Too Stressed

I spent a year writing a novel and not once did I get stressed, though writing a novel (a part of a novel, a novel-in-works, a novelish thing) is probably the most complex, soul-biting thing I’ve done. Now I’m just busy and somehow that’s worse. It’s worse to know I have to wake up for something tomorrow. It’s worse to know that I had to wake up for something today. It’s worse to be tired all the time. I forgot I used to be tired all the time.

I spend days without thinking of my novel. Then I remember: oh yes, that is what I am doing with my life. This is just what I’m doing with my year, with my 9 to 5 hours. 9 to 5, I’ve come to realize, is an expression because it has a very clear meaning: 9 to 5 is most of your day. If you do something from 9 to 5, anything you do before or after is extra. Your body is done after 5, not ready yet before 9. I feel sad because I committed to someone wholeheartedly this summer that I will write for 90 minutes before school and 90 minutes after. I was told, with a small smile, that even one of those would be great. That would be great, I realize now, even one of those.

(from Google Images)

I will spend more of my day writing (and working on my writing and thinking about my writing). Annie Dillard, inThe Writing Life, calls working on her novel “sitting up with a dying friend.” I’ve left my novel, my lonely dying friend, alone for too long. It needs my warmth. It needs me to write little nuggets of hopeless words and laugh at myself, anxiety-free, because writing is producing bad stuff and then working at it. I might be able to calm the anxiety taken up by time, time, time, if I were to devote some of it to the thing that makes me relax. I need to start biting my soul again instead of eating up time.

Coffee in the Morning, Coffee in the Afternoon

I used to work at a coffee shop (I worked at a coffee shop for three years.) But for most of those three years I wasn’t able to drink coffee. I tried to drink coffee: believe me, it was free.

Those who were able to drink large amount of coffee had really cool opportunities like traveling to Seattle on coffee crawls. If we drank coffee especially well, we were sometimes invited to go to “cuppings,” which were essentially wine tastings but in dark basements and for coffee. But I just couldn’t drink it. It gave me anxiety.

So I told myself I would try detoxing from coffee. I had free herbal tea instead. I went months, maybe six, without drinking it at all. Then I stopped working at the coffee shop, I finished school and I started writing five days a week. I had my first cup of coffee that first day of writing and I haven’t had one bout of anxiety since.

These events may not match up exactly in time as well as I say they do, but looking back from a later point in my life, I believe they will appear to match up. I have matched them up in the following way: Writing needs coffee. School doesn’t.

Recently, I have begun to have one coffee every morning and one every afternoon. The morning coffee, if I’m so lucky to have a morning of writing, helps establish my day. It says: you are going to write this morning. It says, see? Writing can be comfortable. You are in a safe space.

The afternoon coffee is a kick in the pants, a signal that a new shift of writing is beginning. It tells me, you committed to a good chunk of time this afternoon. Make it worth it. Do something. The afternoon coffee is more mean.

Drinking coffee with my schoolwork, however, said other things to me. It got my insides moving, so much so that I would feel overwhelmed by the work I had to do rather than motivated. This is because school is a passive act. Even in its most active moments – writing papers, creating presentations or projects – school is about taking material set up by a teacher and professor and in some way learning that material.

Writing (fiction) is purely active. I am either creating or I am editing my creations. If I’m researching, I’m doing it to loot ideas and use them for my own purposes and with my own unique way of looking at them. I owe nothing to anybody. I owe everything to nobody.

Writing needs coffee to get me moving. School couldn’t use coffee – I needed to slow down.

Now, you say, aren’t there mornings and afternoons where you don’t write? Where you go to work or out into life? Or aren’t you starting school again in September?

Yes. You’re right. And here’s what I have to say to that. I like to think of the coffees I have away from my writing desk as standardizing coffees. We try to go to bed at about the same time every night so that our body is prepared to sleep at that time when it really needs to. I drink coffee so I can give my body coffee when it really needs it. I am preparing it for the fuel it needs to write.

All this, of course, is mind tricks. I know caffeine is a drug and I am certainly treating it like one, but it is also a state of mind. How wired am I really getting from caffeine, and how wired from the idea of it?

