Writing about—and with—Anxiety, pt. 4

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Honest, authentic writing is an act of vulnerability. Sensationalism is a mask to hide behind because it’s a counterfeit of true emotion. Criticism won’t hurt as badly if you have less emotionally at stake. Thus, after I confronted and edited the sensationalism from my novel,* I faced a new fear: could I handle the inevitable criticism of my book? What if I let down my friends, family, mentors, and even myself?

There is no way to test stamina except by putting oneself in that vulnerable position to be criticized, tried in the court of popular opinion and professional scrutiny. It helps that I’ve been subjected to personal literary criticism as an MFA student at Fairfield University. While this experience was invaluable, I’m aware that the criticism was in a safe place meant to foster growth and creative development. The community at large might not be so helpful.

Thanks to Brene Brown, I’m reminded lately of a quotation from Teddy Roosevelt that seems suited for this occasion:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

I may never know literary victory in terms of wealth, fame, or awards, but the only way to know—and the only way for any of us to move forward in life—is to do our best with the work we’ve been given and step into the arena.

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*Below Them the Horizon will be ready for criticism late 2019.

Writing about—and with—Anxiety, pt. 3

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Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

As I confronted my fears about writing my novel, I had to tackle whether I could be honest about mental illness to show both the intense struggle but incredible courage necessary to live with it. In the process, I faced an unexpected temptation—the temptation to write sensationally.

I worried that if I didn’t make Lucy’s anxiety dramatic enough, she would be unbelievable, boring, too normal. Would people believe that she has a legitimate mental illness when so many of her struggles resemble normal struggles of normal people? I caved to the temptation, and the result was inauthentic writing.

People with mental illness walk by you every day. They’re in the cubicle next to you, the stall next to you in the bathroom, the line at Starbucks, the pew at church. They take your order, change your oil, do your manicures. Sometimes they’re sleeping under your roof, often right beside you. They aren’t outwardly trembling, crying, shrinking in corners. Often, they’re working hard, laughing at your jokes, listening to you recount your day. They look just like you.

Anxiety resides inside and manifests outwardly only in extreme circumstances. Actively or passively, the sufferer is engaging in life while shrinking in the corners of her mind, her prison. The retreat inside the self is not sensational; it’s dark, lonely, and frightening. And it’s unseen.

The sensationalism in my writing resulted from my own fear of being misunderstood as a woman with mental illness. I don’t want to be seen as dysfunctional, but I also don’t want to dismiss the struggle because dismissal hurts me and other sufferers. But writing sensationally undermined my goals.

When I acknowledged this truth, both my book and I underwent a drastic overhaul as I cut, edited, and revisited Lucy’s and my own life with mental illness—striving first for authenticity, the bravest way to live.

To see how Lucy strives for authenticity, look for Below Them the Horizon coming later this year.

Writing about—and with—Anxiety, pt. 2

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As I was drafting my novel, the second fear I confronted was whether I could ethically write about mental illness as someone who actively battles it.

My main character, Lucy, is a 25-year old art teacher who suffers the torment of mental illness. Because I don’t believe in fatalism or nihilism, I didn’t want to end Lucy’s story with the hopelessness that anxiety would have sufferers believe in. But I knew that I couldn’t “cure” Lucy of mental illness because mental illness has no “cure,” strictly speaking.

Anxiety is a human experience. We all feel it. It becomes a mental illness when we become anxious about the anxiety itself, trapping ourselves in mental loops to escape, prevent, or win over it. We want to never feel it again without realizing that the battle itself is meant to defeat us.

My answer for crafting Lucy as a fully realized character with mental illness came when I accepted that just like I can’t cure myself, I cannot cure someone else—real or imagined. This realization does not lead to a fatalistic ending. There is hope for all who suffer mental illness!

To learn how Lucy progresses in her journey with mental illness, look for Below Them the Horizoncoming later this year.

Creating a Character with Mental Illness

corinne-kutz-211251-unsplashAs I mentioned last week, in my debut novel, Below Them the Horizon, my main character, Lucy, is a twenty-five-year old art teacher who suffers the torment of mental illness. But Lucy didn’t always have mental illness. In my original conception of her, I imagined her with multiple sclerosis. It took two years of writing and rewriting before I acknowledged that I was hiding behind another illness as a means of detachment instead of incorporating the illness I understood fully: mental illness.

I hid because I had four specific fears:

  • Could I adequately represent all people with mental illness?
  • Could I write about mental illness while I still struggle with it?
  • Could I be honest about mental illness to show both the intense struggle but incredible courage it takes to live through it?
  • Could I handle the criticism that may result from the book?

