• In Praise of Panic

    Stephanie Danler

    Fall 2023

    During graduate school, one of my professors periodically fell asleep at his desk. He also took calls mid-lecture and excused himself to the hallway to have conversations with his fiancée about their upcoming travel. He was annoyed when a student wanted to talk about racism in Absalom, Absalom!, and after making us read Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, we spent a total of twenty minutes talking about it. Still, in spite of his erratic tendencies, the reading list was worth the price of admission. His class on “Shadow Narration”—a study of parallelism, repetition, and story development outside of traditional plot—introduced me to Kojo Laing, César Aira, Thomas Bernhard. It ended up being the most important course I took in my MFA for two reasons. First, he had us read William Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” and then, in the style of that magnificent story, had us do a writing exercise, which became the beginning of my first novel.

    The second reason is he gave a salient piece of craft advice amid a sea of well-intentioned cheerleading: “You want advice on how to become a writer? Marry someone rich.”

    Back in the spring of 2022, my anxiety got to the point that I couldn’t even grocery shop. We were supposed to be out of a pandemic, and nothing in my life was where I left it. I had an eighteen-month-old and a three-year-old. I was working on four scripts at the same time, three pilots and one feature. It made progress on my third book erratic and demoralizing. Every time the glass doors of Whole Foods slid open, I stared into an abyss of air-conditioned, scentless despair. Somewhere between the waste and environmental devastation—the homogeneity of the produce, the plastic balloons of snacks, the prices—my heart rate soared. I sometimes bit back tears while comparing brands of milk. On occasion I abandoned a full cart and drove myself home, crying without reason. Once, while a cashier waited for me to pay, I apologized and ran out of the store. From that day forward, my husband took over the grocery shopping.

    I decided it was time I tried an SSRI. I had steadfastly refused them since they were first mentioned to me by a psychiatrist at sixteen. What provoked a change of heart? There are people depending on me. My children were having the kind of rich, raucous childhood I craved when I was small. Yet I found myself unable to join them in the sunlight. Or as Wisława Szymborska puts it in her gorgeous poem “Life While-You-Wait,” I felt “ill-prepared for the privilege of living.” I had tried different therapies; I quit drinking and social media; I put my phone in the other room while I slept. I exercised, I walked around the Silver Lake Reservoir humming mantras about self-compassion. Nothing worked. It seemed time to try these pills that had helped so many of my friends because I was spent otherwise.

    Sleeping on Prozac was the sleep of the dead—leaden, dreamy, unagitated. When I got up in the middle of the night to pee, I wasn’t tiptoeing around ruminative landmines (stupid things I’d said in interviews, at parties, writing I wish I had polished one more time, financial precarity, my mother’s health and finances, time wasted, and so on). Instead, all the shadows in the room were soft, and I sat on the toilet and thought nothing. It was the most profound drug experience of my life. Uncanny, to be living in my body (there is my face in the mirror, there is my coffee, there are the books) without the ticker of self-loathing. I felt like a freshly baked muffin, puffed with contentment. I didn’t think about my lists when my lists weren’t in front of me. I didn’t suffer envy in friends’ beautiful houses, at the news of someone else’s book deal or their greenlit shows. Every time I tried to twist a placid moment into a knife of fear, I turned the corner to find an empty space. My mind was painted white.

    When a script I had been working on (a project which was the bulk of my projected income for the year) died just five months after it had been commenced, done and gone, contracts nullified, my husband looked at me with scared eyes, braced for fallout, “Are you okay?”

    I shrugged. “I guess we’ll just see what happens.”

    Not mother’s little helper, then, but happiness as advertised. On my antidepressant, God was benevolent, the universe abundant, the only certainty, I actually believed, was uncertainty. My contentment prevailed no matter the weather. Still, after three months I stopped taking it. Why?

    I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t come. And I couldn’t write.

    And while I could conceivably live without the first two (I guess we’ll just see what happens!), the last was nonnegotiable.

    For me, the urge to write lies atop a bedrock of panic. The collecting of impressions, hoarding of dialogue and observations, the lists of especially sparkling words—that work is also done in a panic. It is no accident that my three main expressions of overflow were stifled. Crying, orgasming, and epiphany are tiny crises of passion. I do not say this is true of all writers, but for many whom I admire, their work is not created in sedate detachment, but instead, in a troubled fever. Harold Brodkey:

    I distrust summaries, any kind of gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts; I think someone who claims to understand but who is obviously calm, someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquility, is a fool and a liar. To understand is to tremble. To recollect is to reenter and be riven. . . . I am bored with that and with where it has brought us. I admire the authority of being on one’s knees in front of the event.

    Note that I say created. There is time and a place for detachment. It’s called editing.

    During those months of being medicated, my mind stuck to the ruts of formulas. I wrote what I knew, did what I had done well enough before, performing a slightly above-average style that could hide mediocre thinking. Those landmines, the knife of fear, had me asking: Why are these disparate things connected? And how? That’s where my new thoughts had been. When I described my experience of the medication to friends, the first response was, I’m so happy for you. And that’s correct. They want me to love myself the way they love me. But I wasn’t sure how to explain the significance of the loss without sounding like I was enmeshed with own suffering. Surely, I would find new ways of being productive? Yet I knew from the first week that while I had the emotional lobotomy I had been craving, it had also taken the only means I had of creating.

    Am I telling you that one must choose between their art and their happiness?

    Stephanie Danler is a novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter. She is the author of Sweetbitter and Stray. She is based in Los Angeles and currently at work on a novel.

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