One writer friend I know writes a poem every time she sits down to write in order to give an offering to her muse. I am sure that like all good desks and bookshelves pile up over time with lovely clutter, so will my superstitions. For now, I sit down anywhere and with anything but always with a coffee at the start of each shift of my day. Because for this period of my life, that works.

A Time Monster

“How much have you been writing everyday?” no one asked me.

Still, I feel I am answering to someone. Maybe it’s that I have recently begun to feel like I am a part of a writing community, where one of my new writer friends might call me up to ask me how much I’ve been writing and compare or something. Most likely it’s not that, it’s that there is a time monster that lives inside of me and is so mean to me.


My family is never late for anything. I don’t know if they meant to raise me this way, but I grew up absolutely dreading tardiness. I had nightmares about packing up my books for too long after school and leaving my lonely dad waiting for me outside until it went dark. I am dressed and ready to go one hour prior to any pick-up time. I leave an extra fifteen minutes for traffic wherever I’m going. I don’t mean to do it. I have a time monster inside of me.

The time monster channels himself through things like iCal and new Moleskine daily planners.
He feeds off of these. The time monster does not do well with to-do lists on my hand or trying to memorize acronyms to remember errands. He gets nervous – he taps at the insides of my stomach with one of those old hanging time pieces.


I have learned to use the time monster for good purposes. Some people ask, well, how do you have so much discipline to sit down and write everyday? I pretend I’m just a really good person with good values, but the truth is I have this sacred, horrible time monster inside of me who eats away at me if I’m not doing something productive and I’m not doing it now.

So, in answer to nobody’s question, I’ve been writing four hours a day for the past five days (Monday-Friday, Time Monster likes weekdays) in response to the incredible energy my writing retreat on Denman Island gave me. Every night I plan my shifts for the next day (mostly 9:30-11:30 and 1:30-3:30, like a particularly lazy part-time employee) and then put little check marks or rearrangements next to the previous day’s work.

It’s as if I’m reporting to someone, it’s as though I’m going to post minutes on a website for other board members to poke holes in. No, I’m obviously not someone with good morals. I’m someone who is deadly afraid of this gnawing anxiety that eats at me when I’m not on time for something or I’m not filling my time with things of value.

I’m glad that me and my monster have agreed that playing around with characters and words and having no more clear an end goal then “book” is a good use of my time.

To Sit, Then Stand

I don’t find it hard to come to my chair. I walk here breathlessly. I spill coffee. I ignore other things, and people. I find it easy to come here because I have something to do. I have a book to finish that needs a lot of work before it can get itself finished.

Annie Dillard, in her inspiring book The Writing Life, says “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.”

(photo credit Susan Stevens)

She also says the following:

“Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. … Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps your and your desk in midair.”

I remember imagining, when studying for tests at high school and university, that I wasn’t just memorizing information or understanding concepts, but “hanging out” with the material. I never told anyone this, of course, but I understood that if I were to just spend time getting to know the material, falling into it and burying my face and my body in it, connections would begin to form. These connections would allow me to understand that material well enough to manipulate it in any form needed for the test. The same, I believe, applies to writing a book. I lounge here, smiling at it.

I am now beginning to see that my drive and success in school was preparation for my writing career. I learned, over the years, to self-motivate myself, to be alone and connect with words, to work with an efficient perfectionism. I also learned to show up and sit here.

I keep hearing interviews and reading articles with Jonah Lehrer, who just wrote the book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Though I have yet to read it, I have read and heard around it enough to know that in it Lehrer discusses  things like Bob Dylan’s writer’s block and creative streaks, Steve Jobs’ ability to make Pixar and Apple creative workspaces, and Q, not the radio show but the quotient of how well you should know the people you work with.

(photo credit

Jonah Lehrer’s most interesting point, to me, is that creativity is at once produced by showing up and making dumb mistakes (Ann Lamott‘s idea I’ve adopted of “shitty first drafts”), but also by standing up. When you are faced with a problem that is causing you to mentally block or give up, do give up. Stand up and do something else. Creativity comes from the moments after you get deep into the material, from the moments when you step away. This is when the connections fall together into a moment of insight.

Recap: sit down, stay there, then at some point stand up. This, I’m learning, is the key.