Super-sensitive, supernatural, superpower, or just plain stupid? The reality of being an empath

I’ve known I am an empath for over thirty years. I’ve had a name for it for about the last ten. And the first time I read anything even remotely mainstream about it was this weekend. Richard Godwin’s article for The Guardian read as science, psychology, self-help, fraud or fakery, depending on your point of view. Certainly the faithful Guardian commenters below the line had their usual array of cynical and sarcastic responses, and very few were brave enough to say out loud ‘I’m an empath too’.

There are problems with the article, the flaws in which were swiftly picked up on by the Guardian faithful: the headline empath had taken drugs which led to an awakening of his ability, and the narrative ‘proofs’ of some of the other empaths were described in such a way that it would have been easy to look at prediction as simply cause and effect. That is not to say that any of them were being deliberately fraudulent or misleading. But it demonstrates the difficulty of presenting anything for universal acceptance which is not scientifically grounded. I’ve written at length in other blogs here about the interface between science and the paranormal – if that’s the term you want to use – and my curiosity about what science might reveal were it to take a closer look at more of these sorts of experiences. Until someone takes a rigorous look at some core scientific phenomena that might be useful to prove or disprove by extension into some new contexts, we will remain in the realm of claim and ridicule.

Godwin talks to Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a researcher and expert on autism and developmental psychopathology, about the different types of empathy (cognitive, affective and consolatory), which anyone who experiences strong physical and emotional reactions to others would recognise. He also reflects on the societal value of empathy as a means of connecting with others, which can enable social and political resolution. I’d be interested to know whether Baron-Cohen has done any research on the correlation between autism and empathy though; I am aware of a couple of people with diagnosed autistic conditions who demonstrate many of the same qualities that the subjects of Godwin’s article claim to have, but who wouldn’t call themselves empaths or anything more than hyper-sensitive as part of their particular condition. I have seen one of these people predict a future outcome with staggering accuracy, and hone in with startling precision on the thoughts of a colleague in such a way that the only explanation would be highly sophisticated and nuanced communication on another level, whatever level that turns out to be, biological or otherwise.

I’ve devoted some of my literary life to exploring aspects of communication on another level, partly as a way to explore the challenges I have experienced in my own life. I don’t know that I believe what I’ve experienced any more than the averagely cynical Guardian  reader, but I can only tell you that things that have happened to me have been so indisputably clear that I have the evidence of something. Like some of Godwin’s interviewees, I frequently ‘hear’ the people who are calling or texting me long enough in advance to register the notion, wait, count to five, look at my phone and nod as their name appears. I have stolen unexpected news from people’s mouths as they brought it to me, and – occasionally – anticipated something that could not otherwise have been predicted. I don’t talk to others about this because I find it difficult to manage their response to me; other people don’t know how to respond without cynicism or ridicule, or sympathetic bemused kindness at what I have deluded myself into believing. And yet those whose news I have stolen always remember how weird it is, even if they can’t explain it and feel a faint indignation at how I blurt things out before they have a chance.

Godwin speculates on the empath as a “millennial rebrand of the old-school psychic”. Certainly, the scepticism is strongly reminiscent of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century disdain for mediums of the sort I wrote about in EquilibriumI suspect there is a difficulty with the word ’empath’ in this case: as Baron-Cohen identifies there are scientifically valid aspects of experience that promote kindness as well as creating a visceral response to the sensory overload described several times in Godwin’s article. Empathy – the process of recognising and responding to what someone else is feeling – is valid and valuable. But associating something scientifically acknowledged with something speculative and unconfirmed will be taken by some to be a corruption of the word, regardless of the people who claim its existence in the latter terms. Is a metamorphosis of one into another – across the divide of ‘proof’ and ‘truth’ – the problem here?

I came to the conclusion that I could help people without resorting explicitly to ‘my ability’ though it is as natural to me as breathing. I wouldn’t dream of charging someone for my insight, even though it is daily at least as acute as many of the scenarios described in Godwin’s article. I am fortunate that the different roles I have beside writing enable me to use these insights for the benefit of others, without drawing attention to them, and I have learned to manage them, smuggling them in around common sense and truisms for years now, so as not to alarm or unsettle. Occasionally my mouth runs away ahead of my brain. But whose doesn’t? “How did you know?” people gasp, frown, smile. “You’re the first person I’ve told and I only found out yesterday.”

“Lucky guess,” I say. “Congratulations.”

*****

Evie Woolmore is the author of magical realist novels Equilibrium, Rising Up and The Salt FactoryShe is currently working on a new novel.

What I’m really thinking: the failed novelist – A Response

I was saddened, humbled, and moved to respond to this week’s column in The Guardian’s ‘What I’m really thinking’ column this week, written by ‘the failed novelist‘.  It’s such an emotive word, ‘failed’, isn’t it?

I could have written that column myself. At least a good part of it. Feeling that writing was ‘my destiny’. Having a reputable and confident agent. The flurry of initial interest from publishers. Writing a second novel that was better than the first.

