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.


“the only thing i have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing”

I have experienced several reasons not to write in my life… writer’s block has never been one of them. I’ve never even understood the concept of writer’s block, especially for someone who wants to be a writer. Why would you want to write if you don’t actually want to write?

hypergraphiaI think I am infected with hypergraphia, actually — it is a condition Dostoyevsky supposedly had, and it is characterized by an overwhelming compulsion to write, coupled with extremes of emotion and hyper-sensitivity, a possible connection to bipolar, and a definite connection to temporal lobe epislepsy. While I don’t have epilepsy, I had seizures as a child and had an EEG, but they never found the reasons for my seizures and blackouts.

Hypergraphia and writer’s block are influenced by the same part of the brain, two extremes of the same impulse, like turning the switch on or off. Alice Flaherty, who wrote a book on hypergraphia and writer’s block, describes how people with hypergraphia have too much temporal lobe activity, which makes them want to write, and not enough frontal lobe activity, which puts the brakes on the urge, making the writer edit and pare down their output. People with writer’s block have the opposite problem: too much frontal lobe inhibition making it difficult to get the words out. Since low frontal lobe activity is also associated with things like addiction and lack of willpower, we can be fairly certain that my frontal lobe is limping along, half dead, while my temporal lobe is gunning the engine and making me want to write.

The problem lately is that I know if I sit down to write anything “for myself” (i.e. not for school) I am afraid I won’t be able to stop. I have so much planned out in my head and I’m dying to write it, but I don’t have time. I’m trying to finish all my classes as soon as possible so I can graduate and get on with my life. One consequence of my addiction, I think, is the inability to do more than one thing at once — and by “at once,” I don’t mean multitasking. I mean that while I’m in school, it’s very hard for me to concentrate on anything else, even when the schoolwork is done for that day. I can’t organize my thoughts enough to juggle four difficult classes, chores, shopping, money, etc… and writing, too. I’m dying to be done with school so I can start working on my memoir for real.

I just finished a 13-page research paper about Wikileaks for my investigative journalism class… took my Russian final this morning… finished the final draft of the article for my feature writing class on Thursday… now I just have to do some writing assignments for my data journalism class, and I’ll be done with this term. The last two terms I only took two classes — last spring I was too busy with the school paper, and last fall I ended up dropping a class that was SOOO boring (newspaper editing… thank god I know that I can never be a copy editor!). So taking four now seems like a crazy amount of work.

Next quarter I’m taking Russian again, a class about interviews in journalism, a psych class for a science credit, and an anthro class for another science credit. The anthro class is about the role of storytelling in ancient societies and how it influenced the evolution of humans… it sounds super interesting. I was looking into the anthro department and it looks like I have so many anthro credits from Reed that if I just take one more over the summer, I can do a minor! If I stuck around for one more year of Russian, I could minor in that too… but I’m anxious to leave town.

my future shotgun house in nola 😉

Originally I was thinking of moving to Oakland, but since I last looked into moving there in 2011, the rents seem to have tripled. And San Francisco is such an island of privilege now… I started thinking about moving to New Orleans. Other than SF and NYC, it’s probably my favorite city in the country. The weather is warm, there’s tons of culture, and it would give me a chance to live somewhere I’ve always wanted to live, before I get too old to move around the country as much. I’m taking a trip there, actually leaving tomorrow, to see h0w viable that plan would be. The rents are really really cheap there — like as cheap as Portland 20 years ago — whereas Oakland is now several hundred dollars a month more expensive than Portland, for a 1BR.

