Obligation and the Anxious Mind

When I was writing Mundane Magic, and the several much more terrible novels I wrote before it, my experience was very different to right now.

I didn’t have to write anything. People would know I was writing, of course, but there would never be any expectation that I would both finish and show it to them. Even if I was asked whether this was going to happen, I wouldn’t feel like I was required to.

Then I started to get published, and my experience began to transform. The questions changed slightly – no longer ‘I’d love to read this!’ and now ‘when are you being published next?’. None of these were ill-meaning questions, of course. They all came from excitement and love.

But with those questions came a new, rising feeling: obligation. After Mundane Magic was published, the question I got asked the most was ‘will there be a sequel’? (The answer is no, by the way – something I want to talk about in another article). Once I’d replied to that, the next question was almost always ‘when is the next book out’?

The trouble is, when I was getting these questions, I wasn’t quite hearing them.

When I am very unwell, I experience dissociation. If you’ve ever felt like you are just observing your own life rather than partaking it, it’s that – just a bit more prolonged and intense. I spent most of my early 20s in this state, and I still get some times now where I can feel myself separating from my experience of the world.

This happens when I am stressed or in pain, but it also happens at times where I am overwhelmed by praise. In the week after Mundane Magic‘s release, I watched my modest sales figures come in with this kind of detachment. It felt like it was happening to someone else. I was being denied the chance to fully partake in this once in a lifetime moment.

It sucks.

But the thing that sucks more is the fact that when I’m feeling like that, things do get through to me – but only the things my depression allows to get through. So when I was asked ‘when’s the next book out?’ I didn’t hear an excited request. I heard ‘what do you mean you haven’t finished the next one yet?’ and ‘how dare you not write a sequel?’ and ‘wow you write so slowly, are you really a professional author?’.

Obviously, no one was saying this. But my depression was. It said this then, and it still says it now. It gangs up with impostor syndrome – ‘Scalzi is publishing three books this year’, it says, ‘and at this rate you’ll barely finish one’. ‘This is the thing you’ve wanted to write for five years and you can’t even bring yourself to do it.’

‘Maybe you’re not a writer.’

‘Maybe you’re a fraud.’

‘You’re a failure.’

My inner voice isn’t very nice. To put it mildly. And I have lived with it doing this for the past five months. The initial months weren’t so bad – I could solidly hit it with ‘seriously, I just published a novel, I’ve never done this before, give me a break’. But the further we get from that date, the harder this becomes.

The problem is that logically, I know this is rubbish. I know that everyone writes at their own pace, and in their own way, and there are plenty of examples of writers being honest about the fact that they don’t actually write daily and sometimes put things down for months at a time (see this excellent Twitter thread from Hank Green).

I know that it’s not that I’m not writing, either. I am literally writing right now. I have been writing poetry and narrative pieces. Basically, I write creatively almost constantly. Not only that, but I have been working from 10am-5pm every day for nearly two months now. I am, by any logical stretch of the imagination, absolutely killing this.

The problem is that my anxiety’s imagination isn’t logical. I can tell it that these are all things that I do as my job. I can tell it that I am still and will probably always be disabled, and that that means sometimes I won’t be able to do things. I can tell it that no one works at 100mph. I can tell it that no one is perfect. I can tell it all of these things, but it won’t listen.

As far as my anxiety is concerned, producing novels is the thing that I do, and if I’m not doing it relentlessly and solidly and without pause and to the most precise level of perfection, I am a failure. Anxiety is very binary like that. You’re perfect or you’re a failure of a human being – and you’re never perfect.

This belief is insidious. It’s not just there when I sit down every morning to start writing – though it’s obviously there then with a strong and violent presence. It’s there when I load up my social media accounts and work on what to post today. Because I can’t post a word count, can I? I’m a failure.

It’s there when someone asks “How are you?” and I can’t say I’m great and that work is going well because obviously I’m a failure, I didn’t write any words on my novel this week.

It’s there when I step away from my computer for a break, helpfully chiming in with ‘you shouldn’t be taking a break, you should be working, you’re so behind, you are a terrible failure, you never put any effort in, it’s just like school all over again.’

I promised some time ago, when I began this blog, that I would be very honest with you about my writing process. Like Hank, I think it’s incredibly important that we talk about this. I think people should know what this strange, wonderful, stressful job really looks like. So I want to tell you all of this.

I want to tell you that my writing and my mental health are inexorably tied together, and that one affects the other to tremendous degrees, and that the reality of my mental health is not just staying in bed and sleeping.

I want to tell you that I haven’t even opened Protos since early last week, and when I opened it then I closed it shortly afterwards without writing anything on it. That the week before all I managed was planning, not writing – necessary, but only a few minutes of progress.

I want to tell you that when I’ve woken up every day for the past week, one of my earliest thoughts has been: ‘ugh, I have to write’.

I want to tell you that I know these thoughts are lies, but that they are also the truth of my experience. They are in my head, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real.

The question then becomes, of course, what do I do about it?

The first step I took was to accept that I wasn’t going to be writing it for a little while. The thing is, Protos is what I’ve wanted to write for five years. It is the thing that is so precious I wake up in the night terrified that one day, I’m going to have to give it to the world – and I won’t be able to take it back. It deserves more than me forcing myself to create it when I am sick and in pain.

This hasn’t fixed everything; I still feel so much guilt and shame. Today I feel fragile, like I have been stretched out to breaking point and then left to try and recoil back into place. Like a brief gust of wind would shatter me into pieces. I am experiencing so much emotion that my body cannot process it. But it’s a start. Last night I didn’t go to bed thinking ‘I didn’t write anything on Protos today’.

That’s the first hurdle. The last will be making myself pick it up again, of course – because nothing is as terrifying as the project that you know you have to finish but haven’t looked at for weeks – but as to when that will come, I don’t know. In between them lie the hurdles of navigating what my identity is outside of that task, and how I will choose to exist until then. How I will allow myself to recover.

I suspect that this account, too, is jumbled. I am feeling very jumbled right now. So if you take one thing away, let it be this: if something is overwhelming you, and making you feel terrible, and causing you pain, it is important no matter what that thing is. It is not silly. Because your experience gives that thing significance.

It is important to you, and so is recovering from it, and that is all that matters.

“In the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” – Tolkien

If you are experiencing anxiety or depression and you are not already seeking help, please consider doing so. You are worth so much more than you think. You can find resources for the UK here and for the US here.