How can I be the person I want to be? What literature teaches us about this crucial question

I have been reading about emotional intelligence (EQ) for the past twenty years, ever since I picked up Daniel Goleman’s book on the issue in the late 1990s. As a writer and teacher, I was drawn to the concept because it suggested that it’s not so much how much we know that defines our intelligence, but how we conduct our relationships. At the heart of the idea of emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) as it’s sometimes known, is the idea that we need to understand our feelings: how and why we respond to people and the world in the way we do.

In a certain sense, EQ suggests that there is a vital role for writers to play in helping us understand the world because it’s writers/storytellers/poets who explore the world of emotions. Until quite recently, scientists avoided the topic, and deliberately stripped their practice of ‘emotions’ – as many still do. Scientists are supposed to be ‘objective’ in their observations, and look at the world without ‘feeling’. Recently there’s been a backlash against this approach, with feminists most notably showing how scientific research has been riddled with unexplored patriarchal assumptions and biases, one of which is its mistaken belief that ‘feeling’ can be taken out of scientific experiments. A practice which has led to all sorts of unethical experiments and problems. The award-winning book, Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez explores these issues, exposing the data bias in a world designed for men.

For the writer exploring emotions is at the heart of their practice. One way of looking at much storytelling is to consider the ways in which writers depict characters who struggle to be who they want to be, who grapple with trying to know who they really are. From Hamlet to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids, it’s this internal struggle to truly understand oneself and achieve one’s desires which motors so many stories. The skill of the writer is to show the tragedy and comedy of this struggle in different contexts. It’s a struggle because constantly our literary protagonists are being put into conceptual boxes by other people. Hamlet is put into the box of having to avenge his father’s murder by his father’s ghost and many other ones by other characters; the Handmaids in Atwood’s two novels set in a fundamental Christian dystopia are constantly battling against the patriarchy suppressing their desires, their bodies, their thoughts. Atwood skilfully and scarily shows a world where no woman can be who she truly wants to be.

In the oeuvre of Blue Door Press, this issue comes up again and again. In Pamela Johnson’s Taking in Water, the main hero Lydia can never be who she wants to be because of the terrible secret she has had to keep about a horrific flood she experienced as a child. Jane Kirwan’s Don’t Mention Her explores how the death of a young child in a family affects the child’s mother, Connie. The tragedy unleashes a new side to Connie, a thirst to pursue what she wants in her life, to escape the confines of a dead marriage. Connie’s example and the tragedy have knock-on effects with other characters too, one of whom emigrates to Nigeria to be with the person she thinks she loves. Annabel’s Chown’s Hidden – A Memoir is a searing account of one young woman’s quest for meaning, love and good health, after a devastating cancer diagnosis. Again, the theme of finding the person you want to be comes up because the cancer eats away at Annabel’s hope, her sense of identity as well as her physical health. Barbara Bleiman’s Kreminology of Kisses is an eclectic series of short stories which all explore in differing ways the problems of desire in its manifold incarnations: the desire of a woman, who is having her portrait being painted, to escape the confines of the suffocating Renaissance world she lives in; the desire of the bureaucrat in Soviet Russia to find meaning in a stultifying surveillance state; the desires of lovers, children, parents to express themselves fully.

It should come as no surprise then that my own novels, The Last Day of Term, Who Do You Love, and Snow on the Danube all are peopled by characters who are seeking to be different people, yearning for escape, release, for reciprocal love and attempting to seek it.

If you are interested in this theme then, there’s no better place to start than with Blue Door Press’s work!