Feel the Fear and Write it Anyway: Addressing Anxiety in Fiction
Anxiety has been a feature of several periods throughout my life, and I’m not alone. Studies report that anxiety disorders (an umbrella definition encompassing a range of conditions from generalized anxiety to OCD) affect 60 million people across Europe, and women are twice as likely to face debilitating anxiety as men. Anxiety can make those experiencing it feel isolated, cast adrift from the world around them, yet in reality it seems clear that many women – just like me – find themselves bound by the weighty chains of fear. To illustrate just how common the issue is, I’m delighted that this week’s blog features a contribution by Sara McQueen, a talented guest writer based right here in Scotland who has been generous enough to share her own insights into mental health and its impact on women writers (check out Sara's own blog here!).
Personally speaking, I’ve worked hard during the past few years to relinquish my tendency towards perfectionism and my anxieties about what other people think. It’s far from easy, but I try to access and assert what truly matters to me rather than simply deferring to the values of others (I’ll write more about how I’ve tried – and sometimes failed! – to achieve this in a YWCA Scotland blog coming soon!). It’s important to me that my novel Pentimenti is an emblem of that journey. My main character Ellen is slowly emerging from a highly controlled, patriarchal environment, and we join her as she searches for the confidence that does not come naturally to her.
Nevertheless, despite the prevalence of anxiety as a concern affecting women (and men) across Scotland and beyond, I’ve read relatively few novels that deal with it in a way that is recognizable, even to someone like me with first-hand experience. One memorable exception might be The Crimson Petal and The White, a Victoriana extravaganza written by Michel Faber in which the character of Agnes lives in terror of sex, childbirth and the abusive potential of the men around her: ‘a rag doll plunging down a bottomless well’.
Siri Hustvedt is another writer who has alighted on the themes of anxiety and depression in books like The Summer Without Men (although I must admit it is one of the most frustrating novels I’ve ever read: how long can a woman really pine over a scientist named Boris?!). I believe that there could be real value in literature learning how to articulate what it is like to function alongside anxiety: not as a dramatic moment of crisis or plot point, but as an everyday element of so many people’s lives. The women I know have no choice but to walk forwards, whether our hearts are racing or not. How to go about communicating that experience from the person to the page?
Perhaps my number one tip is actually drawn from the world of interior design: I call it the ‘form follows function’ principle! As a reader as well as a writer, I always love when the structure of a sentence is consistent with its content: using elements like the sounds and shapes of words to reflect what they’re about. For example, in the first short story I ever had published (in ‘The Rooftop Busker’ edition of New Writing Scotland, back in 2015!) I wanted to write in a way that mirrored the mental state of my character. Rigid, focused on her work, but with fears that could always be lurking around the next corner:
‘The computer cursor flickers. Her keyboard clicks. Time passes and she starts to feel safe. Then the phone rings.’
As you can hopefully see above, we can also use punctuation to ‘mark’ the ways a character’s mind works. For some this might be short, sharp, black-and-white thinking:
‘Her eyes juddered. Palms moistened.’
For others, it is a lengthy spin out of control:
‘The sounds of the station swirled through her ears; spiralling into her brain with hazy, sickening malice.’
It seems to me that ‘form follows function’ can be a hard-hitting technique for conveying the reality of what anxiety feels like. As a writing mentor once advised me, the most sophisticated writers learn how to ‘show not tell’ and that’s definitely the foundation of this approach!
Sentences like the ones I’ve selected above also highlight the importance of expressing the visceral, bodily impact that anxiety can have. Anxiety and depression are often pigeonholed as ‘mental conditions’, but undoubtedly have powerful physical ramifications too. Whether at the height of a panic attack or living under chronic tension, your character will not simply feel those feelings in their head. They will feel them in their hands. Their limbs. Their chest. Their breath. I hope that exploring a character’s physicality as well as their emotional landscape also opens up another way to encourage empathy on the part of the reader. We may not intellectually relate to their specific worry, but every human being has felt the (deeply uncomfortable) physical sensations of fear. Each mind has its shadows as well as its highlights. As Atticus Finch advises us in To Kill a Mockingbird (where else to turn in search of wisdom?) ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’.
Ultimately, communicating anxiety in an honest way comes down to constructing a more modern, nuanced relationship between your characters and their readers. We sometimes assume that our fictional characters have near-perfect perspective on the events around them. Think of the archetypal Dickensian narrator: owlish and omnipresent, flying above each scene with a sarcastic, seen-it-all-before sense of humour. Yet in moments of the most severe anxiety, the opposite is true. When we feel as if our survival is at stake, we are living and struggling in the present moment: a character is in no position to calmly articulate their state of being when that very state of being feels under threat. Going through a panic attack in Pentimenti, Ellen’s mind and body feel out of control. It’s stark. It’s confusing. But it’s also very human. And so, when anyone comes to read about her experiences, I hope that these techniques will help them to empathize. To feel her worst fears along with her. And if anxiety is familiar to you too, I hope you’ll no longer have to feel it alone.