And in particular, I lived every word of this paragraph:

But, over several months, my manuscript was rejected for reasons that bewildered me: often because all the slots for debut literary fiction that year were taken; once because I was a woman; but mostly because editors “just didn’t love it enough”. When I took the call from my agent saying we had no deal, I cried like a little girl.

I also understand the feeling of being scarred. There is something very perilous about putting your novel, that very personal part of yourself out there for public scrutiny, even in a world of social media heart-on-your-sleeve exposure where there are seemingly no boundaries of the personal any more. It feels like trolling, when an editor says they just didn’t love it enough.

The emotional, intellectual, psychological and professional investment that goes into writing a novel and asking others to judge it is perhaps unlike the production of any other art form. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about what self-publishing and KDP has done for levelling the playing field a bit, and that was a solution that helped me. But it would be trite of me to advise the author of that Guardian column to self-publish and be damned. It might be seen as patronising to suggest that writers are people who write, rather than only being those who are read by others.

We are watching a bereavement here, the passing and grieved-over loss of an aspiration. I have seen it many times before across many other professional lives outside writing. The inability to look with anything other than pain on the success of others, the incomprehension at the changing landscape, the feeling of neglect by ‘managers’ who should know better. These feelings are not unique to writers who have not been swept up by a publisher.

But when I look at those tables of books by new writers and new books by old writers and manufactured books by celebrities and those with talents in other fields that splurge into the literary realm, I don’t feel “pity and scorn for people with dreams”. I am just glad that I actually can write. Plenty of those I work with in all my other jobs struggle to communicate the things they want to say, in written or verbal form. The pleasure for me of writing is exactly that. The ability to say exactly what I want to say in the way I want to say it. How lucky I am. I would love for others to share in what I write under my other name, but it’s still a talent of its own that has brought me much joy, whether I am read widely or narrowly, whether I am praised or pitied.

And that joy, for all I have lost and mourned my once dearly-held aspiration, is still something I want to hold onto.

*****

Cover Design for Equilibrium by Evie Woolmore Evie Woolmore is the author of magical realist historical fiction. Her novel Equilibirum was likewise signed by an agent and not quite loved enough by editors. But she loves it still.

Hey, you at the Guardian blog: who cares what Chris Huhne is reading in prison – where are the indie book reviews?

This week’s post is short and grumpy and best summed up by lines from Billy Bragg’s song ‘A New England’, immortalised by the peerless Kirsty MacColl: “I loved the words you wrote to me, but that was bloody yesterday…” (copyright Billy Bragg, but just go and buy the track anyway, it’s writing as brilliant as any recent Booker Prize winner).

In November, Guardian Books asked for recommendations for indie (or self- as they call it) published books, promising a stream of reviews. Loyal Guardian readers suggested a lot of titles for them to try out. We have had two reviews in return. And they were both before 4th December.  Nothing since.

Indie authors continue to write quality fiction. They continue to sell books. They will do so without the aid of The Guardian, one supposes.

But wouldn’t even one decent review of an indie published novel contribute more to the literary firmament than mildly comic analysis of Chris Huhne’s potential to emulate Jeffrey Archer? For while it is more than likely that the disgraced MP would likely get a print publishing deal on the back of his reputation and no conspicuous demonstration of creative talent, quality indie publishing is going to go on a lot longer than his prison sentence.

Wake up Guardian Books.

Decline and Fall at the BBC: are books taking a beating?

John Dugdale’s blog for The Guardian this week about the decline of proper arts coverage and critical review on the BBC was thought-provoking. His observation that there is virtually no adequate quality television programming by the BBC on the arts, in particular books, was a chilling reminder of how the emphasis in so many parts of the media has moved away from in-depth discussion and towards the visual and the superficial. Although the BBC’s radio channels still give quite a lot of coverage to books, it seems that in a world of ever-increasing headlines, we lack feature articles. We value pictures over words. His concluding paragraph also cleverly pointed out a startling contradiction in the BBC’s same television programming: its reliance on literary adaptations for so much of its television drama.

The BBC’s mission to educate has long been sublimated to its desire to entertain, and in a generation when education itself has become unfashionable, Dugdale’s point that “the tone increasingly required of presenters, in arts output as in science or history films, is boyish or girlish enthusiasm” suggests that all informative programmes have been given the gloss of celebrity and shallowness. We will be better convinced by what we are told if the teller looks good and sounds cheerful. Certainly, Sky’s The Book Show, while masquerading as ‘serious’ programming on Sky’s Arts channel and with the clearly well-read Mariella Frostrup in the chair, still manages to land only a glancing blow on critical reception, largely because the people it interviews are authors talking about their own books. It is theequivalent of the glossy women’s magazine reading of literature: two column inches summing up a plot and its readability for airport layovers or the beach.

Does it matter that television seems to be opting out of its responsibility to the other arts? Several commenters on Dugdale’s blog noted that the BBC’s radio coverage of books is very good in both scope and depth, and it implies that there is something about the spoken word alone that gives the space for contemplation. People who listen to radio probably have more time to listen and think: it is the same principle that applies to a film and its music – we pick up the significance of a single camera shot immediately, but it takes several seconds to grasp the interpretation the music is providing. One cannot appreciate the depth of a radio discussion in a five second burst, flicking from channel to channel. And so perhaps there is just more room in radio to do justice to proper critical discussion of literature.

