By: Russ Pitts
I try to be vague when I write about my anxiety. Or, if we’re being charitable, we can call it being exploratory. Questioning. Uncertain, perhaps. And there’s a reason for that and it’s right there on the surface. I’m not hiding it; I don’t know shit. Not about this, anyway.
I’m learning as I go. It’s a painful and often frustrating process, and the most painful and frustrating part is how throughly and for how long I’ve sabotaged the effort myself.
For most of my life, the problems I have been having were not “anxiety” because that is a thing other people have. I couldn’t afford to admit I had a problem with my head. Or at least I didn’t believe I could. Because I’m a writer — always have been. My head is the place where the magic comes from. My feelings, a source of that magic. And the magic pays the bills.
A major part of my anxiety is worrying over – not what people think of me – but how I affect them. How they respond to me. Not because I want to be well-liked, per se. At least, no more than anyone else. But because somewhere deep inside I have a memory of what happens when a tone of voice is wrong, or a word is chosen poorly or the wind happens to blow and a leaf sticks to the windshield.
I won’t bore you (or embarrass others) with the details, but suffice to say I learned at an early age to become unobtrusive, malleable. Not a source of conflict. Indeed, preferably a solution for conflict. I learned to smell the emotion of a room, the way the anger was running, and then react before it ran towards me. I got good at hiding. And getting good at hiding meant getting bad at being me.
When you learn to hide, you sublimate what makes you, you. You become a mirror, or a smooth surface. You entertain. You make people happy. You try to avoid making them mad. You become the Moderated Man, incapable of causing offense. And, in the process, you become empty. You build a wall around how you really feel and you only let out the things that are “safe.” And, eventually, that becomes nothing at all.
I worry about what people see when they look at me, and so what I show them is nothing. Just the wall. Mr. Blank Man. But behind the wall, at any given moment — for any given reason — my mind may be telling me that I’m a child and the world is full of terror and that if I do or say a wrong thing … then whatever will happen. And when I feel that way I sometimes — out of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing — do and say wrong things. Things that are embarrassing or ugly. And then I feel bad about those things, and the cause of them. And then I feel bad for feeling bad. And that dark well, if I fall into it, is deep.
And so I write. The writing is how the feelings come out. The good ones. The real ones. The writing is the relief valve. Where I can set the stage myself, write the ending my way and — better than anything — be myself. Maybe through other characters. Maybe just by doing the writing.
When I learned to hide, as a gift, I also learned to write. And then I got good at that, and got lucky and now here we are.
The number one question every writer gets from every person they meet is, “Where do you get all of your ideas?” It’s the million-dollar question. And the answer is, “They’re just there.” Like how a sculptor can see shapes inside of a block of marble, or how a photographer can see photographs in the way light bounces of trees. Some days you wake up and ideas are just there, and you write them. If they make sense and people like them, you’re writer. It’s just as simple and complicated as that. Like a genie from a bottle.
The scary part — for some writers — is that you can’t really answer that question. The ideas don’t come from anywhere — they’re already there. And so, if you can’t say from where they come, you also can’t say they won’t some day go away. Where do the ideas come from? The genie in my head. Where does the genie come from? Ah, now that’s the rub.
I’ve tried to make a living doing hand things instead of brain things so I could at least know where my money came from and not have to trust this genie in my head that might some day stop whispering. Didn’t work. I’m a brain guy. My hands are alright, but the back is terrible. The knees, forget about it. My brain is what I’ve got. And so I’m a slave to the genie, and to the anxiety that I might some day lose it.
Here’s the thing, though: What happens when you hold on too hard to something? You eventually crush the life out of it, and that’s where the bad writing days come from, why the magic feels unpredictable, untamable. Why you live in fear of it. Circle back on yourself, run away from anything that might upset the delicate balance of mental chemistry, emotional architecture and voodoo you’ve come to rely on to let that genie do its thing.
And then, if you’re like me, after you’ve listened to that genie whisper, day after day, then you some day realize: That’s me. That’s where I went, when I ran. When I became invisible. I hid behind the wall and I became the genie in my own mind, whispering, waiting. I left myself and became a part of myself and I’ve been warring with myself, creating my own problem and then feeding on it. And I’ve been there the whole time. The genie is me.
That day — when I found myself in my own genie — was an amazing day. I can’t say it’s been all roses and puppy butts ever since, but the writing has been my friend more than my enemy. It’s not a strange and mysterious gift, it’s a muscle I’ve trained and that I can maintain and retrain. It’s a skill. I earned it the hard way, but I’ve kept it by treating it right and being more than a little lucky. And knowing all of that, knowing the genie doesn’t need to hide behind that wall, has allowed me to start tearing it down.