Embracing Our Inner Cave Bear

July 31, 2020 § 15 Comments

rick brownBy Rick Brown

We writers can be anxious types, prone to obsessing over distractions—both real and imagined—which can stall us creatively or shut us down altogether.

And it only takes a thought. Something disturbs the tall grasses of our mental landscape, and we are captivated. We feel disquiet in our bellies, our breath shortens. We watch, ready to bolt or fight. In that moment, the elements that comprise our everyday world— relationships, responsibilities, pleasures—vanish from our awareness, leaving only us and whatever it is that’s making the grass move.

But wait, this is a rather broad claim, isn’t it? We writers? Our awareness? Surely some creative folks possess what it takes to disregard those scary whatchamacallits in the grass. There must be at least several who embody the resolve of Joan of Arc, or the imperturbable serenity of a Buddha. Right?

Well, probably so. And for those of you who fit this description, my hat is off to you. As for the rest, who, like me, often experience anxiety to the point where it interferes with our writing life, read on.

I’ve been a worry wart all my life. I can lock onto a thought, usually something unpleasant or portentous, and cling to it with everything I’ve got. Once I do that, I’ll live with it during the day, and at night it will drive the plotlines of my dreams. Not only that, but I will stretch and distort the notion of my obsession until it resembles the images that I used to lift off the comic page with Silly Putty.

It doesn’t happen like this all the time; but under the right circumstances, anxiety will interfere mightily with the normal activities of my life—not the least of which includes my chosen avocation of creative writing.

Why is this so? Well I’m no psychologist, but I am convinced that deep in the folds of my brain there lurks a fearful specter: perhaps the subconscious recollection of a giant cave bear that once scared the bejesus out of some evolutionary ancestor, and quite possibly ate his cousin, too.

Normally, this primal “memory” is not a problem for me; in fact, on a conscious level I’m not even aware it exists. But when the right external stimulus presents itself—a late bill, the odd turn of a loved one’s voice, a writerly deadline—my sense of reason gives way, intellect goes into hiding, and that dreaded creature of old saunters out from his lair, with noisome, matted fur and steak-knife-sharp teeth dripping with goo.

But maybe that’s too specific. Instead, I’ll offer up a different analogy, really more of a cliché: Anxiety leads me to make mountains out of molehills. Under its spell, I can take the smallest concern and magnify it to the point where I can barely function. For years I assumed that this was normal. Thankfully, I’ve since discovered it is not. Through therapy, mindfulness practice, and the help of medication I am fortunate to have experienced a lessening in the frequency and severity of undue anxiety. Not that I don’t still encounter it from time to time, but the disorder no longer exerts quite the same hold over me. These days, I can function in spite of it.

As I write this, the writer in me now wonders whether I might also function because of it. After all, what is anxiety but a manifestation of thought: a physical, biochemical event to which I’ve assigned specific meaning? While I’m not normally a fan of catchy acronyms, I’ve often heard it suggested that “fear” might stand for False Evidence Appearing Real. This is actually a fitting description, one that could also apply to anxiety, at least as I experience it. And how do I flesh out this false evidence to the point where it appears real? By harnessing the very same power that drives the creative spirit: my own imagination.

How strange to discover that the mental process I consider so dear and necessary to my contentment and writerly output can also awaken a 40,000-year-old cave bear.

Bearing this in mind (pun intended), I think that it may be time to reconsider the concept of anxiety and what it means to me. In fact, I might even take the step of making peace with it. Instead of recoiling in apprehension, I might take a mindful moment to breathe deeply and assess the presumed threat. Chances are the specter of the cave bear will have moved on by then, leaving me alone with a simple choice: whether to fool myself further or to continue on my own way.

And from there, with my imagination already awakened, I might put that magnificent gift to better use in the here and now, perhaps by crafting a character sketch for the perfect villain, or bringing a fitting close to some vexing, unfinished essay about one of my worst fears realized.

Then too, I might even start something new—say, the gripping tale of a prehistoric man and his hapless cousin.

Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He has a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville. He is a founding member and contributor to the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and has recently completed a memoir manuscript, titled My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. Brown lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

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