Over these past several weeks, I’ve been immersed in stress. As often happens in times of long-term stress, I’ve found myself craving the worst kinds of foods, the ones full of fat and sugar, sometimes foods that don’t even particularly appeal to me under normal circumstances.
The reason for my cravings isn’t a mystery. It’s a stress response that’s as old as time, or at least as old as our prehistoric ancestors. And it’s not all bad. Loading up on high-energy foods gave our forebears the energy and endurance they needed for fight or flight in life or death situations. Unfortunately for us, even when our stress is over deadlines and office work, the rudimentary part of our brain turns to its same old, very old tricks to prepare us for battle.
But even if we don’t need the high caloric intake to survive a run-in with a sabre-tooth tiger, intake of those high-energy foods still has its purpose. Our brain sends out an SOS disguised as a craving; we eat the kinds of foods it wants; our bodies send back a signal that we’re prepared; our stressed brain is comforted. Hence, we have comfort food. It’s not an illusion, not our imagination. Comfort food actually mentally comforts us.
So what in the hell does all this have to do with writing, as this is, after all, a writing blog? Well, it has me thinking about other forms of comfort, specifically, comfort reading and watching. Turning to familiar books or movies or genres or tropes in times of stress. Because I’ve found myself doing that lately, as well.
Unlike many of my fellow ladies here, my first port of call on the comfort reading ship isn’t romance. It’s mystery. Cozy is best, but I’ll take hard-boiled or detective fiction, too. For weeks, I’ve been desperate for a new Inspector Gamache book from Louise Penny, or the next installment in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. But alas, these writers, they work on their own (and their publishers’) schedules. Eventually, I searched for Agatha Christie books at the library, and now I’m all set to start The ABC Murders, an Hercule Poirot story I’ve not yet read.
Why mysteries? Why do death and puzzles and criminal elements draw me in and soothe my stressed brain? I’m not sure if brain science can definitively answer those questions yet, but author Kameron Hurley made some good postulations in her blog post Tragedy as Comfort Fiction. She has taken shelter from the darkness of her own problems by entering the dark story worlds of fictional characters, both as a reader and as a writer. Hurley posits that watching characters work through horror and tragedy has allowed her to see that it can be done while temporarily relieving her of the stress of being the one to do it.
I think there’s something to that. In real life, I have to be the fixer, the problem solver. At my day job, I’m typically focused on three different types of high-impact problems – long-term (when the project is due), short-term (what’s happening in the next week), and immediate (here’s what is on fire this minute). I turn to mysteries, which are puzzles and problems to be solved, so I can watch someone else carry that burden for a few hours. Whether my brain is sharp enough to figure out the mystery or not, I can rely on my fictional detectives to put all the pieces together and present it to me. ‘There, fixed that for you.’ And that’s soothing to me. That’s my comfort read/watch/story.
What’s your go-to comfort read? Why do you think your brain craves that kind of story when you’re under stress?