A writer/psychotherapist offers his insight on creativity

An old deodorant commercial once proclaimed, “If you’re not a little nervous, you’re really not alive.”

Pretty sage advice, even though the only thing at stake was staying dry and odor-free. But there is something to be said for accepting—and learning to navigate—the minor turbulences of life. I’m talking here about common everyday anxiety. The jitters. Butterflies.

This is particularly true for writers, whose very feelings are the raw materials of their craft. No matter how mundane, the small anxieties can swarm like bees, making work difficult; distractions, like an impending visit from the in-laws, money worries, or that funny noise the Honda’s been making.

Then there are the more virulent writer’s anxieties, shared by few in other lines of work: Your agent hasn’t returned your phone calls. You are three weeks past deadline. You have Act Two problems.

In other words, you’re becoming a clone of the Charlie Kaufman character in Adaptation—bleary-eyed, unshaven, sleep-deprived, staring pathetically at the empty computer screen, hoping for inspiration and yearning for another cup of coffee, and maybe a nice banana nut muffin. A dozen nagging, self-mocking thoughts echo in your head: You’re untalented, a fraud. You’re getting old and fat. No woman (or man) will ever want to sleep with you again. Your life is over.

These kinds of feelings require work, to be sure, if only to be validated (and then gently challenged) by a supportive therapist, mate, good friend, or fellow writer. These deeply embedded, childhood-derived, seemingly inescapable Dark-Night-of-the-Soul feelings can, in fact, be crippling, regardless of your level of craft or years of experience. When it comes to these writer demons, none of us escapes.

And, as I’ve said countless times to the writer clients in my practice, struggling with these doubts and fears doesn’t say anything about you as a writer. Other than that you are a writer.

Frankly, this difficult emotional terrain is where a writer lives much of the time—in a matrix of triumphs and defeats, optimism and despair, impassioned beliefs and crushing deflations.

And, believe me, this is equally true for both beginning writers and accomplished, battle-hardened veterans.

But there’s another kind of anxiety that emerges occasionally in a writer’s life: the kind of gut-wrenching, dizzying upheaval from within that throws everything you think you know into doubt and that scares you to the very core. A shattering divorce. The death of a family member. A spate of sudden, inexplicable panic attacks. Terrorism. War.

Then, what balm is there to offer—or to receive—that doesn’t seem trivial or woefully inadequate? Catharsis and validation, the foundation of most psychotherapeutic work, feel like mere word games. Medication, while often clinically appropriate, seems at best an armoring against something primal that’s working within you.

What is a writer to do with that level of anxiety?

Use it.

Because when all that’s left is writing, writing’s all that’s left.

What kind of writing? It may be numbed-out and shapeless at first; chaotic and unsatisfying. It may be dark and ugly, or self-pitying and shameless. It may be a blind, angry clawing at the air with words and images.

The important thing to acknowledge, to accept and to make use of is the fact of the anxiety—its weight, its size, and its implacability at this time in your life. It’s there, as immovable as a brick wall; as deep and fathomless as a sea.

So you must ask yourself this question: Is there a character in the story I’m working on who feels such anxiety; who feels as overwhelmed, as out of control, as terrified as I? Is there a way I can funnel my passion into the story I’m writing, searching for the words and rhythms that will give my article new power?

If so, plunge headlong into writing the hell out of whatever you are working on: give that fictional character your voice, your fears, your dreads. Use these anxieties to create dramatic scenes, to animate your language. Use your power of empathy to bring voice to the voiceless.

Play with rants, vitriol, strong words to turn your passions into words on the page. Write furiously. If you are writing fiction, imagine fiery exchanges between characters, letting passions and behaviors emerge that may astound or alarm you; that stretch or distort or even demolish the narrative you’ve been working with. If you are writing nonfiction, put the passion on the page. These explosive sentences can all be edited later—softened, deleted, made more nuanced, or woven artfully into the story tomorrow, or the next day, when you have some kind of perspective.

To be truly in the eye of the emotional storm, to create from a state of anxiety, is to surrender any fantasy of perspective. In fact, in the purest sense, it’s the ultimate act of creative surrender from which, out of the crucible of your deepest pain, you might discover a joyful, wonderful surprise.

If, however, you feel so impotent in the face of your anxiety that you can’t even imagine utilizing it in this way, then write about that feeling, create metaphors, find analogies. Even if you have no characters whose voices you can appropriate, even if you are writing nonfiction, even if your fingers tremble at the thought of making narrative sense out of the inchoate feelings inside you.

Do this: put those trembling fingers on a keyboard, and start stringing words together that reflect how you feel … without context, or narrative, or character. Just raw feeling, in as many vivid, living words as you can call forth.

Then look at what you’ve written. Feel whatever it is you’re feeling. And write some more. Soon, I believe, you’ll have a sense of the logjam cracking. You’ll feel the urgency of creative expression, the palpable release of banked anxiety. Without judging what comes, without needing it to be anything, I think you’ll find yourself writing, even if that’s just defined, for the moment, as putting words down on a page.

Does the idea of this exercise itself make you anxious? Doesn’t surprise me. We’re all pretty scared of writing out of the very emotional space we’d most like to avoid or deny. It’s human nature.

But for those artists who have the courage to embrace their own fears, to stay emotionally connected in what seems like an ever more dangerous world, to coexist with potentially crippling anxiety and write anyway, the rewards can be significant.

Moreover, when all that’s left is writing… Writing’s all that’s left. So trust it. Trust yourself.

And write.

—Dennis Palumbo

{Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter), External link opens in new tab or windowDennis Palumbo is now a psychotherapist, specializing in creative issues. He’s the coauthor of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), as well as a collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His latest mystery, Head Wounds, was published in February 2018 from Poisoned Pen Press.}

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