I have a confession. Lucky as I am to be able to dedicate myself to writing right now, my workdays are sometimes long and lonely. No one’s the boss of me (woohoo!), but no one’s my commiserating colleague or office clown, either. Sometimes the only voice I hear from nine to five is the little voice of doubt back between my ears.
And oh, that voice. I’m trying to be creative and productive, but it doesn’t care—its only concern is fear-mongering. It whispers of my shortcomings. It censors any inspiration and viciously criticizes whatever makes it out on the page. It rants about the dizzying rejection rate for new writers and the pitiful profits earned by those who make it to print.
That voice is not a desirable desk-mate.
Late one afternoon last week I was so exhausted by anxiety that I just couldn’t focus on words anymore. I laced my sneakers and hit the streets in an attempt to outrun the stress… but my racing fears kept pace with me. They didn’t miss a beat: left, right, left, right—failure, despair, failure, despair.
No matter how fast I ran, I wasn’t getting anywhere. What could I do? How could I escape this growing panic?
Suddenly it hit me: what I needed was to laugh.
This seemed so simple and obvious that I almost stopped mid-stride. I stumbled to a stand-still and laughed right there on the sidewalk. A passerby gave me a funny look. I laughed all the more for it.
Then when I got home I treated myself to a mini-marathon of nineties sitcoms. (Could Chandler be any cornier?)
At first I assumed that I just sought distraction. My brain had to take a break from all its gnawing self-doubts, and if I filled a few hours with frivolity, it’d block out the negativity, right?
I figured it’s the funniness that’s beneficial.
And perhaps that’s true to some extent. But when I switched off the TV, I remembered a Radiolab episode from a few years ago that explores the nature of laughter. In it, Jad and Rob speak with neuroscientist Robert Provine and conclude that laughter isn’t really about funniness at all. Here’s a bit of their conversation (around minute 17 if you want to listen):
Robert Krulwich: So laughter isn’t about joking, it’s about something else.
Robert Provine: It’s about social relationships. You gotta have those people there. When you’re alone, laughter basically disappears.
RK: When you’re at home alone, Jad, do you ever, like, find yourself laughing?
Jad Abumrad: When I’m by myself?
JA: Well, sometimes.
JA: Like when I’m watching the TV or something.
RP: Those are kind of vicarious social stimulants.
RK: No, I mean like when you’re solitary.
RP: If you take away media—
RK: No radio, no TV, no nothing in your ears…
JA: Mm, no!
Mm, me neither! It’s no surprise that I work all day without enjoying a single laugh. Unless the voice in my head evolves into something more than a metaphor (and here’s hoping it doesn’t), I really am alone at my writing desk. The only friends who show up to my workplace are the Friends that Netflix delivers on “the TV or something.”
But if laughter isn’t just a reaction to humor, what is it?
Apparently… it’s about feeling safe.
Following the above exchange, Dr. Provine shows a recording of chimps at play and explains that their animal panting is proto-laughter. “That particular sound is a signal, one chimp to the other,” Rob summarizes. “They figured out a way to signal ‘we’re not fighting, I’m not going to kill you, this is just play.’ It’s the signal of ‘we’re just playing. We’re safe.’”
When we humans gather in groups and start laughing, more often than not we aren’t reacting to stellar jokes. We’re signaling instinctively that the group is friendly rather than hostile, welcoming rather than threatening. We’re putting each other at ease.
Imagine me back at that desk all day, worried about whether what I write is worth anything to readers. Whether I’ll be able to make a living this way, selling my work to agents and editors.
Imagine me telling that stressed-out voice: “We’re just playing. We’re safe.”
But honestly, self: “We’re just playing.” As Brendan Gill famously wrote, “not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the argument that life is serious.”
For goodness’ sake, self, relax. It’s just life. Ha!
And truly: “We’re safe.” Francine Prose mused why writers feel so intimidated by the creative process: “What could possibly be safer than sitting at your desk, lightly tapping a few keys, pushing your chair back, and pausing to see what marvelous tidbit of art your brain has brought forth?”
Yeah, come on, self, relax. It’s just putting words on a screen. Haha!
So I laughed all the way back from my break to my work, which is to say, back from the sitcoms to the writing desk. The feel of warm laughter running through me was a great reminder: you don’t need to take the voice so seriously, and you don’t need to heed its threats.
Whatever anxieties are eating away at you today, I hope you get your laughs in, too. Remember, we’re just playing. We’re safe.
We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Which of your worries catch up with you and keep you from being creative? How do you cope? Find some catharsis by writing about it in the comments below or on one of my social media pages...