MFA Nugget: Identifying A Nagging Sense of Anxiety

MONTPELIER, VT: This is supposed to be a ten-day celebration of two years of hard work. At the conclusion of this Vermont College of Fine Arts residency I will hear my name called and be handed a diploma signifying I am a Master of Fine Arts. So why have I been so crippled with anxiety from the moment I set foot on this campus two days ago?

The hills of Vermont, taken on my cross-country U.S. road trip last summer. I didn't know I'd be coming back to the state in less than a year.

Not a single tree in Vermont gives a damn about my anxiety.

I have been asking myself that repeatedly, including over a Margarita at a pizza place in the neighboring town of Barre that I fled to my second full night here (usually I don’t escape town until later in the residency). One thing either muddling or clarifying my thinking–I’m not sure yet–is a current preoccupation with my MBTI categorization of INTJ. What the heck did I just say? Well, MBTI means Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a long-established system in which we answer questions about ourselves and are categorized as one of sixteen personality types.

Recently I read a book in galley form called Creative You: Using Your Personality Type to ThriveIt will be published on July 2nd and I’ll have a blog breaking it down that day. The book helps you identify how your MBTI guides your creative process, but I’m using it to help identify my sources of anxiety. Since this is a blog, and bloggers love bullet lists, perhaps I should work my way through the possible causes as a blogger would:

  • Social anxiety. This is a possible culprit. The “I” in INTJ means “introvert.” There are about 150 students and 30 faculty here on campus. More people know who I am than at any previous residency, because as a graduating student I’ve been here every semester every other student has been here. I should add that I am very good with names and very good with faces. I am very poor at matching names and faces. Thus every encounter is a potential mine field of embarrassment.
  • Performance anxiety. Because this is a graduation residency, I must give a 20-minute reading and a 45-minute lecture. My reading is this afternoon, my lecture on Saturday (mere hours before graduation). Yes, I’m nervous about both, particularly my reading, because I don’t know if I made a good selection of what to read. Yet I don’t think this is the real source of my problem. I do a lot of public speaking in my professional life. I am an “I” but I know how to play an “E” in front of a microphone. But the extent to which I do have anxiety about these is unique to this residency because they are new tasks for me.
  • Housing anxiety. This semester I again chose to stay off campus. I booked a room in a local woman’s house sight unseen that proved to be most unpleasant and uncomfortable; it was an impulse decision that was definitely not consistent with my personality type, and it cost me. The housing was most definitely not contributing to my mental well-being. Last night, however, I relocated to a professionally run inn just off campus that is a phenomenal improvement. I suspect this source of anxiety has been resolved.
  • Real world anxiety. It’s not always easy for me to transition from my professional and personal life to this bubble of creativity. Last semester was a difficult transition for me. But while things are crazy at work, my co-workers have things well in hand, in part due to their skill and competence and in part due to my INTJ-driven advance planning. I begin teaching an online course two days after graduation, which has me anxious because it is “new,” but what is really new is the format–online–not the course, which I’ve taught before. But it’s possible I just need to be here a few more days to fully immerse and leave aside things not of Vermont.
  • Future anxiety. In Creative You, authors David B. Goldstein and Otto Kroeger label INTJ “The Visionary.” I am described as someone who is “future oriented but paradoxically have a practical side as they strive to execute plans.” Yup, guilty as charged. I spend far too much time looking at possible futures, but I then spend a lot of time in the present setting things in motion to make the best possible future happen. This MFA program was set in motion to create a future where I am a better writer who has more publishing and teaching opportunities available to him. And now I’m almost done with what I set in motion. So what next?

“Are you about to graduate?” That is the perfectly innocent question every single person I’ve seen here has asked me. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer because I don’t know sufficiently what my future holds. At each previous residency, I had a six-month future: Select advisor. Work out semester writing and reading plan. Execute. Return in six months. Now other students are going to interview potential semester advisors and I’m in my room rehearsing my graduation reading. What happens now? I’ve already expressed concern that I won’t keep writing. But it’s more than that. There are too many possible futures in front of me right now. I want to set plans in motion to execute one of them, but they are like those little light squiggles you see when you squeeze your eyes tightly shut. When you try to focus on one it just flits away laughing.

