The Process Involves Anxiety

A gnawing that comes early some days. I try to trick it by getting started in the morning before I am fully awake, when I haven’t yet brought to mind all the things that must be done, all the things that make me nervous. As the day warms up I ignore emails, hush my husband, shoo my dog to beat back the anxiety before it can wreck my concentration.

But I think, too, that anxiety helps a writer. It is like a pressure cloud just beyond the edge of consciousness, pushing on me in ways I can’t quite discern but which shape the words that hit the page. I once took weeklong workshop with the novelist Elizabeth Strout, who told us: Tap into the intensity of whatever emotion you are feeling in the moment you sit down to your desk, and use that as the fire that brings energy to the words you write. Even if the situation triggering your feelings has nothing to do with the topic of your writing. This struck me as a beautiful idea but I couldn’t figure out how to apply it. When I was feeling something, I wanted to write about that thing that I was feeling, not something else.

Years later, when my mother was terribly sick with a mysterious ailment, I wrote a short essay on the day before I flew to see her. I was avoiding writing about my mother, because I was so worried and frustrated and frankly terrified that I couldn’t even allow myself to entertain thoughts about what might happen to her. So the essay was about a couple of days I once spent in a bleak town in Morocco with my sister. Something in the feelings or the circumstances, maybe, drew up the old memory. And that memory became an essay that was ominous and strange and touching and sad, as it absolutely had to be since it was written on a day of love and deepest fear.

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