The Anxiety Quilt – and other brilliant innovations

cool quilt

I was having coffee with a writer friend last Tuesday who is in the process of forcing herself not to write her agent. This can prove difficult. Especially when one is waiting on submitting books. Indeed, I was impressed that she was capable of making sentences – I certainly could not when my book was sitting on the desks of very nice editors.

“He called me yesterday and said that he was so impressed with my sense of calm because he hadn’t heard from me. I didn’t tell him that I have written tons of anxiety-ridden emails that go on for paragraphs and paragraphs, that I just delete and don’t send.”

“It feels good to write it down, doesn’t it,” I said. “Just to get it out and separate from you.”

“It totally does.”

And that got us thinking.

Here’s the thing about this business. It’s worrying. It’s anxiety-provoking. It’s a one-way ticket to cuckoo-bananas-loonyville. I have always been wired for being – how shall we say – a little nuts, but since I’ve been in this work, I am, and I don’t mind you knowing it, super nuts.

Anyway, the thing is? The deleted emails that feel so good to write but you never ever send because god forbid that the people we work with ever get a good glimpse at the depths of crazy that exists in our heads – well, wouldn’t it be fun to do something with it?

I said: “What you need to do is get a printer that will print it all out on bits of fabric and make something with it. Like a worry doll or drapes or a computer cozy. Or a crazy quilt.”

“No,” she said. “Not crazy. An anxiety quilt.”

Unfortunately, I can’t sew worth a damn (or any kind of crafting, really. The only D I ever got in my life was in Home Economics). But I love this idea. That the language of worry transformed into something cool and lovely that can be thrown over the back of a chair or warm the toes on a cold Minnesota winter night. I like the idea of our worries being separate from us. I like the idea that the little knot of anxiety that lives in the gut or the head – all barbed wire and acid and expectations and knives – can transform into something else. A blanket. A doll. Fire in the hearth. A piece of art. A long, thick thread, knotted into a pair of socks. A string of beads fastened around the throat.

Transformations are powerful, after all. If a magician can turn a tin can into a flying dove or an empty hat into a fuzzy rodent – poof! – then really, it should be no trouble at all to transform anything into anything. Your worries could become a flying castle. Or chain-mail coat made entirely of paper clips. Or a dragon so small it could fit in your pocket. Or a post-it note golem. Or a bird made of stars.

When my daughter was little – around five – she struggled with some pretty serious anxiety. One of the parenting tricks the doctor told us was to teach her to have specific times when we talk about our worries. So, when she would start to fall apart, we would say, “I can see this is a really big worry. Let’s put our worries in our pocket for now and then we’ll talk about it at Worry Time.” It was work – you could see it on her face – but she could usually do it. Largely, it was an opportunity for us to teach her how to take her anxiety out of the driver’s seat of her life – to acknowledge it, but to not leave it in charge. At Worry Time, we’d snuggle up with her with a blanket and an ancient, horrible stuffed chick named Bubble, and she would list all the things that she was worried about. Bubble, as it turns out was a wonderful listener.

“It makes me feel better,” she used to say, “just knowing that Bubble knows.”

Bubble became her worry surrogate. Her secret keeper. A transformation from something overwhelming and consuming and amorphous to something with a fat belly, ludicrous orange feet and a flap of felt posing as a beak. Bubble with his glued-on eyes. Bubble with his sour smell from too many nights in a child’s bed. Bubble with his matted feathers that weren’t actually feathers at all.

Maybe it’s the artist’s curse to be naturally wired toward worry, but I don’t think so. I know a lot of writers and many of them are anxiety-prone, but certainly not all of them. Still, I wonder what their anxiety quilts would look like. I wonder about my own.

Here is a patch in the shape of a star with the name of the book that I had to give up on.

Here are sixteen patches in the shape of a heart for the sixteen times my heart was broken. If you press your ear to their soft centers, you can hear them beating.

Here is a patch in the shape of a mouse. That is for a character that I had to obliterate in order to make the novel work.

Here are patches with numbers on them – numbers I like: three, for example. And fifteen. And zero – but only if you say it with a Spanish accent.

