Amanda Stern On Anxiety, Becoming a Writer, and Rilke!
In Conversation With Will Schwalbe On But That's Another Story
WS: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. From time to time I have a terrifying dream. I call it the Reader’s Nightmare. I’m in a busy airport, and they’ve announced my flight. There is an epic walk to the gate, and I know I have only a few minutes before they will close the door to the jetway and my plane will leave without me. Suddenly, I realize that I don’t have a book to read on the flight. Not one single book. I spin around, my eyes searching frantically for a bookstore. I see none. I run through the airport, and still, I can’t find a bookstore. Now, over the loudspeakers, comes the final call for my flight. I realize that I am almost certainly going to miss my flight. But the idea of hours on a plane without a book? Intolerable. So I run and run, searching for that bookstore—or at least a newsstand with a rack of paperbacks. I can’t find a single book anywhere in the airport. I start to scream. Then I wake up. I don’t have this dream about food or television or movies or music. My unconscious is largely untroubled by the idea of spending hours in a metal tube hurtling through the sky without something to eat or a program to watch or tunes in my ears. It’s the thought of being bookless for hours that jolts me awake in a cold sweat.
Throughout my life I’ve looked to books for all sorts of reasons: to comfort me, to amuse me, to distract me, and to educate me. But just because you know that you can find anything you need in a book doesn’t mean you can easily find your way to the right book at the right time, the one that tells you what you need to know or feel when you need to know or feel it. Some of you might recognize that little anecdote—it’s one I shared at the beginning of Books for Living. It came across my mind recently, when I was thinking about the ways our anxieties can shape our lives—something I discussed with today’s guest.
AS: My name is Amanda Stern, and I’m an author and. . . human person.
WS: Amanda Stern is the author: of a novel, of children’s books, and most recently, of Little Panic, a memoir about her experience living with anxiety and growing up in Manhattan. Amanda is a fourth generation New Yorker, but her childhood was a little atypical for a city kid—much of it took place in a garden.
AS: I grew up in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, in a private community garden that was only accessible through one of the houses. And it was just this kind of country setting in the middle of the city, and we invented our own games and we had Halloween parades and we had Christmas carols, and we had traditions and rituals. And it was like a little town, without a bank or a school or a post office.
AS: We walked around barefoot. We just weren’t expected to wear shoes, we didn’t have to wear shoes. We would march up after some weird dinner that we would have—breakfast for dinner at like, you know, 8 PM, and then we’d march up to Brentano’s or B. Dalton, up Sixth Avenue barefoot.
WS: B. Dalton the bookseller?
AS: Yeah. But we would go up there, in our little bare feet and you know, ragamuffin, knotted hair and go in the bookstore and just pull—like, use it as a library. And I read entire books there, where I would read—we’d all like sit down in the aisles, and we’d all just read.
WS: Amanda’s parents separated when she was a baby, so while she spent time in the garden downtown with her mom, the weekends she spent with her father were in an entirely different setting.
AS: We were sort of expected to be different people. We were these little ragamuffin bohemians downtown, but uptown, we had like, you know, these Peter Pan collared shirts that we had to wear, and we had to comb our hair, which was something that. . . wasn’t a thing we did. It was just a very sort of formal, clinical sort of uptown world that wasn’t very familiar to us, even though we would go every other weekend. We always felt like we were in some sort of a museum where we couldn’t touch even the furniture, or we were expected to be the display. And it was awkward. It was just very uncomfortable because it’s not who we were.
WS: Early on, one of the ways that Amanda learned to deal with feeling uncomfortable in her surroundings was through reading.
AS: I was really, really into Ramona and Beezus. And I, I read those books repeatedly. Since I grew up in this community, I sort of needed familiarity. And I would usually, if I got attached to a book, I would read it over, and over, and over, like it was a dear friend of mine. I knew what was going to happen. I knew no one was going to die. I knew nothing, you know—I knew everything that was going to happen and that was very soothing to me.
WS: But even reading could not combat the much deeper anxieties that she experienced on a day to day basis.
AS: I was very like, dreadfully afraid of the world. And I. . . couldn’t leave my mom without fearing that she would die or disappear. I was unable to make it through a weekend at my dad’s house without calling her and sort of forcing her to come get me. I was really preoccupied with death and disappearance, and I was very focused on trying to calm myself down by worrying out loud, hoping that someone would sort of recognize what I was doing. But that didn’t always work.
