anxiety

Useless and useful emotion

I haven’t done much writing in the past ten days. Unexpected things have taken me unexpected places, and any scrap of routine has had to be abandoned in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. When I have had moments to myself, I’ve been exhausted, drained and not really capable of speaking, let alone writing.

But now things are starting to settle again, I’ve found myself curiously resistant to putting my butt on the chair in front of my desk where my pen and paper are waiting for me (laying out the tools on my desk the night before has been really useful for making me write in the morning). I’ve been finding ‘more important things to do’, like, empty the dishwasher, stay in bed for half an hour longer, faff around choosing what to wear (which is ridiculous when you realise my wardrobe is entirely one colour – another tip from other writers – limit life’s less important decisions). Given that I only have a small portion of the day I can dedicate to writing, I am appalled at myself even as I’m doing these ‘more important things’ for giving up my precious sliver of creative space so readily.

What’s keeping me from settling down and entering the frame of mind that I fantasise about the rest of the day?

Guilt.

I feel guilty that life took me away from my writing for a few days, and so now writing has morphed into something I ‘should’ be doing, rather than something I want to do, am compelled to do, am hungry to do.

The moment ‘should’ comes into the equation, I can hear doors slamming and horizons narrowing. And my writing creaks along under the weight of the burdens that have been placed upon it.

‘Should’ was the reason I walked away from the way I was working before.

Guilt about writing – or any creative enterprise – is not a useful emotion.

That’s not to say guilt isn’t useful for creativity. Those things that gnaw at the edges of your being, fraying your present with your past. That flood of adrenaline and elation and pain that rises when you’re in the wrong and aren’t going to do anything about it. The battles we have with ourselves as part of us tries to put down a weight that another part insists we continue to carry as penance. There’s sparks of potential in this kind of suffering. But this guilt, not guilt about creativity.

Anxiety is an interesting contrast to guilt in terms of its usefulness. I used to think anxiety was the most unpleasant, least productive state of being possible, but it’s come to my attention recently that I might not have understood the nature of the beast. Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism is particularly illuminating in opening up the nuances and possibilities buried in the twitchy, breathless, fluttery states I get in. She points out, for instance, that anxiety can be seen as a form of excitement, anticipation that isn’t necessarily unpleasant.

Reading that opened up the whole experience of anxiety for me, made me recognise that sometimes I’m confusing fearful anxiety with the moments when I’m exhilarated by the challenge I’m about to face. That’s been really useful for recognising when I’m ready to write – getting anxious about writing isn’t a sign that I don’t know what I’m doing, but rather that I’m feeling ready to take on something big, take on the challenge. And once I’ve got my arse in the chair and my pen in my hand, the anxiety very quickly transforms into a focused concentration. For me now, getting the jitters is a useful sign, a sign that I’m ready to get writing.

Envy, too, used to be a real destructive and paralysing experience for me, in writing as well as in life in general. Reading work that left me wishing that I’d written it would make me stop reading and stop writing. I’d hate the author, resent the work and be overwhelmed by the utter futility of putting even one word onto the page – all of which only served to deprive my world of colour and pleasure and inspiration. And god forbid it was a friend who’d dared to write something I admired. Then, I’d could barely look at them, let alone recognise their success.

Susan Cain’s Quiet opened my eyes to the possibilities contained within envy. It’s a moment where two parts of yourself collide with one another, where your workaday self gets a smack round the face from your largely mute and submerged fantasy self. Envy tells you where your day-to-day existence isn’t delivering, what you aren’t doing for yourself in your life. This is incredibly useful when it comes to creativity – envy gives you signposts for where it is you want to be heading. Which now means, perversely, I quite enjoy getting envious now – it’s when I start taking note.

But guilt, I can’t see the purpose of it. I’ve got to come to the page with a willing abandon – be it joyful or reckless or mad or angry – and feeling guilty before you begin is just too civilising.