Thursday, August 15, 2019

Writing in Times of Anxiety

Kameron Hurley's latest LOCUS column tackles the problem of writing through anxiety. The essay focuses mainly on public crises and disasters but mentions its application to personal troubles as well:

Writing Through the News Cycle

She quotes a common reaction: “It’s 2019. Who doesn’t have anxiety?” She also highlights what she sees as the difference between today's news-inspired worries and those of people in the 1950s and '60s faced with possible nuclear war: Nuclear holocaust was a hypothetical threat; such crises as wars in the Middle East and global climate change are already happening. "That makes optimism and hope a lot more difficult to cling to, and anxiety ratchets up the more one stays glued to the news." (A good reason, by the way, to resist the temptation to click on every Internet headline or obsessively pore over social media streams, a remedy Hurley herself alludes to.) She compares chronic anxiety to a "faulty fire alarm" (I'd say "smoke alarm," which is what she seems to be talking about), which keeps going off despite the absence of fire. Subjected to constant alerts, one suffers fear and anxiety even though, objectively, there's nothing more wrong at this moment than there was a minute, an hour, or a day ago.

One cognitive trick I try to remember to use on myself, by the way, is becoming mindful of the fact that very seldom is this present moment unbearably terrible. (It can be, of course—if one is in acute danger or severe pain, for example—but more often than not, it isn't.) Much of our unhappiness springs from brooding over unpleasant, scary, or outright horrible things that might happen in the future.

In response to the challenge of writing "through the tough times in life, personal as well as national, and, increasingly, global," Hurley says, "I’ve found that focusing on a better future, and putting that into my work, has helped me deal with the news cycle and the rampant anxiety." My own reaction as a writer to public disasters and personal troubles is pretty much the opposite. I don't feel capable of creating fiction with the weight needed to confront such crises. The problems of my characters seem to trivialize by contrast the real-world distress around us. Instead, I've turned to composing lighter pieces, stories featuring hints of humor and protagonists with believable but not dire problems (such as my recent novella "Yokai Magic," a contemporary light paranormal romance inspired by Japanese folklore) rather than backstories that abound in horrors and tragedies. Also, on a personal level, working on a story that I can hope will entertain readers as well as myself not only helps to distract me from whatever I'm worrying about but can cheer me with a sense of having accomplished something.

Some critics might label taking refuge from real-world problems in fiction, whether weighty or light, "escapism." Tolkien dealt with this charge many decades ago, asserting that such critics confuse "the escape of the prisoner" with the "flight of the deserter"? If we find ourselves in "prison," why should we be blamed for trying to get out? Hurley herself makes it clear that "this doesn’t mean closing one’s eyes to the horror." A fictional vision doesn't have to equate to "the flight of the deserter"; rather, according to her, "We are what we immerse ourselves in. We are the stories we tell ourselves."

Coincidentally, this week the local Annapolis newspaper, the CAPITAL, published a column by psychologist Scott Smith headlined, "How to stay happy in a world filled with sad events." He discusses how to deal with the modern condition of being "inundated with tragedy." He makes the very cogent point, "Our human brain is not really built to process this ongoing flow of tragic and negative events. We live with a brain that is tooled for a much slower pace...." Like Hurley's column, Smith's emphasizes the emotional and physiological stress caused by being constantly bombarded with negative images in the 24-hour news cycle. He mentions, in addition, "Our brain is also not very good at placing tragedy in context or calculating probability." When we hear about high-profile, terrifying, but extremely rare disasters, our brains are wired to react to these remote (for the vast majority of us) contingencies as if they were "imminent threats." Smith lists several suggestions of ways to reorient our thinking and appreciate the good things in our own lives, remedies that collectively boil down to "focusing on the positive and limiting our exposure to negative events that are out of our control." He would doubtless agree with Hurley that we, as writers, should resist allowing stress to drain our energies and instead cultivate the positive benefits of exercising our creativity.

I've probably quoted C. S. Lewis's refreshing perspective on global problems here before, but it's too relevant not to include now. This passage comes from his essay on living in an atomic age—demonstrating that news-related stress is far from a recent phenomenon:

"In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. "How are we to live in an atomic age?" I am tempted to reply: 'Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.' . . . .

"In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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