Yesterday I wrote a little over eight hundred words on what I think will be my next book (Number Three 😊). This feels like a big step in the right direction, because part of me has been avoiding writing, and/or struggling with it big time, for a while.
If you’ve been following the blog, you know I’ve been wrestling with pretty severe anxiety since early this summer. This is a big reason why I haven’t been writing much (when at all). It’s not the only reason for the slump, though, as I’ll explore a little bit farther along in this post.
The anxiety first. Folks who have dealt with it know how, initially, you get scared of something, most often a perceived malfunction in your body or mind. Nobody else, not doctors or therapists or family or anyone, can see or confirm the malfunction, but you can’t explain the fear away or reason yourself out of it. Then, insidiously, you get scared because you’re scared. You think things like, If something wasn’t really wrong, I wouldn’t be this scared, or The very fact that I’m scared means I’m hopelessly messed up. The fear goes around in circles, escalating and dragging you with it.
Anxiety can also leave you confused about yourself. You spend so much time hyper-vigilant, watching yourself to make sure you’re still operating okay, that you kind of forget how it feels to just be in your own skin and your own mind. You might feel like you’ve turned into a different person, or you’re not really sure who you are anymore. It can feel terribly risky to trust yourself.
That’s how anxiety has been for me, and it made writing feel frankly dangerous. I felt like had to hold on super-tight to the objectively real. Otherwise how could I be sure I was still functioning okay? I couldn’t let myself escape into a fictional world, especially one of my own creation. How could I believe it was okay to imagine things? How could I trust myself to walk that balance between the world in my mind, and the one I lived in?
I hated feeling like I couldn’t write. (Talk about not being sure who you are anymore!) The good news is – as I read when I was learning all I could about anxiety – that the mind will heal and get back to its accustomed way of working, once you figure out how to get out of its way. Hyper-vigilance doesn’t help. It only keeps the fear-cycle spinning. The best thing you can do, I read, is get on with your life as well as you can. Do the things you want to do, even if anxiety tells you that you can’t or shouldn’t.
This gets me back to writing, and to the second piece of the creativity slump. I call this piece the Why should I? phenomenon.
It was easy to say that I should write, to ground myself, to help with recovery from the anxiety, and because, when you get down to it, writing is what I love to do and the one thing I most want to do. But it was hard to get past the fear that it was somehow dangerous, and on top of that, there’s the uncertainty in the act itself. Why should I do it, when I don’t know if it’ll be any good? Why should I do it, when I have no control over whether anyone likes it, or whether anyone sees it, or whether it gets out in the world at all?
When I found myself starting to feel like writing again, it felt like deciding to go down with my colors nailed to the mast. Maybe diving into a fictional world was the wrong thing to do, even though it never had been before. (Anxiety also likes to tell you that no matter how many times you do something with no trouble at all, next time might be different.) I figured that maybe my brain just couldn’t handle it. But I was sick of not doing it, and I found myself wanting to get back into the world of my second book, Fourteen Stones.
Well. My brain fought that idea as hard as it knew how. You can’t do that. Who knows if Fourteen Stones will ever see the light of day? How can you possibly justify writing a sequel (editor’s note: it’s actually a prequel) when nobody might want the first one? Why do you want to waste your time? That’s stupid!
But the mind does heal if you can figure out how to get out of its way. In spite of all the messages about danger and uncertainty and the possible stupidity of the whole idea, I found myself putting a toe back in that fictional world. First I was thinking vaguely about my favorite character again. Then I was going back to a period in his life that I’d dreamed up while writing Fourteen Stones, but that hadn’t needed to go on the page in that book. And then – glory be – I was back in the farmhouse where he grew up, and I could practically smell the fire on the hearth in the front room, and run my hand along the generations-old wooden beams and floorboards.
It still felt like a huge risk, for more than one reason. It still does. But I’m learning that my writer-mind is stronger than the other stuff, and for sure, if I was going down, I would want to do it with my colors nailed to the mast…except I’m not going down. I’m off to the races.
After a couple of weeks of sketching and brainstorming, I figured out where this prequel-book needs to start. Yesterday I wrote the first couple of pages of Chapter 1. When the anxiety was at its worst, I thought I might never be able to do this kind of work again, but the words are coming back, and the story is already unfolding in shapes I hadn’t considered.
Getting back to work, for me, means coming home. I’m so glad to do it. Let the new adventure begin!