Sunday, March 27, 2022

Book Review: Mastering Creative Anxiety by Eric Maisel

Image of Bojack Horseman under the caption, "It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That's the hard part. But it does get easier."
Having anxiety is like trying to walk a pet octopus. You're strolling along, minding your own business, when the octopus gets a death grip on some random bullshit and you're suddenly stopped in your tracks. “Come on, come on,” you groan, tugging helplessly at the taut leash. “We don't have time for this! Let go, you stupid cephalopod!”

And then it does, for a moment. The suckers unsuck, the tendrils retreat, and you move a little way forward. Then something else crosses your path and the octopus gloms on to that.

As you can imagine, this gets a bit exhausting after a while. Every time you think you've got the octopus under control – you've been through obedience school, you've taught it commands, you remembered to pack your fanny pack with a sachet of Octopus Treats – it reminds you who's actually boss.

Writing (and probably all creative arts) is one of those things that offers an octopus a lot to hang on to. There's loads to worry about: You can fail to get published. You can fail to submit your stories. You can fail to finish your stories. You can fail to have a story idea. You can fail to sit down at the keyboard in the first place, which might save you from the other anxieties but won't make you feel any better. But to put it in other words, every stage of the process is fraught with all kinds of concerns, challenges, difficulties, and anxieties.

And in Mastering Creative Anxiety, Eric Maisel tries to catalog them all. Like Kierkegaard trying to name every example of double-mindedness he can think of in Purity of Heart, Maisel isn't just interested in “creative anxiety” as a topic, he wants to illuminate all the forms it can take.

In the end, Maisel identifies 24 forms of creative anxiety, which include things like the anxieties of identity, individuality, day jobs, failing, promoting, waiting, and success. He dedicates a chapter to describing the hallmarks of each, and ends each section with a few takeaways. Here's a representative example from the end of the book's first chapter, “The Anxiety of Creating and Not Creating:”
“Since both creating and not creating produce anxiety in anyone who wants to create, you might as well embrace the fact that anxiety will accompany you on your journey as a creative person – whether or not you are getting on with your work.”
This is pretty much the lesson of each chapter, actually. Regardless of the particular flavor of anxiety you're dealing with, Maisel counsels that the only way forward is to act. From the book's very first sentence – “Anxiety is part of the human condition” – Maisel makes it clear that he isn't promising miracles. His first goal is just to help you accept that there's no healthy way to completely shut off your anxiety. It will always be there in one form or another.

But there is such a thing as unhealthy anxiety, and in those cases it needs to be mitigated. So at the end of the first chapter, Maisel tees up what he calls the “Anxiety Mastery Menu.” These are twenty-two techniques meant to help you navigate the inevitable feelings of anxiety that arise by virtue of being, well, a living person. After introducing the basics of each, Maisel will return to these techniques throughout the book to elaborate on how to put them into practice.

None of the twenty-two techniques will feel radical to anyone who's read about this stuff before. For example, one technique is called “Improved Appraising,” which is a way to reduce anxiety by “refusing to appraise situations as more important, more dangerous, or more negative than they in fact are.” Another technique is “Lifestyle Support,” which asks you to “get sufficient rest and exercise, eat a healthful diet, take time to relax,” and so on and so forth.

Is any of this wildly groundbreaking stuff? Not especially, but Maisel never claims that it is. The most radical point that he makes is that reading his book cannot help you. What helps is putting the techniques into practice. Doesn't matter which! You can try them all, if you like, and see which ones seem to resonate. But what's important here is the daily, deliberate practice of turning these techniques into a habit.

And that's the hard part, of course. Just like sitting down to write, play music, or paint every day is the hard part. For a creative person, then, that much will at least feel familiar.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

How Do You Afford Your Literary Lifestyle?

A couple years after I finished my MFA, I got my first real job as a writer. The company I worked for was attempting to make a desperate pivot from print advertisements to web design, and as a result it needed writers who could crank out copy as quickly as possible. It wasn't really creative work, and it didn't pay very much, but the indisputable fact of the matter was that I was working full time as a writer.

I took some pride in that, but not too much. Writing web copy for Canadian plumbers and tree trimmers was quite a ways from publishing fiction, and sometimes that goal still felt light years away. When that feeling got a little too heavy, I would get up from my desk, walk down the block, and browse around a nearby Barnes and Noble.