The first fear nearly kept me from finishing the book, because that fear addresses a core fear of writers in general: feelings of inadequacy. Who was I to write about mental illness? I’m not an expert, psychiatrist, or doctor. What if I leave someone out or underrepresent every facet of mental illness?

My job was not to adequately represent everyone who suffers from mental illness.

My breakthrough came when I realized that I can’t speak for every person’s experience; I can only speak for my own. As Aslan the lion says in The Horse and His Boy, “No one is told any story but their own.” Therefore, I have only my story to tell, not someone else’s. Mental illness is intensely personal. Only by talking to those with it can we fully know another’s experience—even if we suffer it ourselves. Then I was free to let Lucy and all the manifestations of her mental illness develop on the page. My job was not to adequately represent everyone who suffers from mental illness, but to adequately represent Lucy.

Lucy doesn’t spend the entire book in a panic attack or in a corner crying—because that’s not what mentally ill people do. For much of the novel, she’s living her life with all its conflicts and joys as anyone else might—because we don’t often see another person’s anxiety or depression.

I sought to balance both the showing to build authenticity and the telling to aid readers’ understanding.

My mentor Eugenia Kim, author of The Kinship of Secrets, once told me, “Show don’t tell? No. A good author knows when to show and when to tell.” Her words haunted me throughout my writing process as I sought to balance both the showing to build authenticity and the telling to aid readers’ understanding. To describe her anxiety, I relied on setting, action, mood, dialogue, other characters, and emotion to both show and tell her mental illness.

As Lucy evolved into a fully realized character, her mental illness became her own. Though I built her from my own experience with anxiety, she dealt with hers in a way suitable to her own person, feeling more depression, isolation, and shame because she grew up in a different circumstance and with different people from me. She is not me, and I am not her. We simply understand each other.

My hope is that readers—those with and without mental illness—also find their connections to her.

Writing about—and with—Anxiety

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Soon my debut novel, Below Them the Horizon, will be available via Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and a limited number of bookstores—and I’m trembling.

My main character, Lucy, is a twenty-five-year old art teacher who suffers the guilt of her sister’s death—which may be her fault—the lack of a mother’s love, and the torment of mental illness. But Lucy didn’t always have mental illness. In my original conception of her, I imagined her with multiple sclerosis. I knew little about MS, but it felt a safe topic for me because I was so detached from it.

I did my homework, studying research, reading MS websites, and attending an M.S. support group in Pensacola, Florida, to listen to and interview real sufferers (real heroes) of the illness. It took two years of writing and rewriting before I acknowledged that I was hiding behind an illness as a means of detachment instead of incorporating the illness I understood fully: mental illness.

I hid because I was afraid on many levels:

  • Could I adequately represent all people with mental illness?
  • Could I write about mental illness while I still struggle with it?
  • Could I be honest about mental illness to show both the intense struggle but incredible courage it takes to live through it?
  • Could I handle the criticism that may result from the book?

The only way to know was to try and be willing to fail at it. Check back next week for a detailed look at how I developed a character with mental illness and addressed the first of my fears.

Ain’t So Bad

by Laura Allnutt

RockyI was 16 and suffering the worst case of strep throat I’ve ever had when Mom sent Dad to rent a Friday-night movie. This was the early 2000s, when the last vestiges brick-and-mortar rental stores still clung to shopping centers and town corners.

Dad returned from Blockbuster with a VHS copy of Rocky.

Mom insisted that I wouldn’t like it, but she couldn’t have been more wrong. Whether it was the effects of strong antibiotics or simply the mysteries of the heart, we’ll never know, but I was hooked. I fell in love with the characters, the story, and Sylvester Stallone himself. When Dad said there were four sequels, my throat practically healed itself.

*

In Rocky III, Rocky faces Clubber Lang, his first formidable opponent since Apollo Creed. He enters the ring unprepared and loses by knockout in the second round. The loss, coupled with other personal tragedies, leaves Rocky in the throes of anxiety.

Though he trains for a rematch, his heart isn’t invested because it’s drowning in fear. He tells his wife, Adrian, that he wants to quit. No rematch. He tries to make excuses, cover up the monster inside him, but Adrian presses him. With much prodding, he finally admits, “I’m afraid!”

“I’m afraid too!” she tells him. “But you can’t live like this!”

Everything is at stake: his career, reputation, and, most of all, his peace of mind. What if he gets knocked out again?

“At least you do it with no excuses,” Adrian says.

The loss, coupled with other personal tragedies, leaves Rocky in the throes of anxiety.

