Writing in the Age of Anxiety

I spend a lot of my time in 2004.

The novel I’m writing is fiction, but its setting is real: the action happens from March to December 2004, in and around Guelph, Ontario. I am making up lots of details, but I’m also using an actual calendar and doing my best to evoke the specifics of that time and place.

It’s a bit like time travel; a mental commute. Everyday, I sit down at my desk and project myself back through the years and the miles, and I don’t come back to the present until I’ve finished my 1000 words.

These days, though, it’s more and more difficult to tear myself away from the awful realities of 2017. The news is (almost) all bad. Atomic scientists have moved the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight, as Donald Trump threatens to bring our world closer to an actual man-made apocalypse.

How can any sane person stay balanced and positive in the face of so many terrible, terrifying headlines? How can I clear my head and escape into my creative bubble when the world seems to be falling apart? How do we justify art when the world needs action?

I don’t have answers. I know lots of people feel the same way I do, and that crippling anxiety is epidemic in our society.

What can I do? I marched in the Women’s March on Washington this Saturday, along with millions of other people around the globe, and that was a powerful gesture of hope and solidarity. I do my best to stay grounded, to take care of myself and my family. Like everyone else, I try to keep calm and carry on.



Speed limits

I never feel like I’m writing fast enough.

Even though I’m generally completing my daily 1000-word writing goal, my manuscript is creeping along. This draft is definitely going to be longer than expected, and I doubt it’ll be finished by my original goal of March 31st.

By contrast, Jack Kerouac wrote his first draft of On the Road in 3 weeks. Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day in a month. When I consider their work, my competitive and inpatient nature kicks in and I get very frustrated with my slow-and-steady progress. I wonder: if I could hide away in a cottage for a month, could I buckle down and finish the rest of this draft?

Then reality kicks in.

This week, I wrote 4000 words from Monday to Wednesday… and I paid for it with tense shoulders, aching arms and a sore neck. On Thursday, I took a hot bath and an Ibuprofen, then switched to writing standing up at my kitchen counter, but I still had to limit myself to 500 words. It turns out that there are built-in physical limits to my writing capacity; yet another reminder that writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint.

Multiple personalities

I’m working on a book with two main characters. They are very different people, although their stories overlap in various significant ways. I’m writing the book from both of their perspectives, flipping back and forth between their two points of view.

When I sit down to write, I first need to get into the headspace of whichever character is telling that part of the story. I think about her backstory, her goals, her insecurities and her relationships, then I attempt to weave all these elements into the action of the scene. This process demands a great deal of focus, but when I’m successfully inhabiting a character, I can immerse myself in her world. Sometimes I can even achieve a flow state, where I lose track of time and the words unspool effortlessly, as if I were listening in and then transcribing the scene, paragraph by paragraph.

Sounds lovely, right?

But of course, switching back and forth means that every time I finish a section, I have to step out of one character’s mind and into the other’s. I have to reorient myself into a totally different point of view, with all the accompanying changes in personality and experience.

The faster I write, the more often I have to switch characters. I want to keep up my momentum, but it can be jarring and exhausting to flip back and forth, like changing between first gear and reverse when driving a stick-shift. It’s like I get character jet-lag, and it can be hard to shake one of them when it’s time to switch to the other.

Let’s hope this process gets easier as I move through this draft!