How to Stop a Runaway Train (or: how not to be an anxious wreck)

Essay, Personal

Maybe your heart races all the time and you’re not sure why. It batters your ribcage like a dazed bird against a windowpane. You skip breakfast because you have a vague, persistent ache in your stomach. If you speak in class you start stuttering like your pulse.
Maybe you’ve got memories that reel unbidden through your mind,  a movie on mute and fast-forward. You sleep little. Sometimes you shake. City buses make you implode. Your internal monologue is very scared and very loud, much of the time.
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” I saw that scrawled on a bathroom stall. I like the the ring of the words, though I don’t know if they’re true. I do know a few ways to quell dizziness.

1. Go for ambling, aimless walks: you need to get out of your head. It doesn’t much matter where– urban and natural landscapes alike are throbbing with Things That Have Nothing to Do With You. It’s grounding to be amongst them. Try to think of nothing but the flex of your muscles and the rhythm of your steps. Take hard, hungry breaths that burn your lungs a little.

2. Make a Playlist for Chilling Out. This doesn’t have to be a slow or soft playlist. Ambient electronica might be soothing for a lot of people, but maybe the rawness of riot grrl or hiphop does it for you. Have no regard for niche or snobbery– if Ke$ha calms you down, have no shame.

3. Clean like a motherfucker.

4. Make art, whether you think you can or not. Perfectionism is paralysis, and breeds more anxiety. Urgent creativity is cathartic and sometimes produces shitty art. That’s great– shit is fertilizer.

5. If these methods sound a little clichéd or superficial, it’s because they are– they’re worth doing, but they won’t provide sustainable stability. Mental illness is cyclical. Severe anxiety can’t be washed away in a bubble bath. Find a good shrink if you haven’t. If you’re uninsured, don’t be afraid to ask about a sliding scale; many therapists will be willing to work with you or to refer you to someone who can. If you’re a student, your campus may have free counselors. Keep in mind, though, that therapy can make you feel messier sometimes. Analysis doesn’t necessarily help the hyper-analytical. Medication is fickle and can be hard to obtain. If treatment isn’t feasible for you, coping mechanisms become vital. Know yourself and what you need. Try not to get entangled in self-diagnosis- the internet can make you into a psychological hypochondriac. You are not a list of symptoms.

Some resources/reading:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Icarus Project
Mad in America
The Magic Bullet by Anita Felicelli for The Rumpus
 On Falling Apart by Sady Doyle for Rookie
 Blue Christmas by Rachel Prokop for Rookie

What Makes a Writer


Last month there was another article in Poets & Writers about whether or not creative writing can be taught. In it, Gregory Spatz told the story of a student who came in writing cliché material, worked hard in his MFA program, and ended up publishing a book of short stories…so voila, the answer is yes, creative writing can be taught!

It makes sense that this kind of article would show up in the annual MFA issue, along with program rankings and short articles about various new programs. There’s always an article like this somewhere; we can’t seem to stop asking whether good writing is the result of talent or hard work. Gregory Spatz does argue that writing can be taught, but he also ended his article with a list of four character traits that helped this student to be successful: “dedication, desire, drive, and discipline.” Desire and drive are the same thing; dedication and discipline are pretty much the same thing, so in the end, according to Spatz, there are two main factors deciding whether or not you can write: you have to want it, and you have to work hard.

People buy the MFA issue and read those articles because they want to know if a studio master’s degree in writing is the right choice for them; if it will be worth the time and money and result in better writing. There’s the ongoing debate, which has its moments of eruption on the internet, about whether getting an MFA actually improves your writing, or turns it into boring, cliché literary fiction, or whether you need an MFA to get fellowships and publications, and really, the only answer to either of these questions is, it depends on you. The best answer I’ve heard to the question of what an MFA does for you is that it speeds up the process. If you want to be a writer, and you’re working hard at reading and writing, and you’re getting honest feedback and revising, you might improve. But if you’re doing all that in an environment where you are given time to write, and you write a lot, and the feedback you get is from professors and students who know what they’re talking about, you might improve faster. So, is that the place where you want to spend your time and get your feedback?

