Thursday, August 4, 2016

Writers and Worry: Does being narrative-minded feed anxiety?

Lately, watching television with my mother, I blurt out what's about to happen next.

Mama is amazed.  She'll ask, Now how did you know that? 

The other day I blurted out that Gwyneth Paltrow's character was about to get hit by a car.

Mama asked, Well, did you know she was going to fall down the stairs? 

I did not.

I’ve always loved to read.  I’ve always loved stories.  Through undergrad coursework as an English major, then graduate studies in two different programs, including working toward my MFA as a writer of stories (very, very small ones) myself, I've not just read but analyzed the stories of countless texts, as well as narrative presented through other media, such as television and film.  I like to think this gives me a heads up on guessing that Gwyneth Paltrow is about to get it with the front grille of a vehicle in Sliding Doors.  

But if I put my ego and tens of thousands of dollars of student loans aside long enough to be real with myself, I can admit that guessing what's going to happen in the next few seconds of a movie isn't unique to students of literature or writers.  Especially if the woman is lollygagging in the street like a nut.

We’re all exposed to countless stories, every day.  But writers tend to volunteer to steep themselves in story, to spend time thinking about plot and get to know it at a deeper level.

Plot is difficulty. Plot is when the main character gets hit by a car. Plot is an antagonist showing up and screwing you over.

Plot is when hell happens.

Which brings us to anxiety.

Think about it:

Plot is when hell happens.  And writers think, breathe, sleep, eat, pray to the gods of plot.

Writers are basically people who look for hell to happen, who look for someone to get hit by a ton of steel careening around a corner, and I don't think we keep this tendency contained within the fence of the fiction we create for others to consume; I think it spills over into the outlook we have on our actual lives.  

I've often thought that my past life experiences, which have included some real bad doozies, or the pessimism I’ve learned from my mother and her own hard life, have led me to believe that everything is most likely going to suck just as hard in the future as it has in a disproportionately great number of the days that are behind me. But now I'm wondering if much of this sad attitude has to do with being a writer, which means being narrative-minded, which means hunting for plot, which means looking for hell to happen.

Wouldn't it just be perfect if I came down with the flu this week?

Wouldn't it be par for the course if this blind date were a serial killer?

Wouldn't it be divine if someone slammed into the back of my vehicle at this very moment? 

Seriously.  I would have stories to tell.  Life would be literature instead of listless.

Am I a writer because I'm a pessimist or am I a pessimist because I’m a writer?

There's some debate over whether or not being a good writer can be taught.  Is it talent or is it trying?

Or is it temperament?

Do optimists who grew up relatively unscathed have any stories to tell?  And if they did, could they tell them?

Is literature really the purview of the miserable, the dissatisfied, the troubled?

If you look up "anxiety," listed as a synonym is "unquiet."  That's telling.

Of course we're veering into stereotype here.  Not all writers are neurotics or alcoholics or depressives.

Most.  Most are, maybe.

In any case, clearly the idea that writers are miserable is not a new one, to the point that some have viewed misery as a prerequisite for success in the field. 

In the movie Adult World, Emma Roberts portrays a privileged young woman with a Syliva Plath obsession who unravels when she comes up against a curmudgeonly, reclusive novelist whom she worships. Over the course of the movie, she whines and complains while everyone but the cute shop boy who walks around with a love-interest neon sign over his head tries to distance themselves from her. I'm still not sure if viewers are meant to root for her or be repelled by her, but I thought she was awful.  I hated her, and I remember wondering if this was the way the world views all young female poets: high strung, self-absorbed, naïve twits. 

The movie gets across the idea that her poetry is bad because she hasn’t really suffered, or even witnessed suffering.  She’s miserable alright, but with no real basis for it - not clinically depressed so much as entitled and unused to failure - and therefore has no real substance for her work.  Her contribution isn’t in writing good poetry herself, but inspiring it by heightening the emotions (namely frustration, torment, heartache, worry) of those around her. 

But really, some very successful, complete, thoroughly happy people have written published some wonderful books with the help of ghost writers.

Ghost writers.  There’s a phrase to consider.  Why not background writers, like background dancers only with less spandex? Why not support writers, like spandex?

Everything seems to point to the idea that writers are chain-dragging, howling spirits who happen to still inhabit their bodily form.
I feel both validated and damned by this.  If success as a writer, meaning publication, requires a dose of melancholy in order to produce good work, it also requires a balancing bit of hope, confidence and perseverance in order to muster the motivation and energy to create, much less continue submitting work in the hailstorm of rejections that every writer, even brilliant, famous ones, receive.  

I’m long on the former, singular attribute, short on the latter few.  

With distance, and infamy, the misery of artists and writers becomes romantic.  It certainly held an allure for Roberts’ character in the movie.  

But real life, including real suffering, real anxiety, not just the tension at the climax before the slow, satisfying decent to the conclusion of a story, is not romantic at all.  

In the face of it, it’s a wonder that writers are able to produce and publish anything at all.  

Lately, I’ve been taking steps to increase my energy, hope and confidence, and of course I worry that if I’m happier, my well of misery will run dry and I won’t be able to write any more.

I worry.  

Is worrying about not writing enough misery to keep me writing?

Of course, as any writer knows, there are always more miseries around the corner.  

At the very least, I think writers must be bothered, if not worried.  We must be bothered enough by a potential for hell to happen, or bothered enough by the witnessing of it having already happened, to bother creating the art that makes misery bearable.  

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