ANXIETY PART I
This one is more complicated. Or at least it is on the inside of my head.
So, let’s start with a digression. An anecdote.
A friend of mine in real life, who also writes, once asked me a question. It was pretty simple.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I’m thinking about the structure of this book.” (I don’t remember which book, but it was one I was writing, and not one I was reading, and yes, the distinction does make a difference.)
“What else are you thinking?”
“I’m wondering if there’s anything I can do to help Older Son sleep at night.”
“What else are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that I don’t have enough things in place to write the Dragon Court book I want to write. Not enough has been established in previous books.” (Let me now add that I am laying down the type of answer I gave, since it was a couple of years ago.)
She stopped there. But she could have continued for another few iterations, and I would have had answers without having to reach for them.
And then she said she was asking because her father had called her at home with a new discovery about his wife (her mother): She only thinks about one thing at a time. This was shocking to my friend, because it had never occurred to her that people think about only one thing at a time.
For her – and for me – there are a plethora of thoughts that are always bubbling near the surface, fighting for attention.
She had asked her husband the same question. “What are you thinking about?”
“I’m thinking about how to debug this program.”
“What else are you thinking?”
“… I’m thinking about how to debug this program.”
(My husband broke out laughing when he heard this, btw — of course I had to share — because he understood from the second answer that she was like me and her husband was like him, and we’d kind of gone round on this in our own marriage before.)
This is not as strange as it sounds. I mean, if I ask a visual person to imagine a long dress, they can. If I then ask them to imagine a mini skirt or work boots or etc., they can, and as I ask, all kinds of clothing types will begin to march through their minds, like a collage fashion show. They can do this pretty instantly, although they might ask: What kind of long dress? What era? But… you get the idea.
With my brain’s landscape littered with words, because again, that’s how all thought is processed for me, the words sometimes demand attention. So: while I realize there’s some debate about multi-tasking, and whether or not it’s an actual thing, if I am not multi-tasking, I am flipping between my version of “images” pretty constantly.
I am also thinking and putting aside process questions or other questions that I don’t have immediate answers for. I am assessing the answers I think I do have. I am listening for bits and pieces of reader-brain, of other’s posts and comments about their own reader-brains, and I am collecting disparate bits of information that might, with time, cohere into cogent thought.
My interior brain is therefore like a library, and I sit at a table with a bunch of those books open, and all the pages are facing up and my mind’s eye is wandering between them, almost compulsively. And sometimes complaining bitterly about the typesetting.
The longest period of non-writing, for me, was during my then younger son’s 9 day hospital stay. This inability to write lasted for 3 months.
During that three months, all of my thoughts, and by thought I mean worry, were focused on my son, on observing my son, on doing research about the thing that had landed him in the hospital. I had no creative thoughts. All of those open books were about him and the ramifications on the rest of the household and older son.
Worry is part of my creative brain. The What-If function is subsumed entirely, because in order to be prepared for catastrophe, I have to understand all the shapes in which it might arrive. I have to think them through. I have to have a plan in place to deal with them. It’s kind of like writing thought, but terrifying.
At the time I owed one short story and one novel. (Both were late, in the end). Sitting down in front of the computer and typing was not writing, and… every part of my brain had been diverted and I could not simply will it back.
I believe a certain amount of will and focus is required to sit down and write. On most days, it is preferable to cleaning the oven. On some days, the oven cleaning looks pretty darned appealing.
But if I have the will to sit, the second part is all of the associated thoughts, the things that underpin my “butt in chair”. I need a few layers of thought in place to actually write creative words. They don’t have to be perfectly organized because — in case it’s not obvious in the rambling structure of these posts — organized thought is … not my strength.
I do need those layers, though. Toward the end of a book, I’ve gathered enough that they are the primary and complete focus (it’s why I can’t write endings while working on the second book.)
Today, I sat down to write CAST words. I am still rereading West words, so no new words demanded there. I write until I have three Dragons on the page; I start the morning with the arrival at the palace. I know roughly what has to happen, and actually, it (mostly) does happen — well, okay, the other two Dragons on the page weren’t planned.
I have a rough idea of what tomorrow’s writing will be. A rough idea of the three things that could happen. Those are all thoughts.
