Old into New

Thanks for visiting again! Today’s post (I think) will be short: an apology for the unintended hiatus over the past couple of weeks, and a note about the upcoming (probable) hiatus until the New Year.

I didn’t plan to miss last week’s post, but a pre-Thanksgiving cold has been hanging around, making any extra work a challenge. Now, as we’re going into the extremely active holiday season, I’m expecting my brain to shut down a little over the next couple of weeks.

Can’t believe 2019 is already almost over. I thought that for this short post, I’d mull over the transition between the old and New Years a bit.

To be honest, I’ll be glad to see the end of 2019. It’s been a tough year overall. To begin with, it was a year of saying goodbye. Here, on a personal note, I remember Lee Abbott and Van Reiner, two bright and brave souls whose passing this year has left things a little darker. Lee was an extraordinary writer whose gifts touched the lives of countless students and colleagues. Van was a scientist and one of the warmest and most genuine people I’ve ever known. It was too soon to lose them both.

While I tell myself to remember their light and carry it on in my own life as best I can, sometimes that feels really hard to do. Sharing a link here to Maroon 5’s “Memories,” which has resonated with me a lot over the past few months:

 

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Shifting from the personal to the professional, the past almost-six months have been pretty disappointing. Anxiety has kept me mostly in survival mode since early July, and as I look back on all that time, it feels like far too many weeks that I won’t get back. None of my 2019 goals really came to fruition; I didn’t have the energy to work or hustle the way I needed to. While I know I did the best I could, given how I was feeling, I still don’t like seeing all that blank time in the rearview mirror.

On the other hand, things are getting better. Mornings, especially, have gotten a lot better over the last couple of months. If you’ve dealt with anxiety, you know that mornings can be the absolute worst, because your cortisol levels are high after the night. Sometimes it can be impossible even to sit down for five minutes to eat a bowl of cereal or drink a cup of coffee (and that’s if you don’t swear off coffee for a while, as I did). It’s been good, lately, to sit down and eat breakfast the way I used to, and yes, savor that cup of coffee. The agitation is still there, but it doesn’t run things anymore.

And though the last five-plus months do feel like a professional blank, I also have to see them as a time of growth. My anxiety forced me to look at some big, deep-seated issues I have with the way I feel about myself: the roots of what I’ve always experienced as chronic depression. As I’ve written about before on the blog, I’ve gotten used to depression, but the anxiety of this summer was a real wake-up call. It’s made me see that taking a different view of myself wouldn’t just be helpful: it’s actually necessary if I want to continue to work and do the things I care about. Before this summer, I didn’t know that self-directed shame could explode into something so destructive and inhibiting. I don’t want that to happen again, so I have to work on the shame.

Going into 2020, I want to let go of my disappointment about that big piece of 2019, learn what I can from it, and hopefully come out stronger and more ready than ever to work. Whether you have goals for the New Year, or prefer to take things as they come and focus on the day-to-day, I send you all positive energy and good wishes for the holiday season and the year to come. See you in 2020!

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!