Let’s talk about spoilers (and anxiety)

I have a confession, Internet. Okay, I have a lot of confessions, but one in particular stands out today.

Getting spoiled isn’t a big deal for me.

There. I said it.

I understand why other people get upset at hearing major spoilers. Maybe knowing the plot twist ending ruins things for them, and that’s valid. People can take in their media however they want. But if they’re reading an online article that’s clearly about a given book or movie or whatever and then complain about getting spoiled, well, that’s on them. It’s like complaining about mixed nuts containing nuts.

In fact, even if someone does reveal a twist, that doesn’t spoil everything. It doesn’t explain how the characters got there, or how the story developed, or even why the twist is such a big thing in the first place. A good story will surprise me with the circumstances that lead to the ending. This discovery is part of the experience for me, and this doesn’t change with knowing end details of a story.

For me, spoilers are a source of anxiety. Not the idea of spoilers themselves, but the idea of accidentally ruining something for some stranger. Has this person watched or read whatever I’m talking about? Heck, sometimes I haven’t seen or read whatever I’m discussing, but I know about it through Internet osmosis. I once posted a tweet showing off my newly-acquired TARDIS notebook. Someone replied with “Spoilers.” I hadn’t watched the show at all at the time and genuinely thought I was spoiling something. It took awhile to realize this was an element of the show (and specifically, one of the characters) and not a genuine spoiler.

But what is the statute of limitations on a spoiler? I once accidentally revealed the big death in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to someone who hadn’t read that far… two weeks before the seventh book came out. Considering those past two years were filled with discussion on this death and its impact on the seventh book, I’m impressed that he managed to avoid finding out for so long. I know people who get upset over spoilers from ten years ago, not to mention ten days.

And what’s the proper etiquette about publicly discussing spoilers in public forums, anyway? On sites like Twitter, you can use a hashtag. That way, people who don’t want to be spoiled can use a client like Tweetdeck to mute that hashtag. But this assumes people have enough characters remaining in a tweet to include the hashtag, as well as remember to use it in the first place. It also assumes everyone has a way to mute that hashtag or keyword, which isn’t necessarily true.

So is the solution to avoid talking about the thing publicly? Of course not. Word of mouth is one of the most effective forms of getting the word out, and for good reason: people want to talk about things they enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy). While private messaging–whether through Twitter’s DMs, email, or instant messaging) is an option, it leaves out the fun in discovering who else likes the thing you’re talking about. When someone jumps in on a Twitter conversation and I discover they like the book or movie or whatever, this creates another bond between that person and me, along with another person I can make joking references to about that book or movie or album.

And even bigger: What IS a spoiler, anyway? I keep thinking back to that tweet about someone not knowing Hamilton gets shot in the end. (To be fair, this is kind of understandable for someone not familiar with American history.) Are trailers spoilers? What about the circumstances of the story? Heck, even competition shows and sporting events can have spoilers–who got eliminated, who won, what someone sang or cooked or danced to. Math can have spoilers, for Baty’s sake. Yes, there are more infinities and more geometries, and the complex numbers aren’t the end.

There is so much media out there that if I tried to avoid spoilers, I would be avoiding almost everything with the remotest chance of revealing spoilers. I haven’t read the Lord of the Rings books or a bunch of those so-called classics associated with high school and college literature classes. I haven’t read or watched all of Game of Thrones. I haven’t read everything by Shakespeare (nor do I particularly want to, to be honest). If I’m never going to consume that media, then why stress about spoilers? There are bigger (and smaller, let’s be real) things to worry about.

This isn’t your invitation to spoil me on everything ever. Yes, I know Rosebud is the sled and Han shot first. But I can’t live in fear of avoiding spoilers, nor in fear of spoiling someone else.

Nanowrimo and social anxiety

As I’ve discussed in many past posts, I’m a pretty anxious person about things that don’t really matter at all, but oddly chill about big issues that affect not only me but society at large. This anxiety leaks into my social life in ways both big and small.

