“Anxiety and interruptions are the enemy of creativity,” John Cleese said to the audience at the 2014 Miami Book Fair International. “Relaxation and downtime are essential.” I didn’t count myself among the diehard Cleese fans who surrounded me, necks craned forward, a collective twitter of laughter rippling upon their breath at his every quip. Like my longtime friend, Susan, who’d lured me here and now sat on the edge of her seat, beaming. But it was me the aged writer and comedian sent scrambling for her mini-Moleskine, jotting down his pithy aphorism. In the coming months I’d revisit the hastily-scrawled quote time and again. What role does anxiety play in creativity—wellspring or hindrance?
No small quandary, this inner tailspin set off by the glib Mr. Cleese. For I’d been blindly wedded to the belief that much of my creativity was driven by anxiety, and had been for most of my life. And because of that impetus, wouldn’t the disappearance of said anxiety equate to a drying-up of creative output? Of distinct childhood memories I have few, but of the few that I can not only recall but transport myself back to vividly are those where I’m sitting at my mother’s typewriter, dining room table a nest of payroll and bills, and my father flying in, letting loose a string of panic and rage, cutting down my mother, and then me. Peace, at most, only ever lasted a couple of days under our roof, my father’s out-of-the-blue rampages inducing us to mental gymnastics. Through it all, I wrote. Not until recently did a professional confirm his diagnosis: Narcissistic Personality Disorder with a co-occurrence of OCD.
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity,” T.S. Eliot wrote. But when I found myself in October of 2013 in a depression I was unable to climb out of on my own, the quakes of anxiety confining me to my bed, I could barely eat a banana, let alone write. For the five weeks that I consented to swallowing a Prozac every morning, welcoming the flood of fuzzy calm as the pill kicked in, like being swaddled in cotton, I showed up at my desk to write. But the uneasy urge that had churned through my veins for as long as I could remember, the handmaiden who had compelled me to dwell in the lives of others and invent, was gone, snuffed out. When I went to see 12 Years a Slave with a friend, a film that would ordinarily prompt an inappropriate amount of tears to runnel my face, I took in the most disturbing, moving scenes, my eyes barely moist, while all around me those watching sniffled and cleared their throats. Horrified, I weaned myself off the Prozac and the impetus to create rushed back—along with the relentless thought-loops that I hadn’t realized had been my lifelong companion.
Is it possible both Cleese’s and Eliot’s statements hold true? Does anxiety’s relationship to creativity come down to degrees, or even a type? Is it possible Eliot’s quote speaks more to the writer or artist tapping into the collective anxiety of the moment—of nuclear holocaust, terrorism, climate change—and not the personal anxieties that one battles? Writing may indeed serve as an outlet for obsessive thinking or distress. But perhaps such anxiety can only do so to a point. Because chronic anxiety oftentimes is accompanied by depression, an illness which stagnates, if not cripples, one’s interaction with the flow of life.
If that is the case, then how freeing to believe that one needn’t cling to the notion that creativity will disappear with mental wellness and stable circumstance. As a girl growing up in a high-conflict household, fantasizing about imaginary worlds might have given me reprieve from the constant knot gnawing my stomach. But as an adult, I’ve never accomplished better work, both in quality and output, than the times I’ve spent at writers’ colonies where the anxieties—at least those surrounding daily responsibility—are shut away, the mind cleared by porch-sitting and long walks. Uninterrupted relaxation, in Cleese’s words.
Perhaps his message wouldn’t have struck such a chord if not for when I heard them. For I’d arrived for my reading at the book fair having freshly ended a relationship with a narcissistic filmmaker. In the eight months I’d dated this man, I’d increasingly felt as if a succubus had entered my life; by that summer, his manipulations and verbal abuse left me so rattled that I couldn’t so much as wield a pen. This time fiction refused to open itself up as an escape as it had for me as a girl, trapped in the company of a deluded and tyrannical father. And I can’t help but feel grateful for that—my adult anxiety instead functioning as nature intended, pointing me to disentangle myself from a paranoid and volatile young man before I completely lost myself.
There’s also the factor that creative output breeds anxiety—our doubts and worries about the work, its integrity and reception, whether or not we’ll be able to lift ourselves up a notch or two in the tax bracket on its monetary return. So there truly is no escape, anxiety and creativity inextricably linked, and even success ignites worry anew. But this anxiety needn’t become a shackle, or a hindrance; a certain measure of tension about a work is healthy and necessary for the artist to be driven back, to fix and hone, or else we wouldn’t have anything worthy of the title “masterpiece.”
What’s a writer to do then, if anxiety comes with the territory? All too often, life doesn’t lend itself to “uninterrupted relaxation.” Nor are pharmaceuticals a long-term solution. In my case, the side effects of Prozac quickly outweighed the benefits; I vowed never to take antidepressants again. Dating the filmmaker had left me a shell of myself, however, my recovery impeded by a romantic rebound. Both fiction writers, the two of us had an instant, lovely connection with a chemistry that could not be ignored. But he had just emerged from a different heartbreak and also badly needed to reclaim himself. It was as if we’d met on a lifeboat, each with our own personal Titanic burning and sinking in the background; we clung to one another until, predictably, we sabotaged what was between us. Through most of the rebound I was an anxious mess; when it unraveled I was fraught with abandonment and pain, given to crying spells every day, and later, anger, remorse, and grief.
But this time I refused to numb myself—and my writing, which I had eagerly returned to—with medication. A family friend informed me about B vitamins and amino acids. During the day I popped GABA and Inositol; before bed I tried not to gag as I dissolved 250 mg of tryptophan under my tongue. The first night I had made the mistake of popping a whole capsule, otherwise the equivalent of consuming a whole turkey, and awoke at 3 a.m. with a sickening, pounding headache. Soon I found glutamine worked better at putting me to sleep than the tryptophan; I hadn’t slept so well in years. How easy to forget the extent to which anxiety and emotional distress drain the intellect, robbing us of the ability to do our best work. Only I won’t be so quick to forget again. Keeping the anxiety at bay is as much about determining who one allows into personal space and when, and after the ship sinks, learning how to soothe oneself.
Cleese and Eliot aren’t at odds with one another, not nearly. An outbreak of Ebola or a threat by Putin may prompt a writer to pace or fidget while waiting for the coffee to brew, then disappear at the keyboard for a six-hour stretch, rendering fiction which, with luck, illuminates essential truths. Anxiety becomes a detriment only when kicked into overdrive. For it’s possible to write nearly an entire novel on one’s couch—I’ve done it. Only not while curled up in a fetal position.