Back to Work

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.

6.26.19 post - Pine Creek falls (2)

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?

river 1

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!

minebank view

 

 

 

Teaser 2

Thanks for visiting, as always! Today I’m sharing another teaser from a new project I’m working on: a collection of very short, fable-like stories about the experiences artists face. As a short intro, Vera is an artist, in any discipline you’d like to imagine – whatever resonates most with you. Lia is one of her three feline-shaped muses.

If you like this excerpt, you can read another in my post here.

**

It’s raining today, a steady thin drizzle. Vera sits under a spreading tree, leaning back against its broad trunk. The leaves make a green cave to shelter her. Now and then, collected moisture drips off a branch here or there, splashing softly on the grass.

Vera would like to be walking again. Sometimes she welcomes the time to think and be quiet, but right now isn’t one of those times. She’s been thinking too much lately about her art. Sometimes nothing about it seems right. The quieter her mind is, the more she sees problems and mistakes, and the faster they grow.

It’s a little too wet to walk, though. Aurelia-who-is-called-Lia, sitting in the grass beside her, agrees.

“Wait for the sun to come out,” Lia says. She lifts a dainty front paw to her mouth and smooths a few hairs down with her tongue. “We should only walk when it’s nice. Much more comfortable.”

Lia is small and striking. Most of her fur is black, but with enough ginger and beige mixed in to give it a marbled look. One hind leg is orange with tabby striping. Her paws and chest are white. In sunlight, her fur has the sheen of velvet.

Vera fidgets. “When is it going to get nice again?”

Lia cocks her head. “Why are you in such a hurry?”

Vera doesn’t answer. She drums her fingers restlessly on her knee, not looking at Lia, but she can feel the grass-green eyes studying her.

Lia gets up and comes over. She climbs into Vera’s lap, pushing her uneasy fingers aside. Her claws come out, just enough to prick Vera’s leg and get her attention.

“Hey,” Lia says. “Don’t ignore me.”

Vera looks down into the small face. Lia’s ears are mostly black, mottled with a little bit of orange, but she has a mask of ginger around her eyes and a splash of white and beige on her nose. Vera can’t help smiling. “I can’t ignore you,” she says. “You won’t let me.”

Lia arches her back, purring. “That’s right. I get attention when I want.”

Vera runs her hand down Lia’s sleek side, feeling the texture of the glossy fur. The purr is a noisy rumble now as Lia presses against Vera’s hand. Then the purring stops and Lia sits back on her haunches.

“You know you’re just the way you need to be,” she says.

Vera shakes her head. She’s used to the way Lia thinks. “Maybe you are,” she says.

“Maybe?” Lia’s green eyes go wide. “There’s no maybe about it.” She lifts her chin proudly and swishes her tail, displaying the tiny white point on its tip. “Look at me,” she says. “How could anyone be prettier?”

She’s right, of course. Nobody else could look quite like her, with her mix of colors and the funny patches on her face that are somehow perfect. Vera rubs the top of the small round head. “It’s true,” she agrees. “Nobody can match you.”

Lia looks satisfied to the point of smug. “Same for you.”

Vera thinks of a lot of things she could say about that. The whole world can see Lia as lovely and delightful; Lia knows it’s her due, and anyone who doesn’t agree isn’t worth her worry. But Vera is different.

Lia rubs her face against Vera’s hand. “You’re mine,” she says. “That’s all you need to know.”

Because Lia doesn’t have time for anyone who isn’t worth it. Vera can hear that, loud and clear. She’s still not totally sure she believes it, but she smiles.

Lia curls up in her lap. The two of them sit quiet together, listening to the soft rain.

Alafair portrait
Alafair, aka Smidgen, the original Lia

 

Alafair nap
She’s not very fetching…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buried Meteor

Apologies for the lack of post last week. After Tuesday went by, I thought maybe Wednesday or Thursday I would put up a late one, but then it was the end of the week and I still hadn’t gotten my act together. 😉

But I’m glad I waited, because this week’s post probably needed the extra “mental digestion” time. This week I’m thinking about my creative work: ways I’ve avoided it, and why I’ve had such a hard time getting back to it after a rough summer.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know the summer was very challenging for me, involving lots of anxiety and panic. Naturally, doing creative work under those circumstances gets to be difficult (“I can’t sit down long enough! I can’t concentrate! I can’t…”). With the start of fall, I’d hoped and planned that things would get better. Time had passed since a couple of the events that kicked off the panic. I was on a new med. Surely, I thought, come September I’d be able to turn things around and get back to my “normal” self.

