Walk the talk: you’re not alone

I had a conversation with someone about the contents of my last post – in general about the reality of the creative life but more specifically about the anxiety inherent in not only being creative but promoting that creativity. It wasn’t the conversation I was being paid to have – I guess teaching is like that, sometimes – but it was the kind of conversation that makes one sit up and take notice because of the words she told me: I thought I was the only one who felt like that.

I talk a lot about anxiety, here. I truly hope I’m not presenting an image of being anything other than a person who is utterly terrified of every word I write. I do it anyway, because otherwise I’m back to being that person who wrote millions of words as desperate escapism, but I am not a fearless hero. In fact, I despise fearless heroes, for they are not human. (Steve Nakamura is the closest I’ll ever get to writing one, and he isn’t as much fearless as he is well-grounded and a tad reckless. He’s also a foil for the true fearful hero in the piece, Abe.) I wrote 140 000 words about a fearful not-hero who becomes a fearful hero, because the world needs more stories about heroes who break into a nervous sweat at the thought of doing anything remotely heroic and yet have people with faith in their heroism. There are, in fact, not enough words in the world about these sorts of heroes if anyone can ever look at me and tell me in all seriousness that they thought they were alone in being utterly terrified at the thought of blogging or social media or putting their words out for public consumption. Those words spoken by one person are a tragic failure of society. Those words, when they go unspoken by someone who needs to know they are not alone, lead to mental illness and suicide.

We create a world that has a direct hand in the deaths of our siblings in spirit because people can, in all honesty, say those terrible, awful words, and that’s still better, by far, than the alternative: people dying because they don’t know that they’re not alone.

This person told me I was brave.

I said I wasn’t.

I shouldn’t have said that. I know: self-deprecating Aussies don’t go around admitting their own awesomeness. We’re modest. We’re wary of being that tall poppy, especially since we inevitably know someone who thinks they’re all that when they’re really not – however, we also know any number of people who are actually all that and say they’re not. They both play to different sides of a binary that doesn’t allow for honest self-expression. The fact is that I would have and have called someone brave for the same damn thing and meant every last word of it, because it’s a true declaration and a statement in desperate need of saying. I know the real heroes in the world so often don’t get the acknowledgement they deserve, and it is nothing for me to say those oh-so-true words.

(The person saying it is a woman I think strong, courageous, brave and defiant, and the fact she keeps going in a world that tries so hard to make life impossible for her is a testament to heroism.)

My literary gimmick, among several, is about proving how damn brave anxious heroes really are because of their anxiety, and, as awkward as that might be to admit, that includes me. I’m a hero with my big fucking keyboard.

Hey, it’s not a penis metaphor, right?

I learnt that I’m not yet so good at the talk in the heat of the moment. I should have just said thank you. It’s pretty fucking arrogant to sit there and tell someone that no, they’re actually wrong when it comes to determining you brave or any other positive declaration; it’s certainly disrespectful, even if the thoughts going on in my head are more like ‘Uh, I’m actually a horrifically anxious person who wimps out on doing so many fucking things, and if I ever mentioned all the things that scared me everybody would hate me’. It’s hypocritical when I sit at said keyboard and write about heroes who feel just that way and are deservedly acknowledged as the heroes they are by others and yet respond to that acknowledgement with, well, thoughts of my own inadequacy and anxiety, but it is also a terrible marker of my background and society. I’m supposed to be sitting there thinking about how I’m a weird anxious freak who is too anxious to be likable; I’m supposed to be feeling that nobody will ever like me if I ever admit all the ways in which I’m crazy. I’m supposed to be feeling utterly alone with it all because society is set up in such a way that any variations from the so-called norm are silenced. I’m supposed to play a game that leads to death, and I’m supposed to diminish myself while I play it.

I’m sorry for that lapse, and I’ll try to do better next time. As we all know, throwing off years of social conditioning isn’t done overnight. I’ll keep trying, though, to make a world where it isn’t a faux pas to look at who I am and what I’ve done and say, aloud, ‘Yeah, I am a little awesome, and the fact I don’t feel brave has to do with anxiety and the socialisation of a world where bravery is equated with fearlessness, not a lack in me.’

The truth isn’t that this person and I, in our anxiety, are so unusual.

The truth is that we’re just like an awful lot of people labouring in a society where we’re supposed to pretend competency and confidence.

