Sunday, 4 November 2007

In Praise of Anxiety

Ah, anxiety. A great post, Roger--especially coming from someone who has had so much success in the publishing world over the last couple of years...

I used to worry about how anxious I was, until I did the obvious math and realized that amounted to compounding the problem. Most writers I know suffer from various forms of anxiety. In the later stages of a manuscript, the anxiety awakens me at three in the morning, usually after some horrible dream involving a) cancer, or b) prison, or c) some small pet you’ve apparently bought and forgotten about that is quietly starving to death in a cage somewhere. At this point, the only way I can manage to get through the night is to stumble downstairs and write. When I’m writing, it seems to go away.

Or so I thought. But then I read Rollo May’s classic book The Courage to Create, and Ralph Keyes’ amplification, The Courage to Write, and I realized that anxiety is actually part of the process. Not only does it keep us alert and concerned about quality, but when we are writing, anxiety is our ally, working with us on the page.

Now, that sounds nutty at first. I usually don’t experience what feels like anxiety when I write. In fact, I usually sort of “trance out” into a place where I am so absorbed with mumbling under my breath that time vanishes and you’d think I didn’t have a care in the world. You folks all know that zone I’m talking about, right?

Yet when I finish writing, I’m exhausted, and my shoulders are as tight as if I'd been pumping weights. My whole body aches. I may have felt relaxed the entire time, but clearly that’s an illusion.

This all came together for me when I learned about the concept of “flow,” first defined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and I have no clue how that’s pronounced). Flow states are an odd combination of mastery and challenge—a state where you are totally engaged in what you are doing, and have sufficient skill to be engaged in the first place.

But if it’s easy for you, it won’t be flow. If you’re a pianist playing a song you’ve played a thousand times before, using nothing but muscle memory, you may not be in flow. You may even be bored. But if you are a pianist improvising with a jazz band, or performing a concerto that is right at the limits of your skill, you will probably be in flow. In this state, anxiety is converted to hyperawareness. If you aren’t anxious, you aren’t going to perform at your best. That annoying, nasty little critic all writers have is our friend…as long as we aren’t really aware he’s there. And about the only time we’re not aware he’s there is when we’re really engaged with our writing.

The downside of all this is that it’s hard to get him to shut up when he isn’t needed. Which would be, in my opinion, just about any time when you aren’t writing. Anne Lamott calls this guy KFKD, K-Fucked Radio, broadcasting on all frequencies around the clock. Nothing is good enough for this guy. I imagine he’s busy in JK Rowling’s head, whispering, sure, you’re richer than the Royal Family and possibly the most popular writer since God, but is your stuff really significant? Aren't you wasting your time? Wouldn’t you rather be Melville, or Camus, or even just a well-regarded, middling-successful literary writer? (I love the fact that Stephen King admits he’s a little disappointed and jealous that the literary community doesn’t take him as seriously as he would like. That's candor.)

The only way to shut this guy up is to write. (I suppose the danger comes when he gets so loud and pushy that writing becomes impossible. Is that what writer’s block is?) So, I’ve grown more comfortable with him, and with my overall level of anxiety, as I think that nervous, quarrelsome critical energy is the fuel that keeps us running. How else is it possible to sit and gnaw on your knuckles over whether someone is “wandering” or “meandering”? The deejay at KFKD is on our side when we do our work, and maybe having him hang around the rest of the time is part of the price we pay.

At least, I hope so. If there’s a writer out there who’s having fun round the clock and is never plagued with self-doubt, I’m not sure I want to hear about it.


suroopa said...

I know what you mean! That all consuming nervous energy that is pushing us to write and write more! I am so happy Roger has floated this topic and you David throw in your bit. I thought I spoke for myself when I said writers are the most obsessive people in the world. Is blogging a bit of the same syndrome I wonder?

Roger Morris said...

That's brilliant, David. I shall now make peace with my inner critic.

I sometimes wonder if my anxiety doesn't come from the fact that I didn't do English for A-level, or at university. Or that I only got a 'B' at O-level for English lit.