The process of re-normalizing has been a lot slower than I’d hoped. Over the summer, I spent a lot of time avoiding any thoughts of my writing or what I want to do with it. More recently, I’ve been thinking about it again, and sometimes actually getting some words on the page…but it always seems like the anxiety is hovering in the background, ready to knock me down again. You’re trying that? You must be crazy. And then I’ll find something else to do instead: laundry, random errands, unnecessary baking (which has its benefits, I admit), or any other kind of busy work to get away from what scares me.

river 1

Avoidance is normal and part of the artistic life. We all know what it’s like to feel intimidated by that project we want to work on, but aren’t sure we can really do “well enough.” For me, though, it’s gone a little deeper than the usual resistance I know. It’s like when you’re clearing a piece of ground in your yard to put in a garden. You dig down and your shovel hits a stone that doesn’t look like much at first, so you try to find the edge of it so you can flip it out of the hole…but you keep digging, and digging, and your shovel keeps hitting it, and it turns out this thing is huge. It’s as if there’s a buried meteor down there, and you can’t put your garden in on top of it, and you don’t know how you’re going to get it out.

In my case,  the buried meteor – the biggest source of my resistance to digging into my creative work, getting back to that so-important piece of life – is my own view of myself. I’ve always known I had some, let’s call them self-esteem challenges. The past few months have shown me exactly how big they are.

waterfall pic

If you were reading the blog during the summer, you know that in June, I had a string of tough writing-related news that culminated in a rejection of my novel Fourteen Stones by an agent we’ll call Agent X. I’d liked Agent X a lot; they’d spent quite a bit of time with the book, I knew that folks on their team really liked it, and they’d been respectful and communicative throughout the submission and review process. Unfortunately, as can easily happen in this process, the book turned out to be not quite the right fit for them. Instead of saying to myself, “Hey, you got really close with Agent X, they were really nice and they did like the book a lot, so you just need to keep trying and you’ll find the right agent for you,” I let my disappointment turn into crashing shame. All the time I’d spent working on Fourteen Stones suddenly seemed like a total waste. It was no good. I was no good.

This might seem unreasonable if you’re not familiar with the process, and especially if you don’t happen to look at the world through the truth-distorting lens of anxiety and depression. Even I knew it was over the top, but I couldn’t seem to control it. I spent the rest of the summer and well into the fall wondering what was wrong with me, why my head felt so messed up, not knowing how I could ever get myself back to a productive place. Sometimes I got more angry than scared, and sometimes – despite how nice they’d been – I got really pissed at Agent X. More than once I wanted to sit down and write them a furious email about how my whole summer had been ruined, four months of my life I’d never see again, because they just couldn’t give me the answer I wanted and it wasn’t fair!

Of course this isn’t an ideal career move. 😉 More importantly, though, very lately I’ve come to understand something else: really understand it, rather than just being aware of it. Of course it isn’t Agent X’s fault that my book wasn’t the right match for them. And it wasn’t their fault that I had so much trouble with that rejection: that I let it take me into such a bad place, and that I then stayed there. The problem, which I knew in my head but had never internalized, was that I was giving away my power.

Let’s say Agent X had wanted the book. I’d have been thrilled, of course. It would have felt like a huge validation…and that’s exactly the problem. I would have decided that Fourteen Stones had been worth every hour I’d spent on it. Not because I’d created something that never existed before; not because that creation was exciting and beautiful and I was proud of it; not because all those hours of work on it had been filled with delight and joy. Fourteen Stones would have had worth, in my eyes, not because of what knew about it, but only because someone else found it acceptable. 

Dangerous, right? And that’s my buried meteor: the belief, lodged somewhere deep in my hindbrain, that I have no worth until someone else gives it to me. The more I dig at it, the more I understand how that belief has affected everything I do.

