THE BLOG

Stranger Than Fiction

13/11/2014 11:48 GMT | Updated 12/01/2015 10:59 GMT

My favourite health and fitness app measures how many steps I've taken each day and how deeply (or- most often- not) I've slept each night. It calculates the balance of the calories I've consumed, and gives me a helpful nudge if I've had too much salt, sugar or saturated fat. It sets me targets, and gives me a virtual pat on the back if I meet or even exceed them. It's so exciting: I feel like a child back in primary school, getting my name on the star chart - something which didn't often happen back then. But it's not just that: it sends me motivational ideas and recipes, and even though I roll my eyes at some of the cheesier motivations and shudder at the thought of some of the recipes, I enjoy having a look at what it has to say as part of the complex morning routine which makes me feel sort of ready to face the world.

Someone asked me, months ago, why I would subject myself willingly to analysis by such a gadget. Why would I let my essential data be measured and judged, why would I tell it what I've had for tea, and why would I feel happy when it tells me I've been good? The question stands; I see the point. I even agree, partly, but I find it fascinating to notice just how many steps I might take in a typical working day, even before I make any tentative approaches to a treadmill. When I think that I haven't slept well, it's interesting to verify with a technical motion sensor whether my impression was correct or not. Facts, facts, facts: it's like the mantra of Mr Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times. How do I know I really am feeling under pressure? I can see the periods of wakefulness and the almost total lack of really deep, restful sleep. How do I know if I can feel all right about government health warnings that we're becoming too sedentary a nation, taking dangerously little exercise each week? I can quite literally retrace my steps.

And yet.

The person who asked the question did have a point. Why set yourself up to be performance-analysed at life's necessities, to fail in just another way? There are enough opportunities already for me to fail, without adding 'daily life' into the mix. I can be a terrible daughter to my ageing, infirm parents - too far away and too much under pressure to do what I really should. I can be an inadequate teacher, teaching a subject of which the Minister Ms Morgan would disapprove, to a standard of which dear Govey would despair. I can be just grumpy enough to drift into the 'harridan' category of wife. I crave the confidence and talk of friends, but I'm all too often busy working, lost somewhere in a book, and accidentally forgotten about or overlooked. The qualms of the serial perfectionist are surely bad enough without adding the profit and loss of steps and sleep and calories...

But I know this. I add to this measurement of life with coffee spoons a healthy dose of fiction, taken at least once daily, garnished with a sprinkling of cynicism. The reading/bedtime conflict was the thing that got me into trouble every night during my childhood. Just one more chapter... then another... then just a few pages more... It occurred to me only a couple of years ago that my mother's repeated threat to have the City Council dig up and remove the streetlight conveniently located outside my bedroom window wasn't feasible at all. I lose myself in a book, the world drifts away, I find solace and soulmates among the characters and read about people who make me realise that no: it's not just me. All the emotions are there; all human life. Laughter. Tears. Hate. Love. Anxieties. What if and just because. I 'like' pictures on social media based on sculptures made of books, attractive bookshelves and sayings about reading, but really I'm not convinced by pictures which make something pretty out of piling up lots of books. I really just want to read, and although the idealised 'cosy reading nook' is very nice, I'll read pretty much anywhere, from the darkest recesses of a private place to a noisy café: what I'm reading is more important than whether where I'm reading it is worthy to be photographed.

And seemingly it really is good for you. Because one of the motivating messages my health app sent me recently told me that reading fiction helps you when you're feeling low, just as much as it develops your vocabulary or your sense of empathy. Immersing myself in fiction, I'm escaping for a while from the demanders and detractors, and the modal auxiliaries of obligation or guilt. I'm stepping beyond my own ingrained inadequacy to a world where none of it matters anyway. In a fiction which is less strange than the truth, my own invisibility is just part of the plan to let me eavesdrop on other people's lives, or dramas - even thoughts. My healthy dose of fiction tells me that being human means being flawed. The fictional characters I love are rarely perfect, their stories never ending happily ever after. Truth would be strange indeed if it were more perfect and convenient than created fiction: a truth game with rules that couldn't work in a life which it pretended to describe.

My truth is measured beyond steps and interrupted sleep. Stranger than the fiction in which I really find myself, my truth lies somewhere between vaguely acceptable and nowhere near enough. Each step is the refusal to give up. And when I get that notification to say I've exceeded my target steps, then I know I've stared adversity in the face a little more effectively that day. Truth is a strange, mesmerisingly daunting thing. Fiction is the reassuring hand that reaches out and reminds you you're only human. You can do only your best, in truth - only so much. That the final chapter of your reality will come too soon.

That you'll always want to read another chapter. Another page. Another line.

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