Archive for the ‘Anxiety’ Category

The Art of a Good To-Do List

I’m a fan of the to-do list.  A big fan.  Partly I like making lists because they give me something to do during the day that is about work but not actually work, if you see what I mean.  I can just about get away with making endless lists of shit-to-get-done in the office because, in theory, once I’ve made my lists, I’ll start actually doing the shit.  (In. Theory.)

But also I like the poetry of a to-do list.  Funny titles, clever bullet points, drawings, plans, a record of a day (a week, a month).  The simple (buy new toothbrush) to the huge (finish manuscript).  I don’t make distinctions between the importance of different tasks; I might well buy a new toothbrush this evening, but equally I might well decide that my teeth can stay covered in plaque for the sake of writing another chapter.

My lists are not organized; no, this would be missing the point.  The point of a good to-do list is not really to create order.  The point of a good to-do list is to give thoughts some space.  A good to-do list is like the Pensieve in Harry Potter (yes, really)–it’s like pulling thoughts out of your head, putting them somewhere safe, where they won’t bother you and you won’t bother them, and then being able to revisit them whenever you want.

A good to-do list cannot be made to look neat or tidy.  At any moment you might need to add to it or subtract from it.  You might need to write, “make new to-do list” on it because it’s so crowded; but you won’t make that new to-do list, not immediately.  You’ll know when it’s time, when your priorities have shifted, when the clutter outweighs the usefulness of the list.  Then you’ll start again.


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Zombie Comedy

I woke up on Saturday, and I was depressed.  A friend of mine recently posted a quote on her blog from Breakfast at Tiffany’s:”The blues are because you’re getting fat or because it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”  Which is exactly what happened to me.  Not  a latent, lazy sort of sadness, a seasonal affliction, perhaps, but an active force, something come over you suddenly and without warning, and possessing every atom of your body.

Being in Dublin didn’t help; it made everything worse.  I suppose I came here hoping to claim immunity from trivial worries and the sadness of shorter days; but of course the trouble is always that travel is not escape (Alain de Botton writes brilliantly about this, about “how little the place in which I stood had the power to influence what travelled through my mind”).  We always hope this when we go somewhere new: either that the unpleasantness and banalities of everyday life won’t follow us, or that we’ll become someone different in the context of a different space.  But travel is not some magical process of transformation.  At best it’s a state of mind, a way of revising our views of the world and ourselves, of exploring and watching; but it’s never the answer to all of our problems, never a method of erasing anxieties, and to a certain extent this will always be a disappointment.

What I forget, in times of minor woe, is that it’s actually freeing to know all this.  I sat in a Dublin café with the man.  I sipped my tea listlessly; I picked at my omelette; I listened to the children at the table next to us, who shouted and screamed and cried and laughed and dropped their toast on the floor and hugged their fathers and smiled at us and ran circles round the entire place.  I told the man I felt unhappy today, but that I didn’t know why–was it to do with my continual battle with my anti-anxiety medication, my desperation at being stuck in a job that a monkey could do, and do better?  Probably not, I concluded.  It was really all about money, which depressed me even more, that such a stupid thing–a philosophical construct–could make me stare so glumly at my empty plate.

It’s not a good city to worry about money in, Dublin.  Things are expensive here.  You can’t even drown your sorrows without taking out a small loan.  And the trouble with me is that once I start worrying, it’s nearly impossible to make me stop.  Even paying the small lunch bill caused a tremor of pain in my mind.

I could easily have wallowed all day.  We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, along the autumnal edges, where leaves were falling most heavily and we could avoid the stink of the pond.  A trio of teenage boys sat playing their guitars; a pregnant woman passed, with flowers in one hand and a man’s arm around her.  Lots of infants ran rampant, with parents trailing behind in helpless pursuit.  A few other lovers held hands.  I felt unoriginal and uninspired; and then I felt the whole world to be unoriginal and uninspired.

We went down Grafton Street, watched a man sculpt a sleeping dog out of sand, listened to Irish bagpipes and Beatles songs.  Past Trinity College and Temple Bar, we crossed the Liffey at O’Connell Street, into the great expanse of boulevard.  Like an abandoned Oxford Street, it sits with its handsome buildings, cheap storefronts, its absurd width and pockets of shoppers.  Gaggles of spotty teenagers in unfortunate clothing (sweatpants and faux-leather jackets, athletic shorts over leopard-print leggings with pop socks and sneakers) chased each other in zig-zags, shouted after one another, spilled their soda, lit cheeky cigarettes.  It was a glorious sun-brightened day and everything looked grey.

