By Jonathan Cooper
You can’t plow a field by turning it over in your mind”
I awoke just before 4 am and stayed awake for an hour listening to the sound of the rain. Finally, I accepted my sleeplessness – I splashed cold water on my face, put on a sweatshirt, and took a poetry anthology and notebook to the kitchen table. The streetlight outside the window captured heavy raindrops angling down from the dark. I opened the anthology and found my place, as the kettle began to whistle.
After months of reading and writing poetry, and a long string of sterile rejection emails, I had a poem accepted for publication. As I read the acceptance note, I felt relief and gratitude, but then, close on the heels of these emotions – almost concurrently – came a familiar, small, wheedling voice: ‘And where will your next idea come from?’
For the next few days, a vague anxiety pestered me: would I ever write anything worth reading again? While precious, early morning minutes clipped by, I slumped on the couch and wrestled with anxiety about anxiety about writing. This had happened, on and off, for years: bouts of anxious dissipation, unassuaged by occasional publications or favorable reviews.
I knew I had to keep writing. But I also knew that something needed to change in my mindset – I just wasn’t sure what or how. In the end, there wasn’t a single ‘turning point’, but a few realizations over about a twelve month period, which set me on a path towards a freer, calmer approach to writing. First, some interpersonal difficulties taught me that, fundamentally, I can’t control other people. And if I can’t control other people–including their thoughts and emotions–perhaps I should give up trying to control that insinuating little voice that tells me my writing is lousy? Perhaps I can just let it come and go as it pleases, like a radio that occasionally chatters away in the background.
Second, I temporarily overcame my congenital dislike of talking about both writing and anxiety, and I opened up about my struggles to a wise friend. He listened, and then made a life-changingly simple observation: ‘I know some artists and writers,’ he said, ‘and it seems that most of them struggle with anxiety around their work. From what I’ve observed, the best way to deal with this is to commit to an appointed creative time, and whatever happens, happens.’
It was so simple. Forget trying to control thoughts and fears and inspirations: just schedule a time in my day, and then show up and write. And who cares if I later cross out what I’ve written? Fifteen minutes of frustration and two disjointed lines may feel like a waste of time, but it stirs up the imagination. Later in the day when I’m walking down the sidewalk, an idea, an image, a connection comes to the surface, and when I get back to my desk I can jot it down on a scrap of paper. I can’t control the weather. I can’t control the roiling scarlet fog of my own anxiety. But I can control what time I get out of bed. And I can make coffee, sit down at the kitchen table, and – one morning at a time – I can read something, I can write something.
Jonathan Cooper’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including New Plains Review, Poetry Pacific, The Statesman Journal, Thin Air, The Charleston Anvil and Praxis. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.