Creation Anxiety

As you know, I follow the One You Feed podcast. An emerging concept from the multiple guests and discussions over the past few months is the impact that Depression has on project-related work.

Specifically: Depression causes paralysis.

For those of us who willingly or unwillingly partake of project work (and I’m not just discussing creative project work here), paralysis—by which I mean just the idea of performing project-related tasks stuns us into non-activity or distracting behavior—is terminal.

We procrastinate, we crank our mental cogs, we keep ourselves awake at night, all because the idea of doing the work is a fifteen story tall, one hundred acre wide monolith that we can’t see over or around.

So we don’t do anything.

For me, being exquisitely hardwired for anxiety, I vamp on the above a little differently. When I bloody my nose against that immense project monolith, I don’t go into paralysis mode; I go into worry mode. The specific next tasks for the project—be they researching, drafting, holding meetings, or just getting my ass in a chair—blur into a fog of self-doubt and ceaseless self-talk about how I can’t possibly ever get what needs doing done.

The solution that Eric Zimmer recommends in several One You Feed podcasts is to break up the many tasks into smaller, easier-to-complete items. This gibes completely with the discipline of Project Management, whereby the Project Manager creates a Work Breakdown Structure and starts chipping that monolith into 8 hour increments.

8 hour increments function well for us in the work world, but 8 hour increments don’t (necessarily) lend themselves to our creative endeavors where many of us who are creating in-between our other life commitments are lucky to get any time at all.

So piggy-backing on Zimmer’s advice, find a time increment that works for your schedule and fill that time doing something/anything for your project. (In my case, the time increment is somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour) Even if it’s ‘draft Chapter one’ or ‘write two stanzas’ or ‘read about pudding wrestling.’ Make a plan; execute the plan.

Much of project work is giving yourself a sense of control. The way to gain control is to take action. Not action for the sake of action, but directive action. It is amazing how my anxiety level drops at least by half once I figure out the next few project steps, and I get even one of those steps completed.

There are aspects you won’t be able control, of course. I recently had a character emerge in the draft of my WIP who has upended my entire—MY ENTIRE—novel plot outline. Strangely, that’s not the part of the project work that’s frightening or paralyzing. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t want the work to transport me to places I didn't expect.

No, what causes me anxiety is all the spinning I do before I type one word. My anxiety begets more anxiety.

Every project has its own challenges; every project has its own lessons. There will be mistakes, there will be pain (hell, there will be blood!), but if we examine our fears or our collective paralysis, if we really look at it, we recognize that future suffering isn’t why we haven’t started. The reason we haven’t started is because we haven’t started.

So, even if it’s messy, even if it’s awful, even if it’s (especially if it’s) imperfect, let’s get started.

Fall of the Fisher King: Farewell Robin Williams

Others have eulogized him more eloquently and with more poignancy, but I can’t avoid writing about Robin Williams.

For me, Williams’ stage performances, those incandescent flights of furious delight, almost always eclipse everything else the man did. Whenever I read arguments over whether comedy is art, Williams is why the answer is a definitive ‘yes.’

My favorite performance was from the early 1980s when Williams was hosting a young comics competition (probably on HBO, although I can’t find the clip) and in the few minutes he was on stage, he transmogrified the crowd (and those watching at home) into a gasping, convulsing wreck. In a ‘normal’ Williams performance, there was build-up, escalation, and then as he wove connections that were always just right, transcendence. Then the man would dial it back so you could breathe again.

No so during this hosting gig. He had such little time on stage, there was no gradual uplift, there was only a brilliant yet maniacal assault that wrecked everyone (including the unfortunate young comics forced to follow him onto the stage he had just incinerated).

Although I had respected the man’s acting (especially in Dead Poet’s Society), I never bought him as a dramatic actor until 1991’s The Fisher King. Besides being one of my favorite movies of all time, besides the amazing magic-realism script, the superb direction, the anarchic set design, and the spot-on performances, what Williams finally managed to do was bring to film the same emotionally assaultive show of force he had up to then only unleashed on stage.

Terry Gilliam’s comments about directing Williams in The Fisher King are insightful. 

For some reason, upon hearing of Williams’ suicide, I couldn’t shake memories of Williams’ 1991 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show that I must have first seen around the time I watched The Fisher King. It’s not in this clip, but during the audience participation segment, one of the attendees lays out how Williams’ film performances have followed the trajectory of his personal tribulations with the idea that, with The Fisher King, he had finally achieved redemption, that he had finally beaten back his depression, his addictions, that he had finally defeated the Red Knight.