I get tired of that debate about what kind of fiction MFA programs “produce”. Teachers and programs don’t produce writers. Writers produce writing, and if you’re complaining that most of the writing by MFA graduates is mediocre, well, I have news for you: most writing is mediocre! While we should be skeptical of the institutionalization of art, the idea of the individual genius writing on his own is equally dangerous. Someone has to decide what counts as genius, and geniuses have generally had gifts of money and time that allowed them to hone their creative gifts, which is to say that those deemed genius are usually privileged. What I like about MFA programs is the possibility for diversity; the idea that anyone can be accepted for his/her potential as a writer and then given funding to read and write.

People also get upset because having MFA programs for writers creates a system in which some writers can be seen as more legitimate than others. The same debates still rage for visual artists and musicians. Maybe, for some editors and programs, seeing that someone has a degree makes a difference, but I would say the most important factor in any decision is always the writing. I see flat, uncertain writing from MFA graduates all of the time; I  also see compelling, original writing from people who don’t list MFA programs in their cover letters. And the opposite is true for each. I agree with Spatz that writing is not pure talent or pure teaching; it’s some combination of characteristics in the writer’s personality that work to help him/her learn. I’d also like to expand that list just a bit, beyond desire and discipline, because I think there’s more to it than wanting to write and working hard.

Imagination. When people speak of talent in creative writers, they may talk about a finely honed sentence or line of a poem, but I think the root of it is always the writer’s imagination. Imagination is a part of the unconscious that we all have access to, and maybe some people have more access to it, or they tap into it more. To demonstrate imagination in writing requires risk taking; it requires thinking differently from other people and presenting bold ideas that very well may fail. It’s key to good creative writing because it is the creativity, that raw talent that shines through. I know that teachers can teach reading, writing, and revision strategies, and I know that hard work can produce better writing, but creativity comes from within.

Humility. You have two ears and one mouth; use them accordingly. Humility is important for accepting feedback and revising, for checking the ego while writing, and for receiving numerous rejections from magazines and publishers. Humility is the place from which dedication comes. Humble writers read more than they write and learn from the books they read. They continue writing because they are not yet satisfied. Humility means being wary of praise and self-congratulations, and it means being willing to ditch failed work and start fresh. Being open to growth and improvement as a writer often means pushing the ego out of the way. That said, you need to be just foolhardy enough to attempt risky projects in the face of failure.

Obsession. You have to be obsessed. I mean, you have to be batshit crazy about sitting alone at your desk for hours and just making things up, and then revising those things over and over. Desire and drive are much too mild to cover this one. Obsession means needing it even when it doesn’t make you happy, and refusing to stop even if you’ve crossed the threshold of humility and gone straight to despair, which, like arrogance, can be a trap. But, short of clinical depression, your obsession should be able to drag you out of that discouraged place and get you to start over, simply because you have to. This is also where perfectionism and dedication come in, because the willingness to work comes from an obsession with making the work better.

These are the things that cannot be taught. Like Spatz, I want to argue that creative writing can be taught like any other subject, but I always end up arguing that it is something in the personality; it is some particular combination of qualities that make people pursue writing. Because, in the view of the rest of the rational, logical world, writing is crazy. It’s nuts to spend hours making up stories that, in all likelihood, very few people will ever read. It’s nuts to go into any kind of debt for a master’s degree that, in all likelihood, will not result in a related career. It’s a fool’s errand. So, to do it and do it well, maybe you just have to be that particular brand of fool.

The Male Privilege Plot: Jeffrey Eugenides Broke My Fragile Woman Heart

Essay, Lit, Politics

Jeffrey Eugenides is a wonderful writer.  I loved, and love, Middlesex.  But the recent interview he gave with Salon, specifically the bits about gender in the literary world, surprised and disappointed me.  It’s not his ignorance of the issue so much that bothers me; it’s his denial of it, the dismissive tone of his response, the unwillingness to engage in an analysis of his privilege beyond an offhand “You know, it’s possible.”  Yes, I know it’s possible.  VIDA knows it’s possible.  It’s more than possible.  How could the person who wrote Middlesex –– a novel about the permeability, and the cultural centralization of, sex and gender –– not believe in gender bias?

