the people of the open wound

Why does writing cause so much more anxiety than other creative pursuits?

This question came to me while reading T Magazine last week, which had mini-profiles of a few writers. For those not in the know, T Magazine is the fashion/design supplement to the Sunday New York Times, which is included every month or so. I usually don’t read T because it is one of the most ostentatious offerings to the temple of lavish materialism, all surface and glitz. But I was flipping through this one because it was the Spring Design issue, and I have a weakness for architecture.

(First I encountered the Platonic form of those houses where you aren’t allowed to touch anything and every room looks like a hotel. This “renowned advertising provocateur” [?] keeps any sign of his own existence out of his NYC condo; his books and even his expensive art collection are hidden in closets and drawers. Even the bedroom is devoid of personal belongings. He said: “I didn’t want it to feel like a home. I wanted it to feel like a hotel.”)

But maybe T Magazine was trying to change its reputation from a confection of conspicuous consumption to something with more substance, because they included this feature about seven writers and where they work. That’s when I encountered Adam Thirlwell describing the room where he works as a “place of anxiety” and Tom McCarthy admitting, “It’s tempting to stare out of the window most of the day. Who am I kidding? That’s what I do.” Then there’s one of my favorite Riff columns in an old NYT Magazine, about self-doubt and writing, which contains this quote:

Because if I had to identify a single element that characterizes my life as a writer, a dominant affective note, it would be self-doubt. It is a more-or-less constant presence in everything I do. It is there even as I type these words, in my realization that almost all writers struggle in this way; that the notion of a self-doubting writer is as close to tautology as to make no difference, and that to refer to such a thing as a “struggle” is to concede the game immediately to cliché, to lose on a technicality before you’ve even begun.

He also refers to “the little voice in your head or the booming baritone in your gut that wishes you to know that what you are writing is entirely without value.” I started thinking, why is writing like this? I don’t know of any other creative activity that is so associated with anxiety. When I was a studio art major (painting, photography, drawing) or when I played in orchestra in high school, I never felt this way. I didn’t sit in front of a blank canvas obsessively cleaning my workspace rather than painting, I didn’t get to the darkroom and immediately remember something I just had to do because I was scared of developing photos, I didn’t dread going to orchestra practice — in fact, all of those activities were very enjoyable.

The problem with the other vocations I’ve tried (including anthroplogy and other non-creative fields) is that I was never sure I was good enough at them. But that over-arching lack of confidence didn’t infect the everyday level of actually doing the thing. I was perfectly capable of working on my art; I just didn’t think I was a great artist or that it was worth pursuing for the rest of my life. I didn’t have anxiety about music, I just didn’t like practicing my instruments enough to choose music as a career, and wasn’t sure I would ever be professional-level good. But it never even occurred to me to procrastinate working on art or music.

The strange thing is that writing is the only thing I’ve done where I do have the overall confidence that I am a good enough. I know I’m a good enough writer that I can make money off it. I know I can produce an amazing memoir. I never felt like this about art or music. My confidence in my writing borders on egotism. But it doesn’t help the daily activity of actually doing the writing. Down in the trenches, none of my confidence in myself as a writer helps me actually write without that sheer terror that is familiar to any writer.

I just googled “self-doubt” and “anxiety” with “writing” and found so many posts calling it a “cliche” or the “biggest problem for writers” that there’s no need to quote anyone else: Anyone who writes — or anyone who knows a writer — knows that writing and paralyzing panic are inextricably linked. This is not related to the concept of writer’s block, which I wrote about in my last entry. Whether I’m writing “for myself” (memoir or personal essays or blog entries) or not for myself (reporting and freelancing), I experience this overwhelming sense of dread and jittery apprehension. Even just thinking about writing makes me feel like I’m looking over a 500-foot cliff with no railing.

The worst part of journalism, for me, is the interviews, which are on a whole other level of panic that we won’t get into here. But I’ve found that even after the interviews are done and transcribed, working on writing the article — which for me is the “easy part” (ha!) — takes every ounce of willpower I possess. I know what I’m going to write, and once I sit down to do it, the writing itself comes out in regular intervals of sentences and paragraphs, but my brain is constantly telling me it isn’t any good. Sometimes when I make it to the end and submit the article, I’m able to relax and feel a little pride in my work — but a lot of times I end up hating what I’ve written, even if others (professors, editors, friends) tell me it’s great. I find this quote (from that Riff piece again) very accurate:

The following, for example, is a frequent enough occurrence in my professional life: I’ll pitch an editor with an idea for something I want to write about, and they’ll tell me to go ahead with it, and then I’ll straight away begin a process of deconvincing myself, of deciding that the article I’ve persuaded someone to pay me to write is actually not worth writing at all or that I’m not the person to write it. And at this point, of course, it’s too late to back out, and I have to go ahead and write it anyway; a whole routine that is very time-consuming and enervating in the extreme.

The fact that professional writers who publish stuff in the New York Times sound just as anxious than me, if not moreso, is not very comforting. Think about it: how many books or articles have you seen about the self-doubting writer? And how many have you seen about the self-doubting, panicked artist or designer or musician or actor? (Stage fright doesn’t count.) I can’t think of ever seeing something about a non-writer consumed with misgiving whenever they attempt to practice their craft.

I’ve found one of the most useful things about going to school for journalism is that it has forced me to write. Much of what I’ve learned is common sense or I could have found in a book, but having someone force me to write journalism has helped immensely. And once I wrote a few articles, I felt a little better knowing that I could do it. But the anxiety remains.

And it’s actually worse for my personal writing. I have more than five books about writing memoir, but I’ve barely read them. When you think about a project for more than 10 years, a project that encompasses everything you care about, most of the important events in your life, and a chance to find meaning in chaos — which you have used to justify all that misery, because “at least I have good stories, at least I can make a memoir out of it” — I’m not sure any writing project can approach that level of significance, and of course the more important the writing is, the more the terror devours me.

As I thought about why writing is like this, I realized that the storytelling, narrative aspect of writing, and its solitary nature, makes it almost the closest to the experience of living, compared with other creative acts. Movies and plays purport to imitate reality, but they require dozens of people and hours of practice before the finished product. Art and music evoke emotion but aren’t narrative.

Writing is like being alive — it’s like the stream of your thoughts. It doesn’t have any bells and whistles to disguise this feeling of being naked before God. No equipment is needed other than pen and paper (or laptop), and the end product is words, only words. In that sense, it’s more personal than anything else. It’s the result of one person, which means that only one person is responsible if it turns out badly. Some visual art is just as solitary, but the artifice can disguise the personal.

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, there is nowhere to hide when all you have is words on a screen or page. When someone would tell me I needed to play a passage differently in orchestra, it wasn’t about me, it was just about needing to practice or correct a misreading of the music notes. When my art teachers gave me a mediocre critique on a painting or photograph, it was just a product of my hand, it wasn’t ME. But writing is only me. The closest thing to being inside my head. No wonder it’s so hard to start. Or finish.

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