When I asked my doctor if I might have anxiety, I’d imagined she would go through some sort of complex series of diagnostic tests that only someone with a PhD could decipher. Instead, she handed me a single piece of paper listing questions, each some variation of Do you excessively worry?
I wanted to ask the test to define excessively. Has the test read the news lately? Does the test have children? Isn’t there a point where reality is concerning enough that it’s a condition not to worry excessively?
All of this worrying has been a challenge to my writing process. While I have always been anxious to some degree, I found the “will I ever be a good enough writer?” anxiety to be hard enough to push through without adding in the “will there even be books anymore by the time I finish writing this thing?” anxiety. On top of it all, my brain was focusing all of its creative energy on thinking up terrifying scenarios for the future of the real world. I had no creative energy left for my story.
I was told to try therapy. My therapist told me to slow down. She said my brain was working too fast. She said I should try to breath through it. I wondered how that would help anything. She asked if I might consider meditation.
I was skeptical because I had meditated before. It was a “free unguided meditation” at an alternative health fair years earlier. I didn’t really know what meditation was at that time, but I’d imagined it would be quite enlightening. It turned out to just be a bunch of people sitting uncomfortably on the floor of a creaky classroom in the old train depot for an hour of roaring silence. I spent the majority of the time worried I wasn’t meditating correctly. When the hour finally ended, a very smiley man informed us that it had been a great success. I declined his informational brochure.
But I was desperate, so I agreed to try again. I wasn’t going to commit to a meditation center, but I could at least download a few meditation apps on my phone and try it for a few minutes each day.
And it was hard to sit and meditate, even for a short time. There always seemed to be a thousand other things I should be doing instead. Certainly I could be writing. But I also knew I wasn’t writing, so I forced myself to carve out those minutes to just listen to a voice on my phone reminding me to focus on my breath.
And there was something to it. I felt physically different during and even after meditation. I felt more aware of what I was actually experiencing in the moment. The world around me seemed more solid. It was amazing to see what a difference it made just to cut off the constant stream of worry I feed to my brain for even a few minutes. I wish I could say I kept to it and everything was fine after that, but as soon as I felt a little bit better, it fell off my to do list pretty quickly. I was writing and that was all that mattered to me at the time.
It wasn’t until the winter Alumni Weekend at Hamline last January that I realized anxiety wasn’t just a threat to my writing process, it was also affecting my actual writing. In Daniel Bernstrom’s lecture, he told us that the yearnings of the heart and mind need to be on every page, and that the way we convey this is through the character’s senses. He said we needed to be there in the moment with our characters to feel what they feel and convey it to the reader so they can feel it too.
I had a whole draft of a novel where my writing had become a microcosm of my anxiety, darting from one conflict to the next, skipping through those quieter moments that convey the heart of story and invite the reader to really connect. I needed to slow down. I needed to sit with my character and think about what it really was like to be her, what she feels in her body, what she hears, what she sees, what she notices. I needed to feel her breath as she lived in that moment to bring her, and her story, to life.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is just to stop living in the future and be where you are right now. But when the ever-present siren call of “breaking news” tries to pull at my attention when I am writing, I try to I breathe through it. I focus on my breath as I inhale and exhale and notice what it feels like to be there in that exact moment. And then I open my laptop, go into my story and try to do the same thing for my character.
Beth Spencewood has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. She writes novels, mentors kids in creative writing, and occasionally fills in at her local children’s bookstore. She lives in Minneapolis and enjoys reading picture books to her toddler, despite their vastly different tastes in children’s literature.