It’s safe to say that a good number of us lie in bed at night, clock watching, waiting to see if we can get to sleep, our thoughts racing. The minutes go by, scenarios are built and dismantled and built up again. Next the passing minutes niggle at you and then the plodding hours torment. Morning is fast approaching and the alarm will go off soon for work. Frustration sets in. Work’s going to be bad as it is, worse without sleep.
So how can we find respite from our busy, overthinking minds and get that well deserved rest? For me and other guys I’ve spoken to, escaping into a good book is one brilliant way to settle the mind.
After reading mainly classic fiction, I was recommended fantasy and sci fi by my sister. I put down my Steinbeck, Fallada and Doyle and instead hammered through Tolkien, Pratchett, Wells and Brooks. I’ve started to switch between my usual literary fiction and the fantasy genres I’ve gained a new passion for, and haven’t looked back. Recently, I have found huge entertainment in the works of multi award winning fantasy author Elizabeth Moon.
I’ve been exploring the world created by Moon in the ‘Deed of Paksenarrion’. The realm she creates opens up in my hands and settles me into sleep, (if I can put it down, that is!) I’m already onto the third in the series, ‘The Oath of Gold’.
I contacted Elizabeth while I was reading the first in the series, ‘The Sheep Farmers Daughter’ to see if she would like to talk to me about the benefits of escaping into fiction to help calm the mind. Luckily she said yes, so here’s what she had to say:
There are a number of experts across UK health authorities, councils and psychological services that advocate Bibliotherapy (reading as therapy as an individual or in groups) as a fantastic aid in support of mental wellbeing and recovery. What aspects do you feel are important in good fiction in order to allow the reader to get lost in other worlds and enjoy some literary escapism?
I agree that reading has psychological value. Much depends on what the individual needs, because not all readers need the same kind of escape. One reader may need something very different from the reader’s life, something that provides hope (that there is another way to live and it can be found); and others may need something similar enough that the reader can identify with, a character, for example, and realise that he or she is not the only person to be in that situation or have those feelings.
Even the elements of fiction vary in their effect on different minds. For some readers, “escape” is best achieved through strong, complex characterization—they escape through the character’s head. Others respond more to setting and imagining themselves being in a different place; still others respond more to plot, drawn in by a mystery or by taut suspense.
Sci fi and Fantasy fiction, by definition, denotes escapism. Being one of the leading lights in the fantasy genre, do you feel that we should all escape the ‘real world’ every now and again?
Certainly most people need to escape mentally from the immediate situation at times, in order to get enough distance to understand the situation and think of ways to cope with it. What we most need to escape from is our own limitations—our inability to accept and cope with whatever reality is impinging on us. When faced with an apparently insoluble problem, we’re often advised to “sleep on it” or “take a walk, get away from it for a while” — to make distance, in other words, in order to have a new perspective. Reading is one way to enter another reality and thus gain that perspective. Story has been a means of escape for a long time, well before literacy.
What someone is escaping from depends on the individual: it might be anything painful. Physical trauma, psychological trauma, loss of people, places, relationships, abilities, or hopes for the future, conflicts (with others, with oneself) and failures. Reading can suggest ways to deal with a situation, new tools to use; it can provide a mental vacation when the person cannot get away in reality.
What sort of fiction to you escape into?
SF and fantasy, of course, but also mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction, political fiction, mythology, folktales, and what used to be called general fiction. For that matter, poetry and drama can also provide escape.
Which writers do you most enjoy reading?
Past authors: Jane Austen, Robert Surtees, Anthony Trollope, Dickens, Scott, Kipling, Nevil Shute, Sayers and many more and present authors: Perez-Riverte, Larke, Elliott, Huff, Hillerman, Pratchett, Lee & Miller and again many more.
Do you read your peers’ work?
Some, but cautiously — I try not to read in the genre I’m writing, lest details bleed over. Also my peers write so much good stuff so fast that I’m always behind not just “the” curve but several. There’s no way to write a lot and read as much as I want to.
Do you think Fantasy and Science Fiction is particularly therapeutic compared to other genres?
Any therapeutic aspects [of SF/Fantasy] would be much like reading any other fiction, except perhaps that fantasy exercises flexible thinking—the ability to frame-shift into another reality. Exactly how that works for an individual reader is a different (and more complex) subject.
That’s why recognition of individual experience is crucial. What one reader finds funny, or profoundly moving, is not necessarily what another reader finds in the same passage. And again, reading fiction in general or SF/F in particular, is not merely a means to help “troubled minds” recover. Fiction has value for healthy minds, in its ability to give people access to other ways of thinking, feeling, and being, beyond their own experience. Fiction helps people grow psychologically.
But that works only if they’re enjoying the process. Readers get very little (mostly nothing) from works they don’t enjoy—so reading for pleasure is the first step to reading for therapy. If they don’t like fantasy, fantasy will do nothing for them. If they do like fantasy, it can be as therapeutic as any other genre — and all fictional genres that I’ve read have the potential to be therapeutic.
So if you are prone to pre sleep anxiety and bouts of insomnia, why not try exploring fiction or even the trusty graphic novel. Join a reading group. Browse around second hand bookshops, mainstream retailers and internet sellers. Find out if there is a local book swap initiative near you for free books. Join your local library.
Check out reviews to support your choices. Once you’ve found the book that you can disappear into, take it with your everywhere you go. Reading can calm the most hectic of commutes to work, and certainly works wonders for the over worked and anxious mind at bed time. Whatever type of book you find rest and enjoyment from, a good read can help settle your mind before sleep. Staring at the blue light of a lap top or TV only serves to stimulate your brain before sleep, so press ‘standby’ and reach for your kindle, or even better, an actual physical book (remember those?) Try it and then let your eyelids fall heavy into a peaceful rest.
Elizabeth has just released book 5 in her ‘Paladins legacy’ series, ‘Crown of Renewal’.
There are also Elizabeth’s 5 book Sci fi series ‘Vatta’s War’ and the vast 7 book epic run of the ‘Serrano Legacy’.
Find out more about Elizabeth and her many fantastic books at: http://www.elizabethmoon.com/