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.
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.
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 I 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.