Eugenides argued that Zadie Smith is as well-respected and reviewed as Jonathan Franzen and the Great (White) Male Writers of his ilk.  I agree with him on that point… but that’s Zadie Smith.  One author.  Marie Curie discovered radium, but one wouldn’t look back on scientific history and claim that women were (or are) as respected or prominent in the field as male scientists.  I could list a handful more women writers held in high literary esteem (Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Alice Walker) but the list would run out far, far sooner than the list of male authors regarded in the same light.

There’s a difference between the work that Franzen produces and that which Jodi Picoult produces, he said.  I agree with him there, too.  Picoult produces beach reads; Franzen produces heavy tomes about”the way we live now” (as Time famously hailed Freedom).   Personally, I don’t enjoy either writer’s work, but there is a clear difference in their sentence, character, and plot construction.  Franzen wins reviews; Picoult wins the “average” consumer.  But Jodi Picoult, in the notorious tweet that launched Franzenfreude 2010, said nothing about Jodi Picoult.  Nor did she say anything about the type of book that Jodi Picoult writes (nor the audience that reads them: typically cast as middle-aged, middle-class, and female, invariably mothers, belonging to a book club full of other mothers).   Picoult was talking about the difference in general between the way men and women are received in the literary world. To misunderstand this as Picoult “bellyaching” about her own work’s designation of low culture versus Jonathan Franzen’s as high culture seems intentionally simplistic and irresponsible.  It shrinks and delegitimizes Picoult’s point by ignoring her point.

Men write about divorce and it’s hailed as The Way We Live Now.  Women write about divorce and it’s hailed as Women’s Fiction.  Because why would someone who isn’t a woman want to read about them?  “[I]t usually has nothing to do with their gender,” Eugenides said, “it’s just the marketplace.”  But that’s exactly my point.  The marketplace itself skews toward the historically most common reader demographic: white men.  Work by writers of color is often expected to concern itself with their race or ethnicity, and when it does, it’s often marginalized –– if not by way of bookstore organization (e.g. “African-American Literature”), by way of cover art (Sociological Images has a good breakdown on this regarding work by writers of Asian descent).  These stories are othered.  We want to highlight the work, the idea goes, but we don’t see it as normative and don’t anticipate the author to receive a widespread American audience.

There are always exceptions –– Jhumpa Lahiri, for one –– but in my experience as a consumer that seems to be the case.  We didn’t even read multicultural authors when I was in public school, now that I think about it.  We read Harper Lee to learn about racism in the American South and Pearl S. Buck to learn about China.  Of course, I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, only my own.

Women writers may not have a designated area of the bookstore, but their work is still discriminated against and marginalized in the way it is marketed.  (Let alone how often it is reviewed, or even published.)  Meg Wolitzer’s article in the New York Times, referenced by Eugenides in the interview, rings true and valid.  Perhaps he should read it again.

How to Crawl Out of a Hole


Once, I had a writing teacher that told me I should write every day regardless of what was going on in my life.  “I don’t care if your mother dies,” she said, “you write through it.”

“Oh.  Oh.  Okay.”

And then I graduated, got super depressed, and forgot all about her advice.

