Flight or Flight as Applied to Writing

…Unless there’s blood on the floor, of course. War, pestilence, murder, any kind of ordeal or violence, that’s what they respect. Blood means we were serious. ~Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Learning to write, for me, is inextricably entangled with learning to manage my mental state well enough to get words on a page. I think this is a not-uncommon problem.

I used to dream of being chased. No accident, there. I spent years running away inside my own head. I reviled myself for it, because while I was resigned to many of my less-than-positive qualities, I did not want to be a coward. If you have an affinity with predators, you must learn not to be prey, a friend once explained to me. You must, when you dream you are being chased, stop running, turn around, and fight. I knew that no matter how fast and how far you run, you can never run away from yourself. The obvious alternative was fighting. I applied this conclusion to being a writer.

You can just imagine. This is the fight or flight approach to writing. Either you’re running away from it and avoiding writing, or savagely driving yourself to the computer for the daily bloodletting of words. It’s a framework, all right. It is a very easy to framework to fall into, too, because writing is hard for all kinds of reasons: drafts look bad, time is scarce, blank pages are hauntingly empty, other people do it better… Writing, viewed from a certain angle, kicks you directly into a trigger-state, which is to say, a state where you feel you should respond in some survival-based way (run, freeze, or fight).

The fight-based approach felt like being a real writer. I was not cowering under my mountain of excuses: I sat in front of the computer shaking in frustration and terror, but I wrote. I felt peculiarly satisfied; I like to be good at things, and I was getting good at fighting. Every time I wrote, I felt like I was triumphing over myself.

Then, at Viable Paradise, I discovered that people liked my writing.

My whole edifice of ruthless battle cracked at its foundations in under five minutes and never recovered. The fighting dissolved into relieved crying. As it happens, trigger states are not actually that fun for me. They may seem fun, but it is the kind of fun that comes with feeling vulnerable and successfully defending myself rather than the kind of fun that comes from feeling confident and happy. “Yay! I’m not dead!” is not the same as “Yay! I’m having a good time!”

There is not actually much virtue in making a Greek tragedy out of sitting down to write. I am not saying that the drama was a conscious choice. It wasn’t. It was a trigger-state choice: I wanted to run. Therefore, I chose to fight, and I felt better fighting than running.

But here is a thing: No matter how viciously you fight, it doesn’t stop you from hurting. It doesn’t make you feel safe.

For me, the better choice is what I’ve been referring to as “sideways.” You see sideways things a lot with writer tricks. At Viable Paradise, Steven Brust explained how he’d worked a play on lines of Hamlet into every chapter of one book in order to move forward, which emphasizes cleverness (especially useful if you are Steven Brust) and reframes writing into a game. M. J. Locke talked about the feeding and care of your Beast, a kind of metaphor for your creative force / muse, which reframes writing into the process of taking care of yourself, and also creates a supportive sort of imaginary friendship with your writing.

Prior to Viable Paradise, I mostly ignored these sideways tricks because my framing wouldn’t permit them. It’s pretty simple: if you think you’re in a survival situation, and someone is suggesting tea and candlelight and maybe a hug to help you wind down, you will probably look at them, if not with hostility, then certainly with contempt. They don’t understand that you are serious.

My latest sideways trick has been, rather than encountering a blank screen and whimpering in terror, focusing on something related: a map for ten minutes here, a nonfiction book there, and then approaching writing again. Also coffee shops. Also talking to people. Whatever diffuses the “this is a confrontation that I am going to win” mindset.

Susan Palwick has explained that storytelling is the opposite of trauma. If this is so, then pushing myself to the point where I am triggered — where I am experiencing a sort of trauma — in order to write is counterproductive. Narrative is what happens when I am healing, not hurting.

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7 thoughts on “Flight or Flight as Applied to Writing

  1. Beautiful blog post, Alex. After learning to walk again, it took me several years to appreciate how tea and candlelight could have any function on anything I wanted. It turns out, though, that if we’re to survive more than a week, we have to consider both predators and blood pressure.

    I hope I never contributed to VP being stressful for you. The times we got to chat were wonderful for me.

    1. A little balance in life: not actually a sign of doom and weakness.

      VP was the turning point for my stopping driving myself crazy with stress, not the cause of it. Indeed, the people I’ve met from VP have contributed to my figuring this stuff out. Easier to relax when you feel you belong somewhere.

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