Allison Gage is a sophomore at Salem State University and recipient of the 2018 First-Year Writing Award. Allison wrote "The Stone Backpack of Anxiety" in a first-year writing course she took with me in the fall semester of 2017. In this essay, Allison explores the impact of audience in the head and affective responses to needing to write.
The Stone Backpack of Anxiety
Sitting down to start a piece of writing is a time I dread the most in life. Trying to figure out how to start is as if I’m wearing a backpack, and someone is standing behind me, holding it. I try to turn around to see who is holding me back, but I can’t see anyone behind me. Yet every time I try to walk or run away that person just pulls me right back with what seems like the force of one hundred men: this gives me the sense that I have nowhere to go.
I become so nervous, believing I will never be able to move on because this person will never let go. What will I do? My next class starts in thirty minutes, and if he doesn’t release me, I’ll miss my class. My palms start to sweat, my body starts to quiver, and I’m becoming anxious. I don’t know what to do. Finally, he releases me after I try to break from his grip for what feels like years.
Realizing I still have time to get to my class, I run as fast as I can to Meier Hall to try to make it on time. Once I arrive the door is still open, but no one is there. Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen anyone anywhere. No one is in the halls, or in the surrounding rooms. The whole building seems like a ghost town, symbolizing how lost I feel when I try to start a piece of writing. I slowly start to walk down the hall, but as I do I notice the hallway in front of me is shrinking incrementally in size.
As I walk further, I feel myself start to shrink smaller and smaller to fit through this hallway, yet the backpack on my body stays the same size. This size difference secretly represents the heaviness I feel when I start a piece and how it feels like it could crush me. The backpack begins to increase in size so much that it weighs me down, causing me to no longer be able to carry it. The walls are quickly closing in, and darkness is taking over my mind.
Suddenly, I hear a very faint voice in the background, but I can’t really make out what it’s saying until I finally hear it say, Turn back and take a right. I twirl around fast as lighting with my backpack barely staying on my back and start to walk away. I feel myself start to grow back to normal size and my backpack fits comfortably on my body once again. When I take the right, I come to a staircase that seems to extend on forever. I start my journey down the staircase, but I notice that every step I take my back pack gets heavier and heavier, as if someone is adding a stone every time I descend a stair. These stones are smooth round pieces of quartz, which feel so heavy on my back, but the voice in the background tells me to keep descending the stairs.
I quickly recognize this voice as the reader inside my head who is always present when I am writing. I thought at first that he was here to help me, but as I make my way down the stairs, I realize he wants nothing but to hurt me. Every step I take, his is one of those stones in my bag, adding weight, and the stones represent every instance I procrastinate with my writing. He does everything in his power to slow me down and make it almost impossible for me to move or do anything.
I start to see the bottom of the staircase and the exit sign illuminated above the doorway, but the weight of this backpack feels like I’m carrying seventeen cinderblocks. It gets to the point where I can no longer continue with this bag on my back, but the bag will not come off. This instance represents a time in my writing where no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t understand the prompt. I stand where I am for a minute and just breath.
I tell myself, “This is all in my head” and “There is no real reader here, Allie, it’s only you.” Instantly, my backpack feels as if I had only feathers in it, like it was almost floating in the air, and I couldn’t feel it at all. Without hesitation, I sprint down the remaining stairs and busted through the door. The sensation of finally standing outside again and feeling the breeze on my skin was indescribable. I could breath again. Although no one was visible for miles, I choose not to focus on that solitude due to the overwhelming amount of work I still need to finish.
I start to walk back to the dorm thinking I can finally start all my work. As I step closer to the building, I see this large group of people crowded together.
As I get closer, I notice that these are people I know, but they are all random people. I see my fifth-grade teacher who was one of the first people to make me hate writing. I tense up a bit until I see an old face that I have never seen before but is so familiar to me. I quickly realize that it is my sixth-grade pen pal from London, with whom I used to send letters back and forth with for almost a year. Spotting her face in the crowd made everything okay because our conversations were fun and interesting; she never criticized my writing or writing styles. She represents the good audience in my head and gives me confidence to write.