*     *     *

  1. The first step is to try not to feel bad about feeling bad.  This is near-impossible at times –– most of the time.  Goes without saying that it can be really fucking difficult, in a culture that perpetuates the idea that the disenfranchised are lazy, greedy assholes and hard workers are successes, to accept that sometimes bad things just happen and you fall into a depression deep enough it seems like you can’t dig yourself out.  Allow yourself the leeway to feel bad without labeling yourself pathetic or a failure or weak or hypersensitive or etc. etc. etc. because of it.   Feelings aren’t rational or moral.  They aren’t indicative of something innately wrong with you.  They just are.
  2. If you start to feel bad about feeling bad, and you’re driving a car, pull over and wait.  Tell yourself that some days suck, period; you can feel better; you will feel better, at some point.  Wait until you finish crying and hiccuping.  Sit on the shoulder.  Turn off the radio; brightly colorful music can make one just as heartbroken, sometimes, as sad songs, and eventually you will have to continue driving somewhere.  Think of where you want to go.  Think of how you will get there.
  3. Try not to punish yourself for being you.  Say, if you’re sad and only feel in control by skipping meals, make yourself eat.  Even if it repulses you as you’re doing it.  Even if eating makes you feel sick.  You’ll get sicker if you don’t.  This will be hard; I’m sorry.
  4. Talk to your friends.  Start here.  Sometimes it’s easier than talking to family.
  5. If you have the kind of family environment where this seems doable, talk to your family about how you feel.
  6. Write like a motherfucker.  (Or draw, compose, make YouTube supercut videos –– whatever artistic outlet you have.  If you don’t have one, please try to find one.  Create something.)
  7. Some of what you create will be amazing.  Some of what you create will be shit.  This is totally okay.  In fact, it’s the case most of the time.  We all have shitty patches.
  8. What are you afraid of?  Make a list.  Put it on the wall where you can see it.  Stare it the fuck down.
  9. Watch “How to Be Alone.”  When this went viral I watched it enough times for it to sink into my pores.  The poem’s transcribed on my wall.  It helped.
  10. What do you want?  What do you want to do?  Make another list.  Put it next to the other one.  How many of the things you want are you not pursuing due to fear?
  11. Roll around on your friends’ floors/couches/beds and cry.
  12. Find a therapist in your area, if you can’t dig yourself out.  Or even if you’re making small scoops, little indents in the side of the hole wall with a soupspoon.  No human is an island.
  13. When you’re at a point where you don’t feel terrible every day, maybe only once a week –– or once every two weeks, or a month, or two months –– when you’re a point to engage again with the world, almost, maybe, mostly –– reread the list from Step 10.  Pick something you want and make yourself do it, even though it might still be scary.  You can’t be the type of person who does such-and-such unless you just do such-and-such.
  14. Be a person who does such-and-such.

This post is Heather’s contribution to Molly Templeton’s How-To Issue.

How to Stay in Love with a Broken World


This essay is my contribution to Molly Templeton’s How-To Issue project, a response to the gender inequality in the New York Times Book Review 2012. You can read about how the How-To Issue started here. You can also read this post over at the Issue.

1. Allow yourself to face the problems. The world is far from perfect. Mitt Romney will run for president and announce an extreme right-wing running mate who thinks Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy is inspirational. A mass murderer will kill twelve people in a movie theater, and another will shoot up a Sikh temple during worship. The New York Times Book Review, in 2012, will act like the feminist movement never happened and only publish two how-to essays by women: “How to Cook a Clam” and “How to Raise Your Kids.”

2. Get angry about these events, and release your anger. Don’t let it seep into your bloodstream and poison you into sullenness; let it out. Rant at the television news anchors, call and vent to a friend, write a journal entry. If you’re going to make empty threats, make them original. Threatening to move to Canada is so 2004.

3. Stop ranting. Transform the sparks of your anger into intelligent, well-argued statements aimed at people of influence, such as voters and congressmen. Make the phone calls; write the letters. That is, if you’re not actually moving to Canada.

4. Remind yourself to look at the beauty. A woman in Afghanistan found a way to get hydroelectric power to her village. A recent college graduate is traveling around the world doing favors for people. A freaking Adele song woke a British girl up from a coma. The American Cancer Society was able to give $5.5 million to Illinois researchers, double what they gave last year.

5. Do not spend too much time questioning the beautiful things. Avoid criticizing them because they are smaller than the seemingly insurmountable problems, or because they could be more beautiful, or because they do not represent a whole and perfect solution. Just acknowledge them, and be grateful.

6. Expect solutions instead of more problems. A cynic expects people to be self-interested, and avoids doing anything out of a philosophy that creating solutions is not worthwhile. Instead, expect people to be generous. They often are. If you sometimes meet with disappointment, you are still bound to have more success than someone who did nothing because she was pre-disappointed.

7. Create more beauty. Don’t be overwhelmed with the idea that you must create perfection, or solve a large and complicated problem with one solution. This is how people grow passive. Just begin with something small: a newspaper article, a piece of art, a favor for a stranger. Meet up with other people who are creating similar beautiful things. Focus on what you’re creating, and on crafting solutions, instead of being at war with the problems. Invite more people, expect their generosity, and be grateful. This is how to stay in love with a world that seems broken: to become the part of it that seeks wholeness.