Today’s very short post is only to share that something new is coming soon to the website. A project for writers, music enthusiasts, and anyone looking for inspiration for their creative work, or simply something new to relax and open the mind, will be live most likely within the next week. This project has been a long time in planning, and I’m excited to share it. Stay tuned! 🙂
If you’ve been following the blog over the past few weeks, you know that one of the big things I’ve been writing about is recent experiences with anxiety. While panic attacks are familiar territory for me, the higher level of pretty-much-constant anxiety I’ve been living under is a new and highly unwelcome situation. I know I’m not the only one to go through something like this, though, and it’s been helpful for me to spend some time looking at causes and sitting with the feelings, rather than always trying to push back against them. If you’re a fellow struggler in these particular trenches, maybe some of these thoughts will help you too.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about how a lot of what I’m currently experiencing started immediately after I made a promise to myself to take my work as a writer seriously. I was making the commitment to stand by my second novel until I find the right path to publication for it, and I was making the commitment to honor my work as a teacher and editor, and to remember that those skills are valuable and I should never doubt that fact. When I made that promise, I knew I’d get some level of pushback from depression, that longtime inhabitant of my brain. I didn’t know how strong the pushback was going to be.
I’ve posted before about what my particular experience over the past few weeks has been like: the intense discomfort, the worry that I can’t trust what my mind is doing, the cycles of concern I go through. (“What if I can’t function? Okay, I can function, but what if I can’t do this specific thing? Okay, I can do that thing, but what if I can’t do this other thing? OMG, I almost put the milk away in the pantry instead of the fridge; I knew I was losing it!” and on, and on…). Along with worries about basic functionality, I’ve been afraid to trust my imagination. Of course that’s the most fundamental aspect of writing fiction: being willing and able to create imagined worlds and people, to take small threads of reality and spin them into a new and unique fabric woven from the mind. Sometimes I’ve worried that I’ll suddenly lose all my skills in that area. Other times I’ve worried that maybe I shouldn’t imagine things so much, in case someday I have problems figuring out what’s real and what isn’t.
It’s taken me a while to realize that much of this really is the pushback from my old nemesis, as I honor the promise I made to myself. Writing is more than a thing I do: it’s a huge piece of who I am. It’s a delight, a challenge, an obsession. I’ve always been deeply reluctant to accept myself as a writer, and to give my work and myself the respect they deserve. The depressive part of my brain still doesn’t want me to do that. It’s trying to stop me in whatever way it thinks will work, and it fights as dirty as it knows how.
But I’m stronger than it is. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found that in spite of all the things I’ve worried about, yes, I can still function. (Surprise! 😉 ) I’ve driven long distances, run errands, made meals and desserts, played the piano, taught writing workshops, done housework and yard work, and often have actually been more productive than usual, out of a need to keep busy. Ideas for my third novel have been percolating, in spite of my worries about using and trusting my imagination. I’ve read good books and laughed at episodes of Good Omens (speaking of books, if you haven’t read that one, you must). Life has gone on. Looking at it from the outside, it’s been fine.
Most recently, over the past couple of days, I’ve been able to think again about “what comes next.” I’d put that aside for a while, since getting along from one day to the next – and sometimes from one hour to the next – has been enough of a challenge. Now, though, I’m thinking about the workshops I want to do, the next book I want to write, the way my schedule will look in the fall. I’m finding myself honestly believing that in spite of everything that’s been going on, good things are on their way.
The other piece of this is that I know I’ll come out of all this stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m used to being scared of a lot of things. Now, though, I know what real fear feels like, and other fears seem a lot smaller. I’ve always been scared of driving on highways, but last week I did it every day without a twinge. Pretty much any challenge I can imagine feels like a problem that has a solution, rather than an unscalable wall. In a brutal, backhanded way, the past few weeks have given me a gift: perspective.
This is all still a work in progress. It’s easier, though, when I understand that what I’m experiencing is the growing pains associated with keeping my promise to myself. My depression doesn’t like it, but I’m doing it anyway, and everything is going to be better on the other side.
