The fear/anyway post

© careerusinterruptus.com

Two months ago, I was pounding out my next novel. Six chapters, bang bang bang. Every spare minute, the words flowed without repetition, deviation, or hesitation. I knew what was coming and whenever I sat down, there it was, just as every writer dreams.

Then, COVID slammed that door shut.

I’ve heard the same thing from many friends and in writers’ groups online. They can’t write. Not now.

Of course, it’s because anxiety. (Hello, you old bastard.) Once you’ve opened the door to imagination, who knows what will come waltzing through? Under this kind of existential stress, what-ifs turn fairly quickly from playful to perturbing: instead of characters’ voices, you hear sinister whispers: past hurts, failures, foretellings of disaster.

Even blogging, which is less about the what-ifs and more about the what-happeneds, involves more thought than I care for right now, since these days every damn thing – a meal, a hug, a walk round the park – has to be overthought; all the emotions are already overwrought. Please, don’t ask me to dwell.

So that sucker was nailed shut, I thought, for the duration.

Then last night, a good old-fashioned panic attack. I used to get lots, pre-kids, sometimes clustered closely enough to shed 10kg through stress alone. Post-kids (now that I have 10kg I’d love to shed), they’ve been faint, few, and far between. And although I’d like to claim new-found wisdom, in fact I think I’ve just been too bloody tired to muster up the adrenaline for a proper freakout.

But there I was, at three in the morning – just like old times – awake, mind racing with all the usual garbage, this time COVID-themed: I haven’t been careful enough, we’re all going to die and it will be ALL MY FAULT. Cue a mental re-run of every mistake I’ve ever made, all the way back to the secret I told Carla Wells in 1975. (Why, yes, I AM being completely rational and this global pandemic IS all about me, thanks for asking.)

Cheers, brain.

Well, I’ve been down this hole before. It doesn’t fool me like it used to, and anyway I’m still pretty frickin’ tired, so this time, the shock-waves didn’t leave me gasping. Just awake, and annoyed. I mean, who needs this shit?

And then I thought, well, clearly I do.

Because while I’ve been feeding monkey-brain – reading, listening and talking, trying so hard to keep up – I’ve dropped the self-care ball. Meds have been muddled, sleep slipped, sunshine skipped, veggies eschewed, exercise excused. No wonder I feel like shit about myself, I’ve been treating me abominably. I need outside, movement, sleep, more greens, less caffeine.

Above all, I need to let some words out. Writing has always been the best, the kindest thing I can do for myself; it probably sounds counter-intuitive, but writing escapes my brain. It makes sense of all the words pouring in. The flow found in writing relieves pressure, finds paths, forges meaning. Without it, inside my head becomes hopelessly overgrown and tangled – a mean and scary place.

Scarier, even, than opening that door to find out what I really think.

I wasn’t going to COVID blog. I figured, likely nobody needs any more of that. But it turns out, I do. Scary as it is, I need to write my way through this.

So bear with me. Better yet, join me. Let’s figure this shit out. What do your fears look like?

It ain’t much but it’s all I got

Yesterday, in his strenuous efforts to avoid writing a story, Mr Pixel found and watched a video on wealth inequality in America.

Ten hours later he still knew all the figures: 15.1% living below the poverty line; 1% who hold 40% of America’s wealth; the vast disparity between what people think is happening and what is actually happening, let alone the ideal that 92% of respondents voted for. He’s outraged.

We are not American; we do not live in America.

There is no reason on God’s green earth why he should have watched that video; he did, he said, because he’s a curious bird. (Mo Willem’s phrase has much life in our house. Or to put it another way – Hello, intellectual over-excitability!)

There are, on the other hand, a stack of reasons why he should’ve been writing a story: he’d had a great time in class, collaborating with other, similarly-humored kids to come up with the four characters they were supposed to write about; a genre he’s more than familiar with; a teacher he adores who in turn adores him; the plan that she’d collect all their stories, type them and bind them, so each kid would see their work ‘in print’ and also see how others had explored the same basic idea. Since he ran out of puff and needed to leave before they’d begun writing, the teacher said she’d look forward to receiving his story by email, any time until late the next night. You really can’t ask for better support than that.

But none of it – not the class craic, the amazing teacher connection, the flexible deadline, the reward of a bound printout – is enough to motivate Mr Pixel over the hill of anxiety that stops him writing. Because that is what it is: he freezes like a rabbit in the spotlight of having to make a choice out of the multitude of possibilities and he just. Can. Not.

We talked about perfectionism and how there’s no wrong answer; we talked about the fact that he’s able, if he’d give it a go. (I’ve read about dysgraphia; I don’t think that’s it, but then last night someone on a forum said something that’s sent me back down that rabbit-hole, so watch this space.) Besides the anxiety, there’s a great deal of genetic stubborn here (which if you ask me, he owns far too proudly): for eight years now, he’s consistently maintained that he doesn’t do writing, and so far nobody’s been able to budge that for more than a sentence or two. Scribing, voice-to-text, story prompts: they’ve all been flat-out rejected. He knows what I’m up to and he’s not having a bar of it.

I can’t tell you how nuts this makes me. The point-blank refusal sends me nuclear. Every time I hear ‘no’, I’ll be honest, there’s a reflexive bit of me that wants to reach for my Momma badge, the one that says DAMMIT, I AM IN CHARGE. There are so many good reasons to try and make him do it. Not least, the insult is galling: I’m smart enough, you’d think I could fix this.

But I’ve learned that that is my problem. Making it a power play turns it into a fight, which means he’s not writing. And writing is the goal, is it not?

So we played a bit with Google docs. We wrote each other questions and answers; he wrote a couple of lines about a fat, dumb gamer who met a Ninja who helped him defeat someone who wanted to win a tournament. Needless to say none of that bore any relevance to the assignment and after about fifteen minutes he was over it and quit.

But you know what? I’m counting it as a win. I’m gonna go ahead and celebrate because in that short process he did plenty of rewriting and self-editing. I am shouting it to the skies because it’s the closest he’s ever come to writing a story and even in two sentences his sense of humour shone through and really, truly, that’s all I want: my kid to learn to overcome his anxiety and learn to express himself.

In fact, since he learned something about wealth inequality in America, too, I’m counting it as two wins. The class about statistics is another thing he wouldn’t do, but left to his own devices he stumbled onto it anyway and the conversations have begun. I’m reading up and ready to talk.

Because this is Mr Pixel’s wiring: anxious and stubborn and avoidant as all hell, and yet burning relentlessly away underneath all that is the insatiable need to know. In our house, this is what gifted looks like.