Tag Archives: anxiety

One Foot After the Other: writing when things are generally shitty

from here

from here

I posted a couple of quotes on writing the other day, to accompany a Difficult Writing Time. I think everyone can sympathize with this, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves “writers”, because although too many writers like to get misty-eyed and emotional about how very differently important writing is from everything else, when you get right down to it, it’s work, and everyone reaches points with work wherein they just cannot even anymore, where everything is going wrong and nothing is easy and it all just seems unbearably crappy, and motivation has been eaten by a sullen cloud of horrible. But in those moments you don’t actually have much in the way of real options besides the simple task of dragging yourself onward, one foot after the other – not in front of, because that implies more momentum than you actually have – and trusting in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that things will get better, that they will somehow maneuver themselves back into where you vaguely remember them being.

Yeah, that’s me right now.

I should say at this point that I honestly haven’t once suffered from writer’s block in the half decade I’ve spent trying to write for money. I have not yet been locked into a period where I wasn’t producing anything at all. But I do go through long periods where I’m convinced that none of what I’m producing is very good, and often that feeling is actually correct, though it’s still something to be regarded with healthy skepticism. Interestingly, these periods often also coincide with the completion of large, long-running projects – usually novels – and I think that makes a degree of sense.

I used to think I would feel a sense of accomplishment upon finishing a novel, but as it turns out, at least for me, that’s not true at all. What I feel after typing the end is instead a kind of exhausted hollowness, an utter lack of any sense about what to do next. To be sure, there is a bit of YAY I’M DONE, but it never lasts more than a day or so, and then the blankness asserts itself. I had no idea what to make of that, until I took – and passed – my doctoral qualifying exams, and suddenly it all made sense. When you’ve spent months doing something very difficult – maybe doing it every day, maybe for hours – your brain, on a fundamental level, has no idea how to deal with the prospect of not doing it anymore. It panics and shuts down. It’s so burned out that continuing is more than it can deal with, but it’s forgotten how to function without that daily energy suck around which to orient itself.

I fell apart after my qualifying exams. It took me a few months – mostly because I had a semester of teaching to provide structure – but once that was gone, I broke down. We’re talking nearly-paralyzing-anxiety-with-sensory-triggers-trip-to-the-ER-back-on-meds-after-15-years level of breakdown. The point is that we need to be ready – as writers, as workers, as human beings – for our brains to be assholes, and for that assholishness to bleed into all aspects of our work, as well as to come from the work itself. Sometimes even from what looks, on the surface, like major productivity.

I don’t think that’s exactly what I’m going through now – though I did just finish not only a novel but the final novel in a trilogy – but I recognize something similar. Thanks to the loss of my departmental funding and some other things that fell through, I’m not teaching this semester. Next semester is also doubtful. I remain uncertain regarding whether I can finish my doctoral dissertation. I’m very angry at my department, my university, and academia in general, because I think that last is devouring itself and I hate being in a position to watch it happen. I’m now unemployed, and so far the job hunt is less than encouraging. On paper a lot of my life is still pretty good, but almost everything on which I’ve relied for structure and momentum and security – for nearly a decade, counting college – is going away.

That’s not a comfortable place in which to find oneself.

It can be very difficult to write when you’re wrestling with emotional and mental issues – I think many people find it almost impossible when things are at their worst – and it’s certainly true that it can be so much harder to produce your best work when your head and heart are not at their best. But I’ve also found that writing can be a refuge when everything else is difficult, because at least writing is something over which I can exert almost complete control. I may not feel like I’m doing it as well as I can, but I can still create a world of my own populated by people I’ve made; I can invent my own escapism and retreat there, tell myself a story and – upon emerging – have something concrete to show for it. It helps. Sometimes it’s almost the only thing that does. Sometimes it’s what you need.

But then sometimes even what you create doesn’t feel like the right kind of escape. The joy fades and it just feels like work again, and it doesn’t feel like work you’re doing well enough to take real pleasure in.