Having that deeply-internalized self-image has meant that I’m reluctant to take risks. I’m scared to put my work out there, so even though I do it, I do it in a small and limited way. I’m always waiting for rejection, not because it’s statistically likely in this business – which it is – but because I believe that’s what I deserve. When it comes, I take that as a confirmation of my belief that I’m “not good enough.” I’m scared to start new projects because I’m firmly convinced I can’t succeed. And then I avoid work entirely because I’m scared of being scared.

Agent X’s rejection – though I don’t like to admit it 😉 – was actually a gift. I just turned forty years old a few weeks ago, and I’m finally starting to get a good look at the buried meteor that’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I want to build a garden in that spot. I know it can be beautiful, but that rock has to come out first.

It’ll take a lot of work. It’s hard for me to imagine really dragging it out into the light and getting rid of it. I can see it, though, and I know what needs to happen next. That’s a start.

waterfall

 

 

 

Coming Back Changed

I didn’t think I was going to write a post this week. My husband and I are spending a couple of days at the coast, so I’d planned on a blog hiatus until next week, but somehow this evening – as I’m sitting in the living room at our rental, listening to the ocean outside – I’m finding myself inspired.

Time away from home can be a terrific way to recharge, but it can also be stressful, as I found somewhat to my surprise earlier this summer. I love traveling, especially with my husband. (Solo, not so much. 😉 ) Usually, I’m able to let my worries sit at home while we’re away, and let myself breathe freely while we’re checking out new places. This past summer, though, anxiety really got in the way of that kind of release during the couple of trips we took. These two days might be different. I’m hoping they will be.

I need some time out of my head and away from the worry. Especially, I want some time to re-ground myself as a writer. This summer was very challenging on that front, and I’m continuing to struggle with questions about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and sometimes whether I can still do it at all. (Anxiety is weird that way. You can prove to yourself a hundred times in a row that you can do something – write a few sentences, come up with a halfway-decent paragraph, brainstorm for a story – and anxiety will still insist that, when you try to do it for the hundred-and-first time, you’ll fail. All you can do is keep showing it, again and again, that it’s wrong. Eventually it’ll wear itself out and go away, or so I’m told.) Thinking clearly about the things I want to think about, instead of getting caught up in loops of panic, seems to involve a kind of end-run around that unwelcome “guest” in my brain. Not easy, but possible.

prettyboy view
Loch Raven Reservoir, Maryland

So tonight I’m listening to the ocean and thinking, again, about why we tell stories. Stephen King said that storytelling is “telling lies about people who never existed in order to learn the truth about ourselves” (paraphrasing a bit, but that was the gist of his quote). We create these imagined places and people; we as writers pour ourselves into our fictional worlds, and then we translate all of that onto the page and send it – hopefully – into the minds of other people who may never see or meet us in their lives. And somehow, through this work of the imagination, we create a real connection between people.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post here on the blog about how I’ve struggled with the value of what my imagination creates. I’ve worked through at least some of that, but I continue to ask myself what my work as a writer really consists of, or what I really hope it can achieve. It seems to me that writing can do a lot, it can have a great deal of power…but what, exactly, does that power look like in my own work? What am I, as a writer, seeking to do?

I’ve often thought about how writing can let me show a reader a perspective, a situation, a set of circumstances they may not have thought about before. Beyond a doubt, that can be valuable: show a reader a character whose life is very different from the reader’s own, and maybe you’ll help a perspective shift, just a little. But there’s another piece to this too. As a writer, I want my readers not just to follow my character through their his or her story, but know what it’s like to be that character. Inhabit that character’s heart and mind so deeply that, for a moment, those experiences become personal. After all, isn’t that why we love to read? To taste a different world and a different life, while the pages last?

ocean view 2
The Bold Coast, Maine

When I work on any project, but especially a book, I have to have at least one character I feel in love with. That character becomes my motive power through the project and beyond, when it’s time to talk publication: if I’m in love with that person, I can’t let him or her down. I have to see the project all the way through until it’s out in the world. When I’m writing that character, I’m writing as deeply from the heart as I know how to. My hope, then, is that those words go straight from my heart to the reader’s. And when they do, I hope the reader steps into my character’s life and experience, his own heart and mind, and for those pages, actually tastes what it’s like to become someone else.

