Lauren Martin on Realizing Writing Advice Applies
to Life, Too
"Writing a book, I quickly found out, was a crash course in anxiety."
I do believe . . . that everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.
–Dani Shapiro, Still Writing
To study this mood, I didn’t need to seek out experiences that made me anxious. I didn’t need to hope something would happen. I didn’t need to look out for the moments to practice on. I was in the middle of the most anxious period of my life.
Writing a book, I quickly found out, was a crash course in anxiety. Years of being locked in a room with nothing but my thoughts, my future, my past in front of me. At the start of the dream, I hadn’t thought about the pain that would accompany it, only the excitement. Three months in, however, I was in the middle of the ocean, wailing and sputtering, drowning myself in fear. Never had I experienced such intense moments of frustration, pain, and anxiety over white space, blank pages, empty inboxes. I was crying in the shower, my right eye was twitching, and I’d picked up a new habit of chewing my hair. I can’t do it, I thought. There’s too much I don’t know, too much I can’t see. I felt like Joan Didion when she described writing Slouching Towards Bethlehem:
“The pain kept me awake at night and so for twenty and twenty-one hours a day I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin and wrote the piece.”
Only I wasn’t writing the piece. I was sitting there for hours on end with nothing to show for it.
Every time I sat down to write, the anxiety enveloped me. What if no one buys it? What if I don’t finish? What if I’m not allowed to write again? I’d spend three hours in front of the page without a word, leaving the bedroom only to pour myself whiskey. The future of the book and my past writing failures, those juvenile stories in college, those terrible articles on the internet, tumbled and crashed against me. It was the same paralysis, the same self-questioning, that kept me awake at night. The same fear and doubt that kept me tossing and turning while Jay slept soundly beside me. I couldn’t write in this state. I could barely function in this state.
I needed to find something to ground me. Something to help me out of my own head. So while I poured whiskey with one hand, I researched with the other. I went back to what I always did, tried to see how other women handled it. I filled journals with quotes from writers, artists, leaders. I watched interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and Nobel laureates. I read the Paris Review and the New Yorker, combing articles for advice, inspiration, an answer to how these women kept themselves afloat in the sea of the unknown. How they kept themselves grounded in the face of all that was ahead.
Writing advice, I found out, was just life advice. The same way writers tackled the blank page was how I should tackle life.
Build a corner. This is what people who are good at puzzles do. They ignore the heap of colors and shapes and simply look for straight edges. They focus on piecing together one tiny corner.
–Dani Shapiro, Still Writing
To make something good of the future, you have to look the present in the face.
–Simone de Beauvoir, The Mandarins
When I sit down to work, I’m just trying to get one little thing right.
Forget about the wide world and all that anxiety and just do it, one word after the other.
Remember who you are and where you are and what you’re doing.
–Katherine Anne Porter
The consensus was obvious: Stay present. Stay with what’s in front of you. Don’t get ahead of yourself, don’t worry about the middle and the ending, just stick with the page you’re on. Of all the writers, the hundreds of Sylvia Plath and Patti Smith and Agatha Christie quotes, Jane Smiley, author of fourteen books and the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, explained it most clearly. “Writing,” she said, “is only one word at a time. It’s not a whole bunch of things happening at once. Various things can present themselves, but when you face the page, it’s a couple of words, and then a couple more words, and, if you’re lucky, a sentence or a paragraph.”
It was so simple yet so profound. So obvious yet so overlooked. One word at a time. One sentence. One book. It mimicked the structure of life. One moment. One day. One life. As books were written in words, life was lived in moments. The word I was paying attention to would lead to the next. The moment I was living in now would roll into my future.
When I went back to write, I noticed that when I focused on the words in front of me, the fears about the rest of the book dissolved. The same thing happened when I focused on the moment. Actually, when I focused on the moment, two things happened: I didn’t have the time or mental space to worry about the future, and because I was paying attention to the moment, the future took care of itself. Because the future was the result of moments, and when I was living as presently in the moment as possible, I didn’t have to worry so much about what could be. When I took care of the dishwasher now, I didn’t have to find time to do it later. When I did well on my work presentation, I didn’t need to worry about the security of my job, the scrutiny of my boss, later. When I focused on this chapter, I didn’t need to fear the one after it. And that’s when I began trusting myself, in a way I never had before. I trusted myself to live in the present, in a way that would take care of my future self. And the more I trusted myself, the less I saw myself worrying about the future.
From The Book of Moods copyright © 2020 by Lauren Martin and published by Grand Central Publishing. Printed by permission.