FOMO and the writing life, Part 1

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I suffer from Fear of Missing Out syndrome, aka FOMO. I attribute it to being a Gemini, and to being an arts editor, and to living in a town where on any giving night that are at least ten cool concerts, art openings, fringe-art shows, or literary readings that I’d love to attend.

Even as I write this, my Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of reminders of an upcoming Salman Rushdie talk. I really feel like I should go to it, but my need for rest, a home-cooked dinner, and time to write are winning out.

But this post isn’t about the fear of missing cool social events in favor of the solitary act of writing. I’ll save that topic for another time. This is about choosing to write but still feeling like the larger world of writing — the award-winning, book tour-planning, serious career-having world — is happening just beyond my reach. And no matter how hard and fast I work, I still might not make it before the opportunity passes me by.

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Image from sketchbookproject.com

I like to think there are many writers who don’t suffer from this anxiety, who don’t feel like if they don’t win a major award or sign a book deal with one of the Big Five publishers by the time they’re 30 or 35 or 40 or 50, it’ll be too late. I like to think there are writers who work in peace in contentment, in the quiet spaces of their home offices or personal libraries, surrounded by beloved books, soothing music, and artfully arranged flowers. To them, writing is the destination in and of itself.

And of course they’re right — those imaginary contented writers.

But it’s also true that we live in a world of goals and success meters, where striving is not just a possibility but a civic duty. Where, while I’m adding six new sentence each day to a short story of questionable redeem, my neighbor is taking a meeting with someone in LA who wants to turn her chapbook into a screen play.

Okay, probably no one writes chapbooks anymore. And we’ve all got to finish the short story before we can even entertain taking a meeting with anyone anywhere about anything to do with writing. But still, as I polish my manuscript, send off my contest entries, and research agents to query, I’m often struck by the feeling that I’m still not doing enough. If I started sooner I’d be father along, if I worked harder I’d be presented with more promising opportunities, and if I was better at recognizing opportunities in the first place, I’d also be better at answering opportunity’s fateful knock.

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Ernest Hemingway in Paris. Image via flavorwire.com/359589/20-excellent-photos-of-famous-authors-partying

Though it’s possible that I might not hear opportunity knocking because the cacophony of doubt, second-guessing, and FOMO fight-or-flight is too loud.
I’m not the first person to say this, but it would be really nice if — like becoming a lawyer or a welder — there was a set of steps to take to becoming a writer. If it could feel a little more orderly and little less left to chance, luck, and being good at things like small talk and elevator pitches.

Then again, if one became a career writer by getting degree, completing X number of work-study hours, climbing a corporate ladder, and earning partnership, the magic would be lost. The art is in the work, yes, but it’s also in the alchemy of wishing and wanting, of imagining what’s happening just out of sight, of longing for more fun, more interaction, more inspiration, more of the stuff that can’t even be named yet surely must be delightful and worthy of regret at the prospect of missing it.

The magic is in waiting for the knock, and willing the knock to come, and sometimes, when it doesn’t, going out and doing our own knocking.

In dog years

In dog years

I used to think it would be hard being a dog, not knowing what was going to happen next — when the next meal would land in my dish, when the people would come home, where the car was going and when the ride would stop. It would be nice to be fed and walked and petted. It would be nice to not be expected to do the laundry, sweep the floors, pay the bills or hold down a job. But the thing I couldn’t give up about being the human in the relationship, I always told myself, was being in control of the whats and the whys and the whens.

I liked being the one driving the car. I liked being the one knowing where we were going and when we’d arrive.

But now my dog has cancer, and my whole year has not gone according to plan — at least not any plan I came up with. You don’t have to feel bad for me. I’m not sad. (Okay, sometimes I’m sad, but it’s not the overarching theme of my days.) In some ways this has actually been my best year, because I’ve learned a lot. Probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I’m not driving the car. I don’t, as it turns out, have a clue where we’re going or when we’ll get there.