If that happens, is it valuable? I’d say yes. It’s actually a kind of magic. The reader moves into a place that never existed until I thought of it; the reader looks out through eyes that never existed until I imagined them. And – if I’ve done my work well enough – by doing those things, the reader has an experience that changes him or her somehow. Can you really go away somewhere and come back exactly the same as you were before you left?

I like to think not, especially tonight, by the ocean. I like to think I’ll come back from these couple of days changed, just a little, with something to help carry me along and maybe make it easier when anxiety gets up to its tricks. And I like to think, too, that my words on the page do something similar for the people who read them. That, having read them, they feel a difference – however small – in their lives and themselves, and that when they come back from the place where I’ve taken them, they’re changed, if ever so slightly. That’s what this work is all about.

rocky point view
Rocky Point State Park, Maryland

Maryland photos by Kris Faatz; Maine photo by Paul Faatz

 

 

Teaser

Thanks for visiting, as always! This week I’ve started a new project, and thought I’d post a short teaser from it here. The very short story below is going to be part of a larger collection, all dealing with the experiences and challenges artists face.

Quick explanatory note: Vera is an artist; her discipline is whatever you’d like to imagine, whatever resonates most with you. Twist is one of her three feline-shaped muses.

Hope you enjoy!

**

Vera sighs. For a while now, she’s been walking along her path, carrying her current project. She has carried it sometimes on her back, sometimes in her arms, with the same care and delight she would feel in carrying a child. For a while, her path has been straight and smooth. Sunlight has brightened it every day. The art she carries has seemed to have no weight at all. Having it with her has only filled her with more energy and strength, as if taking care of this precious burden means she can cover any distance and do anything.

Today, though, the path seems steeper. Loose rocks and gravel have turned up underfoot and Vera can feel them, sharp under her shoes. She’s tripped a couple of times on tree roots she didn’t see. The weight in her arms feels much heavier, dragging at her shoulders, but when she tries putting it on her back, it bows her down until she can barely put one foot in front of the other.

Finally she unships it and sets it down on the grass at the edge of the path. She sits down next to it, looking at it as if maybe it will get up and start walking on its own. Maybe it can lug itself along for a little while. Today she doesn’t have a whole lot more to give.

Twist saunters out of the grass. When they’re walking together, Vera is used to him coming and going however he wants. He is always around, but the sameness of the path can bore him when the air is full of scents and sounds.

He rubs his long body against Vera’s knee. “Why are we stopping?” he asks.

“I’m tired,” Vera says. She looks at the art, lying there mute in the grass. “I don’t know, Twist. What am I doing with this, anyway?”

The sun is out again today, but this time its rays come through a bank of cloud, creating a white glare. In the unfriendly light, Vera doesn’t think the art looks as beautiful or appealing as it used to. In fact, in this moment, she can’t really imagine picking it up again. Why should she, when it’s so heavy? What if it’s not worth dragging along anyway?

Twist sidles over to the art and sniffs it. He prods it lightly with a paw. Finally he rubs against it the same way he did with Vera. Mine, the gesture says.

He looks up at her. His eyes are green at the pupil, changing to gold at the edge of the iris, and they’re set wide apart on either side of his broad nose. Their heavy lids often make him look half-sleepy, but there’s no sleepiness in the look he gives her now.

“It’s yours,” he points out.

Vera sighs again. She runs her hand along his back. His fur is soft, but she can feel the texture of the individual hairs.

“I don’t know,” she says again. “It’s not very good, is it?”

Twist sniffs. “Good, not good. Who knows?”

“If I could tell for sure,” Vera says. The harsh sun-through-clouds glare really does make the art look ugly, she thinks. All the time she’s spent carrying it up to now, she never noticed how unattractive it really was. Or how heavy. She probably wasted a lot of effort just getting it this far.

Twist stretches out on the grass beside her. He can get comfortable anywhere, in no time at all. He turns his head to look up at her. From this perspective, his face is upside down.

“How can you tell if it’s good,” he asks, “when it’s not done yet? If I’m chasing a mouse, I don’t know if it’ll taste good until I catch it.”

“Twist!” Vera scolds. “That’s disgusting.” He’s never caught a mouse, and she never wants to see him do it, but he likes her to know he could be a great hunter if he wanted. She believes it. He’s fast and smart.