I’m actually terrified to leave Eugene. Most of the time I’ve lived here I’ve been desperate to leave, and I still am, but it’s scary, too. This is the place where I finally got clean. Though I’m able to stay clean mostly effortlessly when I go up to Portland or other cities where I used to do heroin, it still makes me nervous to think about leaving here… not because I think I’ll relapse, but because my home here is so comforting. I didn’t realize it at first, but I used a lot of things about this place to rebuild by sense of safety and heal some of my PTSD. (not that it’s all healed, by any  means, but it’s better than it was last year.) Living in such a small, safe town really helped. Being able to come home to all my stuff and my cats and not having to worry about insanely expensive rent… I suppose not having to work helps a lot, too.

pinkshotgunThe fact that I am afraid to leave only makes me more determined to do so, because I know I don’t want to stay here, and I feel like I should get out as fast as I can before I become more entrenched. I’ve been here for almost two years now — this is by far the longest place I’ve lived anywhere since my apartment in Portland in 2000-2003.

Most of the time here I am scarily happy. Scary because I always feel like it’s about to disappear. I spend most of my time doing one thing I really enjoy, while looking forward to doing another thing I really enjoy. It’s kind of been blowing my mind.

I think this is how I felt before I became a junkie… it’s hard to remember, but I recall being really happy pre-heroin. Unlike most addicts, I didn’t start using because I was depressed. It was more of a personality problem, an identity crisis, a failure on my part to understand how reality and the world worked, anxiety partially corrected when I was 27 and had a startling revelation about the world: people don’t have to be perfect to be successful or happy.

So I guess I’m actually better off than I was pre-heroin. A lot of stuff that haunted me back then no longer bothers me because I have spent years correcting my ingrained beliefs. Even though I still have a ton of anxiety and unneeded worry, even a 10 percent change in that department seems to have a remarkably positive effect.

peony square_905I started a garden last year, and even though I’ve been too busy so far this spring to do much other than plant some seeds and repot a few things, I’ve been enjoying my lilies and peonies and other flowers coming up from last year’s roots. I trimmed about 3/4 of my roses off, and they are producing new leaves… they’ll probably flower soon.

The garden feels like the first time in a long time, maybe forever, that I’ve been able to enjoy the fruits of previous labor. I’ve felt like Sisyphus a lot… endless difficulties, endless striving, no reward. The few times I made progress with anything, I would skip town, quit the job, and go back to drugs.

I haven’t yet graduated or made a cent off writing, but all that work I did last year — picking up the trash and broken glass, pushing the huge dumpster off to the side, digging up the gravel parking lot that was our “yard” two feet into the earth, filling it in with potting soil, planting dozens of plants, watering and tending to them all summer — is paying off again, now, as spring arrives. I think life is supposed to be like this.

Well, I have to go pack for New Orleans… I need to figure out how to balance writing here and my memoir work with my schoolwork. It’s not that I don’t have enough time, exactly, but that I am literally afraid if I start writing, I won’t be able to stop. I’ve always had trouble with moderation, with the middle ground. But maybe that’s a feature, not a bug. 🙂

turned my brown eyes blue

Last night I had maybe my favorite dream I’ve ever had. The part that haunts me is when I found myself in front of a mirror briefly. I almost didn’t notice, but just as I was turning away, an impression flashed through my mind. Something isn’t right, I thought. I turned back to the mirror and saw with a shock that my eyes were blue. I leaned forward, staring. They were not just blue but icy blue, so icy that the inner part, including the pupil, was blanched white.

In the very first instant that I saw my white-blue eyes, I knew that the change was a psychic wound from everything I had been through. I only remember vaguely the rest of the dream, but I can FEEL those eyes. They weren’t milky, they were glowing, pouring a blinding incandescence, not outward, but into myself, staining all of me with this radiant chill. Not reflected moonlight, not warm sunlight, but self-created starlight: cold, faraway, steady and eternal. White so white that it could never be another color again, light so bright it was bending time and space and curving around me and into me.

I couldn’t see actual rays, and it wasn’t like I had flashlights for eyes. It was light I could FEEL, that I knew was there behind those icy blue-white eyes. I don’t know what part of me in the dream had this “knowledge” that traumatic experiences could bleach brown eyes blue, but it felt so obvious, like there could be no other explanation. As I stared, I realized that I liked myself with bright icy eyes. I could have a staring contest with the sun and win. I could throw shadows across a room. I could illuminate my way through the darkness.