That's when I began buying The Paris Review. The journal felt like a lifeline. Walking back to the office on a warm summer day, a literary magazine tucked under my arm, I could believe this was all just part of the journey. You pay your dues first, and then one day you land a story with one of the Big Ones, and all that work will pay off. At least I was in the right ballpark.

I'm not sure exactly when I first noticed the ads. Or rather, I'm not sure when I first noticed that they weren't aimed at me. But one day I was flipping through a new issue, trying to decide which stories to read and which interviews looked most appealing, and I paused at a black-and-white ad of some beautiful people dressed in some beautiful clothes. Normally I skipped right past these things, but on that particular day I was arrested by the thought that I had absolutely no idea where I could purchase that outfit.

Like, no, really: What if I wanted those pants? I couldn't them at Kohl's, I was pretty damn sure, even with a fistful of Kohl's Cash. I'd never even heard of the brand before, and had no idea who might possibly sell it. And as I looked at the rest of the advertisements in that particular issue, a realization began to set in. None of this was really for me.

Have you ever been watching a show, and all of a sudden you realize that every commercial is selling hearing aids, walk-in bathtubs, and reverse mortgages? It becomes very obvious that you are not the primary demographic for whatever you're watching. That doesn't mean you can't watch it, of course, or that you shouldn't be allowed to enjoy it. It just means that, generally speaking, you are not the kind of person the product is meant to attract.

That's how I felt reading The Paris Review. I was some dumb twenty-something from Indiana who thought spending money each quarter on a lit mag qualified as a wild indulgence. The idea that the real writers reading TPR were living lavish, luxuriant lifestyles gave me pangs of resentment and envy. I wasn't in the ballpark. I didn't even know what game I was playing.

Around this same time, my old MFA program offered a new workshop. They'd grown quite a bit since the years I was there, which shouldn't have been all that surprising. It was brand new when I enrolled, which was why the classes were inexpensive and offered on a schedule that accommodated working adults—both major factors that made it possible for me to attend.

But as the program developed, and more traditional students began to enroll, the course offerings began to adapt. And now, I learned via Facebook, they were offering a creative writing workshop in France. For a few thousand dollars you could tuck yourself away in the French countryside to do nothing but write and study at the feet of special A-list instructors.

It was not the kind of thing a person living on a web copywriter salary should try to afford, but I still spent a long time calculating how to come up with the money. Couldn't I scrape together some cash? What if I got a part time job somewhere, or took out a small loan? Other people were going, so it's not like it was impossible. Why couldn't I?

Alas, the financial reality was unmoved by my pleading. I did not go to France. Instead, I felt that same resentment and envy again. But this time I also felt a deeper sense that I was somehow letting myself down. 

Obstacles exist to eliminate people who don't want it enough. This was a mantra I told myself often in those days, to help keep me writing when the work was not going well. Yet now it felt like a curse. Here was a chance to write, really write, without the distractions of life. Here was a chance to work with incredibly successful authors, and so closely they would know me by name. What did it say about me that I would let it slip by? What did it say about my commitment?

Writing, as an art, has always had a low barrier to entry. The cost to get started is a pencil and paper—maybe not even that, if you have some light fingers. Even today, as much as the publishing industry has changed, there's nothing to stop anyone from starting a career with little more than Twitter and Substack. Are the odds very good? Hell no. Were they any better thirty years ago? Reader, they were not.

And I think it's these two factors that lead to a particular kind of anxiety for writers. Like playing the lottery, almost anyone can but their ticket but very few can actually win. As a result, aspiring writers are always on the lookout for some kind of edge, some little something to help distinguish them from the rest of the pack.

In theory, this “something” should be publication, but that can take a long time for little (if any) reward. Whereas MFA programs, workshops, conferences, journal subscriptions, unpaid magazine internships in New York—money can be very helpful in accumulating these literary signifiers. Not for every writer, of course, but isn't that kind of the point? Obstacles exist to eliminate people who don't want it enough, and there few obstacles are more effective than money.

I can hardly complain. I might have chosen my MFA program because it was affordable and I could still keep my day job, but let's not pretend this was any kind of necessity. If I had to choose between the program and rent, or the program and food, it's not like I would have enrolled. And there absolutely are people who must make that choices, not just with their money but time. If you're working two jobs and raising your kids, when the fuck are you supposed to write?

I try to keep this in mind. As I've grown older, and my perspective on my own good fortune has broadened, I try to remember that the little pangs of envy I sometimes feel—whether about The Paris Review or the actual nation of France—are rooted in a certain short-sightedness. They come from the same jealous place that used to dictate my feelings about better-off childhood friends, the kids whose houses had finished basements and bonus rooms, and who always had nicer clothes, better toys, and bigger TVs.