And that’s where I am now: this thing on which I rely to keep myself together isn’t doing what I need it to, which means it’s just one more thing that feels like it’s slipping away, and that is so, so terrifying. Everything else I’ve accomplished in the last months and years – the books sold, the short stories published, the good reviews, the people who have said nice things, even the goddamn money – all fades into the background and provides no comfort at all, because none of it makes the words work any better.

So what do you do?

If you’re a writer – if you’re a person – you have two options: a) go fetal and cry, and b) suck it up and, to the extent that you can do so and still take care of yourself, keep going. One foot after the other. Drag drag drag.

I’m writing another novel right now – one of three currently waiting to be written. I have no idea if it’s working; I thought it was but now I’m really not sure. None of the prose feels like it’s smooth. None of the pacing feels sharp. The direction is hazy. I’m hoping that this – finally – will be my Agent Book, but I’ve also written less than stellar novels before, and I’m filled with dread that this might be one of those. But what else is there to do? I’m 41k words into it; I can’t really stop now. Drag drag drag.

I was talking to my friend and Long Hidden ToC-mate David Jon Fuller about this on Twitter the other day, and we were commiserating about the feeling that nothing is going right and none of what we produce is good. I said something to the effect of why the hell did we ever start doing this, and he said something that isn’t necessarily a big secret but is therefore one of those fundamental truths so obvious that it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it now and then:

He’s right. Nothing beats it, when it’s really happening. When it’s happening, it feels like the most amazing thing in the world. Get a taste of it once and you’ll never stop wanting it; call us addicts chasing the next high if you want, because that probably isn’t very far off. And maybe it does have some kind of deeper, broader significance as an act, maybe it has some kind of grand universal meaning, and maybe it really is something worth getting misty-eyed and emotional over, but me, I think it’s ultimately about healing, about getting well, about being alive. It’s about you, and me, and really no one else, not at its core. It’s about being reminded that there’s something good about existing, and that you can find that again, no matter how shitty things are, because your head is a house of treasures.

And that doesn’t make you special. It just makes you human.

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Writerly quote therapy

This is what I’m doing when I should be finishing my editing pass on the draft of Rookwar.

Today is a Tough Writing Day, mentally. I’m guessing that any of you who write at all regularly – fiction or nonfiction, pro or not – are familiar with this feeling, that all your best work is behind you and that work was “best” in only a very relative sense. That you will never be the writer you want to be (this one is honestly probably true) and trying to be so is a bad joke and a fool’s errand (this one is probably not true).

I like this quote at times like this. It doesn’t make it stop but at least it’s a good articulation of the problem.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it. – Anne Lamott

And this one.

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. – Stephen King

Back to work.

An open letter to all the other writers who, like me, panic at midnight about being failures

time

The first thing you need to do is breathe.

Really, do that. Sit where you are and pull air into your lungs. Feel your body extracting what it needs and expelling the rest. Feel your blood collect it and carry it to all the other parts of you. Feel your pulse, feel the beat of your heart. Feel the firing of your synapses, if you can. Imagine all those little lightning flickers, and then imagine your brain lit up in brilliant rainbow colors as it goes about the endless process of making you who you are.

Reflect on how the myth that we only use ten percent of our brains is just that: a myth. Reflect on how you’re using most of your brain in some way most of the time. You are not a waste. You are not wasted. No part of you will ever be wasted. When you are done being you, every one of your atoms will go on to do something else. You will never run out of things to be, until the day when nothing is anything at all anymore.

So you’ve got all of that going for you.

Do you create? You’re a miracle. Do you create badly? You’re still a miracle, and just because you create badly now doesn’t mean you always will. Do you think you don’t create enough? You create as much as you should, and if you should create more than you do, you’ll find a way to do so. Do you have things left unfinished? You can finish them. If it turns out you can’t, you can’t. It’s not a crime. Forgive yourself for it.