I don't really think any of that has anything to do with it.

Jeremy James said...

Spot-the-K-FCKed-on, David!

Lately I've found that the more anxious I am, the more I need to be writing, and the better the writing is when force myself to get the words down.

Though it's tempting to drink it away, ink, not alcohol, is the spirit that soothes.

Janet said...

Tess Gerritson blogged recently on a similar topic, basically stating that anxiety is part of the drive necessary for success.

David Isaak said...

You're right. Education probably doesn't have anything to do with it--but it's always nice to give the critic something to latch on to so he doesn't flounder about and knock over furniture.

Also useful when all else fails are things you can't do anything about, as these are always there for you:

1) I'm too old
2) I'm too young
3) I was raised in the wrong culture/city/country/century
4) I'm too short/tall
5) I'm too weird/normal

Those are just for the moments when you're desperate. We're writers, so we're usually capable of finding much more inventive worries. Mercury in Pisces, for example.

emma darwin said...

That's the clearest description of the flow state I've met in ages, David, thank you.

Anxiety - hm - yes, I guess at some level we need a mechanism to key us up to the point of tackling something new and challenging. (Being a word-nerd, though, I'm not sure I'd quite call it 'anxiety', because to me that's a wholly negative, creativity-blocking state.) But doesn't it depend on the source of the anxiety? 'Will this get me another contract/good review/prize?' is disastrous, because it's external, and nothing to do with where your writing comes from. 'Yikes, can I actually make this all-consuming idea work, on paper, in this book?' is internal, it engages your writerly core and, as you say, tips you from merely getting on with it, into flow. I just wish I didn't always come to and find that half my toes are dead with cold.


David Isaak said...

Hey, Emma. You're right on target with that. If I'm doing my acrobatics on a tightrope and the main thing on my mind is "Do these pants make my butt look big?" I'm probably headed for a collision with the ground.

By the way, did I tell you I loved your book The Mathematics of Love? But, then, didn't pretty much everyone?

Roger Morris said...

Here's a very interesting blog post from Jenn Ashworth.

She has a slightly different, and very refreshing, perspective.

I don't think I am anxious when I am actually writing. I am anxious when I am about to write, or when I have written. But while I'm 'in the zone', nothing gets to me. That's why I loved your post so much, David, because you pinned that down and explained it.

Matt Curran said...

Hi David and Roger

I was going to post something on this, but I think between you, you’ve nailed the subject.

At times I’ve been outwardly confident about my writing, but the KFKD DJ has been playing the best tunes while I haven’t been writing, and it’s been too easy to listen to them while the dial was broken. Especially during the long, long pause between submission and decision.

During the wait for Macmillan New Writing to say yay or nay on The Horde of Mhorrer, the self-doubt jukebox played morbid songs at the rate of one every hour, and only the rival station – that of my wife, and a supporting crew of friends and family – have halted that descent into self-doubting despair.

I think writers who have the least self-doubt tend to be either utterly objective about their work or utterly self-deluded. The former is a handy tool, the latter is blissful ignorance. And as you’ve pointed out, middle ground can help but it can distracting. Perhaps that is why I’m always writing.

As Stephen King pointed out once in an introduction to a short story collection, he keeps writing because he’s afraid of the silence that could follow should he stop (but perhaps it is not the silence that he’s afraid of, but the songs the KFKD DJ spins?)

Aliya Whiteley said...

Great post. I, too, have writerly anxiety, but I have lots of other anxieties too. If I have a great writing day I spend the time I would have spent worrying about writing worrying about how many biscuits I should eat instead.

I've long harboured a theory that everyone has exactly the same amount of worry in their lives. It's just broken down differently. I wrote a post about it under my nom de plume, The Blue Pootle, in my column for Whispers of Wickedness:

emma darwin said...

David, so glad you enjoyed The Mathematics of Love. I'm struggling with the death-throes (labour pains?) of the next one, so it's wonderful to be reminded that people have been known to like my stuff.

Blog got diverted this evening, but something about anxiety is next on the list, complete with link, of course. I really like this blog.