Those kids all seemed rich to me then, and because they were my friends I resented them for it. Why isn't that my family? I could only see the envy in front of my nose instead of appreciating how good my family actually had it, and how fortunate I actually was. I think feelings like that are normal and human, but they stem from a lack of maturity, one that feels insecure at the faintest hint that anyone might have it better.

And if ever there were an insecure, anxious group of people... Well, listen, they don't call envy "the writer's disease" for nothing. And this makes us vulnerable. Writers will always be offered new ways to spend money, always with the promise that this product or that class will be what at last tips the balance.  Some of these offers are good and valid and true. Some of them are total bunk. But it's hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff if you're coming from a place of resentment.

More importantly, though, is the fact that you don't have to spend money to write. The “literary lifestyle” can be the one that you're living right now. After all, writing has a long tradition of outsiders, people who did not wear the right pants and still made out pretty well. Even now, that practice of discovering new ways to do things—stepping around the gatekeepers to make a literary life for yourself—is one that is still very much alive and well. You just have to adjust your perspective to see it.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

On Keeping Journals

A few weeks ago, I read an incredibly detailed description of one person's notebook system. I not only read this from beginning to end but have returned to it several times since. I love articles like these because they give insight into a fairly mundane but necessary part of the creative process, and because notebook and journal systems are both universal (almost every writer keeps notes of one kind or another) and idiosyncratic (no two writers keep notes exactly the same).

Because these ideas have been kicking around my head for the last couple weeks, I thought I'd write about my own systems of journaling. The first thing I realized, as I sat down to write this post, was that I would need to define my terms.

What is a journal?

This seems like a stupid question at first, but the more I thought about it the more it needed an answer. For instance, would I consider this blog to be one of my journals? What about the spreadsheet where I update my weekly word counts and submission data? Or what about my daily to-do list, which is barely more than a series of boxes to check?

Almost immediately, I disqualified this blog. I don't think of a journal as something written for a public audience. To be useful, journals need to be as free from self-consciousness as possible, and I think that requires a level of privacy. While this blog does bear certain hallmarks of journaling—reflection, mental processing, memory extension—it certainly isn't private.

By contrast, my spreadsheet where I update my word counts is entirely kept to myself. But despite the fact that it's private, there's nothing about the spreadsheet that is in any way an extension of myself. It's pure data, the kind of thing that could probably be automated by a couple good macros.

So I think my definition of a journal combines two different aspects: first, a journal is meant solely for the audience of the person who writes it; and, second, a journal should serve as part of an extended mind, whether for purposes of memory, contemplation, or some other mental process. Any log that doesn't meet these two criteria is, for me, disqualified from consideration.

With that definition in place, here are the journals I keep.

Eight small journals lined up together
Four years of daily journals
Daily Journal

One of the effects of sobriety was the unsettling realization that large spans of time were missing from my memory. Sometimes it was also space that had vanished into the fog of a drink—at one point I realized I'd forgotten an entire room of my old apartment. I couldn't visualize it at all, but I knew it existed because of the floor plan.

As a result, after I got sober I began the ritual of writing a journal entry at the end of each day. My default notebooks of choice are 5" x 7" Five Star 80-page composition books, and it takes me about 15 minutes to fill up a page. I don't do a lot of reflecting in these daily entries. Part of the ritual is to contain each day within the same amount of space, which requires a certain emotional distance. But then, that's part of the point. These journals are for memory capture, and for that they work very well.

There's also something very meditative about ending each day by walking through its events. It puts them in a certain perspective, even while ensuring they don't slip through the cracks.

Reading Log

This is another journal that probably falls under the category of “memory extension.” I got tired of looking at my bookshelves and realizing that I could barely remember some of the books I had read, even books I knew I enjoyed.

For a while, I tried to share Ralph Waldo Emerson's position on the matter: “I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” I do think there's a lot of truth to that, and it's probably a very healthy point of view.

Even so, I decided that for me, personally, there was more value to remembering a book than not, and so I began to keep a reading log to help goose my memory. As a writer, this has also been valuable as a way of thinking about plot and story structure. Obviously I can't record every single thing that happens in a book, so what are the big elements that are worth including? How does one event affect another, leading up to the climax?

This process of deliberately rehearsing the major plot points and characters of a book has both helped me remember my reading and taught me to read like a writer.

