Writer in Residence

I got my M.D. on an internet forum

By Alexis von Konigslow

I have a certain amount of scientific literacy, and I like to puzzle things out; I’m not afraid of new notation or difficult terms. In other words, I’ll wade right into the technical stuff. Usually, this is a good character trait, but it can quickly get out of hand. When I have free access to WebMD and parenting forums and a crying baby in my arms, for example, it can be a distinct problem. The best traits can be ugly. Some of the people on the forums know how to zero in on my insecurities too. Other people can make our best selves ugly. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Emotions are rough. For a set of things so common and inescapable, they’re hard to think about.


I’ve been reading Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman. It’s s so interesting. It explains theories about the universality of emotions, and teaches how to read facial expressions (those feelings we try so hard to hide) and micro-expressions (the split second looks by which we give ourselves away). It also muses about the evolutionary origins of emotions, emotional reactions, and moods. It’s research for a novel I’m working on, and I also consider it to be an investment in being a brat later on. (I won’t be too much of a brat – luckily for my loved ones, I don’t wear my prescription glasses very often, so your secret feelings are safe with me.) The book has also made me think a lot about emotions, moods, personality and character traits.

According to the book and a lot of the research that I’ve come across, personality and temperament are fairly fixed. But emotions aren’t. Personality in action, which traits are used, how we behave in the world, would have to depend so much on the people who surround us, wouldn’t it? A willfully naïve optimist can be charming, but might not be so useful in, say, a group of Jewish families in 1933 Germany, or in Pompeii right after Vesuvius blew. People do change, I guess. Even the most dedicated optimist probably listens to the pessimists every once in a while. I do believe that different contexts can change how we see people, and how we see ourselves, however, and that’s got to change how we act and feel.

Apparently, our degree of happiness is much less fixed than personality. There’s research that indicates that, in certain situations, moods can be tweaked. There are studies that directly relate people’s degrees of happiness to the degrees of happiness of those around them, for example. You’ll tend to have more smiley emoticon days if your Facebook friends are having lots of smiley emoticon days. To be happy, we should surround ourselves with happy people (or at least follow lots of happy newsfeeds).

I’ve been thinking about all this for several reasons. I’m currently working on a novel, what I hope to be a love story. It’s not a fall in love at first sight story, but the story of a married couple who goes through a rough patch and then struggles to find their way back to love. They’ve made each other’s best selves ugly and have been quite busy making each other unhappy. One character is a psychologist studying emotional displays and micro-expressions, so that deepens the problem. It’s hard to let your partner get away with stuff when you’re trained to notice everything. The situation she finds herself in is an unstable one and eventually plays itself out in an irradiated atmosphere – through the novel, she plays Where in the World is Carmen Santiago through Prepyat and Chernobyl. Personality is fixed, but emotions are so changeable, and the traits that we rely on most, the way we use the traits, can change. And of course, we can change. These characters are working on changing together. I’ve enjoyed working on this in the context of a novel. It gives me a safe way to think about all this stuff. I’ve also been thinking about it in the context of my own life, of course, but this tends to be much less fun. [Full disclosure: I’ve increased our internet bandwidth and am drinking too much coffee and the apartments on either side are being gutted with what I assume are plastic explosives.]


My partner trolls internet parenting forums. I don’t mean to say that he’s mean or causes fights. But he can be caustic sometimes. He wanders into some of the mean spirited conversations, posts hilarious comments, talks about it later. He has the ability to turn nastiness into something light-hearted and funny, and he can get even the most serious forum-poster involved in his shenanigans. He never mentions this part to friends, but I think that he’s doing it, at least in part, because the conversations and forums tend to scare me, and his joking around defuses things. And it works. When he wanders into a heated argument and asks, out of the blue, if anyone has heard about a vaccine debate (“first I’ve heard of it”), or suggests “Aspirin” when people ask for A names, it alleviates my worries. We can make each other bad people, but we can also bring each other back again. It would be so nice to understand the mechanisms of how all this works. It’s safer, of course, to play with these dynamics with characters in a novel.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.

You can contact Alexis throughout the month of September at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Alexis von Konigslow’s Author Page