The fears were really mortifying to me, and I was ashamed of them and I didn’t know how to deal with them. And I would often become so overwhelmed that I would float away. And I spent a majority of my childhood like, on the ceiling, watching everything.
When I was around eight, for whatever reason, there was a plan to send me to sleep away camp for two months. Which is like, not the best idea for a kid with—you know, who can’t have one night sleepovers, but that was the plan. And about a month before I was supposed to go away on this like, two month, you know, terror trip, I answered the door to a cop, who held up a picture of this sweet looking little boy and asked if I had seen him. That night, there were helicopters flying over the village. There were bloodhounds—you could hear the sort of the jangle of the bloodhounds’ leashes. And there was a loudspeaker system. Cops were saying, have you seen this little boy? And everyone was really gripped by this and, um, and I kept on asking my mom like, what—where did he go? Where did he go? What happened? What happened? And she, you know, was—wanted me to not be so afraid, so she said he probably ran away and he’ll be fine and he’d be home.“I was really preoccupied with death and disappearance, and I was very focused on trying to calm myself down by worrying out loud, hoping that someone would sort of recognize what I was doing.”
WS: The police were looking for Etan Patz, a six year old who disappeared while walking to his school bus stop in Soho. The case captivated the city, and when Amanda returned from the two months away at camp, the disappearance continued to weigh on her.
AS: When I came home, I was walking in Soho with my mom and my brother and my sister and I saw a still missing sign for Etan Patz, and I just couldn’t believe that I had forgotten. And then I saw that like, cafes and restaurants had been plastering over the still missing signs with new signs, and that triggered something in me that was really deep.
Every bit of that story. . . I mean, it affected every single human being who has a heart, but for someone like me who was just riddled with anxiety and panic and preoccupied with death and disappearance—you know, I had been told my entire life that bad things like this don’t happen to kids. Bad things like this won’t happen to me. Bad things won’t happen to people I know or care about. And this one event sort of cemented everything I had feared as being true and led me to understand that adults really can’t be trusted, and that I’ve been right all along and that everything I’ve ever feared has been true.
I didn’t understand how the world worked, no one explained anything to me. So reality became very scary, and I think for a lot of kids with anxiety, when the world is explained to them, no matter how true and scary it is, it eases their anxiety. And that never happened for me. It was denied constantly. It was like, don’t worry, won’t worry. But I am worried, so address it. But it was never addressed.
WS: When we come back from the break, Amanda comes across a book that finally addresses her deepest fears.
WS: Author Amanda Stern had spent her childhood suffering from debilitating anxiety, with books like Beezus and Ramona as one of her only respites. And as she moved into adulthood, a fateful encounter with one book would prove to be even more helpful.
AS: When I was in my twenties, I started to date an alcoholic, which is what you do when you’re in your twenties. And about five or six years in, I was just depleted and miserable and I needed to get out of it. And I ended up going to this therapist.
I kept on asking her what was going to happen. And she said to me during one session, you have to live the questions, and I thought, that’s so brilliant. Like yeah, I guess. Like I have to—you know she kept on saying like, there are no quick answers to anything. Uncertainty is what life is about, and you have to live with uncertainty. You have to live the questions. And anxiety is a fear of uncertainty.
It all sort of meant something to me and in a deeper way and I said, that this is just so smart. And she said, well it’s not mine. And I said, well, whose is it? And she said, it’s Rainer Rilke. And I said, I don’t know who that is. And she said, oh, well, you must read Letters to a Young Poet, that’s where I got it from. And I said, how much time is left in our session? And she was like, 20 minutes. And I said, okay, I’m going to leave early because I’m going to get that book. And I went and I got the book—it’s right here—
WS: Is that your copy? The copy you got?
AS: This is the copy I got. And um, then I went to a cafe and I read it and I underlined a lot, and it did something. It provided me with so much of what I needed, that that therapist actually couldn’t provide me with.
WS: Reading Rilke also gave Amanda the push she needed to explore the career she really wanted to pursue: writing.