I believe a certain amount of joy, of excitement, of anticipation, is necessary to write. Or it’s necessary for me, and I feel the need to now insert the standard disclaimer: This is my process, and it works for me; it is not your process, it might not work for you, and that is more than okay.
By joy, I don’t mean the type of feeling the world’s best Key Lime Pie can give you. And I don’t mean: yay, I got a new television or etc. In fact, joy is probably entirely the wrong word, but I don’t have the word I do want.
So, absent a single word, I’m going to try to describe what I mean with lots of words. Or more words, at any rate. There are points in the writing of each book that suck me in and drag me along; points at which I’m kind of gaping while writing; points at which I am weeping (this can be embarrassing if you are writing in public. I think I cried through 1/3 of GRAVE, and in some scenes actively cried enough that I couldn’t see the screen, although I didn’t make noise while doing it). There’s an engagement, an emotional intensity, a presence in the text. There is one sentence in WAR that made me laugh out loud – and it was the ending to a scene that really wasn’t funny.
There’s an immediacy, then. Maybe that’s a better word. An immediacy of feeling. I will keep excitement, though.
Okay. People who work full-time have probably experienced the great joy of having full-time jobs dump hideous blocks of over-time on them (especially the programming crew). Forty hours can become 60 hours. Or more. I’ve done it (not at the bookstore). On those weeks when I was working 60 hours I would come home with zero brain. I was tired. I was sick of work. I wanted and needed down time.
I didn’t have the energy to engage with almost anything. I was not fit company for people.
I am making this point because it is also relevant to writing. The job that I love can become the job that is sucking my brain dry. It is demonstrably the same job. There is a time at which I need to back away from work and find other sources of fun and entertainment, because that’s kind of how I recharge.
(These posts are that, for me, fwiw. They’re fun – for me. They engage me. Thinking about things like this is bright and shiny and my hobby. It’s not usually a visible hobby; I don’t normally write them down and post them in public (although I have done in email). These words are not book words, even if they are words.
I am reading for a review column — well, not right this very second — as well as writing the novel and rereading and making notes of the West novels. These process posts are both about the writing but entirely separate from it.)
The things that are my most relevant hobbies are also things that are adjacent to my writing. But for some authors, this is not the case. Some authors need to go in entirely different directions. Video games? Beading? Sewing? Playing an instrument? LARPG? RPGs? Spending time with their friends just chilling? Some people even enjoy shopping T_T.
Without something engaging outside of work, work becomes the only focal point and on some emotional level it becomes a constant barrage of over-time.
At the moment, I have balance. I have things I do outside of writing that feed enough into the rest of my life that I sort of feel like I have a life. It may not be any one else’s definition of a life, but — it works for me. While it works for me, books get written.
Books get written because I have the number of mental tracks necessary to write devoted to writing.
Now, I will continue to attempt to put these things – writing thoughts, anxiety thoughts – together. Because in my brain, there’s always an anxiety track.
(In comments on the previous thread — and there’s a lot of Michelle continuing to think about process in comments =/ — I mention that I started thinking about some of these posts because someone had asked me a question about writing over the long haul. This post, and the one that follows, is probably the most clear-cut answer to that question, asked a decade ago, I’ve come up with publicly.)
My day today had the normal amount of anxiety. Someone didn’t like the new Cast book (which: failure on my part). Someone will probably be really unhappy with the new Cast book, the one I’m writing, no matter what I’m writing about. I always have these fears, although sometimes they’re for the West novel, not the Cast novel. I have always had these fears. Every single book of mine you’ve read — if you’ve read them — was written under the shadow of that fear.
(Except for the first one. That was the fear of not finishing, the fear of it not being good enough for an editor, of not being somehow worthy enough to gain attention. What kept me in my seat was the writing itself, and my own need, by that point, to get to the end.)
It is a constant, background thrum. One level of my mental stack is writing anxiety.
There is no way to quiet that track. There is no factual information that will shut it up or make it go away. I know. I have tried everything, over the years. Once, when I was in a frenzy of worry, I was talking about it over dinner, and my then 13 year old Oldest Son looked at me with minor confusion and partial disgust.
