We writers are anxious types, prone to obsessing over distractions—both real and imagined—which can stall us creatively or shut us down altogether.
And it only takes a thought. Something disturbs the tall grasses of our mental landscape, and we are captivated. We feel disquiet in our bellies, our breath shortens. We watch, ready to bolt or fight. In that moment, and for the indefinite future, the elements that comprise our everyday world— relationships, responsibilities, pleasures—vanish from our awareness, leaving only us and whatever it is that’s making the grass move. But wait, this is a rather broad claim, isn’t it? We writers? Our awareness? Surely some creative folks possess what it takes to disregard those scary whatchamacallits in the grass. There must be at least several who embody the resolve of Joan of Arc, or the imperturbable serenity of a Buddha. Right?
Well, possibly so. But maybe that’s not the issue here. Maybe it’s more a matter of pronoun misuse. Maybe I’m really talking about myself.
Okay, let it be officially noted: I am the anxious writer described in paragraph one. Truth is I’ve been a worry wart all my life. I can lock onto a thought, usually of something unpleasant or portentous, and cling to it with everything I’ve got. Once I do that, I’ll live with it during the day, and at night it will drive the plotlines of my dreams. Not only that, but I will stretch and distort the notion of my obsession until it resembles the printer’s ink images I used to lift off the comic page with Silly Putty.
It doesn’t happen like this all the time; but under the right circumstances, anxiety will interfere mightily with the normal activities of my life—not the least of which includes my chosen avocation of creative writing.
Why is this so? Well I’m no psychologist, but I am convinced that, deep in the folds of my brain, there lurks a fearful specter: the innate “memory” of a giant cave bear that once scared the bejeezus out of some evolutionary ancestor, and quite possibly ate his cousin, too. Normally, the memory, if you will, is not a problem for me; in fact, on a conscious level I’m not even aware it exists. (Plus, intellectually, I know that extinction has long since obviated the threat of cave bears—so there’s that as well.)
Nevertheless, when the right external stimulus presents itself—a late bill, the odd turn of a loved one’s voice, some looming commitment I’ve made—my sense of reason gives way, the intellect goes into hiding, and that dreaded creature of old saunters from his lair with noisome, matted fur and steak-knife teeth dripping with goo.
But maybe that’s too specific. Instead, I offer up a different analogy to illustrate my point, really more of a cliché: Anxiety leads me to make mountains out of molehills. Under its pernicious spell, I can take the smallest concern and magnify it to the point where I can barely function under its outsized shadow. For years I assumed that this was normal. Thankfully, I’ve since discovered it is not. Through therapy, mindfulness practice, and eventually with the help of medication too, I am fortunate to have experienced a lessening in the frequency and severity of undue anxiety episodes. Not that I don’t still encounter them from time to time; it is unrealistic to assume that I will ever be 100-percent anxiety-free. But the disorder no longer exerts quite the same hold over me. These days, I can function in spite of it.
Now, the writer in me wonders whether I might also function because of it. After all, what is anxiety but a manifestation of thought: a physical, biochemical event to which I’ve assigned specific meaning? While I’m not normally a fan of catchy acronyms, I’ve often heard it suggested that “fear” might stand for False Evidence Appearing Real. This is actually a fitting description, one that could also apply to anxiety, at least as I experience it.
And how specifically do I go about fleshing out this false evidence to the point where it appears real? By harnessing the very same power that drives my creative spirit: the imagination. How strange to discover that the mental process I consider so dear and necessary to my contentment and writerly output can also awaken a 40,000 year-old cave bear.
Bearing this in mind (pun intended), I think that it may be time to reconsider the concept of anxiety and what it means to me. In addition to the therapeutic approaches I employ to keep runaway apprehension down to a reasonable level of intensity, I might take the further step of actually making peace with it. Instead of recoiling, I might take a mindful moment to assess the presumed threat—the false evidence that appears real. Chances are the specter of the cave bear will have moved on by then, leaving me alone with a simple choice: whether to fool myself further or not to.
From there, with my imagination already stirred, I might put that magnificent gift to better use in the here and now, perhaps by crafting a character sketch for the perfect villain, or bringing a fitting close to some vexing, unfinished chapter about someone’s worst fears realized. Then too, I might even start something new—say, a gripping tale of a prehistoric man and his hapless cousin.