Twist rolls over onto his back and folds his front paws under his chin. “Sorry.”

Vera can’t help laughing. In one quick movement, Twist is back on his feet, sniffing at the art. “Mice smell good,” he tells her. “This does too.”

Vera laughs again. “Really?”

The green-and-gold eyes find hers. “Yes. I think you should chase your mouse a little more.” Twist stretches, pushing his big white front paws into the grass. “Besides, it’s awfully quiet around here, isn’t it? Let’s go find some excitement.”

Vera doesn’t really want to pick up the art again, but when Twist rubs against her leg, pushier now, she knows she doesn’t have a choice. She gets up and hoists the weight back into her arms.

Somehow it doesn’t seem quite as heavy as it did before. Twist sets off along the path, picking his way between loose stones, his long tail held cheerfully high. Cradling her work, Vera follows.

Fergus not on the table (2)
The original Twist: my writing buddy Fergus
Fergus nap bed
Proper snoozing technique: a demo

Why Imagine?

This one is for my fellow artists, especially the writers…

A number of years ago now, I read an article by a writer whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t remember. In the article, this writer was talking about the experience of getting her first book published, and all the challenges and setbacks that finally led up to that accomplishment. Specifically, she talked about how it happened a lot later than she’d initially hoped when she was an up-and-coming twenty-something. She’d had an earlier first book, which had landed her an agent, but after the usual period of effort, her agent hadn’t been able to sell that book. This experience sent the writer into a tailspin of despair. The rejections and the loss of hope were so difficult that she had to walk away from writing for six years.

When I read this, I was somewhere in the middle of my own first-book trajectory, trying to figure out what to do with To Love A Stranger and what might ever happen to it. (I still didn’t know a whole lot about the craft, and my efforts from that time would definitely qualify as “sins of my youth.”) My response to this lucky published writer wasn’t very sympathetic. You quit writing for six years? How could you do that?! I decided that anybody who could turn their back on the craft for that length of time just wasn’t very serious about it. I saw that writer’s exodus as a kind of tantrum, an “I didn’t get what I want, so I quit!” fit of bad behavior.

Now, though, with the perspective of a few more years and a lot more rejections, disappointment, and loss of hope of my own, I have to say: I get it, sister. I really do.

irvine field view

We writers and artists give ourselves an uphill task every day. We’re creating work that doesn’t exist until our imaginations yield it up and we weave it into something that holds together, something that captures some fraction of the beauty or message or thrill we hoped for when we started. We do it knowing that no work will ever seem perfect to us, and we often have to struggle against our own inertia and the constant intimidation of that “ideal product” that we know we’ll never create. And for a lot of us, the investment of so much time and energy into something so uncertain – will I ever get a return on this? will people like it? will it (maybe, possibly, ever) sell? – feels like a risk we maybe can’t afford.

I felt this way, profoundly, about my second novel Fourteen Stones. I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about the anxiety that set in after a particularly difficult rejection connected with that book. What I hadn’t expected after the rejection, though, was the experience of starting to attack my own imagination and, quite literally, my ability to write. It was as if my brain decided that I shouldn’t imagine things, shouldn’t write, shouldn’t take pleasure in or even be able to do something that had given me so much satisfaction…when, after all, the great gamble on that novel hadn’t paid off the way I’d hoped it would.

We artists tell ourselves we have to be tough, resilient. We tell ourselves we have to get up and keep fighting every time rejection and setbacks knock us into the dust. What I experienced over this past summer made me question whether – assuming I still could manage to do the work I loved – I should still try. Because, after all, if I let rejection knock me down and hold me down for so long, if I “let myself” feel so terrible about it and “let it” make me unable to imagine, create, or put my ideas on the page: if all those things were true, then maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe I wasn’t meant to do this work after all.

That other writer might have experienced exactly this when she walked away from her work for years. Or maybe her experience was a little different, but in any case, I now understand why someone would make the choice she did. I understand how it feels to question the value of your work, question the reason and worth behind investing so much in the products of the imagination. Why dream? Why create?

I continue to struggle with this, months later. Once anxiety gets its claws in, it doesn’t want to let go. Working around it every day, one step at a time, the single biggest thing I’ve learned so far is that I must not give up on the imagination.

prettyboy view

Why do we artists do what we do? Why dream, why create, when there’s so much risk, and when the rewards sometimes seem so few, transient, and so very far between?

