Between a rock-paper-scissors and a hard place: on writing, performance anxiety, and winning!

We writers can get pretty weird about our work. Depressed. Anxious. Neurotic. Self-obsessed. Hysterical, even.

If writers had enough money for therapy, the mental health field would be booming. But instead what we have is an entire readers market dedicated to writers who write about writing and the struggles we writers face.

Ours aren’t your normal professional struggles. You’ve never seen your plumber or retail manager having a nervous breakdown about a deadline or a line that wouldn’t scan. Lawyers don’t wake up and go, “Maybe I should get out of these pajamas and get a real job?” And no one other than a writer really understands. It’s just part and parcel of the gig.

My students at the community college think I’m nuts because I’ve given myself life-long writing assignments, often with little or no pay. Like this blog here that I ‘m writing at nearly 11 pm on a weeknight after I spent the whole day writing to finish up a year-long project, my Practical Magic for Writers book.

Before I even turned in my final grades and declared school out for the summer, I’d taken on another deadline: Write Club, a head-to-head writing competition that is billed as literary bloodsport. There are chapters in Chicago (where it started), Atlanta, and here in Los Angeles. Basically: Two writers. Two opposing ideas. Seven minutes.

Marya Write Club
Marya Summers defending “Overt” at Write Club Los Angeles, the Bootleg Theater

Contestants get a week. I was assigned “Overt” and my opponent, “Covert.”

In a nutshell it was a crazy week: I sat for full days with a lap top heating my thighs. I wrote decent poetry, then terrible prose, and finally decided to stick with poetry.  A day before the competition, I only had a solid 2 minutes of stuff I liked. Writing five more minutes of poetry – good poetry — in just the space of two days? When I hadn’t written a poem in like a dozen years? Um, hella hard.

The night before the competition, I sat in my meditation group with anxiety so intense that I couldn’t breathe. It felt like a giant rock was sitting on my chest and like I needed to run for a very long time. The next day, the day of the main event, I got up early and took the run my body craved, though I hadn’t run in months, and then I wrote some more. The anxiety wouldn’t let go. Nothing I did would shake it. I kept lowering the stakes:

1) It doesn’t have to be a good poem, just the best you can do.
2) It doesn’t have to be your best, you just have to have something finished.
3) It doesn’t have to be finished, just read what you have and have fun.

But the anxiety wouldn’t let go no matter what I told myself. Even while I was trying to have fun. It didn’t soften until I got on stage. Stage fright has got nothing on real anxiety — in the face of the former, the latter wasn’t even noticeable. The anxiety evaporated somewhere in the stage lights, I think. Just like that.

And then I won.

Loving Cup of Deathless Fucking Glory
The hard-earned Loving Cup of Deathless Fucking Glory

The moral of the story isn’t “anxiety = winning.” Not at all.

The point isn’t “anxiety = pointless, so why am I so silly?” either.

My point here is that anxiety is something that I’ve learned that I just have to live with sometimes; writing and performing have seldom been comfortable for me. Facts are, it’d be nice, but I don’t write to be comfortable. I write because I have to. It’s who I am. Sometimes being me is pretty fabulous, and someone gives me a trophy or a paycheck for it.

You know how beauty queens and glamour girls say, “You have to suffer to be beautiful?” I think what they are saying is about perseverance – that sometimes things are really uncomfortable. Whether it’s a girdle or performance anxiety, it’s hard to breathe, but you tough it out anyway.

Writing is hard. For me. For lots of writers. For those who say it comes easily, well, I really can’t say I like them much. Nor do I trust them. I think they are probably lying.

But what we have, friend, is intestinal fortitude. It’s a Fire Element quality — much like anxiety, which is also the result of excessive Fire energy — that I discuss in my workshops and book Practical Magic for Writers, which will be finished this summer.

Summer: the season of fiery solar energy! What better time to summon our inner creative warrior? Have writing anxiety or need some other writing help? Hit me up. Seriously. I luuuuuvvvvv to help.