I’m starting to think my dog has it right. When he gets in the car and it stops at the vet, he looks a little bit disappointed. But every time he gets in the car, he acts like he’s going on a hike. Even if eight out of 10 trips lead to the vet, he still anticipates a hike. He still wags and barks and thanks the universe for the woods and the trails, the streams and the good smells. He’s fully invested in that hope, without any disappointment of a dream unfulfilled. The dream is always fulfilled — it’s fulfullable, which is basically pre-fulfillment — because it remains a possibility. This trip might stop at the vet, but that means the next one is the hiking trip, right?

And anyway, there’s always the whole drive to wag and bark, to anticipate and hang an excited nose out an open window.

I, too, want to live in that hope, and part of that hope comes from not knowing. Ultimately being the driver gives us about as much control as captaining a ship through a typhoon. Just because we’re holding the wheel doesn’t mean all that much. Nature, other drivers, fate, destiny, good luck, bad luck, potholes.

All these decades have I really successfully fooled myself into thinking I knew where this was all heading? How long I have, what I can accomplish, what my greater purpose is? Hell no. Those questions fill me with existential dread. I’m intimately acquainted with anxiety, with teeth grinding and clammy-palmed fear. I long for control because I can’t stand this feeling of free-falling. And yet to be human is to make peace with (or not to — many of us don’t — it’s a legitimate option) an existance shrouded in mystery.

The one in control is the one hanging an excited nose out an open window and anticipating a really good time around the next bend.

If not this bend, then the next.

That’s the meditation: be happy in the now. Wag, sniff, eat treats, relish walks.

Pet a dog.

The good loser

The good loser

My greatest fear is looking like an idiot. I’m more afraid of that than getting cancer, being hit by a bus or losing my job. It’s not a worthwhile fear to have, and yet most days are negotiations of whether or not my clothes are okay, whether or not there’s a typo hidden in one of my articles, how to say what I want to say without pissing anyone off and how to wear a hat without making my hair do something stupid.

Most people struggle with insecurity at some point in their lives. I do battle with it often enough to call it a frenemy. I tell myself that it started in third grade when my then-best friend Anna Morales told me, on the playground (that hotbed of pre-teen drama), that she no longer wanted to be best friends. Or any kind of friends. I couldn’t have pulled the word “loser” from a thesaurus lineup at that point, and yet I knew for certain that:
1) I didn’t want to be one, and
2) I probably was one.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that some of us are born with a propensity for insecurity. Some people can cook well, some people can run fast, some people can doubt their every word/thought/move. It’s a talent, really. Just not one that will win any talent competition.

Lately I’ve been wondering why failure is such a bad thing, though. We live in a time of anti-failure sentiment. Teenagers in reality TV shows regularly bellow, “Failure’s not an option!” But of course it is. Because when success is your only option, it’s not, by definition, an option. Failure is what makes success sweet. It’s also what makes success a thing at all. Trial and error without error is just doing stuff. You win some, you lose some without losing some is just playing a game who’s outcome is predetermined — like tic-tac-toe once you know to claim the middle spot. Failure is probably more valuable than success — it’s a better teacher, a better motivator, a better whetstone. Failure teaches us not just how to do something right, but how to be humble, compassionate, interested, focused and hungry. Being human is way more about failing that it is about succeeding: Truly interesting people come with scars, battle stories, broken hearts and a capacity to self-heal and soldier on.

Losers make far better fictional characters than winners.

So what if I actually try to fail? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the last few months. What if I say things that people won’t like, write stuff that won’t get published, wear weird dresses and sing along to Taylor Swift songs? What if I set up challenges that I know I can’t accomplish? What if I’m the only one who wears a Halloween costume to work? What I go our for a drink alone and read a book in a crowded bar? What I take French lessons or dance lessons or singing lessons and suck royally in front of a room full of strangers?

What if, whenever failure is an option, I opt for it?

Last weekend I went to a concert and wrote a review. I’ve done this hundreds of times — this is not the part where I look like an idiot. I took my time with the review, did a little research, added in some quotes, wrote something meaningful. In one of the quotes, the musician said that after his tour he was going to retire that set of songs. I included that because it underscored the rare beauty of the show. That’s important to know because, after I posted it online, it got a zillion hits by fans who were either freaked out about the songs being retired, or eager to point out that the quote was made in jest.