I know many of my readers would love to have an MFA, or even to have a single residency experience. Please do not take this post to be a pity party. I am blessed to have had this experience. I have learned a great deal. I have forged connections with amazing people. I have more possible futures now than I did before. But I also have to learn to turn off my “Visionary” identity for the next week and try to savor the moment I am currently in, a graduation residency filled with mentors and friends.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

35 Responses to “MFA Nugget: Identifying A Nagging Sense of Anxiety”

  1. Thanks for your honesty, as always.

    The anxiety of diving into a transition is perfectly normal. There is safety in being a student. Even in a professional, graduate program, where you are making big choices, there are are structure in place to assure that you meet the institutions criteria for graduation. When you are done, you will, once again, be responsible for making your own criteria.

    Especially because you have a history that includes walking away from your own creativity, the fear associated with stepping into that responsibility makes sense. And with your day job and your teaching, it is easy to imagine that without deadlines for school, you will let things slip again.

    To manage that anxiety, it might be helpful to make sure you have a support system for the creative writing in place before you go – maybe an agreement with another graduating student that you will check in with each other once a month to report how you are continuing the work that you have been doing in the program.

    I know that the readers of your blog will be looking for evidence that you are continuing to write, but we may not be the specific form of support and accountability that works for you.

    The future may hold many things, and you may not know which path you will follow. But knowing there is someone walking it with you may moderate the anxiety.

    All the best,
    Kate

    • Kate, thank you for this post, and for being here with me so long through our blog connection. Your points are excellent. I’ve learned that VCFA has a program in which you are paired with a fellow alum and you can work out a “packet” schedule with each other. It’s designed as much to ensure continued work as it is to help you with your craft. So I’m going to look into that.

  2. Patrick, This is why I continue to read your blog, for your honest self-assessments in context of artistic process. Boy do I hear you. I quit my job for a year to work on my art and I’m scared to death. Will I manage my time? Will I stop thinking everything through and actually produce? My blog is my blessing and bane because it allows me to analyze everything, yet I could happily remain in that state, until that longing for creation hits me and I’ve realized I spent too much energy on thinking about my art and not making it. I just read about the book you mentioned yesterday in some Twitter feed and I am curious to read it. As you know Myers Briggs is of interest to me and I’m curious to see how they flesh everything out. Best wishes to you as you complete your program and know you have the rallying cry of many a bloggers and readers who are here to cheer you on! I can’t wait to read all about it🙂

    • Thank you, Carrie! I’ve been thinking about you and your art adventure this year. You have gone through so many life changes in such a short time, but you’ve handled the previous ones with aplomb, so I’m confident you’ll find your path on this one.

      Yes, we’ve talked Myers Briggs before. My recollection was we were similar in personality type.

  3. Good luck to you, Patrick. I certainly can relate to a lot of what you’re writing about and experiencing (I’m an ISTJ). I also know how hard you’ve worked, and how wonderful your writing is. My only advice is to not think about this as graduation, rather, commencement. You are beginning. This is a beginning.

    • Callie, this means a lot, just hearing from you but also your support. I hope your writing is going well and you’re still committed to your MFA program. And yes, a beginning rather than a commencing; I like it.

  4. Your are practicing mature creative leadership on your blog and in the field. Now that you’ve gotten what you’re anxious about on the table tell us what puts fire in your belly.

    • All, James is an accomplished poet and creativity guide and a VCFA alum. So readers will understand how much your vote of confidence means to me.

      What puts fire in my belly at this very moment is being able to, hopefully, share this memoir with the world. I’m reading twenty minutes of it in just a few hours, so at least a few people will get a slice of it.

  5. I can relate to all that you have said – in fact, while my wife was reading your post – she laughed and said “Patrick sounds exactly like you!” with my own book launching this week, I have a similar senses of anxiety and some apprehension of what comes next.

