Monday, September 12, 2005


Back when I was working full-time, it wasn't at all unusual to find myself in the midst of a full blown panic attack. Things would get so crazy, with the phone ringing and the e-mail inbox overflowing and deadlines coming one on top of the other that I would literally stand in the center of my cubicle so overwhelmed I didn't have a clue of what to do next.

I hated those days. I hated that feeling of being completely out of control, like there was no way I'd ever be able to get on top of my job.

Usually, what I'd do when I hit panic mode was to come to a full stop on doing any actual work and clean off my desk. Because by the time I got so frantic, piles of paper and notes and empty fast-food containers and soda cans covered the surface of my desk like debris after an earthquake. This mess always added to my stress because I'd be convinced that looming somewhere in the pile about to topple on to the floor were the half-dozen things that absolutely positively had to be done immediately but that I'd completely forgotten about.

So I'd stop everything and clean up. I'd stack piles neatly. File old papers I needed to keep and toss those I didn't. Clear off the ice-cold french fries and even go so far as to scrounge up the communal bottle of Windex spray and clean the inch of dust off the back of my computer monitor.

And afterward, I always felt so much better. With my work area neat and tidy, I felt I had at least a tiny bit of control over things. Add to this my love of creating an orderly to-do list full of tasks I'd be able to cross off with my thick, red Sharpie and my stress level usually plummeted to something hovering near manageable.

When I stopped working, I figured those days of anxiety attacks were over. Sure, I still have deadlines in the form of kids needing to be places at certain times, but at least my phone doesn't ring off the hook and I don't have designers and clients looking at me in expectation. No one is breathing down my neck wondering why I haven't turned in some critical assignment, and as long as I feed people relatively regularly, I'm in no danger of losing my job as Mom. Really, compared to the world I inhabited before, my life now is running in slow motion.

Except recently, I've found myself suffer the same debilitating panic attacks I had when I worked 50 plus hours a week. My heart races, my mind stumbles over all the things I need to get done, and I worry that I'm forgetting about the really important stuff.

And I hate it.

Part of this problem, I think, is my inability to focus properly on one thing at a time. In working where I did, I developed a highly keen ability to multi-task. Actually, I think as a woman multi-tasking is inbred in our genes, and when you become a mother, the skill is fine-tuned to a true art. Throw in working an outside job and most woman would earn metal at the Olympics Multi-tasking event. I always laugh at my husband's dismay when he's asked to do two things at the same time. "What do you mean I have to cook dinner *and* watch the kids?" Puh-leeze.

Thus it only makes sense that my writer's brain wants to multi-task at warp speed. At any given moment, I have half a dozen story ideas and three times that many characters running around inside my head. I'm constantly world building and thinking to myself that I need to get my hands on a notebook so I can jot thoughts down. I will never be able to comprehend a writer who claims to have run out of ideas because mine don't stop coming even when I try to turn them off.

The result of this overabundance is paralysis. I have no idea where to begin. My desk is a heaping mess, my in-box overflowing and my voicemail full.

I've tried cleaning off my desk in the form of brain dumps on paper. When an idea or thought strikes, I put it in a file so it's safe from forgetting and I can then purge it out of my head. This helps a little.

I've tried creating a nice, orderly work space with notebooks and labeled binders to organize my thoughts and plans. And this helps, too. I'm the kind of person who loves to see things all in one place, the big picture if you will. I'm a sucker for forms where you can fill in information so it is right where you need it when you need it.

I've read countless how-to articles full of things like plotting boards and outline formats and character sketches. I've read books with steps a writer can take to turn the writing process into something that can be accomplished in 30 days or less, leaving the actual writing to pretty much an afterthought because the hard stuff is already done. And all of this information has been useful to a certain degree. I've culled from it what works for me and have ignored the stuff I find impossible.

So my actual desk is as clean as it can be. I'm organized and armed and ready to rock and roll. I should be feeling a sense of peace, like I can now sit down and start crossing off the things on my to-do list, a purely sublime experience.

But I don't feel that peace. I still feel slightly panicked because my virtual desk is a mess. And I just can't figure out why what worked for me in my 8-to-5 professional world isn't solving my writing problems. Why can't I get myself together and move forward?

Wait. I haven't written a to-do list. Maybe that's the problem...


Anonymous said...

It's just a thought, Lynn, but maybe the panic is because your subconscious wonders if all the listmaking, reading about technique, filling in forms and so on might be a substitute for writing? In other words, maybe it's getting in the way of actually sitting down and typing CHAPTER 1 on that brand-new story idea, continuing to CHAPTER 2, 3, 4 and on until you type THE END?

Believe me, I know all about make-work as an avoidance strategy. I tell myself that I can't work on my novel/write that new resume/make those networking calls/join that organisation that might just get me a job because I'm not 'ready'. And I'm not 'ready' because there are other things I could do first. More research. More practising. More 'thinking' about what I need to do.

In other words, procrastinating.

I can only procrastinate for so long before some part of me starts screaming that all I'm doing is burying my head in the sand and that just doesn't get me anywhere. I can try to ignore that screaming, but that's when I start to feel panicky, as if I were running up against deadlines or under too much pressure.

There's no greater stress-reliever than actually completing a project. ;) And, some day, I'll take my own advice and finish my own novel! ;)

- wmr

HelenKay said...

Sorry about the panic. I'm one of those who can't function without "to do" lists. Just can't. For some reason, in a completely opposite reaction, I can't plot a novel before I write it. I fly by the seat of my pants. You'd think those two parts of my life would be more consistent. But, no.

Lynn M said...

Holy cow, WMR (*g*), you are so absolutely spot on. This is exactly what I do. I feel like I'm not "ready". I don't know enough yet. And if it's not the art of writing I feel I don't know enough about, it's the research necessary for the story or the character profiles or the background and world building that I feel aren't complete enough to actually get started.

And sadly, I'm one of those writers that will be typing along and hit a particular fact or piece of information I need, and rather than just make up something with the intention of correcting it later, I will allow myself to get sidetracked for hours locating the answer.

So it is very clear that this is a form of procrastination. Heck, I've known I was a procrastinator since I was in high school and always studied for exams or wrote papers the night before they were due. Funny how that habit insinuates itself into every aspect of your life if you tend toward it.

What I need to figure out is why exactly I'm procrastinating. If I enjoy writing - which I do - and I have ideas - which I do - and I look forward to telling my stories - which I do - what is keeping me from doing it? I mean, if you love to snow ski and there are 2 feet of new powder and you have your lift ticket and new skis, why in the world wouldn't you be out on the slopes instead of in the lodge reading a book on skiing?

HK, I've tried the pantser approach, and I can't ever seem to get past Chapter 1 before I'm completely stumped. In fact, that's another one of my problems. A lot of the time I have the first chapter or two figured out and maybe even how it all works out, but that middle is a vast unknown. So I get out that first chapter and then spend weeks staring at a blank screen. I wish someone could teach me the art of spontaneous thinking and storytelling. Maybe that would give me momentum to make it to the top of the first hill.