Maybe being a writer means that you need meaning all the time, or at least the possibility of meaning, and that meaningless small talk, shouted above music, is much too empty and tiresome.
This week I talk to Anita Anand, whose debut collection of short stories, Swing in the House and Other Stories, won the Concordia-QWF First Book Prize and was nominated for the Conseil des arts de Montréal Diversity Prize. Anita was born in Montreal, and then moved back and forth between her hometown and such places as the Bronx; Bedfordshire, England; and Richmond, BC. I met her first when she lived in Vancouver, and got to know her when I lived in Montreal. She is every bit as charming, honest, and wise in person as she is in this conversation.
SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, Anita: What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
ANITA ANAND: I feel that you have answered your own question better than anyone could. You covered everything. Public mortification: Check. Feeling like a fraud: Check. Being bad at math, and not filling out forms for writer-opportunities: Check. I could go on.
You did not directly state (but I think it was there, between the lines) that the one thing that makes writers write— our hypersensitivity— makes the rest of our lives unbearable.
A writer I met just as my book was coming out warned me about various unpleasant surprises that awaited me. A couple that struck me were: who would and wouldn’t buy my book, and also the cold reaction I might receive from people I had thought were my friends.
Well, these three things rolled themselves into one and left me reeling at my book launch. I thought my book launch was going to be one of the happiest moments of my life, you know, like the birth of a child. Instead, my hypersensitivity, plus friend weirdness (i.e. weirdness-from-friends) prevented that from happening. One made it clear she was not interested in my book. I have ended the friendship. This will bother me for years.
Rumination is what causes writing.
Just one more reason writing sucks.
SM: What you say about hypersensitivity being both a blessing (as it sparks writing) and a curse (as it makes the rest of life unbearable) rang true with me. I have spent most of my adult life managing, with varying degrees of success, my abject hypersensitivity. I’m wondering how you’ve managed your own hypersensitivity since publication and the experience of your launch. I know you’ve received a ton of positive attention for your wonderful book including winning the Concordia-QWF First Book Prize. Does the affirmation of your work alleviate the unbearableness? Or has the writing life brought on new and exciting things to bear?
AA: This happened to me very recently: I met a few writers, realized that we had hypersensitivity in common, found their shyness charming, loved the care and worry with which they approached other beings and suddenly felt I didn’t have to hide mine anymore. I belonged somewhere, to a sort of club.
But of course, it only increased my sense of alienation with non-writers. One of the things that sucks about being a writer is that you have to make a living some other way. My job happens to be teaching English to military recruits. They are not bad people, but their interests are the opposite of mine. They have told me, for example, that they believe that empathy is a weakness, something they may have picked up in their basic training course; I don’t know. They have other strengths, like courage, resilience, audacity, good team spirit, sportiness, you know, the stuff that writers don’t have, or at least not in a way that is immediately obvious. (I just realized that there is a lot to argue with there, but that will have to be for another time.) In general, the people I work with have conservative political views which include a certain dismissiveness of mental health issues, a distrust of artists and their grants, as well as of any initiatives that seek to right societal wrongs. I have been having a hard time since my coming-out-as-a-writer pretending to be on their team. They find me disturbingly quiet, and a couple of them occasionally say so, but I can’t talk about my own experiences with them. I can’t say to them, as a writer friend said to me once, “I feel so bad leaving a store without buying something. I worry I have made the cashier sad.” The cashier! Not even the salesperson! And I can relate— but less and less to these other people, the people I spend most of my days with, the ones who don’t feel things so strongly that their hearts hurt most of the time.
The affirmation of my work, as you put it, seems to be solidifying my status as an outsider, partly because of this change within myself, this self-acceptance, which comes out once in a while in little outbursts of assertiveness.
I am eating my lunch alone these days, much like I did through high school. Like we all did. The ones in our club.
SM: How you describe how you feel at the military school feels like it might be a strongly distilled version of how I feel in the world at large. I have this idea that everyone else has this courage, resilience, audacity, team-playing, sportiness, and might I add, can-do attitude that I deeply lack. I feel like I’m slowly improving in the areas of cowardice, crumpling, complacency, misanthropy, sloth, and might I add, pessimism. But on bad days I am all of these things at once, and in bed, with the curtains drawn.
I eat my lunches alone, usually, too. I am eating in alone-lunch solidarity with you. Next week, let’s eat our lunches together. We’ll sit down at noon and imagine that we are sitting at our table together, the one where you don’t feel weird wondering who’s going to sit down, or who isn’t going to sit down, or who’s sitting at the next table over with their friends, not inviting you over. Because we are the weird writers in the office, and this table is for us.
