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Poetic Doubt; Battling Anxiety

March 30, 2012 | by

I recently read Poets in Their Youth, by Eileen Simpson. Now I’ve taken to doubting my every turn. Am I a lout? A drag on my partner’s freedom and happiness? Am I going to drink myself into a coronary or into some sort of baking mishap? Is there anyway I can pretend that I won’t die cold and alone?

Ash Ponders

Dear Ash,

From your note it’s hard to tell whether you’re a poet or a poet’s main squeeze. Those are both high-pressure jobs and generally conducive to drinking. But take heart. For whatever reason, poets today—even good ones—are much less likely to walk in front of a car, or gas themselves, or even destroy their livers than poets fifty years ago. This makes them easier to live with, I imagine. (How could it not?)

Like, perhaps, more than a few of your readers, I am an anxious person. This anxiety manifests itself in a number of ways, but one of the most taxing is when it renders me extremely irritable. Feeling overwhelmed by a cornucopia of small tasks, I sometimes experience an actual skin-crawling physical discomfort as I attempt to slog through them—it’s nails-on-a-chalkboard all over if someone tries to talk to me or sends me an e-mail or if I even glance at any of my open tabs in Chrome. I have the feeling that reading should help—but all those tiny words on a page! It just makes me feel even more agitated. Do you have any particularly soothing books you could recommend? The book equivalent of a warm bath? (Obviously one can’t take a warm bath at work. Or at least not at mine.)

Tim

First, turn off your computer. You could have the calm of a lama, and you still wouldn’t be able to read a book and keep an eye on your e-mail. It can’t be done.

Now, are you able to sneak out of the office? If so, head to the nearest library. Really. In my last job I used to take the subway up to the Forty-second Street library whenever I could. One day I got busted by my editor-in-chief. He was doing the exact same thing.

If you can’t leave your desk, then close your door. If you can’t close your door, try earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.

Readers of this column know my opinion of the Jeeves books. They are gratinee for the soul. Kids’ books lower my blood pressure, too: Roald Dahl, Narnia, E. Nesbit’s Complete Book of Dragons. My grandfather, in his long final illness, swore by Trollope.

But I wonder whether you may want to read one or two good books that speak directly to your condition: Tim Parks’s memoir Teach Us to Sit Still or Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians: An Elegy. Both writers suffered, at different times, from a “skin-crawling physical discomfort” that made reading (and all sorts of other things) unbearable. Both books are pithy and engaging, to say the least. Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety won’t come out till July, but in the meantime, he has a Web site “about living with anxiety.” I commend it to your attention.

Okay, now turn off your computer. Don’t bother reading the next question. It will only freak you out.

Dear Paris Review,
Is it weird to wear a “fashion mask”?
I say no, but my mom says I look perverted.

Curious,
D.R.

There’s nothing “weird” or “perverted” about a fashion mask. I happen to be wearing one right now, in black mohair. I call it the Hamburglar. My lady friends call it the Snuggler. Everyone calls it fab.

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4 COMMENTS

4 Comments

  1. Sarah | March 31, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Yup, if you’re just suffering from your average tough day, there’s nothing like a good kid’s book to soothe the soul! I swear by Enid Blyton…

  2. Irene | April 2, 2012 at 7:57 am

    Anything by Barbara Pym.

  3. Shelley | April 2, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Your grandfather is right. Trollope’s steady eye (and underrated empathy with middle-aged women) helps a writer stay on an even keel, as well as his no-nonsense determination to see writing as hard work as well as inspiration.

  4. Byron Pratt | April 5, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    to Lorin Stein re: a comment you made, “It doesn’t make me cringe, exactly—I just have no idea what I thought Being and Time was about.”
    Er, I sat in on a graduate course on Being and Time. Does anyone know what it is about? One question that came up was the old philosophical conundrum, ‘When is a hammer a hammer?’ which just struck me as incredibly stupid. Until I ran across it in another form. When is the letter A, the letter A. In this form it becomes the much easier to grasp concept of just how do you get a machine to recognize absolutely any variant of the letter A. This turns out to be fiendishly difficult.

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