* * *

Lately I’ve been waking up incredibly early — 3 or 4 or 5 am sometimes, and no later than 7. Even though I go to bed at midnight or 1 or 2 am. I am wide awake by 4 and have to fight to get myself back to sleep so I don’t feel horrible by noon. The weird thing is that I *want* to get out of bed when I wake up at 4 am. Not like when I was dopesick and I was so restless my body would kick itself out of bed on its own accord while my mind begged to go back to sleep. Now the thoughts start and I want to get up and start reading or writing or doing whatever it is that I’m doing that day. It’s usually pitch black and then gets light a while later. My window by my desk faces east, and the sunrise is gorgeous.

Class doesn’t start until 11 am, and by that time I feel like I’ve already lived a lifetime. 2nd year Russian, five days a week. I dream in Russian sometimes. The other night I had a dream I was overhearing some native Russians speaking, and noticed errors in their speech, which made me feel better about when I can’t remember the genitive plural declension for сестра (сестёр) and брат (братев). (Words related to family are highly irregular, especially in genitive plural, which could be a metaphor for something, I guess…)

I’ve been clean for over a year. Well, I slipped last August, but only for a few weeks, so I decided it didn’t “count.” I’ve always thought it was really depressing that if you use for one day, you have to start the clock all over again. I was clean for 8 months before that and it didn’t seem right to erase all that.

Things were complicated. I tried to leave M, unsuccessfully, as it turned out. I tried to find a new place to live, couldn’t find anything I liked, and in the midst of that I was panicking more and more from working on the school paper… mostly it was the people I worked with. The editor I had a crush on graduated, and everyone else there sucked. The editor who replaced him, who worked directly above me, the person most responsible for my content, is maybe the worst writer I’ve ever encountered, with no sense for news, doesn’t even read the fucking news. She would tear my stories apart until they were unrecognizable, adding grammar and spelling errors, and even worse, changing the tone so my writing sounded cutesy and stupid like her writing sounded.

The clique-yness of the place drove me crazy, too. A whole bunch of mostly nerdy wallflowers have their first opportunity to be in an exclusive club, and take full advantage of excluding new people. “New” = I worked there for 10 months and even hung out with them socially a few times, was super friendly, and still felt excluded.

When I agreed to stay and work for the summer, they told me that my 45+ hours a week of UNPAID reporting work would be reduced to about 10 hours/week and I’d only have to write one story each week. Well, it turned out to be just as much work as during the school year. The two editors directly above me double-teamed to follow me around criticizing everything I did… I missed one day of work because of an awful hangover and had to get some big lecture and sign a “contract” that I wouldn’t miss any more days… meanwhile Ms. Awful Editor had missed over half our Sunday staff meetings and most weekdays because she kept going out of town for music festivals (EDM, puke. Why were 100 percent of my coworkers into EDM??).

The night after having to sign that “contract,” I relapsed. I was completely losing my mind with fear that I had gone through so much to go back to school and that somehow I wasn’t cut out for working in journalism. I couldn’t deal with my terrifying interviews and evil editors at the same time. I quit the paper and got clean again but September through December sucked. I was convinced my whole college degree would be for nothing.

Maybe it is… but this quarter I am taking a feature writing class, and my teacher, Miranda, is fucking amazing. I have to restrain myself from giving her a huge hug every day, and it’s a real struggle to not laugh at her jokes more than the rest of the class or answer every question or monopolize class time with my questions. She is a freelance writer who has written three books, two of them memoirs. She talks nonstop about how journalism isn’t dead and how we can make money writing. She’s the only professor I’ve had so far that didn’t spend every class period telling us we will never work in journalism because print is dead. She tells us realistically that we aren’t going to get rich writing, but that we can still make a living if we are creative about it.

Also, Miranda and I have been having coffee and discussing publishing my memoir. She tends to be overly excited and positive about everything, so it’s hard to gauge what my chances really are, but she has taught a memoir workshop at a writing conference for years, and seems to think that my story has a real chance of getting published. She told me that her agent would definitely take me, but that I could also try my pitch at this conference in August. She’s also been giving me advice about privacy issues. She actually changed her last name before her first memoir so that she wouldn’t run into issues with people recognizing her abusive father in the book.