AS: It was also at the same time when I was realizing that I wanted to choose writing as my profession, and I didn’t know that that was a viable option. I didn’t know if i should. And this book addressed basically all of my questions about what to do with my life, my fear of being alone, my fear of uncertainty. And so it, it—every single struggle I had was addressed in this book.
WS: The structure of Letters to a Young Poet made it feel even more like it was speaking directly to Amanda.
AS: It’s just ten letters to this young student who is asking him for writing advice and basically saying here’s this poem I wrote, can you tell me if it’s any good? And the first letter is Rilke writing back and saying never ask anyone whether a work of art is any good. You know, don’t look outside of yourself for the answers, you have to look in. And I was like, yes Rilke, yes! And every, every letter was like that. And then I got to the “live the questions” and I read that and I underlined that. And he was like, you have to, you know, live the questions and one day you’ll live your way into the answer. And I was like, brother, you have it going on. Like he knew everything!
Everything in it gave me permission to go ahead and break up with my boyfriend, become a writer, don’t be afraid of solitude, don’t be afraid of uncertainty, and it just provided me with so much comfort. And every time I floundered or second guessed myself, I read the book, or I would just turn to some of the underlined passages and reread them. And I carried this book with me, like, in my bag.
WS: And Letters to a Young Poet also gave Amanda the tools she had been searching for to combat her anxiety.
AS: The way that I grew up, my mom shielded me from a lot of hardships, or tried to. And I think that that is a mistake that parents make, raising an anxious child. And they do it with absolute love and great intention, but it’s, it’s not—you can’t protect a child from what they’re afraid of. And so I grew up being afraid of reality and wanting answers for it, and no one had ever taught me really the truth about anything and when I read Letters to a Young Poet, I felt like it was this parental figure or like a mentor or a, you know, an older friend, giving it to me straight, but in the most eloquent, beautiful way. And it was everything that I—everything that I feared, like being alone and being uncertain. I was so afraid of reality, and I guess because no one had ever explained things to me, I thought I would also be afraid of the answers. And Rilke answered my fears in a way that made me not afraid of reality, and he gave me the truth in a palatable way. So I felt unafraid to take the next steps into adulthood. I felt unafraid—or not unafraid, but less afraid. I was given a confidence that I would survive these episodes of reality. Of breaking up with someone and being alone for the first time since I was like 17. And it gave me an energy and a sort of sense of adventure almost, that I was going to follow the same route as this person who give the best advice I’ve ever heard and that I was sort of under his guidance in some way.
It was my constant comfort and stability that I had never had. And the answers that I want are all right there, and they never change, ever. No one’s going back on their word, no one’s revising. You know, it’s just, it’s all right here.
WS: Amanda became a writer, publishing the novel The Long Haul and the children’s series Frankly, Frannie under the name A.J. Stern. But when it came time to write her book, she found herself reflecting on Rilke’s advice again.
AS: I had been trying and and trying and trying to write my next book and every, every iteration was sort of ruined by my own personal story creeping in, and I thought, ugh man. You know, I want to use my childhood—I wanted to incorporate it into a novel. But I couldn’t seem to figure out how to do it without writing my own story and so I would stop writing the book I was writing and start a new one. And I just kept on doing that until finally, so many years had passed and, you know, I was like I’m about to be using a walker, like I have to get all of this out, and I realized that I wouldn’t be able to write my next novel if I didn’t get my own story out of the way. So, I thought I would just start writing it to get it out and to do everything that I imagined I would do if I ever wrote a memoir. I wanted to just get it out. And it sort of became the book I had been trying to write. And I realized that I couldn’t write it because it wasn’t a novel, and I had a lot of trepidation about writing a memoir and also about being really honest about, essentially, a mental illness. But I felt like I had no choice. This is what I must do. This is the book I must be writing.
WS: Do you think you would have written this book if you hadn’t read Letters to a Young Poet?
AS: I mean, well, that’s a hard question to answer because if I hadn’t read Letters to a Young Poet, would I be a writer? So I guess the answer is, you know, A, I don’t know, and B, I probably—I don’t know if I would be a writer. Not publicly. Privately, yes. But I don’t know. I haven’t thought of that. I hadn’t—I’ve never asked myself that. I can’t—I don’t know.
WS: But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino, Alex Abnos, and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Amanda Stern and Gretchen Koss. If you’d like to learn more about the books we mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com.