I feel like a kool-aid zombie begging people to join my cult. I feel like I have the answer for anyone who has that kind of anxiety where past events spontaneously replay in your head, churning up the hurt created by that moment, feeling the anger or sadness rush back in; even though, you’re alone in your robe on the couch at 9am on a random Tuesday. OR the kind of anxiety where you anticipate a conversation with someone, giving the other person’s responses the kind of depth that can make you feel things, good or bad; even though, you’re alone in your robe on the couch at 9am on a random Tuesday.
I am prone to anxiety attacks, my most notorious being while hiking the Grand Canyon without enough water and trudging back up the heart-pounding climb to the top. I was twenty-one, hyper-ventilating, and panicked. I wanted to cry but there wasn’t enough water in my body to sacrifice to tears. (I know this because I tried.) My friend, Sabrina, rushed ahead to find water, which was kind of her since she got us into this mess in the first place. (What? I’m responsible for my own actions and decisions? I can’t hear you. Don’t interrupt.) I was almost to the top, the danger of actually dying long behind me. I came across a German tourist, who I begged for water. When he gave me a swig of warm Perrier, I knew I was going to make it, because that shit tasted nasty. If I had the luxury of something tasting nasty, I wasn’t that bad off.
At the time, I thought I was just dehydrated, and though I was, I now know that most of what crippled me on the climb to the top was anxiety. Fear. Panic. The same creatures that create the anxiety of reliving unpleasant moments for no reason whatsoever. They are related to the voices of self-doubt and insecurity. They chide you and mock you and keep poking an open wound on your heart.
My sister, Michelle, is dedicated to yoga and essential oils. She has sampled all kinds of therapies: clinical, natural, self-help, wine. She told me to read The Power of Now, and I was like, “Yeeeaaaah…meh.” The whole self-help book thing doesn’t appeal to me when I want to devote my time to the leaning pile of novels on my bedside table. But recently, I was open to the idea of some self-reflection, so I got the Audible version and put in my headphones.
I’m only in the middle, but I have already pestered my husband and Hananah to do it, too. They’re both like, “Yeeeaaaah…meh.” And I’m like, YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND; YOU HAVE TO READ THIS. Though, I know I can’t force them. This is the kind of thing you have to want to hear if you are going to hear anything at all. I know that.
One of the first things the book talks about is that your thoughts are not you, that Decartes had it wrong. It’s not: “I think, therefore I am.” What I hear the author saying instead is: “I am, therefore, I think, though I should really get a grip on that thinking thing because the thoughts can overrun my brain and keep me from actually being in the now, because the now is all you actually have.” (Something like that.)
What does all of this have to do with writing? Well, two things. One, as I have explored in a previous blog post called “Write or Die”: “Writing is a type of high. When you are fully engaged and lost in a story, everything else is blocked out. It is total escape from the world.”
YES. Writing helps silence the voices. The destructive voices, not the ones a writer is beckoning to speak in his or her story or poem.
But, two, I actually connected this advice with a reading/conversation I went to recently. In January, Elizabeth Strout came to the Nashville Public Library to read from her new novel. But instead of a reading, organizers set two chairs on the stage and revealed the reading had been converted (last minute) into a conversation between Strout and Ann Patchett.
Not only did I think that was AWESOME, the event turned out to provide some quality thoughts and advice on writing that I have since applied. Elizabeth Strout’s personality is pretty idiosyncratic, which I admire, and through the conversation with Ann, I learned her writing style is, too. She doesn’t write linearly. She jots down random thoughts or scenes on scraps of paper that form into a scattered pile on her desk.
WHAT. Every writer in the audience seemed to twitch nervously at the thought, but she explained that she often writes when her emotions are fresh. If she is feeling something intensely, she writes it in fiction form, revealing how her work can feel so authentic. The emotion guides the scene versus the creative brain trying to replicate the emotion. WHOA. I loved this idea. I have kept a journal since 1988 (see: picture on top of blog, the actual pile of journals. Hello Kitty was the first). I have them all, 10 or 11 journals filled from cover to cover. I have some gaps; I wasn’t stopping very often in college to write, but I still managed. There are no gaps as long as a year. Every year is represented by some entries in my journals.
So I am no stranger to writing my emotions, but the idea of giving those moments to my characters I had not thought about deliberately. As I listened to the author of The Power of Now implore me to separate myself from the voice of my thoughts, I realized that voice could be a character. Not only should it not have power over me, but I could have power over it. I could take advantage of it. I think it’s my natural inclination anyway; it’s related to why I love the unreliable narrator, allowing the voice of the ego free rein. But I could harness it for other voices and points of view, too.
If I sound like a self-help kook, I think I am right now, with my headphones in and my kool-aid mustache. As long as I look happy, no intervention is needed. It’s better than a German tourist laughing at me on the side of a canyon as I choke down warm, carbonated water under a June, desert sun. But damn, that makes for an excellent story.