The difficulty is that the BBC has set the benchmark for so long for what is possible in television, that when it falls short – when any TV channel falls short – we feel short-changed. This rather casual approach to books is also demonstrated in the BBC News website coverage of literature. Since the new year, two very simplistic pieces of journalism purportedly about indie publishing have been put on their website, neither of which does any justice to the issue at all, and are hardly good advertisements for quality journalism either. The article ‘Do you have the write stuff to be a novelist?’ reported on a self-publishing author who, though surely interesting, is not remotely representative of his indie peers when he describes receiving only “six or eight rejections” from print publishers before turning to self-publishing.

Worse still, the article ‘The authors who are going it alone online – and winning’ was in fact comparing John Locke to Joanna Mallon and Amanda Hocking, the latter two saying just the opposite ofthe title: that indie-publishing was not the right route for them at all. Again, hardly the sort of quality, in-depth journalism that the BBC was once renowned for, and about as utterly  unrepresentative of indie publishing as it could be.

The BBC has had plenty of criticism lately, and this blog is not leaping on that bandwagon. But if the web articles are anything to go by, it shows that the BBC’s visually-led presence and pursuit of a strong internet ‘headlines’ brand is not compatible with the in-depth critical engagement required to reflect adequately the longer written form.

In other words, the BBC is not fit to feed the book world, merely to pluck the best of its fruits for reinventing in a form most suited to their aims. Not ours.

Setting Standards: Is it time for a UK Indie Book prize?

With all due respect to the rest of the world, the UK has a very reasonable tradition of literary prizes, both large and small, from the Booker Prize to the monthly competitions in Writing Magazine. But during a recent surf through the entry guidelines for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), it became apparent how very large the gulf is that separates print from indie publishing when it comes to prizes.

Those guidelines make it very clear that in order to be submitted for consideration in the prize:

All entries must be made by an established publishing house. Self-published books are not eligible for the Prize. ‘Established’ is here defined as a house which publishes a list of titles by a range of authors with ISBNs, sells them in pounds sterling, and distributes its books nationally through recognised booksellers and online retailers. For the avoidance of doubt, ‘established publishing house’ does not include print-on-demand services or publishers which publish titles via a commercial arrangement through which they are paid by the author.

It’s a shame that a prize which has prided itself historically on promoting what it perceived as a minority in the author community has decided to marginalize part of that self-same Continue reading

Joining the reviewers: a bit of give and take

In this week’s blog, Evie Woolmore discusses her decision to join Awesome Indies as a reviewer.

In the last blog of 2012, it was noted that I had exchanged one of my books, Equilibrium, for review with Tahlia Newland, author of Lethal Inheritance. It was an interesting experience, knowing that I was going to get a thoughtful review from someone who genuinely cared about providing an opinion – not unlike the editorial experiences I have had as an author, and that I have provided in my other professional lives. The blog suggested that the exchange aspect was not part of the rules of the new game, particularly not for the other reviewer. But it got me thinking.

What if – in this raw, still evolving world of indie publishing – I could consciously participate not in making rules as such, but in establishing a community of indie writers who – rather than waiting for print publishing reviewers to review our work – collectively contribute to establishing a strong, credible review culture of our own work that promotes quality.

Admittedly, there are some who will think that getting indie writers to review other indie writers is like asking British newspapers to regulate themselves. Pointless, and unlikely to contribute to a raising of standards. But that is to make a few assumptions that I think we can challenge.

1. Indie writers will always scratch each other’s backs, giving flattering reviews in exchange for flattering reviews. Yes, some people operate on that basis. Let’s not lie about it, let’s not pretend it isn’t true. Follow me, I’ll follow you; praise my book, I’ll praise yours. Even print-published writers have been going to extraordinary lengths to promote Continue reading

The Story So Far…

The last few months since the first allonymbooks blog was published has been a period of slow but distinctive change in the arena of independently published books. British book chain Waterstones have embraced the technological shifts by stocking Kindles in their stores, though still show no sign of having the capacity to embrace the indie book market. A leading British newspaper, The Guardian, has begun to publish reviews of indie books, though some work is still to be done by them to define how they can most effectively explore that category of published material without getting ensnared in some preconceptions about the quality and content of the books they will be reviewing.

And allonymbooks has become part of an ever-expanding debate about quality, process, benefits, pricing and promotion of indie books, joining with other authors to challenge assumptions about how these books and their authors should be received and considered by the readership and the publishing marketplace.

So what have we learned?

All fur coat and no undergarments?

A non-publishing acquaintance said the other day they were in awe of how much wordage allonymbooks had generated in the process of publishing and promoting Evie Woolmore’s books. On the contrary, however, in terms of the unfettered stream of tweets and posts emitted by other authors, allonymbooks has been rather mute in comparison, Continue reading