Tag: anxiety

Don’t hold your breath.

A few weeks ago, I lost the ability to breathe. Usually, I think about breathing about as often as I think about making my hair grow or making my blood circulate through my body. Which is to say, never. Breathing is supposed to be part of a body’s standard operating system. Like how when you buy a car, you shouldn’t have to specify that you want one that includes wheels. However, for days on end, I found myself yawning uncontrollably and struggling to take deep breaths. The yawning may have something to do with me having a toddler who currently likes to ninja into my room in the middle of the night and wake me up with a horror movie whisper of, “I need a pee.” But the fact that the yawning was coupled with other physical manifestations of stress made me suspicious that this was about more than what was happening in the “wee” hours.

My subconscious, as usual, was alerting me to an inner issue with all the subtlety of a submarine klaxon. I called my therapist.

Me: So, I think I’m stressed about something, but I can’t figure out what it is.

Her: Tell me what’s going on in your life.

Me: Everything’s good. Kids are healthy, parents and extended family are vaccinated, work is great. I’m waiting for some feedback on writing stuff, <<briefly ceases to breathe>> but… it’s… fine….

My therapist is wonderful, but even if she had the intuition and listening skills of a pickled beet, she would probably have picked up on the fact that my issue related to writing.

As I began to talk more about that aspect of my life, it became obvious that I hadn’t acknowledged that it was causing me stress. On the surface, things are great. I’ve got a sweet three-book deal from a great publisher, and I’m working with a fabulous agent and editor. Out of nowhere, I got a cool opportunity to pitch for another writing contract. Everything’s coming up Mindy!

However, my first book has been with the editor for months, due to a combination of my delivering the manuscript months ahead of deadline (overachiever alert!) and her heavy workload. I have no idea if she likes it, hates it, or is using it to line the bottom of her parakeet cage. I have a book contract, but no physical book yet. The other cool new writing opportunity involves a head-first leap into the unknown, with absolutely no guarantee of a soft landing. I literally have no idea if I’ll hear back about it tomorrow or in six months or possibly never. For all I know, that pitch is currently being ground up and used to make Grape Nuts. (Assuming Grape Nuts aren’t just grown in a Ukrainian lab??)

If you’ve ever sent off a query letter to an agent, you’ll know that the publishing business is glacial. I had a friend who got a manuscript rejection from a literary agent after almost two years. After she’d already self-published her novel and started working on the sequel.

Like most people, I really hate uncertainty. My therapist helped me realize that the long periods of dead air were playing into my imposter syndrome and insecurity in a big way. Because my Deep Dish Murder series came about during the pandemic–literally I got the offer on March 9, 2020–I’ve never even met my agent or my editor in person. I barely know them. I don’t know what’s normal in this business. And this has allowed me to project every fear that has ever sashayed across my brain into that absence. Take that stress salad and sprinkle on the uncertainty of a global pandemic. I totes get how Schrödinger’s cat felt. Like, has anyone read what I wrote? Do I have a literary career? How did I get inside this box? Why am I a cat? Do I even FREAKING EXIST?!

Putting a framework around my hyperventilation has helped tremendously (thanks, therapist!) and I’m happy to say that my breathing has mostly regained its default autopilot setting. This is crucial, and not only for the obvious reason of breathing being an essential function of a living mammal. If I’m going to make it as a writer, I’m going to need to learn how to hold my breath and wait.

Is writer’s block real?

I was tempted to make this a one-word post. That word? Nope

But on further consideration, that nope might need a little bit of explanation. Writer’s block is, after all, so enmeshed in the popular imagination that even my 7-year-old has claimed to suffer from it. I have never believed in it myself. Sure, there are days when almost every word that appears on my screen is utter garbage. Sure, there are times when I’ve painted myself into a plot corner so tight that only a major rewrite can get me free. And of course, there are days when the prospect of writing seems so utterly horrifying or painful that I’d rather be doing almost anything than sitting down to write.

Fundamentally, though, I agree with the great Ann Patchett, who thinks that writer’s block is a form of procrastination. Patchett recently published a wonderful collection of short stories titled, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. My favorite is “The Getaway Car”, in which she describes how she came to be a writer. In it, Patchett describes people’s incredulity when she says that she never suffers from writer’s block, as well as their extreme defensiveness when she says that she thinks it’s a myth. 

Her secret is similar to the wisdom of the late Tom Clancy. When he was asked how to go about writing a novel, he would famously advise, “Just write the damn book.” You will encounter roadblocks, set backs, whole chapters that need to be scrapped. Your first draft will probably suck. Your second will probably suck, too. But fundamentally, the only way to get a book written is to sit down and write it.

There are those who would take issue with my argument; they would say that writer’s block is a very real, diagnosed form of anxiety. There are those, like Samuel Coleridge, who wait for the muse of inspiration to alight on their pen (or keyboard), and claim that once the muse departs, they are rendered incapable. 

I have great sympathy for these positions. However, I’ve always thought of writing like anything else. You may or may not have a natural talent, but either way, if you don’t put in the work, you’re gonna end up with nothing, or with junk. Did Martin Luther King start off delivering world-changing oratory? Probably not. Bill Gates probably spent a lot of time tinkering before he built his first computer. Did Dominique Dawes spring from her mother’s womb doing triple flips? For her mother’s sake, I certainly hope not. 

Anyway, you get the idea. You want to be a writer? Do the work. Even if it’s hard. Even if the first draft makes your eyeballs throw up. Just find a way to put words onto paper. 

Enough procrastinating for me! If you need me, I’ll be back at the grindstone, writing my damn book.