If you’re dealing with challenges like these, keep the faith. Good things are coming.
Photos by Paul Faatz
The blog is late again this week: it’s been a very busy teaching week, which has helped with my need to keep my mind busy. 😊 I’ve been leading a summer writing workshop with Writopia Lab in Washington DC. Writopia is a terrific organization that works with young writers, ages 7 through high school, and I’ve been having a great time with a group of very smart and creative teens. It’s fun to see how the next generation of storytellers is shaping up!
This week, I wanted to depart a bit from the subject of the past couple of weeks, though what I’d like to share today is still connected with the larger topic of mental health. I’m putting this out partly as a teaser, and partly as a way to motivate myself to follow through on a plan I’ve had for a long time.
As both a writer and a musician, I’m always interested in the ways in which these two art forms can dovetail, feed, and support one another. For several months now, I’ve been planning an online course which I’ll run through my website. Called “Musical Meditations,” this course is meant to support writers in particular, but also artists in general, and anyone who would find some music-inspired creative work helpful to their mindset and well-being.
In today’s post, I’m offering a sample of what the course is meant to do. It’s designed as a group of four sessions which will take place over four weeks, though participants can work at their own speed.
Each session will begin with a recording of selected piano music. Each recording will include multiple pieces, but they will all be by the same composer. Participants will first be asked to listen to the music and free-write, or journal, any response they have to it, or anything it brings to mind. This is the meditative part of the exercise: freeing the mind by letting it go wherever the music leads.
After the free-writing exercise, participants will be given information about the music they just heard. Each of the four course sessions will feature a different composer, belonging to a specific period in musical history and writing in distinctive ways. Participants will learn about the composers’ lives, the stylistic choices they made in their music, and why they wrote the types of works they did.
Participants will then be given a specific writing prompt based on the music they heard. This prompt will in some way tie into the historical period the featured music belongs to, events in the life of the composer, and/or the construction or style of the music. For writers, this prompt may help create a new idea for a story, poem, or essay. For other artists, playing around with the ideas might support work in another art form. For all participants, the prompts are meant as a fun mental exercise to stimulate creativity.
Below, I’ve included a recording of a work by Claude Debussy. Debussy (1862-1918) is a French composer belonging to the Impressionist era in music history, which covers the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist composers loved to create washes of color in their music by using rich and often dissonant harmonies, and fully exploring the ranges and capabilities of the instruments they wrote for. Their fascination with musical color parallels the interests of Impressionist painters like Monet, who worked during the same time period. Like their colleagues in music, Impressionist painters wanted to create rich palettes in their work, fully exploring the potential of colors and how they could blend in new ways.
In the Debussy recording presented here, you can hear how the composer uses the full range of the piano, and how he creates a lush palette of sound that explores beautiful and startling dissonance. This piece, “Pagodes,” is the first movement of Debussy’s three-movement suite Estampes. The title of the whole work translates literally as “woodcuts” or “etchings,” and in each of the three movements, the composer intends to evoke a specific place, as one might create an image for a picture postcard. The first movement, “Pagodes” (“Pagodas”), evokes an Eastern flavor with the sounds of chimes and gongs.
If you’d like, I invite you to listen to “Pagodes” and, either while listening or afterward, free-write or journal in response to it, letting your mind travel wherever the music leads. I often find this is very helpful for calming and centering the mind, especially in times of stress or agitation. Then I’d invite you to consider the following prompt:
Debussy creates an image of a place he loves, through the use of particular harmonies and musical sounds. Consider a place you know well and can visit in your mind. Evoke it as vividly as you can on paper, using all details that make this place special: not only what you might see or hear there, but what you might taste, touch, or smell. Describe all of this to bring this place to life. [And for writers, the following additional prompt: does this setting suggest any sketch or lead to a story or other piece of written work?]
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be putting together the full course on my website, and will post an update or two as it’s getting ready. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed today’s sample!
