Anxiety, My Old Friend

From The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker:

The writing of my poetry is never consciously planned, although I become aware that there are certain emotions I would like to explore. Perhaps my unconscious begins working on poems from these emotions long before I am aware of it. I have learned to wait patiently (sometimes refusing good lines, images, when they come to me, for fear they are not lasting), until a poem is ready to present itself–all of itself, if possible.

I sometimes feel the urge to write poems way in advance of ever sitting down to write. There is a definite restlessness, a kind of feverish excitement that is tinged with dread. The dread is because after writing each batch of poems I am always convinced that I will never write poems again. I become aware that I am controlled by them, not the other way around. I put off writing as long as I can.

Then I lock myself in my study, write lines and lines and lines, then put them away, underneath other papers, without looking at them for a long time. I am afraid that if I read them too soon they will turn into trash; or worse, something so topical and transient as to have no meaning–not even to me–after a few weeks. … I also attempt, in this way, to guard against the human tendency to try to make poetry carry the weight of half-truths, of cleverness.

(Paragraph spaces not in source; just trying to avoid a wall of text.)

I love reading about other artists’ — especially poets’ — creative processes. Walker’s “restlessness/feverish excitement tinged with dread” finally makes sense to me. I don’t think I was ready to understand this ten or even five years ago. Eric Maisel describes it similarly in Fearless Creating. Here is what he says about the anxiety that precedes the creative work:

The productive artist lives with this. She knows that something wonderful and terrible is going on, something difficult, something important and uncontrollable. She also knows that this will happen again and again, and that she is lucky if this happens again and again, for it means that she is oriented correctly toward her own wish to create, that she is a creator at the ready.

Damn. I wish I had realized this earlier in my creative life. Now that I have more time to myself, I’m much more conscious of the restlessness/anxiety, and the ways I react to it. It’s like a pressure that gathers behind my eyes. I can feel the energy of the potential poem. It’s exciting! No, it’s awful! I dread that what I write will not do justice to the cool idea I’ve had. I have an unaccountable feeling of invincibility. I fear that after this poem, I will be all out of poems. After I eat lunch, I will definitely start writing. I’m being terrorized by this poem! It’s kicking my butt and I haven’t even tried to write it yet! I decide to read a book about vampires instead. I’ll just take a little nap…

No, I’m choosing to work. Victory is sometimes measured in teaspoons.

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3 thoughts on “Anxiety, My Old Friend

  1. Can I comment in general? I mean, I could write a book on Anxiety, but I really wanted to say…
    “Hey! Look at me! I’m here, reading your blog!”
    I’ve enjoyed your posts, although I’m not yet much of a writer myself. I had a great idea (I thought) for a book when I was living in England. It centered around the burial mound in my backyard and I found myself mentally working on it whenever I was out there gardening. Which was a lot. But I never did actually put pen to paper. I didn’t know how. And now the emotions that triggered it are gone and it is just a dry, wrinkly old idea. (I don’t know… if I put it in water, do you think it will become reconstituted?) So, write while you can, if you know how! And never mind ol’ Anxiety. Just send her out to the burial mound!

  2. Answer: So actually, Eric Maisel believes – and I agree – that the mental planning stage is a legitimate and important part of the creative process. And yes, the story will come back to life if you put it in water. Ie, start working on it again. 🙂

  3. Last month you said, “I fear that after this poem I will be all out of poems”. But, after you eat lunch, you’re not all out of lunch-makings, are you? Plus, you know where to get more. The supermarket of your brain must hold shelves and shelves of both ‘staples’ and ‘perishables’ from which to concoct more poems. We non-poets may only have staples. (And mine are alphabetically arranged, talk about boring). I envision the poet’s brain having fleeting gems of ideas which she manages to catch with a butterfly net.

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