The Influence of Anxiety


When I avoid something that I know I must do, I end up feeling guilty.  So every year as summer approached and I had ten weeks of free time, my anxiety level would begin to climb. I knew I had two and a half months in which to write if I wished, and I was terrified to begin because I had a number of fears that I just did not want to face.

— Elizabeth George, Write Away

This morning I picked up and read for a few minutes in George’s book on writing novels to jump start myself into working on my novel, and came upon the above passage, coincidentally after I had been thinking about the necessity of anxiety to the writing life.

If you’ve followed this blog, you know that I’ve gone through periods in which I’ve felt detached from my old self, a faltering sense of self as a writer. A routine appendectomy almost a year and a half ago left me in such a state. Or rather the aftereffects of the surgery heightened a lost sense of self, a lost sense of purpose that had been creeping up on me after a 360-degree career change — launching from newspaper feature writer to adjunct writing The_Screaminstructor to textbook editor to no career at all.

From my recent studies of Buddhism I’ve gathered that a detachment from the Self is just what a body needs. I’m not sure how this is a good thing. It seems to strip you of purpose.

Which is what I feel — stripped of purpose. I should be revising my novel today. But I came to a point in the revision yesterday when I lost interest. I lost interest in the characters. I lost interest in the story. I lost interest, worst of all, in the process. I began wondering, Why am I writing this novel anyway? and Why am I writing at all?

When I first set out to write the novel, I knew why I wanted to write the novel.

First, I wanted to tell a story. A particular story. A fictionalized version of a romance. Though not a romance novel. Something along the lines of A Farewell to Arms or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (a grammatical aside: Why does “pastime” have one “t”?). A serious look at love and the relationships between men and women.

Second, I wanted to involve myself in the process of writing a book again. I had immersed myself into writing books before, completing two manuscripts, neither of which went beyond first drafts. This time I set out to immerse myself in the process, determined to stick it out draft after draft until I had something perfect enough to submit.

After a false start or two, I finished the first draft in about a year. Within another year I had teased out a second draft.

I set the book aside for various reasons after I finished the second draft. For the most part, I needed a break from the book, although a career change, then a period of unemployment, another career change, several moves, a marriage, and further unemployment, along with an extended bout with detachment from my writerly self also contributed to the manuscript gathering dust.

As I think about it, I set the book aside because I felt detached from my writerly self. For some reason, my desire to write had grown stale. The energy I got from writing had flattened. I tried to galvanize my desire: blogging more, writing a long piece on my first experience under the knife, writing and submitting a short piece about my struggles with religion, writing a couple of freelance pieces.

These things briefly electrified my system. Still, something was missing. Time? No, I had plenty of time, especially because I wasn’t working.

When I first set out to write, I always felt anxious about finding time to write. I chipped out times to write, scheduling around work schedules and family. Once I set a schedule to write, like Elizabeth George, I would feel guilty if I missed a set time to write. Anxiety would build up. The anxiety would get to me. It drove me to the desk, to the keyboard. I had to write. Otherwise I would feel guilty, and overcome by the anxiety that I had failed myself as a writer.

Now I have time to write (and yet that free time creates another form of anxiety—the stresses of not having a job). For several months now, I’ve been writing, a set schedule, working around time spent looking for a job.

Up until a few weeks ago, I worked enthusiastically on revising my novel. A renewed sense of purpose came after receiving a critique of my manuscript and some encouragement from debut novelists Karen Harrington and Joe O’Connell.

That renewed sense of purpose spurred a whole new vision of the novel. I still had a vision of a serious novel about romantic relationships, but one that was funny, and not morose and bordering on the nihilistic. Now I have a vision of something closer to Nick Hornby’s How to be Good.

Over the past few weeks, however, several things have overwhelmed my psyche.

Like the band Styx, I think I have too much time on my hands. Paradoxically, all the years I that I worked full time and scheduled in time for writing, I craved working independently as a writer: I wanted writing to be my full time job. At the moment, I don’t have anything to schedule around. I’ve been losing the feeling that if I don’t write I have failed myself as a writer. I miss and crave the anxiety of making time to write.

Also, not working has conjured up a whole new state of being, a whole new state of anxiety, one that’s not good for the writing life. Or for the self at all. Almost daily I experience a free floating purposelessness, as if I’m living in a nihilistic vacuum. There are moments when I really have no idea what I want. In this state, I’m numb to writing.

Over the summer, one event numbed my psyche against writing more than anything since: the hope of returning to work, to my old newspaper job, got crushed by an absurd rehire policy. Rejection by my former employer — a place where I developed my writing more than anywhere else — was a kick in the sternum. Besides easing the stress of not having a job, this rejection cast more doubt than anything else on my ability to write.

A new anxiety cropped up. Each time I’ve sat down to write since the rejection, doubt has cropped up.

Yesterday it surfaced again as I started working on my novel. My imagination seemed to fail. I lost interest in the process. Suddenly I’m facing a fear I’ve neglected to face: The question of whether or not I’m a writer at all.

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5 thoughts on “The Influence of Anxiety

  1. I wish I had some good advice, because this sounds so despairing, but I don’t think anyone who has written three books, published or not, can say maybe he’s really not a writer. I recommend Chapter After Chapter by Heather Sellers, who says that all real writers have finished dud books under the bed. And she admits to lots of failures that didn’t make it to completed books. But she’s done quite a few nice books too. I think that somehow you need to get in touch with the purely creative, artistic side. Chapter After Chapter is in the vein of Bird by Bird, a famous book of course and also a great one, in that it’s about the writer’s psyche.

  2. You ARE a writer. I think self-doubt is something that plagues most writers, and it sounds like you’re going through a bad bout of it right now. About the time thing, I remember reading a writer’s memoirs (or it might have been a how-to book written by a novelist) where he (she?) talked about how crushing it was, those first few months of having writing full-time. How up until then, he hadn’t realized how much the pressures of the rest of life had actually worked for him instead of against him, making him productive because he simply had to be productive. And without it, it was hard to get his bearings and write. I wish I could remember the book – I do remember really enjoying it. So hang in there. This kind of stuff hits all writers, I think, published, unpublished, it doesn’t matter.

  3. Well, that post was really quite beautiful.

    Maybe you are struggling with the book because the concerns and issues in it are concerns and issues that you can’t relate to right now. Perhaps it is best to put it aside, and work on something else that you can connect with?

    Good luck with the job hunt.

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