A is for Ack! It’s April Already and I am Anxious

AI can’t believe I haven’t finished my first blog for the A to Z challenge yet. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, planning, scheming, writing it in my head, but clearly I’ve not put any words down yet. Until now. These few, uninspired, last minute words that seem so unequal to the task, so small and worthless and hurried.

A is for Apology, apparently. Abject. Abysmal. But I’m at AWP this week, a conference all about writing, and so, apology or not, abysmal or not, tired or not, write I must.

I am going to write about Anxiety. My plan for this year’s A-to-Z Challenge is thus: I want to spend this month writing about my experiences as a student in the Clinical Mental Health Counselor Program at Antioch University. I want to weave together a narrative, exploring the concepts (from A to Z) that I study as a student of mental health counseling and how my studies intersect with my life. How my coursework shows up in my day-to-day world.

I haven’t studied Anxiety, per se. I have taken many relevant classes, delved into the DSM 5 and learned how I might diagnose a client who presented with symptoms that fit the criteria for, say,  Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I learned to write a treatment plan and theorized about which therapeutic modality I might employ to best help my client regain his or her equilibrium.

Most of what I’ve learned about Anxiety comes from first hand experience. I am not one who has been plagued with Anxiety for much of my life. No, my familiarity with this particular demon has only been recent and is one of the reasons I started running regularly a little over two years ago.

I started waking up in the mornings with a pit of dread churning in my stomach and found that if I went for a run, somewhere around mile two or three, the pit of dread loosened and eventually abated. I guess the endorphins kicked in, the oxytocin released, and the runner’s euphoria lifted the anxiety. Cured, if only temporarily, I could get on with my day. The next morning, the anxiety would return, and I’d start over. Run. Rinse. Repeat.

A nice side benefit to running off all my anxiety was that I started to lose weight. I felt healthier. My blood pressure dropped, as did my cholesterol, and my pants size. But, I digress. I still woke up most mornings feeling like something horrible was about to happen. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the axe to fall, for the bottom to drop out, for . . . well, you get the picture.

Anxiety chased me into my running clothes and out of the house each morning. But the thing about being a graduate student in a counseling program is that these sort of disruptions don’t slip by unanalyzed. While one part of me succumbed to the anxiety, another part of my tapped my forefinger thoughtfully against my chin  and asked, “How do you feel about this, Pam Sue?”

Some people have angels and demons sitting on their shoulders. I now have Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, or their modern day equivalents, Jack Cornfield and Tara Brach. I can have a panic attack and simultaneously know for certain that while what I am experiencing might feel real, it isn’t true.

It’s weird, living with this meta awareness. I had all sorts of anxiety about traveling to AWP this week–logistical stuff that I know I’m capable of handling but for whatever reason just kept spinning on: how am I going to get to Sea-Tac from Bellingham? To the airbnb from LAX? I can’t check in until 4 p.m., but I arrive at 9 in the morning. What would I do? These questions dogged me for weeks. I envisioned myself in dire circumstances, dragging my carryon around LA for hours, sad and alone and dazed.  Yet, I simultaneously knew my fears were unfounded and not based in reality. I could make a shuttle reservation, find a friend to stay with in Seattle, even one who might take me to the airport. I just couldn’t see the logical steps in the midst of my anxiety.

Something similar happened when I realized how expensive it was going to be to eat and drink here in Los Angeles. The first day I spent way too much money on so-so food and paid $8 for a mediocre beer. So, I took myself to the grocery store, but instead of going shopping at the end of the day, when the conference was over, I went in the morning on my way to the conference and so had to schlep my groceries around the conference hall, from one panel discussion to another.

I was so anxious about not having drinking water back at the airbnb that night, I bought a six pack of bottled water and stuck it in my already heavy backpack. All the while I’m hearing Jack and Tara on my shoulders, telling me not to believe the anxiety, reassuring me that all will be well, that I will be fine, that there will be water at the conference. That the universe will provide.  But, do I listen? No. I buy the water. And I vow to do better tomorrow.




Writing, Always with the Writing

A week ago Sunday I returned from a lovely few days of basking in writerly goodness—a writing retreat to Lummi Island, two events featuring Cheryl Strayed in the ‘ham, and then four days at AWP in Seattle. Coming down over the past week has been a gentle process. I’ve been motivated to work. This blog a day thing is keeping me writing. The daily haikus, too. I’m also reading a lot about writing. I finished Theo Pauline Nestor’s Writing is My Drink—wonderful book, motivating, inspiring. I just bought Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. I had the privilege of hearing her read a bit from it at AWP. Can’t wait to read it.

Currently I’m reading  Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The first edition of this book came out in 2001 and it’s currently in it’s 13th printing, so it’s done quite well for a slim volume on art.

I noticed on the end cap on the Memoir section at Village Books the other day—I’m always hovering around the Memoir section, hoping something will happen (irrational, I’m aware)—and there it was, speaking to me as so many of the books do. I passed it by twice before I finally gave in and bought it.

I’m not quite half way through as I type this—turns out it is one of those books best savored over a couple of weeks rather than inhaled overnight. Every night I pick it up and read a few pages. I toss it in my book bag as well and take it with me in case I have time to read something other than my iPhone during the day.