Does the person having a panic attack always know that it is a panic attack?
I doubt it. Although my experience of mental health is more rooted in deep depression than anxiety, I still remember that feeling of thinking that I am dying.
Even when you recognise that feeling and you have met it a great many times in your life, the voices asking if this is the end are as sincere each time as they were the first. Perhaps they get ever more believable, in fact.
My style of writing mental health is abstract to say the least. As Kirsten mentioned, the form follows function idea is prevalent in my work. Sentences get short. Words get lost. The sense of self attached to the words disappears - is that me talking, or my anxiety?
In a work published in 2016 as part of the Dangerous Women project, I let my depression do the talking. The piece, titled Noise, was written at 4am and sent off at 5am. It was a desperate ode to fear. Maybe, if I put all those fears into words, the paper would soak it all up and I would finally be free?
It didn't work out like that, but it is a work that I am still trying to reclaim as my own, take back from the illness that makes me write that way. When I got the news that it had been selected for publication, I remember thinking that I couldn't have written that if I wasn't depressed, suicidal and sleep-deprived.
I don't think that way anymore.
In an exercise, then, of studying the way I wrote in the throes of fear, insomnia and near-madness, I can offer a few other things to remember when writing anxiety or depression, on top of the sound advice already offered.
Writing is sometimes an escape, but it is also a mirror. It reflects things, and it traps them. You can trap those feelings in words, create the claustrophobia and the fear experienced in those moments by your characters.
For me, those feelings are mirrored in those moments where we lose control. The feelings, for me, are like children. No matter how fearsome and wild they become, they are still sacred and they cannot be harmed or undone. It might not make much sense, but sometimes, as a person experiencing depression, it becomes all you know and remember. It becomes difficult to coax yourself away from that numb state. In fact, it is generally nearly impossible to do without help and support, but that is for another day.
To control is often inherently manipulative, and when your mind feels split, already, it becomes difficult to manipulate yourself back into a position where you can see the positives in your situation. My emotions, to me, were feral children. Impossibly strong, wild, but entirely worthy of my attention and love, even if for all the wrong reasons:
'They are telling us things that may be true, or maybe they are currently fable but will soon become fact. Have you ever tried to say no to a child? Often, they will talk back. Sometimes in a moment of weakness it is easier to simply acquiesce, if just to get a rest from the non stop chattering and the tearing of the soul. They don’t mean to hurt.'
Now, that certainly isn't to say that this image would work for your character, but perhaps it will help you to see that often the emotions experienced by a person under mental strain are simple - fear, anxiety or overwhelm - for example. That is not to say that the reason why that person is experiencing them is simple to understand.
The state of not understanding why you feel a certain way is a huge aspect of mental health. For me, cognitive behavioural therapy as a treatment has always focused on the relationship between thoughts and feelings, and working towards a mindset where you don't have to understand them in order to get through the day.
As you write your characters, bear this in mind. You, as the author, can choose their emotions, thoughts and experiences. To write someone experiencing significant dissonance in their mental health, don't pretend to understand how those three things might be linked. Agonise. Change their mind. Brood. Fret.
Just try to keep those emotions to the page, and don't let them affect you too much if you can help it:
'Can you hear that? I can make you hear it, if your imagination is sound enough. It sits just below a whisper and just above a sigh, and sometimes you swear you could feel its breath tickling your ear. It is monstrous. You must try not to listen. But you must hear.'
Kirsten's Line of the Week (my favourite line that I've written this week - although whether it makes the final cut is another story!)
'The stars in the night's sky are small, dotted fragments: scattered carelessly across the universe like the dust they really are.' At this point in the story, Ellen has returned to the Isle of Skye - and a starry night for the Highlands and Islands is something to behold!
Bookmark (what I've been reading when I need a break from writing - otherwise known as often!)
Strike a pose, it's VOGUE! Ok, it's been a serious blog subject this week and perhaps that's why my recreational reading has been light on literature. Being shortlisted for the Vogue Young Talent Award in 2016 (and being invited to lunch at Vogue House!) remains one of the most exciting events in my early writing career, and I was interested to check out the first issue under new editor Edward Enniful. The style of his magazine seems unapologetically retro, albeit with a contemporary twist, and of course the true meaning of a revolution is a 'full turn' back to classic territory. Above all else, I'd like to give props to the writer who confessed that her favourite Christmas 'recipe' was ferrero rocher on toast (finally someone with culinary skills to match my own!)