    Enjoy the moment and celebrate your accomplishment! You do have endless possibilities ahead and plenty of new doors will be opening – and although you may want to decide now what to do next, I would suggest to instead “decide” to take the summer off and your next big direction will come to you.

    • Well, I like being told to take the summer off! That isn’t happening, I don’t think, but I’m not surprised to hear of your wife’s reaction, given your MBTI. Thanks for the encouragement!

  6. I’m an “I” too, Patrick, but like you I can be an “E” when necessary. still, I feel your pain. Good luck, and I look forward to hearing all about it next week. You’re finally there!

  7. I appreciate your candor here, Patrick. And even though I am an ENFP, I relate to your feelings of anxiety about transitions and possible futures. May you sink into this experience with ease and enjoy the residency. I know the lecture and reading can be nerve wracking; I was excited about my lecture, but I freaked out about my reading. In the end, they both went swimmingly (I think!). My suggestion: Stack the audience with your fans and friends (which, of course, will happen on its own, since VCFA folks tend to be supportive like that). Best wishes and congratulations!

    • Thanks, Jenna! My reading was yesterday, and I was more nervous about that than I am my lecture. It was the last chance most of the people I care about here will ever get to hear me read, or at least that’s what I got in my head. And I was moved by how many people came, not just other graduating students, but other students and faculty. And it did turn out well, even though (or perhaps because) I completely scrapped what I was going to read the night before and went in a different direction!🙂

  8. Patrick, I highly recommend joining Writer2Writer, which Andrew Marshall should be inviting you to do shortly. It’s a group of VCFA grads, and we submit work to each other on a schedule that follows the VCFA semester. We’re grouped by genre, and each writer submits to another grad while reading for yet another grad (if that makes sense). This past semester, I read Liz Blood, who read John Proctor, who read me. Not all groups form a circle like this, but you’ll probably know both the person you’re reading for and the one who is reading your work. It worked very well to keep me on track, until I broke my wrist, and you know the rest of that story. I am not, have never been, comfortable with speaking in public, and the reading and lecture were no exception for me. But, I read and reread both until I practically had them memorized, and I think they went OK. You’ll be fine. Best of luck and congratulations! You’ve worked hard, and it’s a tremendous accomplishment!

    • Liz Blood and John Proctor, that’s a powerful circle! Wow. Yes, I was asking someone here about that. I’m very interested, but curious to see how they actually pair us up. Thanks for the encouragement from someone who aced it!

  9. Congratulations and “bon courage”.🙂

  10. I am a future student in the online class that is causing you a little anxiety, and if it helps any, it is causing me a little anxiety too. I think, “He’s going to expect me to know what I’m going to do, and I have way too many ideas going in different directions. I don’t even do this kind of writing. Of course, that is why I took the class, isn’t it?” So, enjoy yourself up there in cool (I suppose), green Vermont while I sit hovering by the air conditioner eating ice cream facing a week of triple digit heat in Sacramento.

    • Hi Virginia! If I expected my students to have the answers, I’d be a pretty lousy teacher! My anxiety on the teaching front, which I’ll be sharing with all of you, stems from my unfamiliarity with the technology, but I’ve been playing around with it, and The Loft staff is fantastic. It’s going to be a great class, and I’m glad to have you in it!

  11. Patrick, Andrew selects someone from each genre to help him pair up readers/writers. Last semester, Liz Blood helped him with the CNF writers (I can’t remember who helped with the other genres). I think it’s a good system.

  12. Oh, and thank you. I don’t know about “acing” anything, but I appreciate your saying so. Again, congratulations!

  13. It sounds like your reading was great and your anxiety helped you to make a good decision. My comment comes late, but I think your courageous act was in sharing the anxiety here with us. It makes me think about vulnerability, something I am not good at and your post inspires. I quietly relate to the anxiety of change and mull on the opportunities and imagination it affords.

    I hope you are enjoying your moment. Congratulations on this milestone. I am sure, very soon, you’ll have the next one in sight!