Observation Journal

Every writer is, at heart, a thief and a spy, eavesdropping on other people's conversations to steal things for stories. Whenever I hear a great line, or catch a little glimpse of someone that seems to reveal inner character, I try to record it as briefly as possible in an observation journal. How much of a person can be distilled into less than a page? More than you'd think, if it's the right moment.

Companion Journal

This is another journal I try to keep within arm's reach every day, which is why I call it "companion." It's where I record the bits and pieces I encounter through the day or the week that I don't want to forget—book recommendations, movies to watch, quotes, snippets of interviews. It's a good way to keep track of things I want to revisit, but it has also become a record of the things I'm paying attention to, as well as the way, over time, those things have changed.

Dream Log

Like a lot of people, I'm fascinated by dreams and the way that they function. But I was prompted to finally start keeping a dream log after a couple specific incidents that I wanted to understand better.

First, before I starting keeping a regular log, I'd realized that there were a few “locations” to which my dreams would return. I got curious about what, if anything, these recurring locations meant, and if there was any correspondence to my waking life.

Second, I became aware that I seemed to access different memories while dreaming. Dreams that my conscious mind could not recall were suddenly accessible while I was asleep, so that it “felt” as though I had access to memories that were walled off during waking hours.

Was that actually the case? Or was the feeling itself part of the dream? Both these possibilities interested me, but the only way I knew to investigate was by keeping track of my dreams on paper. And while I haven't reached any conclusions, it's interesting to flip back in the journal and realize how quickly the dreams are forgotten. It's a strange case of nightly amnesia, and I think that's worth paying attention to.

Weekly Writing Log

Before I began tracking my word counts in a spreadsheet, I kept track of my weekly progress in a notebook. That's because I was tracking more than just how many words I'd written that week.

At a certain point in my writing life, I felt like I was constantly struggling with the thoughts that everything I write is terrible, I've failed at all of my goals, and that I will never be a “real” writer. I might conquer those fears for a while—maybe a story would be published, or I'd have an especially good week at the keyboard—but inevitably they would come back around.

It was this constant recurrence that was the most demoralizing. No matter what I did, sooner or later those thoughts would always come back. And this gave them a certain heft, or a sense of reality. I began to wonder if those low moments were “true” in a way that my better ones were not. If that was the case, maybe I should just accept the bad news.

Fortunately, by that point I knew that my brain is a bit of a funhouse, filled with warped mirrors reflecting back any number of cognitive distortions. I decided to keep a weekly writing log to track not just my progress but how I felt about that progress, to see what I might learn.

After a couple of years, the results were surprising. When I tracked how I felt about writing, it was completely untethered to any success, progress, or failures. Instead, my thoughts kept a schedule all of their own. Over the course of about five or six weeks I would go from feeling pretty good to feeling okay to feeling completely defeated. Then the clock would reset and I'd start to feel pretty good again.

None of this has changed, exactly. Becoming aware of the cycle hasn't done much to break it. But what did change was that I came to understand that how I felt just wasn't a very good metric. If I just kept writing, even while I felt most discouraged, eventually those feelings would change.

Daily To-Do List

Initially, I didn't think of these lists as any kind of a journal. I don't even use the same kind of notebook—while I prefer the Five Star 7” x 5” composition books, I keep my to-do list in pocket-sized hardback Moleskine.

I'll say more on the reason for that in a moment, but what I've seen happened is that my to-do list has gradually led to refining the way I prioritize. Without really intending to, my daily to-do list forced me to identify those things that were most important, and do away with those things that weren't.

In other words, the to-do list became its own process. By boiling my plans down to a checklist, and seeing what was given priority, I could also evaluate how I spent my time. This information allowed me to map out what an ideal day, week, and month would look like for me, and gave me something to aim for. And so it's that continual processing and refinement that I think qualifies these checklists as their own form of regular journaling.

A Word on Materials

Over the years, I've loved different notebooks. My favorite notebooks in high school were big, black-and-white composition books, because a full notebook page usually translated to a double-spaced page in Microsoft Word. There was something very satisfying about filling one up and knowing exactly how many typed pages you'd have.

Later, I came to love steno pads. I liked the thin columns and that the spiral ran across the top, rather than along the side (always a pain for a left-hander). I also liked that they were smaller than the composition books, which made them feel more discreet.

