My graduate nonfiction writing workshop just critiqued a draft of a personal essay of mine on anxiety (as told through the lens of figure skating. Go figure). Despite my misgivings about the personal essay, I did vow to try it this semester, and I’m a sucker for The New York Times’ Opinionator blog on anxiety. So I sort of fashioned it in that style. They do publish some unknown writers. Hrm…
Let me tell you, writing the more meaningful, purposeful kind of navel-gazing essay is hard. Not in a psychological or emotional sense, because it’s actually really easy and self-indulgent to do that. Rather, it’s hard because writing an essay with an aim other than college admittance is tricky insofar as you must ask yourself: what IS my aim?
Fortunately, anxiety is pretty darn universal. I suspect that’s why Opinionator devotes an entire column to it each Monday, and it lands in my inbox along with seemingly worldlier and weightier topics like, you know, anything Thomas Friedman or David Brooks has to say. Although my classmates’ critiques of my piece were (impressively) rough (the piece really doesn’t work just yet), their written comments reflect appreciation for the concept of the piece: We want more “on anxiety” stories, not less, they seemed to say.
Of course, that chorus of approval could be self-selecting. After all, these are folk who are generally fans of the soul-baring personal essay (save for the tough-as-nails, just-the-facts-ma’am badassery of a select few). Writers are anxious. Dan Blank, over at the Writer Unboxed blog says so — it’s because the “act of creating invites self-judgment,” he says.
Our anxiety is always relative, and truth be told, sometimes other people’s anxiety can seem insignificant on the surface. When someone expresses that they don’t know whether to self-publish or not, or they are nervous about a book reading, you rarely feel the depth of their anxiety. To you, it is a logical decision, and one that likely won’t have crushing ramifications one way or another. But to the person with the question, they can get lost in the internal debate in their head, where all potential success as writer hangs in the balance.
I’m not one to speak of “the writer’s life” and I’m certainly not a fan of generalizing by profession or romanticizing or pathologizing writing or journalism in any way. So if you take out “writer” in this piece, and the fact that it was found on a writing blog, there’s so much to unpack. It speaks to the fallacy of comparative pain and the challenge of real empathy that touches probably even the most zen corners of humanity. This piece on anxiety isn’t really just for writers. Much like a talk about writing really becomes a talk about life, so too does a meditation “on anxiety.” Who among us hasn’t been on both ends of this equation: no one gets why I am freaking out? and I just don’t get why she’s freaking out?!
Few humble readers and lurkers, is it just me? Does this resonate? Why do we like reading about the neuroses of others so much? Or why does The New York Times like it so much, anyway?