Self-acceptance seems like a good place to be for a hypersensitive. But how do you get there? It’s been a gruelling path for me. What advice would you offer a young writer who feels crippled by their hypersensitivity?
AA: First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to have lunch with me. It really means a lot.
I am not sure that I am in a position to help a young writer, except to say it gets better. But am I helping anyone, can maxims like that really help anyone? Maybe they can. My mother did tell me it would get better back when I was eating alone in high school. What she specifically meant was that I was going to make better friends at university, that the pool of people out there would be restricted in a way that would be to my advantage. So, snobbery, that’s what my mama taught me.
It got me through high school, but what about later? You need a new maxim for the next couple of decades. I don’t actually know that I had a good one. Maybe if I had, things would have been easier. This table is for us? This-table’s-4-Us? Could that be the maxim?
Since I was fourteen I have dealt with emotional difficulty by running. The way it forces me to go outside, and somehow escape my worst self, the endorphins: running always works. Also, hanging clothes outside on a clothesline on a windy day. Reading something easy but poignant, like a story by David Sedaris, someone who writes about feeling weird but is weirder than us. I mean, I like my clothesline, but he’s into taxidermy.
Recently, as I have said, just learning about the link between hypersensitivity and writing has helped me, as has the friendship of other writers, and the acknowledgement by some people that my book was actually a pretty good read.
SM: Much of what we’ve talked about points towards the solitude of being a writer. These little glimpses of you, eating alone, with your clothesline, solo running, remind me of the joy and pain of solitude. I’ve always been kind of a loner, and much happier staying in with a book and a cup of tea than filling up my social calendar. Books are easier friends. I’m trying to be a better friend, companion, colleague, and community member, but to be honest when I’m depleted I revert back to natural hermit-state. What’s your relationship with solitude been like over the years, and what relationship do you think it has to being a writer— both the writing itself and the writing life?
AA: It’s funny that we are writing to each other on a Saturday night, not a mean, cold blustery one but one of those warm, sultry early summer ones when we are all supposed to go out. I was supposed to go to a birthday party tonight and opted to read in bed instead. I feel guilty, both about staying inside on such a perfect evening, and for letting my friend down. I like this friend; I just don’t like parties. Maybe being a writer means that you need meaning all the time, or at least the possibility of meaning, and that meaningless small talk, shouted above music, is much too empty and tiresome. You use the word “depleted”, which is a word that would not occur to an extrovert, I think. I suppose I have always taken it for granted that most writers are introverts. But I don’t think solitude, especially the way I have experienced it over the years is something I actively sought. When I was a kid, there was too much of it. One of my brothers went to a boarding school in Manitoba and for several years we corresponded every day. When he came home for the summer, he always had books to lend me. I think he might have saved my life. The racism that was prevalent when I was a child, my parents’ tendency to move every ten months or so, and yes, my own awkward, hypersensitive personality made me one lonely kid. Anne Lamott, for one, says it is easy to spot a future writer in a schoolyard. It’s the kid standing there all alone.
SM: I was that kid. I remember being so bewildered by the instruction to “go outside and play”. I’d stand on the playground and just wonder how everyone else got this whole “playing” thing. Then I’d go hide in the bathroom and read a book.
What you said about needing meaning all the time resonates with me. Then add that to the hypersensitivity, and you’ve got a lonely outsider watching the world, deep in meaning-making, and writing it down. A writer. So, last question: a would you rather. Would you rather be less sensitive and feel no compulsion to write, or be as you are, bearing the world maybe more wearily than most, and a writer?
AA: That was a good question. I know because I had a couple of visceral reactions to it. The first was balking. I’m not a writer. Surely you can see that! The novelist Bernice Friesen told me that calling herself an author seems like declaring her beatification. I don’t know if I will ever feel like a writer. I am just a nut. A naked one. A naked nut who writes things down.
The other was a floating down to the schoolyard, hovering over the lonely kid, asking her her opinion. She told me she would prefer to just play with the other kids, if she could figure out how.
Are you a hypersensitive? Join us in hypersensitive solidarity in the comments below. If you haven’t read Anita’s book yet, you should probably buy it. Here. Now.
Next week I talk to Laura Broadbent about day jobs, emotional labour, and the tantalizing, ever-present option of quitting.