The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing: isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.
— Robert De Niro
Truer words were never spoken. I call it the Spiral, and it mostly happens at night, mostly. I’ve written before about the neuroses of being a writer, and more specifically about my own neuroses. I can write about it and snigger in the daylight because it all seems so silly and insignificant, but in the middle of night, in the wee hours, the monsters really do come out. I mean those personal monsters all of us who write as our vocation face. Some of them might be different, though I would guess De Niro probably hit on the generic list that most of us could give a nod of agreement to.
For me, the Spiral usually begins after a good day with fairly high word count, a day that has been creative and a day in which I’ve been focused and centered. I go to bed tired with that good kind of tired you get from a job well-done. For several hours, I sleep like the dead – deep, dreamless, blissful. And then it happens!
For whatever reason, I wake up, usually groggy and still feeling the peacefulness of restful sleep. But then it begins. Just as I’m trying to drop back to sleep the parade of monsters begin, and it’s a long one. Suddenly everything I failed to do that past day and sometimes going back for years, will begin to cycle through my head – all the things that I’ve left undone because I wrote instead. I’ll wonder why I still write when it’s such hard, often unappreciated, work. I’ll wonder if I’ve made poor decisions in my writing career. I’ll wonder what life might have been like if I’d chosen a different path, a more sane path, one that didn’t involve the all-consuming passion of the story needing to be written. And then all the things I’ve put off because I’ve focused on my writing will parade across the screen in my head – the work on the house, the clearing the garden, the clearing away of too many years of clutter, the joining of more groups, the participating in more activities that would force me to be more social. I’m not very – but I think most of you already know I’d rather be in my writing cave. Anyway, it all devolves from there, spiraling down to my future as an old and lonely woman living in a cardboard box somewhere, with everything I care about and everyone I love gone.
I know! I know! It’s almost laughable when dawn comes, when I’m sitting at the breakfast table telling Raymond I had another Spiral. He’s always sympathetic. He always asks why I didn’t wake him. He always reminds me that he’s there for me. I know that, and I tell him how much that means to me. We get on with our day and I forget all about the dark and lonely night I just had with the one I love most lying right there beside me, and me unable to wake him up and tell him how frightened I feel, because in my heart of heats, I know in the morning it’ll all seem so stupid. For a few weeks, sometimes a few months, I forget all about the Spiral. Most of the time I live in the present. I’m happy, my life is full and good and filled with wonderful challenges and good people. And then, for no reason I can put my finger on, it happens again. The thing that’s most horrible about the Spiral is that I know it’s happening, I feel myself being pulled in, but no matter how hard I try to think myself out of it, to remind myself it’ll be all right, I can’t seem to break free, not until the whole parade has run its course and I fall back into an exhausted raw sleep.
Why am I sharing this not so happy slappy part of my life? Maybe because I know I’m in good company. I know that sometimes the difference between being honest with ourselves about ourselves and spiraling down into helpless despair is very hard for us to distinguish. Last night, when there was no getting out, I made a game of it, I tried to exaggerate even what my fertile imagination could come up with to worry and angst about and to view as what would be my bitter end. I don’t know that it helped, but it did remind me that this too shall pass, and that the monsters in the darkest hours seldom hang around in the daylight. In the daylight I feel empowered and able to fight back, to take control. In the daylight, I can see the differences between honest failures and short comings and a life that has no meaning. And even more importantly, the rawness I wake up with is a reminder that now is what I have and it’s good and it’s sweet, but it’s not always easy, and it’s not always a gentle way forward. Still it is a way forward. And even from that dark place, when daylight comes, I can take those dark places in myself, those places of despair and fear and translate them into story, into places of power. Though I seldom remember that when I’m in the dark. What I do remember, what helps me move beyond it is the knowing with certainty that no matter how lonely it feels when I’m in it, I’m not alone.