All through school, I begged my parents to let me take an IQ test. I particularly wanted it when we got back our standardized test scores. I always scored in the top 2-3 percentile, but I wanted to know how I measured up against adults.
After I was an adult, my mom explained why they never let me. She was afraid that I would do really well and get even more insufferable. But, she also thought there was a chance I would not do well (or at least not as well as I wanted to) and were that to happen, it would destroy me.
My mom is a smart lady.
Recognizing the wisdom in that, I refrained from taking a formal IQ test. But there have been some other standardized tests (SAT, LSAT) that seem to indicate that I’m nearer to the pointy-end of the bell curve’s rightward slope, particularly for a female.
IQ is a notoriously poor predictor for real-world success.
This is to be a blog about writing.
From Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer (1934):
First of all, then, becoming a writer is mainly a matter of cultivating a writer’s temperament. Now the very word “temperament” is justly suspect among well-balanced persons, so I hasten to say that it is no part of the program to inculcate a wild-eyed bohemianism, or to set up moods and caprices as necessary accompaniments of the author’s life. On the contrary; the moods and tempers, when they actually exist, are the symptoms of the artist’s personality gone wrong—running off into waste effort and emotional exhaustion.
I think I have a problem.
I don’t understand how it happened, but I somehow inhabit the life of an adult, married, solidly upper-middle class Caucasian woman with a child and a professional career. But I am a cool person and a free thinker, so when I am in the mood for media aimed at flattering the sensibilities of my demographic, I avoid the New York Times and listen to TED talks instead.
After spending my unexpectedly limited unemployment period getting my house clean, it has once again degenerated into a reality-show horror. (Not Hoarders-level bad. More like Clean House-level.) So when I found myself in the midst of an extended session of scrubbing pots and pans, I used my iPhone TED app to pull up some edification—preferably edification within the narrow band of “inspiring” talks that flatter creative desires. I found a brand-new talk by Brene Brown, the “vulnerability researcher” whose first talk I remember vaguely liking despite the fairy-land squishiness of her no-doubt made-up job title. Perfect.
Brene spends the first minutes of the new talk discussing the vulnerability she felt after her first talk, when she had second-thoughts about admitting her breakdown in a public forum. It reminded me that my response, back then at least, was to wonder what a breakdown would even look like in an adult, married, solidly upper-middle class Caucasian woman with children and a professional career. Ahem.
In the new talk, she admitted a secret she’d kept in her first talk: that the true nature of her research isn’t vulnerability—it’s shame. She explained that feelings of guilt correlated with more positive character traits versus shame, which had a negative correlation with those same traits. Explaining the difference between them, she said: “Guilt is knowing that you’ve made a mistake. Shame is knowing you are a mistake.”
That is how my husband arrived home from work to find me weeping into the kitchen sink.
I am not quite sure how that happened either.
I thought I had fixed this.
I am naturally anxious. It’s in my neurochemistry. The particular compulsions don’t manifest in any thrilling or unique ways. Traced back to their headwaters, my fears are from the same source as everyone’s: mortality. Maybe it just hangs heavier on some people.
It’s such an odd thing now, with the benefit of an adult mind, to look through the one-way glass to youth and to find out that your outsized fear of mortality may be what drew you toward strange behaviors. And while the reasons may be neurochemical, that doesn’t mean they aren’t also wholly you.
Umberto Eco says that the human mind uses lists to impose order on and to understand infinity. From Eco’s interview We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die:
SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can't be realistically completed?
Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death.
But aren’t all lists about mortality? Putting items on a list—especially a to-do list—admits the boundedness of time.
Obsession with hyperproductivity seems within the particular province of people highly influenced by fear of mortality.
It makes sense that the Myers-Briggs subset of rationals would be temperamentally inclined toward thoughts of mortality. The universe is infinite. Death imposes at least a binary order.
Mortality forces an accounting. What have you done with your life?
. . . and, we’re back to shame.
Once again, I found myself completely overwhelmed today. 50 hours of things to do, 24 hours in which to do them. And while I was in the anxiety spiral, the thought zipped through my brain today: “Nothing I do will ever be enough”—a plaintive wail at the unreasonableness of the demands on my time—followed instantly by the thought: “Of course not, if I can do it, then it isn’t enough by definition.” I was surprised at how automatically that occurred to me, how sad and mean. But when I thought about it, it made sense from a coldly logical perspective. Shame has been the desired outcome of my subconscious. To motivate me--shame achieves the system's goals. Mine is: To make up for lost time before the accounting.
A problem: being ashamed of your life is miserable.
And here’s a worse problem (or, at least, what I consider to be a worse problem, which should tell you how deep I’m in this): shame is killing my productivity.
I was supposed to be an outlier. I always was at school. I was at work, before motherhood at least. And after, I was an outlier in what I could get away with. But now, where the centerpiece of my production is supposed to be my novel, I realize that being an outlier isn’t a role, it’s a relationship. It means only measurement against a group.
A writer spends her day alone with the work. There’s no way to measure, which means there’s no safety--“I got this grade, I billed this many hours, I’m enough.” And while I think it’s possible that I might someday be a good writer, I don’t think I’ll ever be an outlier.
The more time I spend alone out here, the less my anxiety coping strategies seem to work. Actually, it’s just one coping strategy: (1) pick any sensory-stimulating behavior, (2) repeat until sick, (3) relax into the calm as the brain diverts all resources to focusing on how uncomfortable the body is. While this may be the epitome of the first-world problem, you can see how living this way creates a kind of misery.
So I write. A little. And then I delete.
Mortality isn’t the problem, it’s the paralyzing fear. I need to get this anxiety under control for my happiness and for my work. And, not incidentally, for my family, who should not have to put up with this either.
You know how they say that to get past your fears, you have to face them?
There is one thing I know that will fix my brain and get me through this. But it costs.
The medication worked beautifully when I tried it very briefly a few years ago, except for the one side effect:
Who will I even be?
I think I will have to find out. I just want to work.