We went and sat at a converted church, now a café, bar, restaurant, and nightclub, overlooking an empty concrete square, a few gravestones stacked up on the fringe.  I sipped more tea.  I wanted to wallow–this is the thing.  There’s something delicious about a good wallow, most of us know this, but I was in danger of slipping from healthy wallowing into the realm of desperation.  I played with my spoon.  I said to the man: maybe you should go to the film without me.  I could sit and get some writing done. I could sit and feel sorry for myself.  He said, don’t be ridiculous.  But he said it so convincingly, and probably in a few more words, that I loosened my stranglehold on unhappiness, briefly allowed myself to consider the possibility that this was just a passing phase, and agreed to meet some Dublin friends for the afternoon showing of Zombieland.

I should mention a few things now.  The most important is that I don’t like zombie films.  I don’t like horror films of any kind.  The gorier they are, the more they make me cringe; so although it’s a comedy, and I knew, going in, that it would be funny, the title “Zombieland” didn’t bode well.  Also, I hadn”t been to the cinema in over a year.  I’d forgotten how overwhelming the endless dark corridors, the escalators, the giant bags of popcorn, the bad carpets and the flashing lights are.  I’d forgotten the thrill of anticipation; the movie-theatre smell; the crunching of bags and sipping of soda.  I’d forgotten how much I like to see the previews!  I’d mostly forgotten how huge those big screens really are.  The first few moments of splattering zombies were very, very intense.

Then something strange happened.  I started…what was this feeling?…to enjoy myself.  Really?  Yes.  I laughed at the jokes and started to feel affection (of a certain kind) for the characters.  I forgot how funny I myself was feeling; how unreasonably low, how inexcusably self-indulgent.  I had wanted to sit around like the ghost of some bleak, damned writer; to mope over coffee, to shiver outside in pursuit of quality people-watching, to envy everyone that walked by their freedom and their carefree smiles.  I thought I needed that; but what I actually needed was something else entirely (it always is, isn’t it)–in this case, some good company and a zombie comedy.  We came out into the city; we smiled, we laughed, we ate an impromptu dinner, and the evening turned to night and even if it wasn’t something I couldn’t have done at home (or maybe it was, maybe that’s the point of all this, that the travel state of mind was somehow both responsible for my mood and necessary to lift the cloud), I was grateful for the power of it.

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Natural High

It would be too easy to turn the whole wretched thing into one of those “tragedy of the modern era” stories you see in publications like People and Time.  Young girl, private school, possessed of a certain type of intelligence and ambition, studies herself silly in the hopes of going to a good college; then gets into the good college and studies herself silly in the hopes of getting a good job.  Makes herself sick–physically, but mostly emotionally–doing so.  It’s this era of relentless competition that’s  to blame; it’s the speed at which we live, all the pressures, the sheer strain of surviving.  She’s one of many faces in the magazine article, with a caption, a rueful smile, a cautionary tale.

But the truth is I went to an ordinary college and I succeeded at school, whenever I did, mostly out of an unnatural love for reading books.  I never felt any outside pressure to perform and if I was ambitious it was only in the vaguest of ways.

I didn’t even actively worry, most of the time.  It was only at night, thoughts of the day subdued by the strangeness of the dark, that I started to feel that things were wrong, that I was–quite literally–upside down.  The vertigo came first; then fear of the vertigo, fear so strong that I would feel dizzy and ill just to think of it.  And once you’ve started that useless cycle of thought, it’s going to be a fight to free yourself from it.

So it’s simple, not tragic, to explain: I worried. And then, because I worried, I worried some more.

Is my anxiety inherited?  Self-induced?  An inevitable result of living in a fast-paced world?  Probably all three.  After a few half-hearted attempts to find a life-changing shrink (hint: never see someone because someone else has told you to; but for God’s sake if you do, don’t tell the therapist that’s why you’re there) I gathered that, like most other things, my inclination to fret has many roots and many reasons, only a few of which I have any measure of control over.

But it wouldn’t be fair to say I’m a victim of anxiety, or indeed of anything.  This is not a girl versus the world story.  If it’s got to be anything then let it be a girl versus herself story.  And it may sound lazy but in some ways the biggest thing that girl ever did to help herself, and by extension everyone around her, was to get over her prejudice and ask her doctor if there was anything he could prescribe.

There was.  Would I say it changed the way I thought, turned me into someone else?  No.  But a few weeks after swallowing the first pill, I started to notice something.  It was subtle, but what it felt like when I could feel anything was the world, having been capsized, finally righting herself.  If you imagine what it’s like to live with your jaw constantly clenched and every sound accompanied by the kind of noise you get when you can’t quite tune into a radio station, and then to wake up one morning to find your whole face relaxed, each sound clear–well, that’s it. I remember a feeling of euphoria hitting me one day.  I’d just moved back to Boston after a summer at home in California; I had a new apartment, it was the best season to be on the East Coast, and the window was wide open to let in the city air.

