Tag Archives: panic


Hey! It’s great to see you again. Thanks so much for calling over. Welcome to my head! I like it in here; it’s comfy. Stretch out, and make yourself at home. Have a glass of wine. Enjoy the view. Pretty, isn’t it?

Talk to me – though go gently, won’t you? If you ask me a question, give me a second to think about my answer. Be prepared for me to look at the problem from all angles before I make a decision. I like to look, and look, before I leap.

Don’t worry that I don’t speak all that much. I will, once I get to know you a bit better. I just prefer to listen at first, that’s all. I like to soak in whatever’s around me, at my own pace. I like to set the permeability of my own boundaries, and deal with whatever I encounter in private, when I have time to sort through it and think about every detail.

Oh, no. I’m not shy. Not really. I love people. I’m just quiet, and careful, and I tend slightly toward anxiety. I like to think more than I like to act. I like to plan. I like solidity, certainty. I like to know where I am and where I’m going. I don’t like to take risks. This can look like shyness, sometimes.

And I like to be by myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I just get swamped quickly, and I tend to panic when that happens. I don’t like to be out of control or – worse – to appear out of control. I can be good in a crisis, but only when I get a handle on what’s happening, and I have a second or two to make a plan. Then, I’m unstoppable.

But when something’s new, and scary, and unexpected? Yeah. Then, I’m not so good.

Hipster cat and me, well - we understand one another. Image: fbcustom.me

Hipster cat and me, well – we understand one another.
Image: fbcustom.me

What’s that? Oh – yeah. I don’t know why I embarked upon a professional life which is so full of unknowable newness and instability, either. Strange, isn’t it? It would’ve made more sense – infinitely more sense – to stay tucked up in a steady-ish, predictable, quiet-life type of job, just like the one I had before I decided to change everything in my world. I would have spent the rest of my life dreaming and gnashing my teeth, probably. But I wouldn’t be waking up scared every morning, either.

It’s not fun not to ‘know.’ It’s not fun to feel like things are out of your control, and that there’s nothing you can do about it. In a way it mirrors the reality of existence – because, when it’s all said and done, is anything truly under our control? – but then you remember that you don’t want to be reminded of the arbitrary, chaotic nature of reality. Your little life, your patch of world, is supposed to be your domain. It’s supposed to give you the impression that you’re the boss, even if, deep in  your heart, you know you’re kidding yourself. So, if your square of turf is a mess, and you feel like you’re taking one random step after another, it can all get a bit too much.

Which is why I hide out up here, where all the cushions and the books and the warm wall-hangings are, where all the memories live and where dreams haunt the rafters like restless ghosts, yearning for release. I can close my eyes and breathe, and get through the next five minutes, and the next, and the next, and before I know it I’ve survived another day.

And then we – for I know I’m not alone – get up the next day and do it all over again, hoping that someday (maybe, when we least expect it) all the disparate little edges of our lives will line up with a click, and the picture that appears will be beautiful, and exactly what we planned all along.

Until then, all we can do is work as hard as we can, and hope that the path we’re taking – albeit circuitous – will lead us where we’ve always wanted to go.

And if we have a few friends to drink wine and read books with along the way, all the better.

Take it From Me…

So, yesterday I had to cut over 6,000 words from the current draft of ‘Tider’. It caused me a whole lot of pain to do that, I can tell you. It took my word count right down from where it had been – up there in ‘almost finished, look at that!’ territory – to ‘wow, I have so much more work to do on this’-ville.

For once, Picasso explains exactly how I feel. Image: inminds.com

For once, Picasso explains exactly how I feel.
Image: inminds.com

I know it’s for the best, and all that; I know I was removing useless stuff, words that had blown in from somewhere far away and had taken root, and started to eat away at the foundations of the story like ivy on a wall. It didn’t make it any easier to hit the ‘cut’ button, though. I hope this affliction doesn’t burden everyone who writes, this ‘every word is sacred’ mentality; I guess it can’t, because if it did, nobody would ever write anything. Ever.

I thought today, then, I might blog about Things Wot I Have Learned as part of my writing process, in the hope that other people will learn from my colossal buffoonery.

Sometimes, no matter how much effort you make to force something to fit into a story, it’s just not going to work.

