I like planning.  And I dread it.  It’s reassuring and anxiety-provoking at the same time.  I like calculating (for instance) that if I produce 300 words a day, four days a week, in five or six weeks I should have an article.  I like planning that in this month I will work on Project One, and next month I will finish Project Two, and so on.

But planning also revs up the Voices In The Back Of My Head.  They don’t just whisper; they get cranked up like the Chipmunks.  On speed.  “No plan survives contact with the enemy make a plan and the gods laugh over-ambitious not ambitious enough why haven’t you why don’t you don’t be ridiculous you never you always!”

Actually, imagining their voices getting higher and squeakier and tinier till they’re no longer audible is very helpful.

The thing about having time is that you also have time to think in ways that are about more than just managing the voices.  When I’m sandwiching writing between bouts of grading and the next committee meeting, it’s not too hard to insist, internally, on the value of the task, and just do it.  Maybe I should always work like that; maybe that’s why some people overload themselves.  But I’m trying for improved mental hygiene, since I now have more time for self-awareness.

The Chipmunks are mainly my mother.  I know: it’s such a cliché.  Believe me, I’d love to stop blaming things on my mother.  But really, she was a piece of work.  Maybe these days she’d be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, or maybe she was just one of Julia Cameron’s “crazymakers” who loved the drama of getting other people worked up.  Whatever her problem was, the result was the same: any time my father or I made a plan, she would start asking anxious questions and prognosticating doom.

I don’t mean helpful, pre-emptive questions like, “In case this happens, then what will you do?” and “If plans A and B don’t work, do you have a plan C?”  I mean “How do you know?  You haven’t thought this through!  Are you sure?  It’ll never work!  What makes you think you can do that?  You don’t know that!  You Will Fail and Everything Will Be Ruined And It Will Be All Your Fault.  (And then I’ll say I Told You So.)”  It was exhausting then, and it’s exhausting to think about even now.

This morning I sat down to plan some of my three weeks’ worth of three weeks.  At one level, that was pleasurable, a way to take control of my time.  And then I noticed the accompanying anxiety: what if at my annual checkup I’m diagnosed with something fatal or at least time-consuming?  What if my father dies?  What if Sir John and all the other men of his Zodiac sign get run over by egg trucks?  What if what if what if?

What if none of those things, I asked myself.  What if, this year, nothing awful happens and I am able to stick to my plan?  Wouldn’t that be nice?  Wouldn’t it be silly to ruin a year’s sabbatical with anxiety about what might happen, when I am feeling well and my father is reasonably healthy and we do not live on an egg truck route?

Although she died seven years ago, I’m still recognizing and trying to uproot my mother’s voice in my head, like some particularly persistent invasive species.  I think it’s a good sign that I can now recognize it, name it, call it a Chipmunk, turn up the speed even farther, and let it go.

And in the interests of mental hygiene, I’m going to finish the day’s research task, spend some time outdoors (probably ripping up more bellflower), and listen to Warren Zevon while I work out.

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3 thoughts on “Planning and anxiety

  1. Earlier today, I downloaded a ‘to-do’ list app, thinking this would help with my planning/organising—ha, yeah, right—and as I got to typing in any writing tasks, that anxiety crept up on me. I’d originally planned to take on the one-project-at-a-time routine, but of course my anxiety said otherwise, saying if I were to focus on my novel entirely, for example, that would mean no short stories, no other kinds of writing, and the high risk of wanting to tear my hair out from looking at this damn novel for so long.

    Instead, with some conditioning, I’ve altered it to I must complete 5K words, however long it takes me (hopefully a few days), then the other tasks, then it cycles back around. For me, planning is helpful, but also seems to make it harder, if that makes sense? Planning, or the worrying, takes the joy out of the actual writing.

    Anyway—I know where you’re coming from. Hopefully we might train our minds to stop and tell ourselves to stop worrying so much. Eventually.

    Great post.

  2. You are doing better than I am. I got 2 people onto MLA panels and now they also want me to get them workshop gigs in three places in Louisiana, mine and two more. It would be lovely if I had a budget and an audience for them here, and closer contacts at the other places, and if they had bigger budgets, and everything were all opulent, but as it is I could create these events but it would take a great deal of effort. I don’t want to say no outright but I do want to say you can come and talk to my classes, no honorarium, no more, that’s it, and I can recommend a good hotel, but I am not putting you up, although I will have you to dinner and take you to dinner. I am thinking of you reminding me to Be Ruthless.

  3. This post about voices is helpful! I don’t have your mother’s voice inside my head, but that insistent “what if?” about starting on a piece of writing or committing to a plan is an everyday event. That may be why evenings are so much more productive for me; by then, my brain is too tired to fight me with the “what if?” arguments and will settle down to work.

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