Because what we create would not exist without us. Because only we can do the work we do. No one else could write my book. No one else could paint your painting, or compose your music, or tell your part of the story that is an irreplaceable piece of the greater story of the world. And – maybe even more importantly – because no change is possible without imagination. Artists dare to dream about ideals. We dare to see people and the world differently. We dare to believe that the things we think, feel, and create in our work can reach others, and that as we reach out in the way only we can, we can create change in the world.

It’s a crazy dream, right? It can feel huge and scary and impossible, but the fact is, our work has power. When someone takes in something we’ve created, they’ll experience something they’ll never find anywhere else. They can’t find it anywhere else, because it could only have come from us. And it starts with the work of our imaginations.

So if this game has knocked you down: believe me, I understand. If you need a break from it for a while, I know exactly how that is. But in the long run, please don’t let it make you quit. Now more than ever, we need to see how things could be. We need the dreams and creations only you can bring to the overarching story of the world.

rocky point view

Keep On Keeping On

Two blogposts, two weeks in a row! Maybe I’m getting better at this… 😉

Last week I wrote about anxiety, as related to the performance I was scheduled to give that afternoon. I’m glad to report that – as was maybe expected – the performance went fine, and my well-seasoned performer training kicked in and did what it needed to do. It felt good to follow a familiar pattern. At the same time, it felt even better to know that no matter how tense or scattered I was, I could think on my feet and tailor my program to the audience the way I always do. All of that helped to reassure my over-reactive hindbrain that I’m still getting through life reasonably well, and it doesn’t need to rush to protect me countless times a day.

When I first started having problems with intense anxiety, over the summer, I’d hoped it might run its course in a couple of weeks, like a bad flu. Little did I know! I certainly never thought that three months later, I’d still be trying to work my way through it. A new medication I started taking about a month ago is helping, but most of all, keeping on with my usual routine and doing the things I have to do makes a big difference. I’ve done a lot of reading about anxiety and different ways of treating it, and one of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve come across is that we have to keep living as if we don’t have anxiety. In other words, is there something I would normally do, enjoy, look forward to? Then I must do that thing, even when my brain tells me I can’t or shouldn’t. Pushing myself to do things “anyway” can feel stressful and exhausting, as if maybe I’ll push too hard and snap, and it can also feel like I’m trying to fake it ’til I make it (which might actually be the case). But I don’t want to hunker down and sideline myself until some indeterminate down-the-road day when I might finally feel better. Life is short. I’d rather not waste the time I’ve got, especially not by giving it up to the paranoid twitchy mess in my own head. 😉

minebank view
Therapeutic view

So this week, I’m thinking more about all the things I want to be doing and working on. Another piece of advice I’ve read is that it’s a good idea to plan out what you’ll do with any given day, promise yourself you’ll do those things, and then stick to it. Today I intend to work on the first brand-new short story I’ve started in months; I haven’t written anything new from scratch since before what I’ve named Super-Anxiety (the anti-superhero). Working with words is now a pretty big trigger for me. In the wake of some rejections of my novel Fourteen Stones, earlier in the summer, I definitely got it into my head that I’m not much of a writer and shouldn’t be doing this work. Anxious hindbrain took care of the rest and does its best to freeze me with panic every time I think about sitting down to write. However, anxious hindbrain and I both need to understand that I am and always will be a writer, rejection doesn’t define my work or me, and I will carry on with wordcraft for as long as I live: hopefully a long while yet. There are so many stories I want to write. (And also, anxious hindbrain, let’s not forget that Fourteen Stones is a damn fine piece of work I am proud of. It was a joy to create, and whatever happens, I can think of no better use of my time and the best of my energy.)

It’s good to focus on getting back to work, and to know – no matter how much I sometimes resist the idea – that I can work, no matter how I feel. If you’re like me and you struggle with anxiety, you know how sometimes you win, and sometimes it wins. I’ve had days where, all day long, without even thinking about it, I successfully avoid doing whatever activity scares me most. I’m trying to get better at noticing those days and when I’m coming up with excuses not to do the scary thing. When I can catch myself in the act of avoidance, I can challenge myself to push back against it. You’re scared to write? Go sit down right now and write a paragraph. Two sentences. One line. Every time I resist the avoidance, I get another piece of myself back from anxiety. Even before Super-Anxiety, I was always good at finding ways to avoid the things that make me uncomfortable (highway driving, anyone?). These past three months have been teaching me that I have to face fear, rather than run from it, and I think they’ll result in some permanent changes. (Silver lining!)