If only that were so.

We can’t know what finally drove Williams to take his own life. We can speculate that the rip-currents of depression had become too strong to swim against, that the seductive song of alcohol couldn’t be ignored, that it was in fact a diagnosis of Parkinson’s that pushed him to end it. Explanations in these circumstances are comforting at first but they ultimately don’t substitute for the person that we’ve lost. Especially a mega-someone, a wondrous human hurricane of a someone.

Robin Williams is lost to us. There is nothing we can do to make this reality easier to face. Sometimes, the Red Knight wins.

When someone of Williams’ stature loses a battle with depression and addiction, the event sends a message easy to misinterpret: ‘Well, shit, if Robin Williams can’t beat it, how can I?” But Williams was a devoted humanist who probably kept going as long as he did because of his love of other people. I have to believe that Williams wouldn’t want those who similarly suffer from depression and addiction to surrender, even if he did.

Defeating the Red Knight, then, is only ever a transient victory. A victory won in moments, not in days or in months or in years. Yes, we can fight our depression, our anxiety, our addictions for a time, but we have to acknowledge that we’ve only won right now. And the next moment may well bring another full-frontal assault against us, so we must be ever vigilant, and we must always stay strong. Always.

It can be exhausting.

But we must also remember the flipside: in those darkest moments, when the Red Knight has chased us down, and there seems no end to our suffering, the next moment may yet bring us back to equilibrium, may yet bring us back to strength, may yet bring us back to laughter, and perhaps, may yet bring us all the way up to transcendence.

Just as Robin Williams did for us time and time again.

To Those Who Catch the Bus on Time

It's no secret that many creative types endure anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, what have you. Many of us who work in the creative arts--either professionally or as our side-line gig (I like the term 'habit' with all its inherent addict-like baggage)--take a certain degree of mental discord as scenery amidst the artistic landscape.

A little crazy is the price of admission for an artistic life. 

To that, I add: Inspiration to create any type of art is, in part, delusion. The creative act is, in part, responding to stimuli that is other-sensory. When you create, you go a little nuts. 

(Just as an aside, I personally can't tolerate the artistic personae who can't seem to function in the day-to-day world; Thomas Merton said that the enlightened person is the person who catches the bus on time, and this statement is doubly true for the artist. If you don't have the discipline to at least pretend to participate in the world where everyone else lives, I don't have time to listen to your bullshit. /end rant)

Anyway, where I used to find solace and strength in the stories of artistic types who learned how to cope with their various mental issues, as I get older, I am becoming more impressed by the many folks who don't consider themselves artists and who also confront or otherwise deal with their own mental maladies.

Anecdotally, it seems that having anxiety and/or depression is the more common state for most people. The norm. 

Whatever you may think of Rachel Maddow (I happen to think she's fab), her interview with Terry Gross from last year is fascinating. Maddow 'suffers' from depression, and her means of coping with her depression when it comes on is inspiring in its practical approach. 

 Maddow is a ble to sense when her depression is descending, and she adjusts her work schedule and personal life to weather the storm. (Many of us don't have the same luxury, of course, but consider that this is a woman who has a TV show on air five nights out of seven, where she is the one who has to go on camera. No, we can't all be Rachel Maddow, but I'd wager that many of us don't have the same level of stress that she does, either.)

As noted in previous blogs, I'm wired more for anxiety than depression. My body likes to respond to stress with a racing mind and pounding heart and sometimes, just for fun, full-blown panic attacks. I personally find that recognizing when I'm caught in a mental loop that is feeding my anxiety to be the toughest skill to master. I have trouble being able to stop and step outside of myself so that I can take a more removed assessment of what is happening and deal with it properly.

That's why I like Maddow's take. It's practical, and it's without judgment or shame. She feels her depression coming on, and she takes pre-established steps to deal with the episode. (And yes, one has to also acknowledge that it is probably her depressive tendencies that feed her incisive, somewhat obsessive, always excellent analysis. A little crazy is the price of admission, right?) 

Once, I admired the damaged, Byronic poet sacrificing his sanity for his art, suffering on the craggy cliffs of imaginative inspiration. These days, I prefer to hear from the non-artist folks who daily deal with their anxieties, their depressions, and still manage to catch the bus on time.