I’ve been out of commission lately as an educator and a writer. Life took over with a tough pregnancy and an early baby, and some delayed marketing efforts made my summer teaching load a lot smaller than I had hoped it would be. And generally, all this upheaval and disarray would lead me to a state of unequivocal anxiety, set to reach a fevered pitch about a week before my July classes begin. I know this because I know myself, and I know how I operate.
But I’m not anxious. I’m shockingly calm. Almost zen about the situation in fact. Call it new-mama-bliss or the confidence of finally knowing what I’m doing with my life, but I’m not on a path to self-destruction.
This morning, however, I was met with two major challenges of the anxious type. The first was an email from a dear and precious student of mine who was struggling with his own self-effacing guilt over being plagued with writer’s block. He was ashamed of himself, felt boxed in by his lack of ideas, and was generally desperate for relief. The second was a phone call from a mother whose son, new to ANI, was facing a similar roadblock. He was so wrapped up in creating the perfect character that he hadn’t written a word. He was worried that he had let me down, that I would be angry with him, and the paralyzing fear kept him from being able to break free from his anxiety.
When I got to school this morning, neither boy had arrived yet. And I thought about those anxious years of my life – indeed, most of my life – and what managed to help. The only thing – besides writing furiously – that ever pushed the anxiety from my body was a complete and total meltdown. And I sure didn’t want that to happen.
When my anxious alumni showed up, he was already calmed down. He’d stayed up until 2:30 writing like a maniac and had over 6,000 words to show for it. He plugged in his computer and got right to work, banging out another 1,200 words before he took a break.
Shortly thereafter, my anxious newbie arrived. He was literally knotted with anxiety. His brow furrowed and he was shaking tapping his pen against his leg while he paced outside the classroom door. He didn’t show any signs of coming in and sitting down next to the others who were happily typing away at tables and in corners of the room. Lucky for me, Abintra’s campus has acres of gardens and walking trails. I grabbed my water bottle and went for a little walk with him.
I talked and he listened but his body language didn’t change. I stopped to smell a particularly impressive rose bush, and he paced back and forth waiting for me. Twenty minutes later he was still wound just as tightly. Even introducing him to my alumnus didn’t help.
And then, I thought perhaps a task would do the trick. “Okay, who’s ready for a word-count challenge?” Many hands shot into the air, but he hid his face in his crossed arms. “Okay, everybody decide what your character’s favorite color is. Got it? Okay, now he or she sees something that color. Describe it. Write 350 words in 20 minutes. Go!”
And I guess that’s what he needed. Because for twenty precious minutes he let go and he wrote. He left the apprehension and guilt and self-doubt in the dust and he embraced the excitement of a new story, a new person, a new discovery. He allowed himself to escape himself, and in the process, he stopped fretting.
But after 20 minutes was up and he’d finished the challenge, I saw the worry start to creep in again. He sat quietly by himself and ate a turkey sandwich and looked at the clock while he folded his arms and shook his foot. His character had hit a quiet place. And he didn’t know what would happen next.
And that’s the crisis I see in my students and in Americans in general. The biggest problem they face isn’t the writing or the imagining – all children have creativity in spades – it’s being alone with themselves. They’re so used to being entertained, posting on Facebook, tweeting, texting, studying for tests, checking tasks off their lists, and being graded that they’ve forgotten how to just be. Be still. Be alone with their thoughts without reality tv creeping in or feeling the urge to tweet.
I assign all of my students at least two hours of thinking homework each week. I ask them to just be quiet. Stare into space. Think about stuff. And stay awake to the world around them. It’s often the hardest homework they have to do, even harder than writing 1,000, 2,000, or 7,000 words a day.
Being quiet and alert is a problem I never worried about as a child. I spent hours in my tree-house, swinging on a tire swing, or hiding in the forest. The thinking was the thing – being alone with my own thoughts has been a central and important part of my intellectual development. And when I haven’t had enough alone time, I can feel my skin starting to crawl. I feel like a radio antenna receiving too many signals at once and I have to run away, clear the clutter from my head, and find the quiet. I usually do that by clicking the keys on my computer. Or having a complete and total meltdown. Both are physical releases, the purging of thoughts either by writing or by crying.
As I write this, my anxious newbie is outside, writing about the trees in the upper garden. He’s working on another 20-minute challenge, and I’m hoping for another 20-minute escape from the anxiety for him. And for the rest of the anxiety-riddled youth in this country, I wish I could find a way to lay a calming hand on their shoulders and say, “it is enough to just be. Enough to just breathe.” And maybe, if they have a pen handy, enough just to write.