My heart is pounding, it feels like the room is spinning. I can feel the familiar knot of nausea in my stomach and the lump rising in my throat. It's taken me at least a few minutes to realise that my nails have left small indents in the palms of my hands, such is the extent of my fist clenching. Sweat gathers on my forehead and my upper lip (and no, it's not just because of the unseasonable heatwave) and my eyes are clamped shut. The silence is painfully deafening to the point that I can't take it anymore. I think I'm going to pass out. This is too much.
"Finished." I slowly peel my eyes open to find my other half sitting beside me on the couch, my laptop sitting unnaturally on his lap. His eyes are still scanning the Microsoft Word document open on the screen as he scrolls back up through it. I sit in the silence, hardly able to contain my anxiety.
After what seems like an eternity (but he claims is about three seconds) we eventually make eye contact. My mouth is hanging open as wide as it can go (which is quite wide - trust me) and my eyebrows are practically at my hairline. I am crying out for a reaction. In fact if I were a cartoon character my eyeballs would be popping out of my head at this stage. He relaxes back further into the couch maintaining a neutral expression, calmly putting the laptop back into my open hands. "Yeah, it's very good."
There it is. My first book review. And it was a positive one.
About ten minutes before this I had handed over my laptop to Andrew and asked him to have a read of the first few chapters of my (still unfinished but getting there!) novel. This is the first time I have ever "let anyone in" to my book and without intentionally meaning to sound dramatic, it was a massive deal for me, as you can tell from my reaction.
It's funny because I've written several books in my 25 years on the planet (on a completely separate note, phrasing my life like that makes me feel so old in a way I never noticed before - 25 years is a long time!) and I never minded people reading them. In fact I quite enjoyed it. When I was in first year in secondary school my class actually studied the only book that I've ever finished 'Go For Gold' and I honestly didn't feel a shred of embarrassment or anxiety, quite the opposite (how narcissistic was I as a teenager?). And about three years ago I gave my dad a copy of the first few chapters of the original draft of this novel. In fairness to him, he thankfully pointed out several large holes in my plot which helped me improve my storyline. Of course at the time I wasn't so thankful...
The point is, I never minded other people reading my work, but that changed when I gave it to Andrew. I was actually so surprised at my anxiety levels when he was reading through my work. I mean, it's not hugely surprising, I'm quite an anxious person in reality. I get stressed and worked up and experience the physical effects named in the first paragraph all the time: when I get stuck in traffic, when Andrew doesn't answer his phone after two attempts to ring him, when I can't find my keys/purse/phone or when I realise I've forgotten to make a phone call/write a letter in work (hopefully my boss isn't reading this).
But writing isn't supposed to stress me out. Writing is what calms me. It is genuinely my therapeutic outlet. When people have a tough day in work they might watch TV or go to the gym or open a bottle of wine. I write. Sometimes if I'm really stressed in work (which happens) I just close my eyes for a minute and imagine myself at home that evening with my laptop open (and the obligatory cup of tea and bar of chocolate perched beside me). And it helps me focus so much. So why the stress now?
I suppose it's because now, more than ever, my writing means more to me. As a teenager being a writer (and a grown up) seemed a million miles away and so any negative reviews of my books didn't seem as bad because it felt like I had an eternity to improve my writing. I don't have that anymore. Don't get me wrong, I'm 25, I'm by no means old (right??) but I'm a bit more realistic in that I don't have forever anymore to improve my writing. It has to happen sometime and I'm the only one that can do it. Eek.
Similarly, I guess the fact that I'm so open with everyone, and most importantly with myself, about my burning desire, my ache (yes really!) to be a writer that criticism would be a killer. I'm not saying that I don't want criticism - believe me I do want it. In fact, the 10 minutes after Andrew told me he enjoyed my book were spent with me begging for some constructive criticism, I almost wanted (probably because I fully expected) a flaw with my book. I think my biggest fear though is that someone (or worse more than one person) will read my first few chapters and say "Sorry Sinead, it's just not very good. I think you should leave it and start another book." Oh my god, even writing that makes me feel sick!
I've invested so much in this book; time, energy, hope, emotion, imagination, love. It would break my heart if people don't get it or enjoy it or love it as much as I do. But then I suppose all writers, all artists in fact, have to open themselves up to that possibility. And I guess the chance of people loving it and feeling it as much as you do is worth the risk, right?
Wilhelm Stekel says "Anxiety is fear of one's self" and I can fully empathise with that statement. I'm afraid of opening myself and my work up to others, but then if I truly want to be a writer, that's ultimately what I have to do. So I suppose I need to keep writing and maybe just let myself know that it's okay to feel that anxiety when someone else is reading my work, because my writing is part of who I am now and that's probably one of the most important things I've learned about myself through this whole thing.