If you, like me, struggle with anxiety, what particular thing would you like to do today, or need to do today, that maybe scares you or you feel you can’t really accomplish? Maybe you can promise yourself, right now, that you will do that thing. Write that one sentence. Go for a quick walk. Drive on the highway from one exit to the next one. Show your mind you are okay, and keep on keeping on.

As always, thanks for reading. See you next time!

cat trio sickbed
Therapeutic view 2

Trusting It

Thank you for visiting the blog again. Trying to stay a bit more reliably up and running! 🙂

This afternoon, I’m giving a lecture-performance about my book To Love A Stranger. Before I started having major anxiety struggles this summer, this kind of performance was a little nerve-racking, but mostly no sweat. Today, I’m considerably more nervous than usual. It’s a familiar format, and the kind of gig I’ve done many times before, but I’m having to trust that my performance chops are still there, and will do what they need to do.

It feels like a risk. Part of me wants to run from it, but I’ve learned that the worst thing you can do with anxiety is let it win. When the panic starts telling you that something isn’t safe, or isn’t possible, that’s the time to push back and show it how you know better. Over the summer, when I was really struggling, I had a few days where I let the panic dictate. I canceled my commitments (not many, fortunately) and holed up in bed, listening to music for hours on end. The music was great, but overall, taking this approach to panic was definitely not the right thing to do. It taught me that the only way I could respond to fear was by digging myself a burrow and crawling in.

It’s much harder to push yourself to do things when you’re scared, but it’s also the best way to re-wire your brain and learn that the fear reflex isn’t telling you the truth. Anxiety is an interesting phenomenon. Your hindbrain thinks you’re going into danger, and it wants to protect you, so it kicks in your fight-or-flight response, sometimes so intensely that you feel incapacitated. (If you’ve had the kind of panic attack that involves chest pain, nausea, shaking, dizziness, and the other kinds of symptoms that make you believe you’re in the middle of a heart attack, you know exactly what I mean.) All of this fuss on your hindbrain’s part because it wants to keep you safe from what it sees as danger. Meanwhile, though, its perception of that danger is a little skewed: it doesn’t need to protect you from working, or driving, or staying home alone, or any of the once-ordinary things that might be triggering it. You have to teach it this by doing those things that it doesn’t want you to do.

For me, today’s lecture-performance falls into that category of things. My hindbrain tells me it’s very scary, I won’t be able to get through it, it would be safer not to try. But I know I’ve done exactly this kind of performance before and will do it again, maybe many times. I can get through it, I will get through it, and in so doing, I’ll teach myself and my over-reactive anxiety a valuable lesson. I will trust myself instead of the fear messages.

The video below is a taste of what I’ll be playing this afternoon: the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 90. (Apologies for my somewhat out-of-tune piano. Also, yes, that is a Christmas penguin in the background. 😉 ) Beethoven is one of the composers whose music helped inspire To Love A Stranger, and I’ll be reading an excerpt from the book in which his music features, and talking about why he’s perhaps my ultimate musical hero if I could only pick one. As I write this, I tap into the familiar pattern of these performances, and I get a taste back of my own excitement and enjoyment at the idea of giving one. Take that, anxiety. 😉

Hope you enjoy the music. As always, thanks for visiting the blog. See you next time!

How Can I Help?

Apologies for the longer-than-expected silence on the blog. If you’ve been following it, you know it’s been a pretty challenging summer. As the fall routine starts up again, I’m planning to get back to regular posts, as much as possible!

This week’s post will be rather short, and mostly consists of a question (more on that below). This summer, as I’ve been dealing with an (extraordinarily, frustratingly, intensely) annoying amount of anxiety, I’ve been thinking a lot about the experience that artists, in particular, can have with this disorder and with its flip side, depression. Here on the blog, I’ve posted before about how artists, especially those who routinely put their work out on display in the world, encounter a lot of challenges that can trigger and exacerbate any mental health situations we might be dealing with. Criticism (particularly the blanket, non-useful kind) and rejection hit our buttons and can make it hard to continue our work, and sometimes even to get out of bed in the morning. (Been there.)