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And there I was talking to a tree

I’ve never thought of myself as a tree hugger. I mean, I love nature. I enjoy sailing, hiking, sunbathing, kayaking, and bike riding. I’ve even done some protesting of GMOs.

But I know people deeply committed to eco-preservation. These people chain themselves to trees or to each other and block destruction of the environment, like the Everglades, enduring heat, injury, and dehydration, until the authorities eventually haul them away to jail. I deeply admire these people. Still, I don’t see myself as a tree hugger. I mean, I admire martial artists. That doesn’t make me a ninja.

Heart leaves
Wearing their hearts on their leaves

Still, I surprised myself the other day when I did everything short of hugging a tree to make myself feel better. Here’s what was going on:

For no real reason other than it was a Tuesday, my chest was tight and there was lump in my throat. One way I deal with anxiety is to dial up my productivity. Sometimes it helps.

On the Tuesday in question, I applied for a DBA for Wholly Creative, learned online software to help my business, organized my workspace, brainstormed with my assistant about other opportunities, and met a friend for lunch. I felt powerful, full of momentum. After lunch, I crashed for a half hour and took a nap. But by the afternoon, the tension was still there in my chest and throat.

So I tried the opposite approach: do less.

I walked to to the beach. I wrote for a little while. I watched the children throwing buckets of water at each other, the waves rolling in, couples sitting on blankets in the soft sand together, the golden light of the setting sun bathing the whole scene in such magical light that even the garbage seemed enchanted. But the breeze, waves, and sunset didn’t do much for the constriction I still felt, like an unseen hand was reaching down my throat and squeezing my heart.

I packed up my things as the breeze blew colder, and as I walked toward home, I was drawn to the coral tree that stood in the grassy area along the beach. It’s complex root structure fascinated me. Its branches rolled like cursive into the punctuation of bumps and nubs.

I slowly approached the tree, more curious than committed to an action, still with this discomfort, this dull aching in my chest and throat. I thought about doing a couple lion’s breaths, sticking out my tongue with a forceful exhale, which sometimes helped a little.

Instead I began talking to the tree. “Hi there. You’re an interesting tree. Do you mind if I sit here?” I climbed onto the horizontal portion of the trunk and settled in. “I used to have another tree friend back in Florida.”

And then I began to tell this tree about another tree, a Green Buttonwood, that used to grow along the sea wall in Lake Worth. I used to sit on its similarly sideways trunk and listen to the waves slop against the seawall while I wrote. The days I spent there with the tree, I unburdened so much in the pages of my notebook. During our time together, I went through several boyfriends, my father died, I went back to graduate school, my daughter moved in with me and I became a full-time mom. I experienced and learned so much with that tree, that I developed a relationship with it. I started to call it my tree.

Then the fences went up. Hurricanes and time had damaged the sea wall, and a restoration project was underway. I couldn’t get to my tree without climbing under the fence. I wrote the city a letter expressing my concern about the tree. I was told by the city’s arborist that there were others who inquired, too, and that the city was looking into what could be done to preserve the tree.

My new friend, the Coral Tree
My new friend, the Coral Tree

One night as I walked in the moonlight to the park, I let out a howl. The tree had been uprooted. Its trunk and limbs, sawed into pieces, were in a pile.

“Murderers!” I shrieked and ran toward the fence. I lifted the chain link and crawled under it. Surveying the damage, I let out a roar, as much furious at my helplessness as at the person or people who had done this.  And then began to sob. I rested my hand on a large limb, as I looked at the severed pieces lying casually on the grass.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.” I cried in the darkness as the leaves limply hung from their drying branches. “I tried. I didn’t know what else to do.”

That night I walked home with a bundle of smaller branches in one arm, dragging one large leafy branch behind me. Weeks later when they had dried enough to burn, I lit a funeral pyre and said goodbye. I saved one two inch piece of a large branch from the fire. It moved with me to California. I keep it on my altar.

I told this story to my new tree friend as we sat together looking out at the ocean. And then I settled in to write a poem about a girl in a tree. “Her heart relaxes in this hammock of arteries and veins.”