So, you’ve had a brilliant idea. A flash of inspiration brighter than Alpha Centauri. An image which, when it occurred to you, made your knees weak with the sheer beauty of it. A sentence – a Booker Prize winning sentence, you feel sure – has dropped into your head straight from the Muse’s fingers, fully formed. You love it more dearly than you love anything else in the world, and you must use it. There must be a place to display this evidence of your brilliant and inquiring mind.

Except there isn’t, because the idea you’ve had – when you really think about it – is completely off the wall, and just doesn’t fit with your current project.

Often, when I’m writing, I find my brain splaying out in all possible directions, soaking up information and ideas from everywhere but the page it’s supposed to be looking at. I catch myself thinking about details I’m planning to use in other books, or getting distracted by plotting a sequel to the book I’m currently working on. This is not because I’m some sort of writing genius, I hasten to clarify; it’s because I’m an easily-distracted flibbertigibbet. My brain sometimes gets a bit scared at the idea of being stuck into one idea for an extended period, and it feels the need to ‘stretch its legs’, a bit like a toddler who’s just learning to walk. And, like a toddler, on occasion it will get itself lost or tripped up. It will go foraging in the garden of my mind and come back, its hands full of worms and dirt, showing them to me as if to say ‘isn’t this a brilliant idea, huh, huh?’

Invariably, it’s not. But, my brain being what it is, sometimes I’ll look at this new idea and think it’s not half bad, and then I’ll try to incorporate it into whatever I’m working on. When it doesn’t work, instead of going ‘oh, well. That’s that, then,’ I can tend to get a bit anxious, and allow myself to slip into a panic-vortex. ‘Why isn’t this working?’ I’ll wail, tearing out my metaphorical hair. ‘I’m useless at this whole writing thing! I must go and become a plumber/sheep farmer/nuclear physicist instead!’

What I should do is this: Calm Down. It’s an idea, and there are ideas everywhere. There will be others. Put this one aside somewhere, carefully noted and prettily packaged, and come back to it another time. Then, get back to what you were doing before you were rudely interrupted. I’ve often sidetracked myself and written thousands of words on the back of a tangent which came to me in a panic, and all that happens to those words is that they get junked. This causes pain. You don’t want to do it more than once.

Oh, look, let’s leave a totally random ‘note to self’ somewhere on the manuscript, because of course when I come back to this in a week or two or ten, I’ll know exactly what I meant by it.

I actually find it hard to believe I do this, because I’d like to think I am in possession of a reasoned, logical mind most of the time. I know, for instance, that I have a pretty poor memory, and that leaving notes for myself is something I’ve done since I was old enough to hold a crayon. I also know that nothing is more confusing than navigating through the half-written carcass of a novel; it’s a bit like trying to find your way through a howling sandstorm on a planet with which you’re not familiar. The ground keeps shifting under your feet and you can’t see beyond the end of your nose a lot of the time. So, of course, the perfect thing to do is leave yourself a cryptic clue which you’re pretty sure was intended to flag a vital plot point, with absolutely no explanation of what you meant by it. When you come across it again, you might as well be faced with the Voynich Manuscript for all the sense it makes to you.

Normally, if you’re me, this triggers another panic-vortex: see above for hair-pulling, gnashing of teeth, and so forth. You convince yourself that without figuring out this note the whole book will fall apart in a world-rending schism, and the story will crumble in upon itself, and your life will end.

None of this is true.

What I should do is this: Calm Down. Keep writing. Finish The Book. When redrafting, revisit the note or the randomly-inserted sentence, or whatever it is, and see if you can remember what you meant. If you can’t, see if you can give it another meaning (usually, though you won’t realise it, this ‘new’ meaning is exactly the same as the original one); if you can’t do that, then consider removing it. The world won’t end. Trust me.

This makes *total* sense, of course... Image: apod.nasa.gov

Ooh, look, I make *total* sense, of course…
Image: apod.nasa.gov

There are so many lessons you learn when trying to write a book. So far, I’ve learned more about myself and how I cope with the world than I’ve learned about writing, but perhaps that’s to be expected. If I could distil what I’ve learned, it would be something like this:

Calm Down

Finish the Book

Calm Down Again

I hope this helps. Have a great Friday, and take it from me – writing is easier if you remember these golden guidelines.