But over the years, through a lot of trial-and-error, I've come to absolutely love the Five Star 5” x 7” composition books with stitched binding. They are terrifically portable, with a tough plastic cover that stands up to all kinds of travel. The paper is thin but not translucent—paired with a Bic Round Stic pen, I can reliably fill up both sides of each sheet without worrying about ink bleeding through. And they are also incredibly cheap.

I think this is sometimes an overlooked factor when it comes to notebooks. Moleskine, in particular, seems to have built an entire business model on the idea that a writer's notebook must be an expensively produced and pedigreed artifact. But I will tell you the problem with Moleskine: When your notebook costs fifteen dollars, it's hard to let yourself have a shitty idea.

I should know. For years, my Moleskine sat unused while I filled up my Five Stars with crappy ideas, mundane journal entries, and little meandering thoughts. The Moleskine was reserved for Serious Writing, but it was impossible to know, at the outset, which idea would qualify.

Eventually, I got sick of it sitting untouched on the shelf, and I decided to give it the most boring job I could think of. My Moleskine became home to my daily to-do list. I didn't have to worry about the quality of that writing because it barely even counted as such.

So I am very much an advocate for cheap materials. Durable, yes, and of a quality that allows you to work; but above all at a price point that grants you license to feel guilt-free when you're crossing out some terrible pages. Journals and notebooks should be a place where you can be unself-conscious, a place for experimentation. Buying things cheap gives you permission to fail, which is, of course, how you succeed.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Dispatch from Bismarck

It's been a busy couple weeks on the road. Last week I was in Kitty Hawk, and this week I visited Bismarck, North Dakota for work.

Kitty Hawk at least gave us one warm and sunny day for our visit. Bismarck wasn't nearly as generous. It was cold when we landed and got colder all week, staying well below freezing the whole time. I was a little underprepared, in terms of winter weather gear, so by Thursday I was wearing all my clothes at once--a hoodie over a sweater over a button-down over a tee shirt, all bundled up in an Eddie Bauer jacket.

Which is probably what saved me when I slipped on the ice and hit my head on a driveway. Most of the impact was absorbed by my hip and my back, and although I still clocked my head pretty good, I'd like to think wearing five-layers of clothing did something to cushion the blow. My companions helped me back to my feet, then spent the rest of the evening and next day checking in on me.

It does make you a little nervous. I kept waiting for the first sign of dizziness or nausea, or the onset of a headache. While I was fortunate it wasn't worse than it was, I didn't take it lightly, either.

That was the low point. Highlights of the trip included the restaurants, all of which I enjoyed but especially India Clay Oven, which had one of the best menus I've seen in a while. We also found an hour or two to visit the nearby North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.

I'm from a state with no dinosaurs, which means my fossil hunts don't usually turn up much more than brachiopods and other fossilized sea life. North Dakota, though--now there's a state will some stunning paleontological finds. A few of these were on display at the museum and were the highlights of our short visit.

A hadrosaur fossil showing scaly skin

Maybe the most impressive piece on display was the "dinomummy," a hadrosaur fossil that revealed an incredible level of detail. The photo above is just one example of how well preserved the details were. You could see not just the individual scales but how they changed sizes and shapes depending on where they covered the body. It looked more like alligator leather than stone, and gave you a different sense of how massive these animals must have been in real life.

A tyrannosaurus rex skeleton

Next up was the tyrannosaurus rex. I thought this was a cast of Stan, the t. rex found in South Dakota that was auctioned off for $32 million in late 2020, but I'm not able to confirm that anywhere and I (foolishly!) didn't take a photo of the museum's placard. Either way, you can always count on a t. rex to steal the show, and this one was the heart of the fossil exhibit.

A triceratops skull encased in stone

Opposite the t. rex, posed as if in a stand-off, was a full cast of a triceratops. But I thought this was even more interesting. Here on display was an actual triceratops skull, only half-excavated from the rock in which it rested. Sometimes I try and imagine what it would be like to discover something like this, and slowly realizing both the size and shape of the creature you've just uncovered.

Sabre teeth are one of those striking features that seem to evolve over and over again across multiple species. Why, then, was this particular animal singled out with the name "Armed Murderer?" I don't know for certain, but it looks like it was actually renamed from Drepanodon by Edward Drinker Cope, whose competition with with Othniel Charles Marsh was infamously known as "The Bone Wars." 

So if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say Cope, ever the showman, decided that "Armed Murderer" had a little more zing to it than "Sickle Tooth." Say what you will about Cope, the guy knew how to get a headline.

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...