Dani Shapiro
December 3, 2009

On Anxiety

Of all the mental states one might find oneself in when sitting down to write, anxiety may very well be the worst of them. Of course we can’t always approach the page with a sense of inner calm, of ease, of a mind ironed clean. Sometimes we’re agitated–though a little agitation goes a long way. Rage, grief, longing, joy, frustration–all these have their place, though it’s best not to write from the center of these feelings, but rather, from the recollection of them. But anxiety is, as far as I’m concerned, the enemy. It makes us write too fast, or too prolifically, or too self-consciously. I’ve seen more writers, over the years, felled by their own anxiety, by which I mean a very particular kind of anxiety: I need to get published, I need recognition, I need it now, or I will die.

Fantasies of publication–and there are always fantasies of publication–take over and become the reason for the work, rather than the possible happy byproduct of the work, that’s where the trouble sets in. When I am at my desk dreaming of what my book is going to look like on the front tables of book stores, and what, exactly, I’m going to wear for my “Oprah” appearance, I am no longer a writer at work. I have lost the thread, and have entirely missed the purpose (not to mention the pleasure) of the process.

The pleasure is in losing track of time, in being so deeply engaged in a piece of work that hours drift by, unnoticed. You have entered what is sometimes called a flow state, or something bordering on a trance. This is why writers write. To write for any other reason would be crazy. Dreams of fame–anxiety about what will or won’t happen–is not only disastrous for the work, but for the psyche. Grasping, needing, craving–one thing I can tell you from experience is this: Nothing will ever be enough. That big review in the important place, the bestseller list, the invitations to speak…whatever it is you think you need so badly…it will fall through your fingers like so many grains of sand. It’s happened to me more times than I can count, and I still have to remind myself: What is it that makes me feel fully alive? What makes me feel a deep sense of contentment, satisfaction, even glimmers of euphoria?

Not the review.
Not the bestseller list.
Not the invitations to speak.

All of that is very very nice, but no. That profound sense that I am doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing only happens when I’m writing. Just writing. Not fantasizing, not checking my email to see if anything important has happened in the last five minutes, but simply putting one word down at a time until eventually I have something whole, something driven by my internal life–not my dreams of glory.