While a lot of my social life revolves around NaNoWriMo, it wasn’t always that way. I grew up as a socially awkward kid who was known at school for being smart but never popular, and didn’t have see too many friends outside of the confines of the school day. Outside of informal get-togethers with the friends I had roped into doing NaNo, I didn’t go to a single NaNoWriMo event until going to college in a large city–to be specific, a large city that I had chosen specifically because of its active NaNo region and the existence of a creative writing major that I would never end up pursuing. (Priorities, you know.)

I started attending write-ins and events in college, often at the coffee shop down the street from my alma mater. That was over ten years ago, and the only other students at those write-ins were other people I dragged along. Even though most of the attendees were adults, we still got along well, and many of us are still in touch to this day.

After finishing college, I stayed in the area, with one year moving back in with my parents. Unemployment and graduating in the worst of that great recession are the pits, yo. Eventually I moved back to this NaNo region, and it’s the same region I’m part of now (and even MLed for a year). That’s where my social life and NaNoWriMo started becoming more and more synonymous. More and more of us started hanging out in the then-new regional chat room, and a few of us stayed in the chat room after NaNo ended. This led to get-togethers outside of November, many of them having more to do with food and games than writing. Over time, the people attending many of these events (a lot of them at my house) grew closer, which became evident during events.

Just as with the NaNo forums, I was fortunate to be there when the group was young and not yet as established as it is now. This put me in a position to contribute to the underlying culture of this community and help build the group into a community I wanted myself and others to be welcome in. Did I succeed? I’m still not sure.

***

One of my major sources of anxiety is trying to fit into an established social group. The group can be for anything–board games, events, writers, even approaching a person(s) at an event and saying hi. If everyone else already knows each other and I’m the one new person, I find myself worrying about fitting in and saying something dumb and not sitting there sounding dumb when everyone else is talking and trying to befriend some of the people in the existing group and making myself appear as positive and wonderful as I see myself on my best days.

Surely I’m not the only person who feels this way at events that often include established social groups. Things like NaNo, for instance. Reaching out is hard, whether you’re the new person or an established member who has trouble reaching out to others. Even more fun, it’s not immediately obvious which people are feeling awkward or anxious when they’re the new person in a group, or who needs that extra nudge to feel welcome.

As one of those people who is bad at reaching out to new folks while also struggling with approaching the existing people, making new people feel welcome at events is hard. There’s a certain comfort zone associated with staying close to existing known people, yet events like NaNo attract lots of new people every year. Which is great! But it’s also easy to stay with those known people at the expense of introducing yourself to new people. Or if you’re the new person, it’s easy to stay off to the side by yourself and think everyone hates you when really, many of us are a bunch of awkward nerds who did the same thing in the past. And once you feel unwelcome at an event, it’s easy to think this is how everyone acts all the time and therefore never return. I’ve seen several people at NaNo events only once, and despite my trying to reach out to them (an effort in itself), they’ve never come back–at least to events I attend.

These exact circumstances that make large events like kickoff and TGIO super-awkward for awkward people are the same circumstances that make write-ins an ideal social situation, at least in my experience. At write-ins, it’s perfectly okay and even encouraged to ignore everyone while tapping away on your project. You can even go off to a corner by yourself and write if everyone else around you is talking. In fact, if you do so, you’ll probably be viewed as one of the more productive people there. All this social anxiety is one of the reasons I’m no longer an ML. Having to be socially “on” all the time during a write-in was too exhausting when all I wanted to do was ignore everyone and write. Hosting write-ins as a regular participant and not an ML means that I can still look around for people who look lost, but there’s no pressure to be the one in charge, making it perfectly fine to lose myself in the words.

So here’s a question: how do we make NaNoWriMo communities even more welcoming to those who aren’t super willing to jump into an established social group when some of us have the same quirks? From local in-person events to the forums (including the private ML forums), jumping in can be intimidating while existing members suck at reaching out. What can we do to make sure everyone who wants to play a part in the thriving NaNo community can do so?

This is something I’ve been struggling with for years. I don’t have any good answers to this question in part because I’m a tragic noob when it comes to social situations. What about you?

