the best solution would be getting his license plate number, finding out his address, and giving pictures to his wife. It may have been a stomach full of warm delicious food or the plentiful red wine, but Anna felt included, like a normal person in a group of peers, as she recognized each of these ideas as thoughts she had already considered. However, she also recognized that this level of detective work could be dangerous and she was isolated and alone. The “bad guys” knew where she lived and retaliation could be very unpleasant. It was this idea of retaliation that made her feel helpless.

She hated feeling helpless. The warm feeling of camaraderie dissipated. They hadn’t said anything to help her at all, nothing she hadn’t already thought of. Not one of them would act on their suggestions; not one of them would help her, but they were willing to put her at risk. This feeling of bitter disappointment was why she didn’t spend time with people. She knew better.

Again, I would say my example could be over the top and in need of dilution, but a fun, challenging step in the right direction.

This study and exercise definitely put my brain machine in motion. I am churning those neurons.

I hope this inspires you to explore your characters’ motivations that may be quirky and unusual. Please let me know what you come up with and any suggestions in the comments. Happy Writing.

*I did not mean to publish this as only a picture on Friday. I meant to save it as a draft, but people had already liked it by the time I realized my mistake.

Strange Pleasures and Hedonic Motivation

My feet in my inflatable kayak and an interesting stump in the lake

Hedonic Motivation

Spring has sprung here in the great Northwest and my interests have turned to fun and joy. Last weekend was all about planting the garden and Monday I inflated my kayak and had the lake all to myself. The inflatable kayak, acquired two years ago, suddenly became a brilliant purchase as the lake (actually a humongous reservoir) is still well below recreational levels and to get on the water I had to carry my boat down a hill of rocks and unstable sand. Soon the stumps will be safely deep under water and motorboats will make it difficult and unsafe for rowers, so my adventure crossing the lake to explore the stumps was a unique pleasure.

Yesterday, I planned on continuing to talk about Writing Like The Masters with a discussion of Dostoevsky, but I noticed that I needed to return The Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee to the library. I had already renewed it to the limit because I had trouble getting into the story, but I wanted to know why it was award winning (the Booker Prize), so I began to skim it before heading for the library. The immediacy of needing to return it must have finally drawn me in because I read the whole thing before one in the afternoon. I found interesting parallels to Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky. Coincidence? Maybe the timing was just right to see the Dostoevsky in Coetzee’s book and how they both focused on strange pleasures.

From Coetzee:

“There was pleasure in spending without earning: he took no heed of how fast the money went.”

“There was a pleasure in abandoning himself to sickness.”

From Dostoevsky:

“I was rude, and found pleasure in it.”

“–what can a decent man talk about with the greatest pleasure? Answer: about himself.”

“I would feel a certain hidden, morbid, nasty little pleasure in the acute awareness that I had once again committed something vile that day, that what had been done could no longer be undone; and I would gnaw and gnaw at myself in silence, tearing and nagging at myself until the bitterness would finally begin to turn into a kind of shameful, damnable sweetness and, in the end–into a definite, positive pleasure! Yes, a pleasure, a pleasure! I stand by that. The very reason why I brought it up is that I’ve always wanted to find out: do other people experience such pleasures?”

“This pleasure comes precisely from the sharpest awareness of your own degradation; from the knowledge that you have gone to the utmost limit; that it is despicable, yet cannot be otherwise; that you no longer have any way out, that you will never become a different man; that even if there were still time and faith enough to change yourself, you probably would not even wish to change; and if you wished, you would do nothing about it anyway, because, in fact, there is perhaps nothing to change to.”

Each of these statements made me pause. It seemed contradictory for the characters to find pleasure in things that are socially considered wrong or bad, which made me want to research pleasure as motivation.

This reminded me that while I was mowing recently, I enjoyed listening to the Dwight Swain Master Writing Teacher audio book. Mr. Swain mentioned character motivation as following the four wishes from the work of sociologist W. I. Thomas, so I started my research there.