Image: healthsmart.ie

Image: healthsmart.ie

What to Write When You Can’t Write

This morning, over breakfast, I asked my quietly ruminating husband for a suggestion as to what today’s blog post could be about. I was feeling pretty low on inspiration, and I needed a bit of help. He thought for a few minutes, quietly crunching his morning muesli. Then, his eyes lit up. Swallowing hurriedly, he announced ‘I know! Write about cruise liners that didn’t sink on their maiden voyage!’ His eyes sparkled. Then he said ‘No – wait! Better again! Write about new ways to skin a cat. That’s better.’ He resumed chewing, nodding in satisfaction at how helpful he’d been.

Of course, he was joking. At least, I seriously hope he was joking, or PETA are going to be all over me. Rest assured, I don’t wish to write about ways to divest any sort of feline from its fur, and the vagaries of international shipping have never really interested me either. But the point of my question this morning remains: ‘What will today’s blog post be about?’

Don't ask me - I just work here.Image: shadeofashes.blogspot.com

Don’t ask me – I just work here.
Image: shadeofashes.blogspot.com

I have a confession to make. I still don’t know what today’s blog post will be about, and I’m already halfway through it. But maybe that’s the point. Writing is not always straightforward, or not always easy; I’m finally beginning to think of it as a job, and – like any job – sometimes you’d rather scrub the toilet with a toothbrush than get stuck into the work. Sometimes you wonder why you bother – you’ve no talent anyway, and nobody cares, and nobody even reads this stuff, and and and… In a mental climate like that, is it any wonder that inspiration can be hard to come by?

Yesterday, I had a mini-panic attack. I used to have them regularly until a few years ago, but thankfully they’ve left me in peace for a long time. However, I allowed myself to get stuck into a cycle of negative thinking yesterday, where I got scared by the choices I’d made. I began to doubt if I’d done the right things in life, and I imagined all my wrong choices collapsing on top of my head, and then I felt I’d let my whole family down, and the next thing I knew I was gasping for breath, my head spinning with horrible images. My panic attacks take the form of ‘mental movies’, where I see something awful happening to me. What makes it more scary is that the awful scenarios are always plausible – there’s a hint of possibility in the things I ‘see’, which makes them feel more real, and hence more frightening. Luckily, I know what to do now when an attack strikes, and I was completely fine; it was frightening, though. I hope it’s a while before I have another one.

The panic might have had something to do with an experience I had yesterday morning. I sat down to write a story for a particular submission I want to make, but I found I had nothing. There were no words. It was like drawing on an empty fuel tank. I looked at the blank screen for several long minutes, tentatively tapping out a sentence, deleting it and starting another, deleting it and starting another, before my fingers stilled on the keys. In desperation, I eventually let my eye fall on the first random word I saw, which was ‘tattoo’. I sat with the word for a while, leaving the computer to one side, and tried to encourage the little word to take a root in my imagination. I took a walk. I shopped for my dinner ingredients. I spoke to a friend. Eventually – thankfully – my prompt word began to flower in my mind, and I wrote a story. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.

I often have times when I try to write something, and find that I can’t. I’m not sure if it’s a blockage in my inspiration, or a temporary loss of enthusiasm for words, but either way it’s not a nice experience. I have to remind myself that I have never given up – not so far, anyway – and that I have always prevailed. I have to remind myself that sometimes what we need when the words aren’t flowing is not to heap more pressure on our own heads by forcing them to come, but a more gentle approach. It’s like, sometimes, the inspiration is a shy young thing, afraid to make an appearance if she thinks she’s being looked at. Busy yourself with other tasks, and she might peep her head around the corner. If you still find yourself unable to put pen to paper, or pixels on the screen, then it’s helpful to remember that the words are not going anywhere. They’ll still be there tomorrow, and you can always try again.

Inspiration needs to be fed. If you can’t write, then cook. Or take a walk. Or read a book. Or talk to someone about the weather. When you can’t write, don’t write, and don’t worry about it. Having said that, don’t leave it too long before you pick up your pen once more, either.

But then, if you’re a writer, picking up your pen again probably won’t be a problem.