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Writers’ Anxiety: Less Prozac, More Presence

'Tian Tan Buddha at Lantau Island' photo (c) 2011, Chun Yip  So - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ [1]

I’m no guru. I love an evening cocktail (and then another), love the tingling chemistry coaxed by a chocolate bender, and sit entranced in front of artificially charged television dramas. I’m too much of a skeptic to go paleo, give up the gluten, or free my coffee of caffeine. So I’m not one to offer anything that smacks of spiritual advice, because I fear the sound of a duck quacking in the background.

But I’m comfortable discussing some of the vagaries of my writer’s mind, because some of those windmill tiltings might apply to you as well. My little cerebral workshop has been pervaded by a flavor of low-level anxiety and mild depression since my adolescence. Because writing has been important to me from that time on, I’ve cleverly assigned some of those mind leashes to dog my writing. These are the kinds of genial processes by which you look at a sentence and declare, “Ugh, that’s a terrible sentence.” Because the mind is generous with these offerings, if you’re me, you immediately jump from there to, “Ugh, I’m a terrible writer.”

[pullquote]Repeat these self-skewerings enough times, and they become a habit, a whisper in the head, an internal magnet that softly pulls.[/pullquote]

Repeat these self-skewerings enough times, and they become a habit, a whisper in the head, an internal magnet that softly pulls. Anxiety itself can become a habit, a kind of reflex. Some kinds of anxiety can be useful, such as when you are nervous and fearful about something that is a risk or a stretch for you, and you do it anyway. But the kind of anxiety I’m talking about is a nagging sore, an ache. This is lousy for anyone, but particularly lousy for writers, who often waver in their confidence. That kind of poor-mouthing of my own work has put up walls for me.

Peeking Around a Writer’s Walls
But if the walls can’t be fully toppled, there are ways to peek around them. There are some simple admonitions of the kind that Steven Pressfield [2] advocates in his War of Art and Do the Work books, both excellent. I simplify too much here, but the message there is, “Yes, writing is hard. Yes, you will have resistance and fear inhibiting your writing. Yes, write anyway.” It’s a stern but friendly note written to your mind: Mind, get out of the way, there’s writing to do. The writing itself is the therapy for the anxiety.

I do believe you can replace the habit of sourness with a habit of openness toward your work, but I certainly haven’t mastered it yet; it’s so easy to revert back to the kind of dystopian, known comfort of the bad habit. However, a few weeks ago, I started doing something simple that seems to be making a difference: meditating. That’s why I brought up that guru business above: my closet doesn’t have the right robe to easily say, “Meditate. There, go and sin no more.” But it’s helping me, and I think it’s helping my writing.

By doing a simple, seated morning meditation, focusing on the in and out of the breath, I’ve been able to look with a little more kindness on my monkey mind, the one that says my writing is crap. Watching my mind squirm, with its endless channel surfing, and trying to bring it back to just observing the pulse of the breath is quite amusing. Our minds are fleas, forever jumping. But looking at that in a generous spirit—“Ahh, the mind is doing its monkey tricks”—is calming.

[pullquote]Just after the meditation, my mind is a bowl of pudding, content and contained, yet I also get that Whitman sense of being large, of containing multitudes.[/pullquote]

I’m finding that this paradoxical watching of the mind, just for the fifteen minutes I do the watching, is softening my anxiety. Just after the meditation, my mind is a bowl of pudding, content and contained, yet I also get that Whitman sense of being large, of containing multitudes. It carries over out of the meditation. Now, when the neighbor plays his favorite Toxic Smegma CD again at wall-shaking volume, rather than searching the Internet for a home missile launcher, I think, “Isn’t it interesting that’s the kind of music he likes.” I’m still tempted on the missile launcher, but my day is less disturbed.

Better Living Without Chemistry
I’ve always liked that Flaubert quote that says, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” It feels like the mediation is granting me more presence, a way to look at my writing without a preconceived sense that it won’t measure up. In no way am I suggesting that you shouldn’t look at your writing with a critical eye; I’m suggesting you shouldn’t look at yourself with such a critical eye.

My goal is to more fully develop this kind of resilient ease—and it still ain’t easy. But despite my youthful devotion to under-the-counter chemistry, I have no interest whatsoever in the pharma-psychological path for anxiety relief. I’m going for the brisk bike ride (where, when I’ve been working on a piece of writing, many times I’ve marveled that full sentences, even paragraphs, come fully formed into my mind), and the morning meditation. By the way, the ones I’ve been using come from this iPad app [3] (yes, the same one that Buddha used), but no electronic metronome is necessary. Just the steady in and out of the breath, and its observation.

Oh, and I’m still going to have the cocktails.

Oh, eternal UnBoxers, how do you stave off—or welcome and disarm—anxiety or gloom? Do you use a consistent technique, or have you tried various approaches? Know any intriguing recipes for a great Manhattan?

About Tom Bentley [4]

Tom Bentley [5] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [6].