Here is the patch for the career setback. Here is the patch for the financial hardships along the way. Here is the patch for the conflict at school. Or the conflict with friends. Or the conflict with other members of my large and complicated family. Here is the patch for the pregnancy that turned scary. Here is the patch for the sleepless nights in school.

Here is my challenge for you, dear readers: embrace transformations. Think about what is worrying you. Think about it transforming to something else – something beautiful, something strange, something with clear eyes and a strong mind, and flying away.


9 thoughts on “The Anxiety Quilt – and other brilliant innovations

  1. Your timing with this post is as usual, exquisite. I really really needed to read this tonight, at 8:08 pm Maritime time.
    And the number 3? The best except for the number 9.
    I am making one of those huge Roman mosaic tiled bathtub slash swimming pools with all my anxieties.

  2. I love the idea of the quilt. The patches sound like scars to me, as if you’re removing them from your body and placing them where they can be seen by others. Although my first thought, when I read “patches” was the merit badges one sews onto a scout uniform. I wonder if anyone has thought of starting a den of Author Scouts? What do you supposed the badges should look like?

    My favorite transformation for anxiety is exercise, that or doing the dishes. Either one gets my mind to obsess on something else for a while, which is the goal. My last/best tool is reading, but I try to hold off on it if I can, otherwise I’d be doing nothing but reading.

  3. I like this post. If I find myself fretting instead of sleeping, I sometimes imagine putting the worry in a backpack and leaving it against the wall for morning.

    However, I will never understand why it is verboten to contact one’s agent. How did agents, alone among us, manage to get into the position that their clients don’t dare to bother them? I’m a jeweller, and I accept that my customers will ring me or email if they need to. If I want to contact my bank, or the council, or Amazon, or the plumber working on my bathroom, I don’t think twice.

    Is it because writers have been treated so badly by the publishing industry for so long that they will put up with anything?

    • I don’t think it’s that. I think there is a tendency – particularly when one has a book on submission – to fall into the roll of a child on a car trip: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” In the end, we have to just trust that our agents are doing their jobs, and asking yet again if they have heard anything isn’t actually going to make them hear anything any faster.

      For me, I know I can call my agent whenever and he’s always happy to listen and help. However, if I called all the times that I wanted to call when my book was on submission – which is to say constantly – well, that would have gotten old, you know? And it wouldn’t have helped anything. Best to relax, do yoga, go for a walk, and wait.

      • I’ve noticed that authors are often treated or referred to (as you just did) as if they were importunate children, with the agent/publisher as wise parent. I’m just as intelligent as any agent, with equally good judgment. Writers seem to forget that they employ the agent and pay her wages. She should keep them informed of what is going on with their submission, not leave them hanging for weeks or months at a time, too timid to contact her. I also don’t understand why the publisher pays the agent, who then deducts her share and sends the remainder to the writer. Again, this is treating the writer like a child.

        There are many aspects of traditional publishing that mystify me.

        • Huh. I guess I never really thought of it that way. For me, I treasure my agent. He’s amazing. I know, for me, I’m just not good at self-advocating. Knowing that he has my back and is willing to go to the mat to protect my interests allows me to focus on the task at hand – the next book.

          But really, it’s like any other partnership – trust that both parties is doing their best, mutual respect, and a shared love for the work.

        • I’ve noticed something similar. I even recall one writer who was sure that his editor was playing the roll of the antagonist in his life. I suspect most of this stems from the author’s own anxiety about the publishing process, which appears to be rife with opportunity for anxiety. My day job puts me in contact with a lot of artists, and while their work is different they seem to suffer the same types of stress. The only major difference I’ve discovered between art and writing is that one is expected to be part of a team when creating ads, but teamwork is not emphasized with writers. Its like writers all want to be free agents. Its sad because the two fields both really do require teamwork to do well. And there’s the fact that being exceptionally creative and/or sensitive does not always make for an easy passage in this life. The world is made for the mundanes. We’re left to finding our own path through them.

  4. I really enjoyed the idea of the Anxiety Quilt. What a constructive way to address the worries and insecurities that plague all of us to one degree or another! I can’t sew worth a lick, but I think a paper collage of images could be doable for me. It might be a fun and therapeutic diversion.

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