We’re lucky to live in a time when mental health care and resources are available, although many mental health conditions are still improperly understood and all-too-often stigmatized. It can be hard to admit that you have a chronic condition that makes life harder than you’d like. You can feel that you’re just not trying enough, or you’re not being positive enough, or you really don’t want anyone to know how you actually feel because it seems unreasonable, silly, paranoid…the list goes on. (One thing I’ve learned this summer, in a far more up-close-and-personal way than I would have liked, is exactly how paranoid anxiety can make you, and what kinds of wildly irrational fears it can convince you to believe in.) Long and short, even though resources and help are out there, it can be hard, sometimes, to reach out for them, and to find the right match for our needs.

Templeton hug
Hugs can help, as Templeton demonstrates.

This is where my question comes in, the focus of this post. I’d like to create my own small resource specifically geared toward artists who deal with depression and anxiety. It would come out of my own experience, and I see it as addressing and sharing that experience, and maybe also offering some affirmations, particularly for the times when we face things like rejection and destructive criticism. I also see cat pictures being involved, because why not?

What I’d like to know, though, is if you are an artist who has these challenges, what would be most helpful for you. What kind of resource would best encourage you, maybe offer a perspective you haven’t seen before or seen enough, or help you feel supported in your own work? What has been missing from the resources you have?

Making art can be a lonely process; doubly lonely, sometimes, for those of us who also feel isolated by mental health challenges. That’s where I’d like to help most. If you have thoughts about what you’d like to see, what might best give you some extra inspiration and support, please feel free to leave a comment here or write to me at kfaatz925@gmail.com.

More on the blog soon. Meanwhile, as always, thank you for reading!

Fergus therapist
Another therapy cat: Fergus.

Musical Meditations Launch!

Following up on the very short post of a couple of weeks ago: today marks the launch of a project I’ve had in mind for a long time. 😊

Musical Meditations is a new, fully self-guided course on my website. It combines three elements: musical inspiration and space for journaling; features on four major composers and periods in music history; and writing prompts based on the music. (If you’re not a “serious” writer, don’t worry: you can still have fun with the prompts, and see where they might take you creatively.)

How it works:

The course is set up to be completed over four weeks. Each week features a different composer: Johann Sebastian Bach in Week 1, Johannes Brahms in Week 2, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Week 3, and George Gershwin in Week 4.

Each week, you’ll first listen to a recording I’ve made of some of the composer’s piano music. While you listen, you’ll journal or free-write, letting the music guide what you put on the page. This is a chance to give yourself space and get in touch with your own thoughts. Music is a great catalyst for this kind of self-expression.

After listening and journaling, you’ll read some background on the composer and the music you’ve heard, learning about that composer’s life, the time period the work belongs to, and some particular features of the pieces. Finally, you’ll be given a writing prompt that draws on the music in some way: something about its structure, or why the composer wrote it, or the time period it belongs to. You can work on the prompt at your own pace and see where it leads you.

Four weeks is the suggested pace, but you can work at your own speed. Once you’ve taken the course, you’ll always have access to the material, so you can go back to it whenever you’d like. As a special bonus offer for writers, if any of the prompts lead you to write creative work that you’d like to share with me for feedback and guidance, participants in this course receive a discount on my one-on-one manuscript consulting rate ($35 per hour instead of $50).

Sound good?

If you’d like to take the course, you can submit payment through PayPal. The suggested cost is $45, but pay what you can. I’m excited to offer this and can’t wait to see how it works for everyone! 😊

Once you submit payment, you’ll receive an email including a password, which will let you access the course page. (Please note that this process is not yet automated. I’ll be sending you the email personally, which may mean a slight delay, but you should receive it within 24 hours.)

Click here to submit payment. When you do, please be sure to include, in the “note” field, the best email to reach you.

If you have any questions or comments, please email me at kfaatz925@gmail.com. And if you take the course, please send me feedback any time. I’d love to hear what you think!

Lake Sable writing
Find your favorite place for meditative creative work!