But there’s a point at which you have to say to yourself that, having re-learned what life without unhealthy anxiety is like, you’re going to need to re-learn how to live that life unassisted by anything but sheer will-power.  I had a few false starts.  More than a few false starts, even.  I remember calling the Man in tears, a few months after I’d got my degree and moved back to Oxford, saying I didn’t know why I felt so sad, and could he please make the dizziness stop?  It was midwinter and each breath was full of nothing but cold and empty air; so I decided to wait.  But in springtime it wasn’t any easier; I sweated through the sheets at night and had, one weekend, to cut short an already short few days away so I could get home, where I’d left my pills.

But then, about a month ago, I was due for a routine check-up with my doctor, and we had a casual chat, while he sneezed profusely over his keyboard and cursed his hay fever and I sent my regards from a mutual friend, and it’s funny how you can tell sometimes that the timing is right.  So I’m, as they say, weaning myself off.  It’s a slow process, as it’s meant to be.  And this time around, I’ll be able to use the knowledge I’m armed with.  Will everything be perfect after?  Of course not. I’ll still fret, I’ll still obsess, and I’ll still have ups and downs.

But I’ll say this.  The other day, I met a newborn baby for the first time; and then I went to the pub and wrote a few thousand words over a pint of cider while I waited for the Man to meet me, and at a certain point I looked up and I felt euphoric.  And the euphoria had nothing whatsoever to do with the little white pills I was-or-wasn’t taking.

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A Lull

There’s been silence on the blog, and let me tell you,  silence on all other writing fronts.  It would be depressing if it wasn’t just another dip of many in the writing sine curve; in the last few weeks I’ve been alternately elated and obsessed with my own shortcomings.  During these darker periods everything I hear is a reflection of my own perverted image of myself as a writer; someone tells me I have a strong background in politics, for instance, and that it might be fun to utilize this, and I hear “you’re worthless!”.  Luckily I think I’ve reached, for the time being, a happy middle ground, and, with the help of a new haircut, a new study, and a new idea, I might be able to resume writing as usual.

The new haircut?  Probably incidental to the creative process, but every little helps.  Perhaps what was weighing me down was not my own lack of confidence after all, but split ends and an overgrown fringe.  The new study?  An attempt to force myself into a new routine.  It still overlooks the garden, but it’s upstairs.  Lack of proximity to the tea kettle worries me slightly, but then, it might be easier to block out the rest of the world from upstairs.  And the new idea–or, rather, the new take on the old idea?  I’m not telling, not yet, but it involves, in addition to the usual (Oxford, psychology of place, literary ghosts), Don Quixote, the modern novel, a sequel, the first world war, and a lot of work.  I think it’s gonna be good.

For reasons totally unrelated to the book, I’ve been reading some of P.G. Wodehouse’s letters recently, and I’m convinced that this is why I’m not as worried as usual over my recent spell of creative impotence.  Late in his life, Wodehouse, already an enormously successful and prolific author, still both enjoyed the process of writing, and struggled with it greatly.  In one letter he tells a friend he’s had to rewrite the beginning of a new novel many times, that he’s been working for months and that it’s only now coming together.  I feel like that about this one.

We’re having a heat wave.  It’s nice; it’s strange.  I walk around in a daze all day.  Any energy that hadn’t already been sapped by my worries over the book has now bled out into the sunlight, become more heat.  I take long naps on the couch when I’m not at work and listen to the songs from the ice-cream truck. Sometimes I think the whole city has gone mad; we’re under the influence of someone else’s circus-dream.


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A few writing-related things have come to my attention of late.  First, Dave Eggers’ “buck up” to anyone worried about the decline of literary culture: “This is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page…Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they’ll pay for it.”  And then literary agent Nathan Bransford’s football-coach-style rally:

Listen up! We got a big submission Friday night, and the publishers out there are going through some hard times. They want to see your submissions sparkling! They want perfection, and as the literary agent of this here team I aim to give it to ’em! It’s time to look deep inside yourself and step up yer game! This means everything from revising to your queries to your submissions needs to be absolutely 110% perfect. And anyone who wants to cry about it can take off their shoulder pads and get off my field!

Looks like maybe I’m not the only one who’s been feeling a little low lately.  But with my new resolve to make sure this book is finished by September, there’s never been a better time to “step up my game.”  Much as I want to resist succombing to sports metaphors, maybe we don’t get to pick what inspires us.

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Anatomy of Worry

I’ve had a panic-feeling brewing in my chest of late.  I forget that I’m still susceptible to this kind of worry, that knowing better doesn’t actually make it better.

