“Back in the spring of 2022, my anxiety got to the point that I couldn’t even grocery shop,” Stephanie Danler writes in her craft lecture “In Praise of Panic,” which appears in the Review’s Fall 2023 issue. “We were supposed to be out of a pandemic, and nothing in my life was where I left it.”
It’s rare to find yourself written so acutely on the page, down to the date, but that’s what I encountered while reading Danler’s words. In any case, I turn to her work whenever I need a healthy shock to the system—when I need to, as she ends this essay, Fight. Write.
In this conversation, we correspond about panic’s influence on questions, privacy, and community.
—Rachel Schwartzmann, guest contributor
RS: I don't think you're alone when asserting that “panic puts us into a state of fight or flight . . . which manifests [in me] as write or flight.” For me, panic and inquiry often go hand in hand—and I found myself nodding at many of the questions you posed throughout this essay: How does one imagine a life for oneself without factoring in what it costs? Are there choices we can make that are somehow “better” for our writing? Is art worth the integrity and quality of your days? What kind of person, I wondered, follows their panic right out the door? I figured this would be a good place to start: What questions are you currently thinking about in relation to panic and time? What's showing up in your writing that's activating, clarifying, or nourishing?
SD: I’ve noticed (mostly in my newsletters on Substack, my journals, film projects) that I’m attracted to ambivalence and parenting. What is a good mother? How much can I sacrifice without sacrificing myself? What stories am I projecting onto my children, and what am I missing about my children when I do that? How will I ever give them up to adulthood, as all parents must?
I’m so wary of writing into what I think of as a “motherhood essay trap”: “Look at all the insightful things my kids are teaching me!” But that proverbial essay is my life right now. They are fucking teaching me! My main source of epiphanic experience comes from parenting, whereas when I was younger it came from sex and relationships, or travel. It’s the lens through which I’m reading the news, novels, connecting with strangers.
But I can still slip off that lens. I don’t relate to a person who says, “I can’t remember my life before children.” I remember. When I am away from my children, I miss them, but I’m whole. I’m on good terms with that woman, and that’s a practice. I hope that comes out in my writing—that I’m in the tunnel but resisting tunnel vision. That I’m feeding both the mother and the artist, and in my dream world, that is to the benefit of everyone.
RS: I’m curious to know what panic has taught you about timing. How do you know when you're ready to explore panic-inducing moments on the page and, in turn, share them with readers?
SD: Once you learn to respect panic, you can differentiate between fever and fear. Those two are telling you everything you need to know about timing. Ideas are the fever. It’s a heat, a feeling gestured to when they say, “write about something that keeps you up at night,” or “write what you can’t forget,” or any of that bullshit. That fever is true, and it’s panic-inducing. Between short pieces and film and television work, I’ve done so much writing at this point. To encounter that fluttery, nervy tenderness of a fever, it’s rare. And you can panic at the thought of losing it.
But then there is another kind of panic, and that is real fear. This is a form of self-protection. Every act has a reaction, or as I warn my children, a consequence. And as Didion says, writing is a hostile act, and it can and will provoke a hostile reaction. While you may be able to do the writing, you may not be ready to weather the consequences. That panic is a form of wisdom that I’ve also learned to respect.
RS: Navigating panic is an individual experience, but the last few years have reinforced the vital connection between well-being and community. At one point, you write, “I do believe we turn to other writers because we want to know how to live in the world as a writer—I want to know this, anyway. How to read. How to look. How to witness. How to be vulnerable. How to panic. And that does seem worthy of conversation.” Did you tell many people you were writing this essay? How do other writers shape your definition of—or relationship with—community?
SD: It’s funny—I might say in an interview that I don’t believe in talking to people about works in progress. And yet I find that since I’ve become a television writer, all I do is talk to people! I talk about what I’m reading, what’s nagging me, what I find odd or interesting, as if I’m in an endless workshop.
During the months I was on Prozac (which I write about in the essay), I was taking notes and in constant conversation with my friends. I could not have clarified the insight that I needed panic to write without working the symptoms to death in the company of others. I was indebted to so many writers and thinkers while composing this piece—I felt a bit wild and caffeinated trying to include it all—but I see the marks of my conversations with writers Lisa Taddeo and Emily Ratajkowski most definitely. And I don’t mean a polite literary correspondence—I mean unhinged voice memos going back and forth.
I really treasure my community, and I’m proud of the diversity of thought contained therein. Even my friends who are not writers tend to be deep thinkers, seekers. They also tend to be dramatic storytellers, skilled gossips, and mordantly funny. I like to say that it’s my reading that taught me to write. I’ve realized lately that books taught me to write books. Structure, pathos, plot. It’s actually these conversations that have taught me how to investigate my thoughts and assumptions, how to pathologize and motivate, how to see people. And without that, there is no writing.
Image credit: Emily Knecht