Forgive yourself in general.

Maybe you love creating. Maybe, like me, you feel like you have to. Maybe you feel compelled. Maybe you feel empty and useless when you don’t. But that’s a lie. You are not empty, and you are not useless. You are full of wonders; you are a house in which every room brims with treasure. You are a cloud of interstellar dust in which stars are born. You are a strange and marvelous creature in a strange and marvelous universe.

And you are not alone. You are not unique. This is not a bad thing, because it means you are in good company. At this moment, feeling empty and useless and afraid, you are one among thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions that stretch into the past and extend into the future. And let’s have none of this silliness about creative people being somehow exceptional; everyone feels empty and useless, and no one is, and everyone feels alone, and no one is.

You think you will never be the writer you want to be. You’re probably right. Make your peace with that; it doesn’t mean that you won’t be extraordinary. And even if you aren’t an extraordinary writer, you are not a writer who is a person – you are a person who is a writer, and the value of your existence does not depend on your ability to put the precisely perfect number of words in exactly the correct order.

Breathe. Then get out of your chair and walk. Maybe go outside, just for a moment. Look up into the dark and think about where you’ve come from and where you’ll go to. Think about who you were when you were born and who you’ll be when you die. You were born into and of worlds, and you’ll die there. That in itself is something to celebrate. That you are here, in this moment, breathing and heart-beating with your wonderful head like a jar full of fireflies.

Now go back inside and have some tea or something. Pet an animal, if you have one. And go to bed.

So let’s check in with my mental health problems.

I have a tendency to get compulsive about things. I think writing is becoming one of those.

I’m sitting here, facing the possibility of a lazy Sunday ahead of me where I just play games and sit on the couch and knit, and the possibility of not writing is terrifying to me.

shutterstock_337528542-250x167Okay, should be no big deal, right? Spend half an hour or so on writing something or other, call it a day. Except even that won’t work, because a) once I’m really into it, it’s difficult to stop, and b) I’m also going through a period of profound self-doubt and anxiety regarding my ability to do this well. Which I thought I was over, but ever since a bunch of awesome things happened I’m looking ahead to 2014 not as something that I can and should enjoy but as something that must meet and surpass the standard of 2013. I’m not allowed to have dry spells. I’m not allowed to pull back and take it easy. I always have to be better, and the better I am, the better I have to be, all the time.

It’s exhausting.

This is why I’ve written over and over about how “if you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.” It’s not a platitude or a way to sound superior but a painful fucking reality. This is something I know intellectually but don’t seem able to grasp viscerally. I can’t just be a good writer, I have to be the best writer possible and I can’t relax that standard for a second.

I realize that many people would kill to have this problem, so this probably sounds a little like self-indulgent whining. But please believe me when I say this: It. HURTS.

In some ways I think this constant, relentless drive to be better is part of what’s gotten me to where I am now. Some of it is talent, but a lot of it is simply the determination to trample over the bodies of my past selves to reach some ever-receding goal. It gets you further, yes, but then what do you have, if you can’t enjoy the successes you’ve earned? And how do you cope with failure? Because you will fail. Self, you will.

In 2014, my goal is to find a way to maintain my motivation while abandoning the unhealthy sides of it. Also, finding a way to transfer some of that motivation into things that I’m technically supposed to be focusing on, like my doctoral dissertation.

But now I’m going to write. Because apparently, right now, I can’t not.

So for me, and for those of you who experience anything like this, or simply terror and anxiety regarding writing at all, let’s repeat this all together: You don’t have to be the best. You don’t have to win all the awards. Your emotional and mental health is more important than your number of acceptances and publications. If you don’t take care of you, it won’t matter how good you are. You’re a human being, not a word-machine.

And as a bonus, here’s a writerly “Neopro Writer’s Bill of Rights” that Robert Dawson, a fellow Codexian, put together. It’s therapy. For anyone who isn’t specifically SFnal, here’s a more generic version.