According to W. I. Thomas, people’s desires fall into four categories:

1. The desire for new experience – adventure

2. The desire for security -physical needs, fear of death

3. The desire for response – love, appreciation

4. The desire for recognition – position, power, ambition, vanity

Each one of these categories could be pleasure or pain, but weren’t specifically pleasant or unpleasant, so I kept looking which led me to:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is similar to Thomas’s desires, but puts them in an order:

human motivation pyramid based on needs

from Wikipedia

Again, each of these motivations could be pleasurable or painful which brought me to Hedonistic Motivation:

From the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:

hedonic – adj. 1. of, relating to, or characterized by pleasure

hedonism – noun 1. the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief goal in life.

I think hedonism has become confused with being selfish, otherwise how could it have a bad connotation? Isn’t the true goal in life to be happy? Of course, happiness cannot be defined by anyone but the self, so philosophically happiness is selfish. Ha Ha.

But, think about it, if everyone was happy, life on earth would be wonderful. It is the human instinct to not be happy with what we have that breeds discontent, not pleasure or happiness. It is the idea that the goal of happiness cannot be reached, or that the attainment of happiness is somehow a bad thing that has turned hedonism into a bad word. But isn’t happiness what everyone strives for; haven’t people worked themselves to death for a bit of happiness?

The Theory of Hedonic Motivation is the idea that people approach pleasure and avoid pain. A  basic idea when we speak of ourselves physically, but more complicated when we include emotions. The theory includes the idea that a person’s behaviors result from emotions such as: love, hate, fear and joy. Emotional experience is understood on a scale from bad to good and our primary motivation is to avoid bad and increase good.

So, here’s where we get to the strange pleasures; each person creates his or her own emotional scale of what feels bad and is to be avoided, and what feels good and is to be achieved, based on nature vs. nurture: perception, learning, environment, genetics, chemistry, biology, physics . . . who knows the combination? the eternal joyous question.

Now, to apply all of this to my writing life:

First, I did a cluster of the word pleasure. I put the word pleasure in a circle in the middle of a page and set my timer to three minutes. Then, I wrote all the words that came to mind about the word pleasure. The results: It looks like I associate pleasure with natural energies: wind, sun, touch; and activities (mostly outdoor): hiking, gardening, adventure, jumping, singing and dancing. When the lake comes up, I’m sure I would include swimming, floating, and rowing. I only mentioned a few physical sensations: warmth, giddy, and tingly.

Conclusion: In three minutes of clustering the word pleasure, I didn’t come up with anything very strange.

Second, I wrote down some of my strange pleasures: I like diving into freezing cold water; I pick at scabs and tear at my cuticles even when it hurts and bleeds (I know I’ll scar, but it feels good), I love finding ugly spandex fabric, I like improvising horribly discordant sounds on the piano (and guitar) even though I know how to read music, understand theory, play well and spent my entire youth in lessons; when I have a good day, I tend to stay up all night, even until dawn, because I don’t want it to end, but I get really sick to my stomach about three in the morning.

Strange pleasures may turn the mind to well known fetishes and kinks which can be interesting hedonic motivations (and, perhaps, the reason hedonism can be considered a bad word by some), but not what I’m exploring here . What I’m trying to find, as I turn this study toward the characters of my work in progress, are their contradictions, quirks, and foibles that make each character unique and interesting.

Application to my work in progress:

Anna is a hermit who finds pleasure in certain kinds of pain: pinpricks and tingles–the cold of the lake to the hot of the hot-tub. She finds her primordial scream in the night after playing discordant music on her almost tuned piano. She hates being told what to do and says she really hates humans, but likes to give away what she has and wants to make others happy.

Brittany finds pleasure in being bad; she’s experimenting with her power as a young, attractive woman whose sexuality has power over men. The death of her mother and complete absence of her father due to grief made her quit college to take care of her younger brother. She finds pleasure in being the provider and keeping her brother’s hopes of college alive, but she also finds pleasure in complete irresponsibility.

Rick finds pleasure in the absence of pain. After an injury, he became addicted to pharmaceuticals, though compulsive lying, and addictive behaviors were always part of his semi-adult life. He finds pleasure in manipulating people to do his will and to believe his lies which he believes makes his life easier.

Now that I have strange pleasures for each of my characters, I want to create a couple of concise sentences for each one and find the perfect places to put them. I’ll get into that and more in my next post: Strange Pleasures Part Two.