So Rocky trains hard, knowing what’s at stake but fighting the anxiety. When he faces Clubber Lang in the ring again, he faces the monster inside him too. “You ain’t so bad!” he taunts Clubber Lang. Clubber

Sometimes life knocks you out in the second round, and the monster awakens in your mind, beats at your chest, thins the air you breathe. The temptation is to stay down, cancel the rematch, let the monster take over your life. It’s easy to make excuses for quitting: it’s hard, I’m tired, I shouldn’t have to deal with this, this is just my life now.

You must be a fighter, always in training, training harder every day.

But you have to get up. You must be a fighter, always in training, training harder every day. Practice mental stamina. Intentionally do the things you know will cause anxiety. Memorize the verses and poems that give you hope. Devote yourself to prayer and meditation.

When panic attacks, look the monster in the eye and tell it, “You ain’t so bad.” Fearing it only makes it stronger; facing it makes it weak.

Life is a series of rematches. Get in the ring and fight. Each fight will be hard, and each one requires more, new, better training, so that in the final round, you’ll still be standing there.

No excuses.

Philly
When I graduated with my MFA in creative writing from Fairfield University, my parents took me to see Rocky the Musical on Broadway, and we stopped in Philadelphia on the way back.

 

The Monster, the Narcissist

Driving

by Laura Allnutt

You usually know a narcissist when you see one. He’s the person who hoards conversations, always managing to steer attention back to himself, even if he has to interrupt others to do so. He expects you to care about him more than you care about anyone else, including yourself, and frequently positions himself as someone supremely important.

But sometimes he worms his way into your life unexpectedly, even charmingly. You haven’t caught on yet because, for now, he’s making you feel special. You haven’t yet learned that he’s using you for his own special interests.

So functions the monster of mental illness, soaring in like a masked hero to save you from a world full of tragedy and suffering, stopping you at the door of your home. “What if you have an attack while you’re out?” it says logically.

“That’s true,” you reply and step back in the house.

When you plan a trip, it reminds you of all the things that may go wrong: “Don’t forget your essential oils,” it says snidely. “Better pack Advil and Pepto-Bismol, antacids, muscle cream, heat pads, and cold medicine. You never know what pain may ail you.”

“You’re right,” you say, and you spend more money than you’d budgeted just to plan for what may never happen. You now dread the trip you’d once anticipated, and by the time it comes, you’re sick with nerves.

“It’s probably best if you don’t go to the party,” he warns solemnly. “They already think you’re a little off.”

“I’m glad you reminded me.”

Mental illness soars in like a masked hero to save you from a world full of tragedy and suffering.

Sometimes, especially in those beginning days of your relationship with the narcissist, you consider that this monster makes you smarter, more cautious, better equipped for a dangerous world. You can’t understand why some people think roller coasters are acceptable forms of entertainment, why some people can pack one carry-on without medical supplies and have a fantastic trip, why some people love going to parties. They don’t have the wisdom, the sense of responsibility that you do, thanks to the monster, and so you pity them, bless their hearts.

It doesn’t occur to you until much later, long after you’re lost in mental cycles of fear, that your absence may protect you from life, but it’s also keeping you from living.

It isn’t easy to break up with a narcissistic, especially if he isn’t done with you, and the monster is never done.

“I’m going out anyway,” you tell it, grabbing your purse and keys.

Because it must be obeyed, the monster roars, pounds your chest, and constricts your lungs. With each step to your car, your determination falters.

“You see?” it says. “You can’t handle this. I only wanted to protect you.”

It isn’t easy to break up with a narcissistic, especially if he isn’t done with you.

But it’s just a trip to Target, coffee with a friend, the new movie you’ve wanted to see. Logic tells you that you’ll be fine, but the monster insists you won’t, and you can’t find the balance, the light to your path out of darkness. You’re angry that everyone else in the world can do these simple tasks with joy, with smiling Facebook posts, as if the truth of tragedy doesn’t exist.

It does exist! Why can’t they see it? And why doesn’t it bother them? It isn’t fair! And you hate yourself and your monster too.

You can’t wake up and change your mind, for the monster has trained you well—Stockholm syndrome at its finest.

There is no divorce, no easy act of separation. Your only power is the will to resist, to get in the car and put it in drive.

It will go with you, and it will call you a fool. Resist.

It will tell you to turn around, leave early. Resist.

It will grab your breath and knock your balance just when you think you’re fine. Resist.

It will remind you of tragedies. Resist.

Resist, resist, and keep on resisting, even when you’re weak, though you’re fighting a battle on an invisible stage with a hundred unsuspecting onlookers. The more you resist, the weaker the monster becomes and the stronger you grow.

One day, you’ll plan a trip. “Don’t forget about . . . ” But the monster’s voice is a whisper you’ve learned to ignore.

You’ll grab your keys and go.