I know. Confidence and competence are sexy. I’m not going to pretend that’s not true: it is. I don’t think being confident and competent, though, precludes being honest. I think one can be confident, competent and admit that when they go to post a work on Smashwords they sweat through two T-shirts doing it. Is it not confident and competent to stand up and admit one’s own lack of confidence and competence?

I’m going to be honest: it’s terrifying to prattle away about my personal shit.

I’ve got some reservations about today’s confessional, because I don’t want someone to read this and go Oh, K A is so fragile, I need to be careful of what I say to them. I don’t want people to think me that kind of creative when I spend so much of my life wrestling down my anxiety in an effort to appear professional and ‘normal’. I don’t want people to treat me as though I’m some overly-anxious, overly-sensitive, unable-to-take-criticism creative person, not when I have put so much time and effort into trying to overcome my anxiety to get to where I am. I don’t want someone to belittle me by trying to be careful around me. I don’t want the people I know, like and respect to look at me and see a quivering mess in need of special treatment when I can, in fact, take criticism and feedback when it is presented in a way that inspires me to learn and change. (If it does not, it is a failure of the feedback, not me, although my insecurity and anxiety would and does say otherwise.) I don’t want to be diminished and broken down by people thinking that I am less than who I am when I am absolutely capable of going ‘You’re right, there really is no subtext in my dialogue’.

(I’ll probably then hate myself for not knowing that, because I am an anxious perfectionist, but that bullshit is mine to deal with, and I don’t want or require special treatment in the handling of that. The only treatment I want, in fact, is the treatment everybody should be receiving because there is no reason not to be kind and thoughtful to others.)

I’ve got reason to fear this: my family would tell me to my face, during a time when my depression and anxiety were at their highest, that they’d try so hard to avoid ‘setting me off’. For all they meant well in their own lacking-in-perception way, they couldn’t have said anything more heartbreaking. They said, without saying the words, that I am fragile, abnormal, broken, and once I had my therapy and meds, all the problems they had with me were due to my crazy, my issues, my wrongness. With my sister at least, I have never been able to get past that. For a person with mental illness who inevitably puts so much effort into trying to appear normal, it is gut-wrenching to be told that superhuman effort isn’t enough, but it is also gut-wrenching to be forever seen as the in-house crazy. Sure, my family’s words are in fact emblematic of the fine art of victim blaming, and they sure didn’t put much effort into not hurting me because they didn’t understand why they were hurting me in the first place, but this is a very real example of why it isn’t safe to stand up and talk (or type) about these things on which we are not supposed to speak.

There are reasons why we try so hard to appear sane. There are few places in the world where it is safe to be anxious, be that normal human anxiety or anxiety-as-disorder, whether that lack of safety means discrimination, babying, a lack of understanding, abuse, awkwardness or just that often slightly-intangible way in which sane people treat us differently.

Yesterday I spent most of the day lying on my bed reading a book. I felt like shit, even though I’m a few weeks off starting a new job that should be pretty damn awesome. I mean, sure, I’m suffering brief flashes of panic that I did something like put a book online for people to read: oh my god, I should bleed myself out onto the bathroom floor for the temerity because how dare I be arrogant to think I haven’t gotten everything wrong and haven’t released a book everybody’s going to hate? It is the same sort of thing as suicidal ideation or the need to self harm in any other instance – the long-standing habit of my brain muttering bullshit. Sanity isn’t really a lack of intrusive thoughts as it is knowing those thoughts are intrusive and tragic. The fact that this is a habit at all is a sad tragedy. That’s not my fault – that’s brain chemistry and a world where I was bullied at home, school and work – but I can’t listen to them. I’m not saying that not listening is easy, because it’s really not, but it’s the only reasonable choice left to me. All this, unfortunately, is nothing more than normal.

(And this is why, this is why we don’t bully and abuse our children, because children should not have to become creative adults who go through so much pain and grief just to create. The creative life is hard enough for anyone who is stable, sane and healthy; for those of us who have to battle intrusive thoughts that knock us down more ruthlessly than any external critic, for those of us who end up trying to create amidst a habit of these cruel intrusions, it is a tough road. Is this not why so many of us fall as we travel it?)

No, the thing that brought me down was an entirely innocent and reasonable comment made by someone else, something that makes me want to weep because it is emblematic of just how hard the creative life is. It was a simple, utterly non-offensive comment about my proofreading something I wrote. This something is, well, something I’ve worked on for months and months and months. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it. I don’t know how many times I’ve fixed things, tweaked things, developed things. I know it’s not perfect, and I know I reached a point where I stopped seeing things (every creative hits that point), and I know it needed work, and…

But oh, ye gods, how much more work does something I’ve already worked so hard on even need?