My new post is a little late this week: it took an extra day for me to gear up and put some thoughts in order. These past couple of weeks, but this past week in particular, have been incredibly challenging. I’m writing about it as a shout-out to all artists who deal with depression and anxiety. Solidarity, folks!
Last week I posted about traveling and some anxiety that came out of that. What I said less about, I think, was that right toward the end of the trip, I gave myself a “pep talk” about what I needed to do once we got home. Those of you who’ve been following the blog know that for the past six months or so, I’ve been looking for an agent for my novel Fourteen Stones. You also know that I’ve been trying out some new things, professionally, and generally working on building a writing career through a few different angles.
Toward the end of the trip, as I looked at getting back into “real life,” I tried to gear myself up for the next round of efforts. I knew I was likely to hear back fairly soon from at least one agent, and I had a couple of other important irons in the fire. On the blog, I’ve talked before about the effects that rejection and (perceived) failure can have on artists who deal with depression and anxiety. They can be annihilating experiences, making us call everything about our work and ourselves into question. Before the trip ended, I tried to impress on myself the importance of holding onto an ironclad belief in my work. After all, if I stop believing in it, who’s going to fight for it? I promised myself that no matter what, I would hang tough, always keep trying, and never forget the value of what I do as a writer and teacher.
And then I got home. Within the first couple of days, a handful of failures and rejections came in, one from the agent who so far has been most interested in Fourteen Stones. It was a very nice rejection, stressing the things that the agent had liked about the book, and the fact that the whole process is so subjective and that overall my work is very strong. But that, along with some other unwelcome news, created what turned into a perfect storm of panic.
For those of you who’ve dealt with severe anxiety, you know how disorienting it can be. You’re in constant fight-or-flight mode, unable to relax, burning through gallons of adrenaline a day, and maybe feeling like you can’t even totally trust your own brain. This is how I felt. While on the outside, I was functioning absolutely fine, on the inside I felt like I was hanging onto my sanity by my fingernails. Every day was exhausting.
For readers wondering if I knew to get help: don’t worry, I did. I spoke with a doctor and therapist, making sure things were okay, and finding effective ways to counter the surges of panic. Mindfulness practice is new to me, but even my first introduction to it was very helpful, letting me separate out my objective experience from the messages the panic was giving me. I took anti-anxiety remedies, got extra exercise, found constructive things to focus on – to break the cycle of “worrying about the worry” – and gave myself space to rest as much as possible. The whole experience has been tough, though. I’d expected to go into a depressive cycle after bad news. This different reaction scared me exactly because it was different.
What I realize, though, is that it’s all part of the same mental challenges I’ve always had. It’s a different and, for me, scarier side of my depression, but it ties back to all the same issues I work with every day. Putting myself and my work on the line, putting my words and ideas out into the world, is always hard for me. Now I know that my reaction to those stressors can take a couple of different forms.
This experience has shown me what kind of work I still have to do, to stay centered and grounded no matter what happens on the outside. It’s shown me that hanging onto self-belief might be even more important than I thought. At least part of the panic I experienced, I think, came from deciding that if my work “wasn’t viable” (because of rejection) then maybe I “wasn’t viable” either as a productive or functional person. Again, that message is nothing new; it just took a different form this time.
Coming out on the other side of that very difficult week, I’m feeling better. Ideas and enthusiasms are reawakening. I’m feeling like I might just be able to follow through on some plans I made before all this started, plans that got forcibly put on hold when life became such a day-to-day fight. I’m waking up again. And yes, I’m going to go back to work on the next steps in my writing career, including finding the right agent for Fourteen Stones and for my books going forward. There’s so much I want to do. Depression and anxiety aren’t going to keep me from doing it.
If you, like me, have dealt with feelings like these, you’re not alone. It gets better. Panic is a horrible experience, but there’s help available. You are strong. You are okay. You can get through this.
I’ll close this post with some good music. The Temptations had a different message with their lyrics, but right now they sum up how I’m feeling, doing better and getting back to work. “Get ready, ‘cause here I come…”