1) By a zillion hits I mean more like two.
2) The comment didn’t sound like jest and it’s my job to report on what I hear.
3) I can only imagine the musician at his next show telling the story of the idiot reviewer who claimed he was retiring his setlist. “The press gets everything wrong,” he’ll say. People say that.
4) I wanted, desperately, to take the post down. To not risk being wrong. To not have strangers on social media make fun of me.
5) Strangers on social media: You are the worst. (Except for when you’re not.)

All of the above. Yes. But I’m going to let this failure play out. If I fail, it was with the best of intentions — with some lovely turns of phrase, with the desire to lift up a musician whose show inspired me. If I look like an idiot for any of those reasons, I think I can live with it.

I know I can live with it. No one has ever died from looking like an idiot. I don’t even have to research that fact, I’m just going to say it right here and now and deal with the consequences.

Holter monitor

Holter monitor

From an unfinished fiction project

People talk about hitting the bottom like its a major accomplishment. A milestone. But as long as there’s still breath in your body, you can always sink lower. I know this, because I’m sitting through the inter-departmental meeting wearing a Holter monitor. It sounds like halter — a fun, ’70s-retro top. Instead it’s more like a bomb, strapped to my chest with all sorts of wires running out the bottom of my blouse, connecting to a box that looks like a pager and fits in my pocket. Sort of.

I can’t focus on the meeting because I’m having a panic attack over how ridiculous I look. Or maybe no one can tell. The thing is to remember at everyone else is too busy worrying about how they look to care about how other people look. Except of course that’s a lie because the all-time-number-one-pastime of everyone everywhere is people watching. Okay, the all-time-number-one-pastime of everyone everywhere is drinking. But then people watching.

I’m wearing the monitor because I have this thing where my heart flutters. Just now and then. But what if? That’s what I keep thinking. What if I have an undetected heart murmur and it’s getting worse and soon the blood will be gushing. Either in or out, I’m not sure. Or maybe I’m having a heart attack.

What I have is anxiety, but the symptoms are the same as a heart attack, which makes me more anxious, which makes my heart flutter more. And I can’t catch my breath, and my chest hurts and so does my left arm. My right arm, too, but especially my left.

Maybe this time I’m hitting bottom. That’s what I thought in the doctor’s office. Not the regular doctor, but a specialist. A woman younger than me with a sleek ponytail and a lab coat. Those Dansko clogs in patent leather.

She hands me a gown. Tells me, as if we’re best friends, “These are so horrible, right? But everyone has to wear them.” And then she apologizes for the office being chilly.

In a gown and running shoes, with electrodes taped all over my chest, I jog on a treadmill. It’s called a stress test, I assume, because running in a thin cotton gown with not nearly enough snaps, is awkward and embarrassing, and therefor really stressful. The specialist in the Dansko clogs chews the tip of her pen and makes a few notes on her chart. “You don’t seem tired,” she says cheerfully.

“I ran five miles this morning,” I tell her, trying to adjust the gaping gown.

“Oh cool!” she says. “So you’re a runner.”

“Yes,” I pant.

After a few more minutes, the doctor slows the treadmill and I’m allowed to change back into my work clothes. Of course she doesn’t find anything, but she also can’t send me home empty-handed, can she? So she tapes me into the Holter monitor with its wire tentacles. I’m supposed to tuck the monitor into my pocket like, oh yeah, I just have this thing. No biggie.

As soon as it’s attached to my chest I’m very, very sorry. I’m sorry I came here. I’m sorry I let the fear take me this far. I’m sorry that I haven’t beaten the anxiety and now I’m covered in wires. I’m turning into Seven of Nine (only shorter and much less threatening). Mostly, I’m embarrassed of being healthy.

I am healthy. I know this. The only thing wrong with me is my head, but not in a tragic way. I just have to get through the inter-departmental meeting without anyone noticing my Borg hardware, and then it’ll all be fine.

Unless the monitor finds something.

Unless this is actually a bomb.

Unless a meteor hits the Earth, which could happen at any minute. Think of that and tell me your heart doesn’t flutter.