#whollycreative #whatsyourstory

Get my free webinar Practical Magic for Writers.

When you’re afraid to go there

It was a perfect day for a beachside BBQ. A cool breeze was blowing in off the Pacific. The sun was shining full and warm. I’d awakened with the sun at about 6:30 a.m., an hour earlier than my alarm, and made pancakes and eggs. I had enough time that I’d even considered going to a 10 am yoga class before meeting with a new friend to go to her co-worker’s BBQ party.

Then I reconsidered. I was overcome by an urge to stay in, to gather myself. Not understanding the urge, I started to gather things. I began putting what I would need for the day in a pile on the corner of the couch: towel, sunblock, a change of clothes, phone charger, a cooler full of sodas, snacks. Then I remembered: I was taking my bike, so I started to rethink, unpack, and regroup.

IMG_2356The closer it got to “go time,” the more I felt like I should stay. Something wasn’t quite right. I tidied the bathroom. I put away some clothes in the bedroom. I organized the files on my desk. I started double checking things. Was there enough food and water in the cats’ bowls? Did I close the refrigerator door all the way? I was now officially late.

“Go,” I told myself aloud. “Stop fucking around and go!”

But my resistance was strong. I considered texting my apologies and staying home and watching movies.

“What are you doing?” I said again out loud. “You’ve been looking forward to this!”

I stopped for a moment and took a breath. I paid attention as the inhale expanded my body — my neck, shoulders, and chest were tight. And that’s when it hit me… I was afraid! I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know if I’d fit in, or if I’d be physically comfortable there (too hot, too cold, too hungry, etc.), and that was enough to create unconscious fear. (When this happens chronically, it’s called anxiety.)

What’s weird is, I’m constantly told how brave I am. People say to me “I wish I had your courage” because I travel alone, because I play my guitar and perform in public, because I’m willing to try new things – improv comedy, spoken word, sailing, sky diving, entrepreneurship.

People assume that because I do these things that I’m not afraid to do these things. They are wrong.

I’m afraid a lot. But the fear involved in the “big stuff” like jumping out of planes and into new things is easier to deal with than the everyday fears of the “little stuff” like the beach party. The big stuff is easier because I know I’m afraid so I can face the fear, but with the little stuff it’s easy to overlook the fear. When I don’t see it, I’m not able to challenge it; then, I’m unconsciously controlled by fear.

Writer’s block is just like this. Like the beach & BBQ outing, writing is something I want to do. But deep inside, I’ve also been afraid. I dawdle and procrastinate when I am afraid “to go there.” For years, I was unaware of this fear, so I was really hard on myself for not writing more. I’d tell myself I was never going to amount to much (even when I was working as a weekly columnist) and I’d feel like a fraud around writers and artists who were prolific. In essence, I compounded my yucky feelings (fear) with more yucky feelings (shame).

And I wondered why I just couldn’t be more creative!?!

IMG_2005
I faced the fear of sharks, freezing, drowning, and loss of control when I learned to sail…but it’s still not as scary as writing.

Does anyone create well when they are afraid and ashamed? Self-actualization and self-expression are high on the pyramid of the hierarchy of needs and safety and acceptance are at the base. It’s difficult to deal with the needs at the top if we haven’t met those at the bottom. In fear and shame, I couldn’t build a happy, productive creative life.

My point is, “Just do it!” (or as my friend put it the other day “Just sit down and fucking write”) is not the answer for someone who is deeply and unconsciously afraid. I had to build a healthier relationship with my feelings and creativity. Awareness of the fear lets me begin to negotiate my way through it. Then writing is like sky diving: I face the fear, lean into the resistance, and take the plunge.

In case you were wondering, I also made it to the party. And I had a great time.

Watch my free webinar Practical Magic for Writers to learn other approaches to move through resistance and enhance creativity or click on the button to get my guide to overcoming procrastination, How to Get Started and Keep Moving.

GET STARTED AND KEEP MOVING ON YOUR WRITING!