    • Michelle, it’s never too late to comment at The Artist’s Road, and I’m glad you’ve become one of the comment contributors. You know, it’s funny; it’s a lot easier to write posts like the others here so far, ones on lectures, etc. But the ones that really draw the comments and interaction are the ones in which I engage in “honest self-assessment,” as Carrie (Artist Think) notes above.

      Thanks for the congratulations!

  14. INTP here, hiding in my dorm room as the Montpelier fireworks erupt in the rain…

    You’re certainly not exhibiting any signs of anxiety as I see you around here, so there’s that.

    I really value your honesty about this stuff. I hope your anxiety has abated since you wrote that post. (And I’d like to hear about your off-campus experience privately, if you’re willing to share.)

    Pam

    • Well, Pam, thank you for your vote of confidence, but as someone who has worked in a world in which showing signs of weakness leads you to being eaten alive, I’m good at faking it. It has in fact abated; with graduation a day away, I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now.

  15. I am an INTP, which works for me when I have time to devote to a particular activity, especially a reflective one. But when I have to juggle multiple projects, I tend to let areas of my life slide, especially on the creative side. Then I get anxious about it. I’d love to be a theoretician, burrowed in a room somewhere, emerging for food and to publish whatever I come up with in the room.

    I think the best thing we can do with our anxiety is monitor it. Asking, “How am I feeling today?” and “How can I manage my thoughts to put me in the best possible mindset?” is essential when we demand so much of ourselves day-to-day. With day jobs and a creative imperative, we don’t have time to get bogged down in anxiety everyday, though it will happen sometimes. I believe emotional management is the area most important to master for a high-performance life.

    I feel the same anxiety you feel right now about a transition I’m facing, so thank you for sharing these thoughts; they helped me. I don’t believe you will lapse to an art-uncommitted life because you’ve already processed the pain of that life. You weren’t addicted to being a Capitol Hill story mill; you had a career. You saw that career as incompatible with an art-committed life, but now you see what you can accomplish even with a day job. That’s a remarkable shift in mindset that isn’t dependent on deadlines and the accountability of formal education. It’s a shift you made assisted, but it is still all your own.

    • “I think the best thing we can do with our anxiety is monitor it.” I think you encapsulated in one sentence one of those truths that we know without knowing it. Yes. And thank you for your kind words on my various career shifts.

      And I admire you for the adventure you’re launching, and would say it would probably be odd, if not dangerous, if you didn’t feel some anxiety as a result. Keep moving forward!

  16. Stopping by late. My two cents: Kate, above, put it quite well. Anxiety is a very normal aspect of transition. And, yes, you’ve shared that you once walked away from creative aspects of your life…. so the anxiety makes perfect sense. I’m so glad you blogged honestly and openly about it because some struggle/examination is part of the creative life, IMO. The wrestling is part of the process and, thus,relevant for your readers. Many factors will evolve over time. Your life, like all lives, will ebb and flow. Sometimes you’ll feel more inspired. Sometimes not at all. Sometimes life events will be so big and forceful that walking through them will require all of your creative energy (an art form unto itself) … and sometimes words will stream through you like water. I constantly have to remind myself (maybe the “J” in my ENFJ) that I am here now and that’s enough. Sounds like you’ve already got that figured out. I’ll read on. Thanks again for your honesty, Patrick.

    p.s. – I was told, years ago, that one’s Myers Briggs quotient doesn’t change. Mine has. I actually came up slightly on the “I” side a year or so ago, after years of “E.”

    • I’m always happy to have you here, Terri! Thank you for the encouragement and insight.

      A PS to your PS: Over the years I have stayed INTJ, but I’ve slid up and down on the intensity line of some of them. My most dramatic was going from extreme I to now being almost at E. Twenty-some years of having to fake “E” in professional settings made me more comfortable with some things, which then clearly changed my “preferences” on some of the questions. But I still at my core am an I.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What is Your Creativity Type? (From the Newly Published “Creative You”) | The Artist's Road - July 2, 2013

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  2. Anxiety | Lynley Stace - August 6, 2013

    […] Identifying A Nagging Sense Of Anxiety from Artist’s Road […]

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