I received two emails yesteray, rejecting a few proposals I’d sent off.  I almost felt crushed, except that I was so happy that the editors had even taken the time to respond to my queries I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d made some sort of perverse progress.  In celebration, and indeed mourning, I decided to take the long way home.  I cycled through Port Meadow, surprised as always by the city dissapearing before my eyes.  There were kids on bridges, leaping into the brown Thames.  A trio of boys with an old bicycle attached to a rope, pedalling at high speed towards the river, over a hump, flying a few glorious feet through the air, splashing and sinking.

I cycled along the river pathway until I reached a nature reserve, somewhere between the Osney lock and Folly Bridge.  To my left, the canal, the narrowboats with their potted plants, their sun-worn owners puffing smoke from deckchairs on the shore; to my right, the train tracks, the industrial detritus on the outskirts of a city: but in the nature reserve, nothing but green.  I walked my bike in a circle through the heat.  I passed only a man with a walking stick, and a sunbathing couple.  Nothing to suggest my location (maybe I’d dreamt all this up); except the rush of a train, sometimes.  Except the bells ringing out four o’clock from a church tower. 

Maybe I’d been out in the sun too long; but as I cycled down my street at long last, almost an hour later, I started to feel truly strange; for though the day was only an ordinary one, though I’d been to work in the moring, eaten in the cafeteria as usual, had my two cups of coffee, I was returning home from the wrong direction.  Do you know what this is like?  Every day you cycle down Hurst Street from the James Street end, and now you’re cycling down Hurst Street from the Magdalen Road end.  All the things you usually see and do on your commute (passing the Radcliffe Camera, gazing through the gates at All Souls thinking how cold, how unfriendly, yet how much you’d like someday to be allowed past the gates; crossing Magdalen Bridge, hearing bells if you’re lucky; struggling up the Iffley Road, the relief of turning finally into residential turf) erased.  I did it deliberately, to shake myself out of a rhythm I think I had ceased to enjoy, to make myself see my world anew, but as soon as I’d arrived home I wondered if I’d been too ambitious, if I’d done something too drastic, if my spirit would recover its balance, if the vertigo would fade.

Later I tried to nap upstairs with the window open, but the dry air made my lungs feel scratchy and the heat went to my head, gave it strange thoughts.  By evening I worried I was getting ill, and then I realized I was making myself ill by worrying, and then I worried that I wouldn’t be able to control anything, and felt even iller.  Then I tried to be reasonable and count the worries, but this is harder to do than it sounds and I wound up just making dinner and sitting half-asleep on the couch with the Man, which was the most comforting thing of all. 


But having said all that, having laid it in melodramatic stone, I must also say this: it’s a more productive breed of worry than I’ve often experienced in the past.  I see progress in rejection and comfort in simple things (food, company); I can stay my mind from straying too far into the future.  I can even, though the thought is still in its fragile infancy, consider that I may need to make some major thematic and contextual revisions to the book which will require hard work and strength of heart but which will ultimately make it a far better (more readable, more marketable, and indeed, more authentic) piece of writing.  More on this, I’m sure, to come.

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Writing, for me, will never be a straightforward process.  I’m realizing this lately.  I’ve reached a stage in The Book whereby everything about the project disgusts and repels me.  Even a single sentence has the power to fill me with so much doubt that I tell the Man, calmly and confidently, that I’m thinking of just giving it up altogether.  I’ve become a Queen of Melodrama (“where are you going?” I cry when he gets out of bed, puts his trousers on, and heads downstairs).  Mostly what I think to myself when I sit down to do some work on the wretched project is: I wish I was writing something simpler. My next book will definitely be a novelNo more genre-crossing, mind-bending, intertextual nonsense.

Then I remember that even if I was writing a straightforward novel, I would be struggling just as much.  I do have one, hidden in a folder on my computer somewhere.  I’ve never written a single bit of it in a logical way; it’s all bits and pieces, tied together by the tenuous string of a single character.  And every few months I decide to make a massive change to the entire premise.  Which means that though I’ve been thinking about the book for years, I may as well have cooked up the idea yesterday.

On days filled with denial, I like to think that it’s anxiety that makes me like this, that if I had a steady income, a stronger foothold in the literary world, I would be able to sit down with my laptop on a Saturday afternoon like today, listen to the wind and the rain and the overgrown tree in our front yard lashing against the window, and push forward.  But I’m inherently doubtful and inherently scattered in my thinking.  That, in many ways, is the whole premise of this book.  And it’s not a bad thing.  So remind me, will you, next time I say something in a telenovela-worthy tone of voice, like, “that’s it, I’m starting over, this just isn’t working,” that my process isn’t any better or worse than anyone else’s.  It’s just mine.

*see here

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