Writing and anxiety

Writing isn’t one of my worst focuses of anxiety. I get worry and sinking feelings, and what I think of as lower level anxiety — the kind that can certainly interfere with work, without involving intense fear.

Still, worry and sinking feelings and lesser anxiety are still problems. I’ve been thinking about why — in my case, as I can’t speak for anyone else — writing causes these psychological effects. In no particular order, this is what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Tension between the pure/spontaneous/natural/naive — call it what you want — creative impulse and my expectations of readers’ expectations.

2. Financial insecurity. Few writers make a living from their work.  Writing well is not a guarantee. Writing badly is not a guarantee. Writing safely is not a guarantee. Writing boldly is not a guarantee. Not only the financial but the psychological aspects of this insecurity, especially in terms of self-judgement for “success” or “failure”, can be challenging.

3. Writing, for me, started off as a self-comforting activity — an escape from reality and from my own mental state. When it became a public, commercial matter, it ran into consensus reality and other people’s individual realities. Which was funny in a way, colliding or intersecting realities being a topic of interest to me, and one that I had used in my fiction. Psychologically, I still need writing to fulfil that self-comforting function. The stories I write certainly don’t have to be comfortable (in fact, I guess they tend not to be), but if I am torn by worries about what an A to Z of readers, all with their own tastes, needs and aversions, might want from me, the comfort (of privacy?) is lost and replaced with bad nerves. I try to wear a mental condom when I write, but it has a tendency to slip off. That might be why I’ve managed to write short stories and not another novel yet — I can keep the prophylactic on for a few thousand words.

It isn’t that I want to write with no thought of the reader, but the reader either needs to be someone like me or another single person, not a plural entity with wildly divergent personalities. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” I find that window can blow open rather too easily.

5. Writing can feel the opposite of self-focused. I’m not thinking about me, I’m listening to a head voice or thinking about the story. But that isn’t the same as thinking about another person. When push comes to shove, this is my stuff and I want and need to do it. There’s probably more self-focus in it than I consciously feel, and no doubt that can lead to anxiety.

6. Writing offers myriad opportunities to be unkind to myself. I can be constantly unkind, constantly unsatisfied, constantly demanding. If I think I’m “not good enough”, that attitude can seep through into my writing, making objective assessment difficult if not impossible — leading to uncertainty and loss of confidence.



The bird and the broom

Back when we were still living in Australia a bird flew into the flat through the ceiling fan in the kitchen. It got into the living room, where there was a window with a view of trees. On the wall opposite the window was a large mirror that reflected the view. The bird flew first to the window, smacked against the glass, turned around, flew at the mirror, smacked against the glass, and kept flying back and forth thus, smacking its beak on the glass each time.

The windows had fly screens, so that even if I opened the window the bird wouldn’t have been able to escape. All I could do was try to herd it, with a broom, out into the stairwell, which was the only exit from the flat. This took some doing, but eventually I shooed the bird out the door, and it flew down the stairwell and through the (open) door at the bottom.

I always thought there was probably an allegorical lesson in the incident. The bird had no way of knowing that the way out was through the stairwell. The stairwell didn’t look like the way out. The window and the mirror did. Nor did the bird (presumably) have any idea of my benign intention. I’m sure it didn’t have an aha! moment as I was chasing it with the broom. I just frightened it out of the room.

If I were the bird, I’ve always wondered what part of the psyche, which inner voice, would match up to the figure with the broom.


Exquisite Corpse

Sofia Samatar, Katie Lavers, Alex Dally MacFarlane and I wrote this exquisite corpse poem. We did it by each writing a line, then handing the handing the last two words of our line to someone else, who used them to inspire another line. We all seemed to have birds on our minds!

Wet hands grasp stormy feathers.
Neon-yellow stutters against a crow-black sky.
The tapestry-tailed fox touches the filagree firmament
and a dead dove plucks its guitar in the frosty arbor.

A great secret will drown a small heart.
“Sing me a song, bad boy,” she said. “See my hands still have blood on them.”
Crow feathers fall bundled like hail.
At the opera, suddenly, towers of burning coal.