We writers are known for being tormented by the anxiety of influence.
The fear that one’s work is not original, that it isn’t good enough, that it might be a transmuted version of source material subconsciously absorbed and observed via the greats that precede us.
What’s the value in what we have to say, what’s the point in adding to the infinite pile, hasn’t it all been said before?
These questions occur because of a deep-seated fear that lurks to the surface of the mind like a demon from a shallow pond.
It’s the nagging monologue of the critical voice inside, the narrator that is forever at your back, poking you with every thought you have and every word you contemplate, challenging you to defend yourself against the imagined, hyper-inflated judgment of the world outside your window.
The quicksand of doubt
On the one hand, it’s a well-placed moral compass that urges you to consider your purpose and your essential point, to work with the right intention, to contemplate the impact of your words before you commit to them.
However those good intentions can quickly turn to timorousness, as the strength of that call from within threatens to undermine your efforts before you even begin.
The author Elissa Altman describes this shame as one of the many hurdles and distractions that underscore the writing process, as “the quicksand of self-doubt so immobilizing that you can’t climb out of it, and the more you struggle, the deeper you get sucked in.”
Describing the determined way in which she persisted with her memoirs in spite of self-doubt, Altman calls to mind the stories of several artists and writers who were plagued by the need for validation throughout their creative process — and the fact that they did it anyway.
The cookbook writer who feels a fraud because she’ll never be as good a cook as her mother; the artist in her 50s who still craves the adoration of the parents who prefer her sister’s work to her own; the writer who reveals her family’s well-kept secrets only to be expelled by her family.
This is the paradox of the vocation we choose as writers. To immerse ourselves in the simultaneously isolating and collective struggle to document the stories behind which deeper truths lie.
An exercise in compassion and empathy
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” T.S Eliot
The reality is that without the fear and the turmoil, we wouldn’t be propelled to create, as evidenced by the litany of poets, artists, writers and comedians who have trodden the fine line between torment and creativity, racked by but not defeated by self-doubt — Edvard Munch, Ernest Hemmingway, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Wolf, the list goes on.
What can we learn from them?
That if you have something to say, that you feel is worth contributing, that you believe will make a difference, that you cannot do anything but find a way to release, say it in spite of the anxiety.
Art is a means to quell and extricate the demons, to explore and understand the nature of being that torments everyone to varying degrees.
It’s far better to feel accompanied in “the heavy and confused dream of mankind”, as Schopenhauer described the history of humanity, than to be flailing alone in a nightmare.
That’s the power of words and the reason to commit — it’s as much an exercise in compassion, which in Schopenhauer’s native German translates to “mitleid”, fellow-feeling and which he regarded as the real basis of morality. His own writing was famously devoted to the inevitability and contemplation of human suffering, and how it might be countered with a “genuine loving kindness”.
The New York Times columnist Cheryl Strayed recalls this sense of fellow-feeling when she refers to the “me too” factor that gives words their unifying power, “by telling the stories of how we got lost and found our way back.”
Strayed recalls the words of the American essayist and social critic James Baldwin who in an interview with Life Magazine in 1963 said:
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read…It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
Words of truth and beauty
What the struggles of artists through the ages reveal is that the solitary angst-riddled writer is not so solitary after all. That they are not alone in their turmoil. That isn’t as insurmountable as it feels when you feel you’re being swallowed up by the quagmire.
This is beauty of the fact that it has all been said before.
The challenges we face, the mysteries we seek to resolve, the questions that trouble and inspire us, the stories we tell as a result, they add to the history of humanity — that’s why the work that we do matters.
As the writer William J Long wrote:
“Literature is the expression of life in words of truth and beauty; it is the written record of a man’s spirit, of his thoughts, emotions, aspirations; it is the history and the only history of the human soul.”
Isn’t that worth continued contemplation?
One of the greatest storytellers, essayists and proponents of the value of literature was Susan Sontag. She said that the anxiety of influence as expressed by those writers who actively shun reading while writing was a “vain, shallow worry”, because you cannot be a writer without being a reader, which is to say, you cannot do anything but express an idea without your work being imbued with what you know through what you have learned from others.
Every generation rewrites itself. It’s part of the evolution of our collective consciousness. Look back through history and you’ll see everything has been repeated, documented, recorded, archived and called to mind again.
People change, people forget, collective memory does not serve us well, never mind the flaws in individual memory.
A means of union among humankind
Writing is an exchange, a conversation between the writer and the reader, an exercise in mutual understanding.
The most valuable words are those that linger, the dialogue and the wisdom we absorb thanks to the bravery of others who shelve their fears and tell us their stories in spite of them.
We need reminders and novel insights to navigate our way through.
Why else are there countless pages, online and on bookshelves, devoted to sharing, reinterpreting and applying the wisdom of others?
The act of communicating, of writing, is as essential to life as eating and breathing. It is how we position the nature of our being in the world, in relation to ourselves and others.
As Tolstoy noted in his 1898 work What is Art?:
“If people lacked this capacity to receive the thoughts conceived by the men who preceded them and to pass on to others their own thoughts, men would be like wild beasts… And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another.”