Adult Coloring Books and Me

Over the past few years, coloring books with abstract and intricate designs have popped up in more and more places. These coloring books aren’t necessarily for kids–they’re designed for adults who find coloring in these things to be meditative, a way to relax and destress.

A few people I know enjoy coloring in them with gel pens or colored pencils or whatever they can get their hands on. They fill those designs with patterns that are worthy of displaying on the wall while I watch in amazement. That’s great–if coloring books can reduce someone’s stress, go for it. I am all for stress reduction and relaxation.

The problem is these same coloring books that are designed to reduce stress and anxiety actually have the opposite effect on me. Instead of helping me to destress and relax, adult coloring books cause me to panic and freak out even more. This trouble isn’t limited to adult coloring books, and it’s not limited to my attempts to color in adulthood. Even as a child coloring in books based around some big media empire, coloring books left my brain racing with questions.

What colors should I use to color this thing? How can I make this design the prettiest thing I can possibly make it? Which color scheme should I use? What if I color outside the lines and mess up what I’m coloring, something that’s even more likely with intricate designs?

And finally, couldn’t I be doing something more productive with my life than coloring something I’m probably never going to do anything with? This doesn’t contribute to any of my long-term goals or interests, so why am I doing it in the first place?

All these questions leave me paralyzed with possibility, afraid to pick up that crayon or colored pencil or gel pen and just start.

In a way, these attitudes extend to creativity in general. Starting a creative project is often the hardest part of the process, simply because deciding some of the first things, like the first sentence or first few lines, can set the tone for the rest of the project. But for projects that go through iterations, like novels, the first version is often not the last. Many novels go through multiple rounds of revision before seeing the light of day. I can fix whatever gets screwed up. With coloring, I can’t, which is a problem since it’s even easier to make mistakes.

So you can keep coloring in your adult coloring books. I’ll stick to writing to destress.

Why do I write like I’m running out of time?

The most common question I get regarding my NaNoWriMo word count is “How on earth do you write so fast?” The answer to this question isn’t very interesting: a childhood of typing games to make my fingers catch up with my brain, butt in chair, hands on keyboard, a willingness to embrace whatever happens next in the story even if I have no idea what’s going on. Years of practice is not what the asker wants to hear.

Question number two is usually “Why on earth do you write so fast?” While these two questions do have some overlap in their answer, the answer to this question is much more interesting.

Readers who have been around for awhile may remember that I’m a pretty anxious person. This anxiety fuels my writing, not just in worrying what other people think about my words (although that nagging in my head is persistently there), but in getting the words down in the first place.

My writing process is best described as a two-player game of Tag. The inner critic is It, and it’s chasing me around the field, trying to tag me. Except when the inner critic tags me, the game’s over. The only way for me to win is to keep running, keep writing. I may be a slow runner, but my fingers will give most people a challenge if they want to keep up.

When I’m writing at a breakneck pace, I sometimes reach a pace where my fingers can’t keep up. This results in typos everywhere that I don’t bother to correct after multiple attempts. That’s fine and good, but more importantly, writing as fast as I can means the inner critic can’t keep up. There’s no time to correct a turn of phrase when the next sentence is already formed in my mind, and writing it down is the best way to ensure it doesn’t leave my mind.

The process breaks down when I write more slowly. That’s when the inner critic chases me down. I freeze at the screen, trying to think of the next few words or sentences. Then I type something down, think for a minute, and backspace all of it. Sometimes I retype the same thing I wrote the first time; other times, I write something totally different or a scrap of an idea. After that I might check IRC or Twitter or the NaNo forums or something related to what I’m writing, proceeding to waste far too much time on these things. And then I turn back to the writing document and wonder if this is ever going to be worthy.

This is why I haven’t managed to get the hang of editing yet. The editing process is full of slowing down and making sure everything works. It’s also full of slowing down to a stop and questioning whether what I’ve written is any good at all. Unfortunately for my writing process, there is no speed editing process.

So why do I write like it’s going out of style? Because if I don’t write fast, I won’t write at all.

Adventures in Anxiety, Part Three: What If?