I never know if people are just being dramatic, but when she asked me what my memoir was about, and I told her, she said, “REALLY? ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?” about 20 times in a row. That was when she gave me her agent’s name. She advised me to use a full-name pseudonym for both my memoir and any personal writing I come up with. I never really thought about publishing personal essays, but she told me that her students that end up published during college or after graduation usually start with personal essays, first-person narratives either about their life or something they experienced. Shit, I could write that stuff in my sleep. That’s what I’m already good at.

We are going to move to the Bay Area after I graduate so M can work in restaurants, and I’m going to make millions with my memoir. /sarcasm. But I stopped feeling like the degree is pointless. I would have gone through four years of college just to take this one class with Miranda. Anyway, I’m so close now. I’m going to walk in the spring, take two more classes over the summer, and then I’m done. It only took me 15 years to get through college.

I wrote the first chapter of my memoir. It’s about that day those cops found me overdosed and one of them said to the other, “Let’s shoot her up with Narcan to see if she’s a junkie.” It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. Working on the memoir has made me see that it’s very different from blog writing. You have to use suspense, pacing, surprise, dialogue, and all that shit I thought non-fiction writers didn’t have to think about. It’s amazingly cathartic, though. Even though I wrote about most of this at the time, it’s different writing something I intend to be published. Like I’m writing the definitive version and can finally close the door on each thing I write about.

M says I should divide it up into multiple books — I surely have enough material already to fill six volumes, the My Struggle of a female American junkie. And there’s enough I haven’t written about — not just stuff I didn’t write about at the time, but feelings, description of the characters, physical details, and so on — to fill another six. But this is one book. It’s one story. The last 15 years are one story arc. It’s a classic riches to rags to [spiritual] riches story. I had everything, I destroyed it, and then I got back a different everything.

* * *

a.baa-Nature-eyeAfter I had that dream, I googled “turned my brown eyes blue.” I could have sworn that was a phrase, an idiom, something I had heard before. It turns out that it’s a country song from 1977, but that’s about it. And in the song it’s only about a broken heart, with “blue” as a metaphor for sadness.

That’s not what it was like in my dream at all. My eyes weren’t a gloomy blue, they were a searing, shining white-blue, like burning ice.

Like cold so cold that it hit the other side of the spectrum. That this violates all laws of physics doesn’t change that I can feel it is true.

Frozen into light. The pain that turned my brown eyes ice-blue, and they burn.

They burn.

one recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.

I literally have five minutes before I have to get ready for school. It is harder to start writing now. I don’t know why it’s harder to write when life is good… perhaps because I have more energy to devote to self-consciousness.

I am starting to work on my memoir… by that I mean that I am starting to THINK about working on it, and by that I mean that I am starting to think about going through all the back entries of my blog, entering them into Scrivener (a writing program M swears by), and taking that time to review the “plot” as it were and try to create a structure for the book.

Structure is the hardest part, or will be the hardest part, I think. I have absolutely no problem writing about my past in great detail, and I still remember almost all of it, the parts I don’t remember I can review in my old blogs. The problem is that I have TOO MUCH to write about, and any story I start telling ends up remind me of 100 other anecdotes. That’s why I need a structure.

I thought the hardest part of starting this memoir would be finding out what “the end” was… for a long time when people told me I should write a memoir, I told them I had to see how the story ended first. People always laughed at that, but it would have been silly to write a memoir that ended, “…and I’ve only been clean for three days, who knows what will happen tomorrow.” That would be very unsatisfying for everyone involved, especially me.

Once I knew the ending I thought the rest would fall into place, but as it turns out, I need to be able to convey the story arc from beginning to end. Especially because so much happens and there are so many ups and downs, it has to feel like it’s going somewhere. I have to tease out the story arc that I didn’t know was happening at the time… you can only connect the dots backwards.