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?


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.


Survival techniques: a little survey so far . . .

I’ve tried a variety of recommended, rumoured and personal strategies for rethinking my life over the past few weeks and I just thought I’d do a little survey about what has and hasn’t worked so far.

Exercise – such a simple one, but done right, it does make a difference. I know recent studies have poo-pooed the idea that exercise can counteract depression, but as far as I can see, those studies focused on the notion that exercise alone can cure a troubled soul. Arguments about serotonin levels aside, exercise is just a great way of changing the pace of your day, breaking up the monotony of working at a desk, getting outside and spending time with people. Those aspects of exercise, as well as spending time really focusing on being in your body, experiencing what it can do and feeling yourself improving a little more each time, can change your day. I think the crucial thing is to keep it guilt-free and flexible, so you exercise in a way that responds to your day rather than try to enforce a regime that leaves you feeling inadequate or guilty. So have it in your head that you’re going to do some form of exercise 3 times a week, but don’t get up tight about when and how – see how you feel. From my experience, deciding to go swimming every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning works for a week, then turns into a chore. Spontaneously deciding to go after work as a way of winding down works much better.

Eating well – I’m starting to think there’s an important distinction between eating food that is good for you and eating well. You can eat the healthiest diet in the world, but if you’re anxious and obsessive about it, having a healthy diet is not contributing to your overall well-being. Eating well involves being healthy as a whole, not just in your intake – so not imbuing diet with a range of complex negative emotions. Learn about what you eat, yes. Know what is good and not so good for, yes. And then use that knowledge to enjoy food rather than obsess.

Reading around – I’ve been delving into the wealth of material out there about living better, brighter lives, looking for inspiration and ideas about what I can try. I’ve been surprised by how quickly looking for inspiration leads you to the self-help section – and been taken aback by how dubious some of the books in that section are. First off, I’m not entirely sure why wanting to change your life qualifies you for self-help, particularly when a lot of these materials are focusing on addressing your sense of inadequacy. Wanting change and feeling inadequate aren’t innately connected. Secondly, and I say this as someone who has used good self-help books in the past, there’s something about the self-help category, something in the promises the titles make or in the prose the authors use that leaves the reader in a passive position. It’s almost as if the books are reinforcing your helplessness so you’ll have to keep coming back. This isn’t by any means true of all the material, but the bigger the promises (and normally the title on the cover) the more passive the position you’re in a as reader – because the book is promising to give you the answers, rather than help you figure things out for yourself, including setting out who you should be and what you should want.

Actually, it’s been much more useful to read fiction, biographies, poetry and philosophical stuff. And to read people’s personal experience on blogs and interviews. There’s a lot out there about well-being and happiness at the moment and some of it is really thought-provoking. When you’re rethinking your life, that is in fact what you need – thoughts being provoked, new avenues being opened up to you, not someone setting out a definite path for you. Maybe we need a new category.

Paying close attention – I picked this up from Susan Cain’s brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking (2012). In it, she discusses how she came to think about envy as a positive experience. Until recently, envy has been something I’ve really struggled with, as I suffered from serious pangs of ‘grass is greener’ and used my envy of other people as a means of doing myself down. Cain argues that actually paying attention to your envy and listening to what it’s telling you about your life can turn it into a productive rather destructive experience. So if you find yourself consistently envying people who have cats, maybe that’s a sign that you should organise your life in such a way that you too can have a cat. It’s not always going to be possible, and what you find yourself envying might genuinely be beyond your capability, but it can still help you recognise what’s important in your life.

I’ve found this particularly interesting in my current ‘should I pursue this career or try something new’ predicament, especially when it comes to thinking about what I don’t envy and what tells me. And then I’ve expanded this kind of idea to think about some of the other emotions and responses that come so naturally in day to day life that I barely notice them happening. What do I respond well to or what really gets under my skin? How can recognising that particular patterns or instances produce particular responses in me help me manage those responses and think about how to arrange my life so that I can maximise the good and minimise the bad? It all sounds really grand, but it comes down to little things that have a big impact. For instance, I now know not to check my work emails after 3pm on a Friday, because one oddly worded email can disturb my whole weekend when the author didn’t intend it to. Or I know I need to avoid caffeine when I’m going to look at my finances, because the combination of the two leaves me a nervous wreck. Little things, but they add up to leaving you feeling better.

Leaving Facebook – This has been a big one for me, which in itself is scary, because when I signed up to it all those years ago, it was no bigger a committment than getting an email account. And yet, somehow over the years, something in my relationship to it has changed. I’ve developed some form of dependance on it that made it difficult to leave, even though I’ve long been disturbed or angered by some of the things the company has been doing. But I finally reached a point when I realised that rather than staying in touch with people, I was watching their lives, and watching people’s lives, especially the polished, edited versions we like to present on social media, is isolating and depressing. So I left six weeks ago. It is disconcerting, but god, I feel better for it. I’ve been talking to people more, writing letters no less, and generally feeling more present in my own and other people’s lives. This might be a blip, I might go back and have a perfectly healthy relationship with it in the future, but it scared me that something commercial was that hard to walk away from. And it scared me how much the format of FB was effecting my perception of my actual flesh-and-blood friends and friendships. Forcing myself back into active friendship rather than passive contact has been amazing.