Missed the other posts in this series? Check out Part One and Part Two.

Most people (possibly including you) would never guess that somewhere underneath the cool exterior lies a bundle of worries. I can leave the house without having a panic attack, I can make small talk with strangers, and I’ve made speeches in front of large audiences with just a few jitters.

While some of my anxieties are expected, others manifest themselves in ways few people would expect. Continue reading

Adventures in Anxiety, Part Two: Getting Help

Did you miss Part One? Read Part One here.

My first round of therapy happened during my last year of college. As a kid, I would try to befriend the new kid before all the other established social groups could. While many social groups were established things, I would wander from friend group to friend group, eating with them at lunch and talking to them in class but rarely getting invited to birthday parties or even to hang out after my many extracurriculars. In high school most of the friends I did hang out with on a regular basis were older than me, and by junior year most of them had graduated, leaving me in the socially awkward dust.

This behavior continued through college, and by fall of senior year my emotions had caught up. I talked about this with a couple of good friends and finally decided to take advantage of the mental health services on campus. I sat down, we talked for a few minutes, and when we started talking about friend groups and being social, I burst into tears while trying to make sense of what was going on my brain.

That was the real problem: I had no idea what I wanted to get out of these sessions, but whatever it was, I didn’t want to go through these tearful appointments and struggling to figure everything out while sitting on a couch. Sure, I usually felt better after these sessions, but some of the emotions weighed on me for a few hours afterward. Writing would be better, not that I had much time for my paper journal. A few weeks later, I stopped going altogether after forgetting to reschedule a session.

I was much more prepared for the second round of therapy. It was early 2013, and the guy I had been seeing for the past couple of months had called it off. He was the first guy I had dated since graduating from college several years before (coincidentally, around the same time as Therapy, Round One). He pointed out that I was really bad at deciding things, like where to eat or what to do for the evening. I explained how I was really bad at making decisions and initiating things. He said I needed therapy.

He wasn’t wrong. A few weeks later I did research and walked into my first therapy session.

My therapist got straight to business, even giving me homework after each session. My early assignments included observing my interactions with others and taking note of what my body does. This is stupid, I kept telling myself. Why should I be paying attention to things like my breathing and heart rate and headache? I already worry enough about aches and pains. Is adding more stuff to pay attention to even necessary?

As a result, I wouldn’t put much effort into these assignments, thus disappointing my therapist. Months passed, as did many tearful sessions. Something happened as the time went by, though. The tearful sessions decreased in number and frequency. I started noticing things: the perma-headache that liked to hang around longer than necessary, the feeling of wanting to cry all the time that often accompanied the headache, the way I took deep breaths to counter the tightness in my chest.

Every week my therapist asked me to fill out a questionnaire rating how I did on certain things. The specific items on the questionnaire were topics I expressed interest in improving: making decisions, making plans, initiating things with others. Rating myself on the questionnaire was the hardest thing I did some weeks. What was a four? What about a five? What if I was somewhere in between–what rating would that get? And what kind of scale was this, anyway–linear? Logarithmic? I tried to maintain a consistent scale in my head, but some weeks I failed at this miserably.

A couple of things happened as time went by. One, my self-rated assessments did improve to the point where sometime the following summer, I ran out of things to talk about without going over the same stuff over and over. And two, I finally saw the meaning of all those exercises my therapist gave me in the beginning and therefore was ready to cope with them on my own.

I was ready to take on my worries with these newly developed skills. And if I ever needed to, I could always come back.

P.S. Part Three is up. Read it here.

Adventures in Anxiety, Part One: Beginnings

A few weeks ago I took an online version of the GAD-7, a test that can help measure anxiety. I scored 13. This classifies as moderate anxiety, one that could be diagnosed. Interestingly, taking the test made me anxious. Did I really experience these symptoms every day? What about over half those days? Exactly how many days did I experience a symptom like a headache? I might have. At least, I might have experienced those symptoms a lot over the past week, but that didn’t mean I experienced those symptoms a lot over the past two weeks.

These questions should have been easy to answer, and yet they weren’t. That should have been the first sign. Continue reading