“Mom,” he finally says, while I’m speaking, “Could you try to be a little objective?”
My husband is trying very hard to shut my son down, because… he understands it as part of the process.
I stare at my son.
“You have five book contracts, mom. I don’t think a publisher would offer you a contract if you’re as incompetent as you’re saying you are.”
Husband has now directed all his attention to his food, as younger son has already done, because both realize that this is a gushing flood of subjective terror that is impervious to something as simple, as useful, as fact.
Am I being smart? Practical? Well, no. There’s a reason I try to limit the outlay of fear in public. It makes no sense.
When I was younger, I hated that it made no sense and I tried really hard to change it. Believe that writer-brain is very, very good at arguing with itself.
But as I got older, I finally just accepted that this terrible anxiety is part of my writing process. Actually, it probably wasn’t just age. It was also talking at length with other writers, and getting a window into their process, even if it was intrinsically different. It was seeing other writers saying exactly the same thing when clearly they were so wrong it wasn’t funny. (And can I just add getting someone else’s extremely clever and good chapters because they’re drowning in a sea of anxiety about how garbage they are and they want an objective external opinion, makes my own chapters seem even dimmer by comparison: If this is your idea of garbage, how much worse is mine??)
The best I can do is to minimize the anxiety so it doesn’t overwhelm the writing itself. I can ignore it for at least that long. I might only get a window in which I’m not terrified that Everything Is Wrong – but I need that window to write.
(When you see advice that amounts to: Turn off your internal editor while writing, this is what it means. But – with less words.)
The thing that makes this hard is this: when we first start, a lot is objectively not good. We have made — as I mentioned in the revision posts — clear, objective mistakes. We need to go back, to see those mistakes, and to get a handle on how to fix them. Failure at the beginning is the base state.
Let me say that again: Failure at the beginning is the base state.
People are often afraid of failing, not because of the failure itself, but because of the judgement of that failure by others. I understand this, and I understand why people often don’t show anyone their work until they feel confident enough to do so. But… failure is part of the long process.
We have to learn how to write stories, and we don’t start out perfectly. So worry at that point is practical and even necessary. If we can’t face the failure, can’t examine the mistakes, we can’t improve. But if ten readers tell you one thing, and ten readers tell you the exact opposite thing, it can be a bit paralyzing.
I have had readers tell me they were bored by large sections of a book. I have had readers tell me that that same book is the best thing I’ve ever written. Both of these are subjective opinions, neither can be argued with – I can’t tell someone who was bored that they weren’t bored, for instance – but… what can you do with that? How is that actionable?
It’s hard to separate fear from fact because, in the case of writing, fact is often subjective. Sometimes you get the person who is bored. Sometimes you get the person who is entranced. It’s the same words they’re reading.
You know you have a vested interest in seeing your work as good. What if, because of that vested interest, you are seeing it through rose-tinted glasses? What if you are telling yourself that it’s good not because it’s good but because you are desperate to believe that it is when you can’t tell anymore?
…which is why a lot of writers have beta readers or alpha readers, and these serve different functions. It’s a second opinion (or a third or fourth), a view that is more objective than your fears. But: beta readers are readers, and you can find yourself faced with exactly the same reaction as above: love and hate. Boredom and fascination.
Or try to figure it out. Try to figure out if you can somehow cut down on the boredom while maintaining the fascination. Sometimes, you can’t. The thing that fascinates one is exactly the thing that bores another.
But, regardless, you’ve honed your ability to look at your text, to figure out what went wrong, and to avoid some of the mistakes going forward. It’s an iterative process, and the second-guessing, the questioning, the lack of certainty is part of what made you a better writer in the first place.
If you’re anything like me at all.
What I have so far is:
1. Brain space is needed to write
2. Engagement and excitement about the work is needed, which means… activities that excite and engage you are also needed.
3. Anxiety is a constant single track. There’s no way to love it; accept it and find ways to move around it, or ways to move while carrying it.
There was a three month period in my life when these things were not in balance at all, when all the worry and anxiety was simply about my toddler and his future. I had zero writing tracks. On the plus side, this meant I had zero anxiety-about-writing track, but … it wasn’t really a plus.
This meant: No Words. Missed Deadlines.