Here’s the first line from the first chapter:  “Making art is difficult.” I’m hooked. Go on. The book seeks to answer, I think, these questions:  If art is so damn hard, how does it even get done at all? What are the obstacles that artists must overcome to create?

I only have to get to page four to find this nugget:  “Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do and what you did.” Isn’t that the truth? How different is that paragraph I just wrote from the one that I thought I was going to write five minutes ago? The paragraph in my head practically danced off the page it was so lively, but now there’s this big brown poop pile of words that I actually typed and it bears absolutely no resemblance to what I intended to type. Why is that?

Bayles and Orland would argue that we need to type out many, many ugly piles of mediocre art in order to get to the one golden paragraph, the golden paragraph that shines the proverbial light in the inevitable darkness. Our job, the authors so helpfully point out, is to learn from our work. They say that “the function of the overwhelming majority of [our] artwork is to simply teach [us] how to make the small fraction of [our] artwork that soars.” We learn to work by doing our work.

Everyone has said this in every writing book I’ve read: Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Theo Nestor, Natalie Goldberg, Dani Shapiro are who pop into my  head at the moment. . . we have to put our butts in the chairs, we have to churn out shitty first drafts, we have to live in The Cave. We have to do the work. Cheryl Strayed said it last week when she was in town for Whatcom Reads. Multiple panelists at AWP said it last week. The book is not going to write itself, the painting won’t paint itself.

They also stress the importance of audience. Most people quit producing art when they lose their audience. For many folks, this time comes immediately after finishing school because our audience is suddenly gone. No more teachers, classmates, peers, student showings. It all vanishes and no one has taught us how to find our audience.

The authors make two recommendations. First, make friends with others who make art and share your work. Second, start to think less about showing your work in, say, MoMa, and more about showing it to those friends who make are.

I’m not sure what my point is here except to say that for me, there are two realities about writing—at least for me. The first is that no matter how much I think about writing something, nothing happens until I start actually writing. The second thing is that community is good. A writing community—being among so many writers, so many people with the same purpose, last week awakened the sleeping lazy writer in me. If all these people can write books, so can I. Because they are here to talk about it—they are here to help, to light the way, to pat me on the back, and to just sit across the table from me behind another laptop, working with me.


I did a crazy thing the other day. Overwhelmed by inspiration from attending AWP 2014, I signed up with Blogher.com for NaBloPoMo, their monthly blog writing challenge. The idea is to write a blog a day for the entire month. I’m already failing. It’s March 3 and I’ve yet to produce a blog. It’s not like I don’t have any ideas, but I have this fear that when I start a blog, I won’t be able to finish it or wrap it up sufficiently. I am afraid I won’t be able to bring it on home, I guess. This is not an unfamiliar fear. It creeps in often around writing, especially after a dry period.

I have the same fear about running after a few days off. Due to snow and AWP, I’ve not been running for the past five days, and so when I got up this morning the pressure to go for a run was nearly paralyzing. I employed all of my tricks to move past the fear—I got dressed in my running clothes even though I knew I wouldn’t be heading out for a run anytime soon. I reminded myself that I had been feeling exceptionally healthy these past couple of months—a direct result, I am pretty certain, of my increased running activity. I looked at the pants I’ve been wearing recently—pants I couldn’t button before Christmas. That was motivating. Eventually I worked up enough momentum to propel me to lace up my sneakers and hit the road.

Writing is like running I thought as I surveyed the landscape on my run. There were huge branches all over the place, shaken from their trees by recent storms. Writing is like that too, I thought as I gave some trees with suspicious looking branches wide berth. I didn’t need a branch falling on my head. Writing shakes out those loose branches, those fears I encounter before embarking—what if I don’t get very far? What if I make it a mile and then I can’t go on? What if it hurts? But it’s raining. The bottom line is that by beginning, I will be no worse off than I was by not starting and the chances that I will be better off increase each time I put on my running shoes and hit the pavement. Past experience tells me this—it is a fact. I feel better when I run. I feel much better if I run more. I feel shitty if I run less and I feel shittier still if I don’t run at all. I know these things.

I know that if I write, I will feel better. If I write more, I will feel better still, and if I don’t write or write less, I will feel shitty. Furthermore, if I don’t write I will have no material. I cannot reach any of my writing goals without material—I can’t send anything out for publication. I cannot finish my book. I can’t even apply to attend writing retreats (at least the ones I want to attend) if I don’t have anything written down. Starting writing is as scary as putting on my running shoes—facing the blank page or the glowing white computer screen is a lot like taking that first step of a five mile run. What if I get to the end of page one, the end of mile one, and I can’t go any further? What if I run out of things to say?

Here’s what I know:  I’m not any worse off than before I started. In fact, I now have approximately 500 words that I did not have a few moments ago. Just like after running a mile, I am ahead of where I was before I embarked. No worse off, certainly. Most likely better. Because one step leads to more steps just like one word leads to more words and sometimes the miles and the pages fly by and before I know it, I’m bringing it home. I’m cresting that hill, finishing that essay, posting that blog and running the final few steps to my driveway. I know that finishing feels so damn good.