(I don’t like the person I am when I ask that question.)

It feels like a fist in the face to be told go back, do over even if that’s a necessary, rational, logical thing to be doing, even if that’s something I have to get over because I’ve got to be an adult professional about this. I just want to curl up and cry, because writing feels like trying to scale a mountain as the mountain grows taller with every step I make: everything I learn is not enough. Everything I learn reveals two more mistakes I didn’t know I was making. I can proofread three fucking times and it’s still not good enough such that people think I never even did it to begin with (and you all know I have a basic grasp of grammar: one misses a great deal about their own work, but it can’t have been terrible to begin with), and that is the direct inverse of encouraging. It makes me want to hang up my shoes and go study accounting: it is exhausting to be doing this thing that takes so much of my time and energy and anxiety, and it is exhausting to be doing it at a level that is not terrible and still feel (even if that’s more a measure of my ridiculous perfectionism and insecurity than actuality) that it is not enough to get me anywhere.

Oh, I admit: I don’t belong in the business world. The combination of maths and suits would drive me to depression. I’m a creative person, and I’m meant to be creating.

Even when it’s not easy. Possibly because it’s not easy.

I’m not saying all of the above as a fishing exercise, but more as an expression of my own insecurity, even if right now it makes me look like a tired, frustrated, whining less-than-adult creative. I know better, even if I’m not quite feeling it right now. I do know I’ll get over this. I know I’ll pick up my big fucking keyboard and work at this thing until it’s right, although assuredly not this weekend. I’m allowed to give myself time to feel a little fucked up and tired and frustrated before I go about the job of making my words better. There is crushing despair in the creative life, and sometimes you just want to lie on your bed and weep because you’re a little tired and strung-out and overworked and upset, and sometimes even the most innocent of comments are enough to break your heart, for a little while. We’ve got to deal with that, even when I want to just smash my fucking keyboard into the wall, and I want to give voice to that, even when none of this does me much credit.

See, I see a lot of author-advice pieces telling us all the same thing: put aside your ego, take criticism, deal with it, keep working on your piece. I don’t disagree with any of this, which can be generally summed-up as ‘be an adult’. But I also know that I’m not alone in feeling the way I do right now at times in the creative process, and I also know that true accomplishment isn’t the lack of feeling the way I do right now.

I want to see people taking about how they feel, not what they should do or be. I mean, come on. We know how we’re supposed to be. We wouldn’t be feeling so bad about everything if we didn’t. Do we really need yet another fucking editor or writer telling us to suck up our ego, soldier on and act like an adult? We live in the real world. We can figure that shit out. We’re fed that shit every day of our lives. There is nothing new or revolutionary in this.

There’s something new and revolutionary in telling ourselves and our friends and our readers that we do collapse, we do fall, we do struggle, we do fear, we do act in ways lacking grace and maturity, but we will survive this, because this is something we all go through.

I don’t want anyone to think less of themselves for that moment of despair. I don’t want anyone to feel as though this despair is simple and easy to overcome, and then feel broken and pathetic when it isn’t. I don’t want anyone to feel isolated and strange because the creative life is one of the most frustrating, difficult roads extant and it breaks us, sometimes. I don’t want anyone to feel flawed or wrong because sometimes the things that break us, for a little while, aren’t things that ‘should’ break us at all. I don’t want anyone to not realise that the state of being broken is temporary. I don’t want anyone to fall on this road because I’m not honest about my own anxiety, my own personal failings, my own struggles.

I speak because I have been alone, so alone, and I almost died from that.

I think one can be, should be and must be vulnerable. I think one owes it to our siblings in creativity and society to challenge the notion that confidence and competence must come with the illusion of perfection, calm and a complete lack of anxiety, insecurity or fear. I think one owes it to oneself and the people around us to dispense with a game that harms us and others. We have to do this because people are dying from the want of it, if not failing to be the creatives they could be, and it is something that everyone can do: in a world where it’s so easy to feel helpless in the face of sweeping, horrific suffering endured by others, we do have the capacity to be real about our own fears and awkwardnesses. We do have the ability to make this change in the world around us.

No, it’s not safe to be honest, but I would rather open myself up to the lack of safety inherent in honesty than let another person work in the world feeling as though they are alone.

I can refuse to be silent, because I’ve had someone look me in the eye and tell me that it matters, and I can’t forget those words.

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