I see many other writing teachers I’ve had over the past years; I see many family members and friends; I see the scorers of my MCAS essays and my SAT responses. These people specifically represent my bad audience, my stress and anxiety: they are some of the people I never wanted to see again in my life.
Seemingly every person who has ever viewed my writing is standing in this large crowd in front of me. Once I finally approach the group, all the murmuring voices stop, and they collectively turn and look right at me.
Before I have anytime to say anything, they start to talk to me, each person mentioning a different memory they have of my writing. You can hear my fifth grade teacher say, “You’re never going to learn how to truly spell or write. You couldn’t even do it in fifth grade.” I hear my pen pal say, “I always loved your letters because you always had so much to say.” You can hear my writing teacher from eighth grade admonish, “I always saw so much potential in you, but you’ll never grow to fulfill that full potential.” And so many other whispers and screams both positive and negative from teachers, family, friends.
I can feel myself start to sweat, my pace of breathing increases to the point where I can’t even breathe at all. These different voices coming into my head at one time is way too much for me to handle in this moment. The situation represents all the ideas I have in my head when I start a piece of writing and how all the ideas I have cause me to feel overwhelmed because I never know which idea is best. I start to run for the door of my building, but as I take my first step someone grabs ahold of my backpack, yet again restricting me.
If I knew this was how my day would proceed, I would have never left my bed. I want nothing more than to just be back in bed. I’m trying my hardest to get out of this trap, but my feet are cemented to the ground. At this point I am praying to God that I can exit the situation because I feel like I am suffocating. As if God himself came down to Earth and told these people to leave me alone, my back pack returned to normal position, and my feet were free and able to move again. I have finally found my topic for my assignment: now it’s time to start working on this assignment.
Without looking back, I dash off for my room, stepping onto the elevator and taking the largest breath ever; it feels so good to be able to breathe. I arrive at my dorm room; I open the door, and I see myself lying in bed sleeping, my leg half way off the bed and drool covering my pillow. I am honestly taken aback by this sight. I run over to myself and try to wake me up.
I’m shaking myself and screaming as loud as I can, but nothing I do will wake me up. I am so confused as to why I am in my bed still. I decide to forget about the other me and try to start all my work I must do. I go to take my backpack off my back to become more comfortable and start my work, but my bag is stuck to my back. I try so hard to pull it off, but it’s as if it’s permanently glued to my body.
Nothing I do will remove this bag from my back. I am so frustrated that I take the scissors out of my desk and try to cut the bag off my body. As soon as I make the first cut to the bag, I feel excruciating pain and see blood start to drip from my side, signifying the pain I feel when I start to write. I’m not confident in my writing so I never think my work is truly good, so it causes a lot of self-doubt in my writing. My backpack has formed to my body and become part of me. How could this even happen?
I can feel myself starting to panic. Tears rush into my eyes to the point where I can’t see anything, and the whole room goes black. I open my eyes and realize I’m in my bed with my books and papers scattered all over the place. No other version of myself with me in the room. My bed is drenched, and I have no idea why. I look at my phone and the time says 3:04 am. I had fallen asleep when I tried to write my English paper that’s due in five hours and dreamed the most anxious experience in my life.
It scares me at how real this dream felt, but then it dawns on me that this is how I truly felt every time I have to start a new piece of writing. I slip out of bed and collect all my papers and books and set myself up at my desk. I take my laptop out and try to yet again start my essay, but this time I don’t feel so anxious. So many ideas start to pore onto the page and I am writing better than ever. It’s almost like that dream released all the anxiety I’ve ever felt towards writing because writing comes so naturally. That dream helped me overcome the writing block I usually encounter while starting a piece of writing. If only I could have had this dream earlier in life, writing could have been so much more relaxing.