When I started therapy I told my psychologist that I didn’t experience anxiety. I thought of it as a thing other people indulged in. She is a professional and very good at her job so she did not laugh me out of her office. It turns out I experience a great deal of anxiety, more than most people in fact. I regret to report that I am, apparently, human just like the rest of you.
Anxiety is useful. It’s an adaptive behavior, as she has gently explained to me several times now. It warns us of danger. Forces us to think about consequences. And guides us away from hidden pitfalls. Fear, she has taught me, is something to be embraced and something to be attentive to.
In return, I taught her the “fear is the mind-killer” mantra. Listen, we all have our roles to play.
There’s a joke I hear around cons.
Q: What’s the collective noun for a group of published authors?
A: An anxiety.
The fact that so many writers are anxious is unsurprising. Writing is hard, after all. So is publishing. And publishing, as an industry, often seems deliberately designed to produce anxiety in a writer. It is complex, opaque, often unrewarding, reliant on the fickle whims of taste and mood. It is full of missed deadlines, unresponsive agents and editors, mysterious mandates from something called “sales” (which here refers to people). And then when your book is published the sales reports are impossible to read and everyone will be quick to tell you that the data is unreliable and representative of an unknown fraction of actual sales (not people). And we haven’t even gotten to talking about returns yet.
Publishing a book is an event arrived at by unknown means with an unknown outcome that will nevertheless result in a declaration of “success” or “failure.” We cling to awards and bestseller lists because they feel like a beacon of affirmation in a sea of vagaries. Because there’s no one who can or will tell us the result on the day of publication. Waiting, it turns out, is part of the process.
As an agent, I hear a lot of expressions of anxiety. From those looking for agents. From my peers. And from the writers I work with. Fears about deadlines, unresponsive editors, bad reviews, too much news, too little news, a sideways glance, a cruel remark. I talk them through it as best I can. I’m a guide, of sorts, to the choppy waters of the book business. But I am not a therapist. I don’t have a deep understanding of adaptive vs maladaptive behaviors. I don’t have clinical strategies for breaking someone’s cycle of worry. I can listen and reassure and propose plans. It helps. Sometimes.
I’ve learned there’s a difference between anxiety and worry. Anxiety is about seeing potential dangers. Worry is focusing on those outcomes. Or, at least, that’s a definition that helps me. I am trying to learn to embrace anxiety. To face it. To let it pass over me and through me. So only I will remain.
This is almost impossible to enact much less impart unto others. It gets its hooks in as you try to let it pass. It clings hard to your heart, your lungs, your guts. It makes a nest of your body, pulling it hard and taught around itself, grinding your teeth to powder, cramping your muscles into knots.
The key to survival in publishing is learning to live in the space between two contradictory truths. Or so I tell myself. Finding the space between anxiety and certainty — between worry and optimism — I think that’s how we’re going to get through this. Know in your heart that millions may show up and make a decision you disagree with in the marrow of your bones. Know that the world can disappoint you. Know that bad days might be coming.
But they’re not here yet. That is tomorrow’s problem. Or tonight’s problem. Now is the time to listen to your fear and to let it pass. Let it make you ready for what’s coming. Rest now so you can act later. Act now so you won’t have to later. Plan now. But above all, be now.