On Becoming a Tooth Grinder


Short of recording myself sleeping I’m not sure how to verify this, but I’m pretty sure, I’ve started grinding my teeth. I wake most mornings with a dull, throbbing pain in my upper left jaw. I have headaches which last until just before lunchtime and when I press my tongue against my molars on the left side, it feels as if they’re more worn down than their colleagues on the right. I have never, as far as I know, been a tooth grinder before, and so this realisation comes as a bit of a surprise. I’ve always assumed that people who grind their teeth are stressed out individuals. However, putting aside those universal fears around the collapse of the nation and the world as a whole, I don’t feel more than normally anxious about anything right now. I’m not under any more pressure than I usually am. In fact, when the tooth grinding began, I was about to go gallivanting round North America on a two week holiday. I walk. I eat vegetables. I get almost eight hours of sleep per night. I go to the gym and run in a strange lopsided fashion whilst watching daytime television with the subtitles on. I do not feel like a stressed out individual. Still I can’t avoid the fact that I have become the sort of person who grinds their teeth while sleeping.

For a long, tender-jawed, week I considered the fact that because I am now a tooth grinder I am most likely also stressed. Stressed out people are meant to be constantly worrying about things. I wouldn’t say I’m a worrier. If you asked me am I happy? Do I have a good life? Am I particularly fearful? I’d say yes and yes and not really. And I’d probably add that at least once a week I find myself filling up, in a good way, thinking about just how fortunate I am, (mostly when I’m working with my older people). I’d be telling the truth when I said all of this. I don’t consider myself an anxious person. But lately I’ve found myself stuck in these little loops of thoughts which can only be classified as anxieties. When I’m on my own for long periods of time, (and how else am I meant to write books), these thought loops seem to become more constrictive, insistent and difficult to shake off. There is a way of tying a person up with a certain kind of knot which gets tighter the more the tied up person tries to struggle against it. It’s not the kind of knot they teach you in Scouts, but it’s a good image for how I feel when the mean thoughts start chipping away at me.

I’m guessing I’m not the only writer who gets herself into these loops of anxious thinking. But just in case I am, here’s how they usually manifest themselves for me. I’ll be tired. I’m never at my strongest or more sensible when I’m physically worn out. I’ll go on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. I’ll pick up a literary journal. I’ll happen to glance at the best sellers’ chart, or the staff picks in Waterstones. I’ll overhear two other writers,  talking at a book launch. Hell, I can get anxious, just going to a book launch. I’ll hear that some other writer’s won a prize, or been shortlisted for a prize, or is talking, in glowing terms, about somebody else who’s won a prize. I’ll read someone’s story online, or in a print journal. I’ll go as far as buying their book in hardback. Even though I can’t afford to buy it in hardback I will, because I’ll feel compelled to read this book straight away, long before the paperback version’s available. Inevitably it will be the sort of book everyone else is touting as the best book of the year/decade/century. I will not like it or I will like it too much. Both responses can be equally devastating when I’m anxious. I will go to bed and wake up in the middle of the night, (probably grinding my teeth), and thinking about other writers. This is where my problems always begin.

My anxieties aren’t particularly rational. If another writer writes a book I think is amazing, I will kick myself because I am not as accomplished a writer as they are. (Nb this feeling is always magnified when the writer is significantly younger than me). I’d like to say this feeling is straight up jealousy, but I’m far too self-absorbed for jealousy. I simply feel myself shrinking in the presence of what I’ve come to think of as “serious writers.” If another writer writes a book which everyone loves except me, I will kick myself because I cannot write the kind of books people want to read and award prizes to. No matter how hard I try to write about other, more pressing matters, all my stories seem to emerge as stories about flying children and old people coming back from the dead. I don’t even like reading the right sort of books. I make myself read them but I’m usually wishing I was reading Agatha Christie instead. Mostly, I feel as if I’m missing out on what everyone else sees in these books.

Then, I will wonder what is wrong with me. Let me tell you, it is a bad idea to start asking yourself what is wrong with you, in the middle of the night, when you have anxiety-induced insomnia. Some of the things you come up with will not even be genuine character faults, (for example, trying to avoid talking on the telephone and not liking markets). Inevitably I will end up running through the enormous list of issues I am aware of, and trying to fix, in my own writing: overuse of semicolons, failure to write satisfactory endings, inability to create convincing female characters, (special thanks to that one man, who told me, I was a poor excuse for a feminist because I always wrote male characters), overuse of the words “thing” and “loud,” and the fact that I am still not entirely sure what an adjective is. I will be wide awake by this stage and considering two options for what I should do next. I will either give up writing altogether and become a historian or, first thing in the morning, I will enrol myself in some sort of creative writing programme for beginners. Recently, I have also felt the desire to email my publisher at various godawful hours of the night to ask if they would mind not publishing my novel after all because I don’t want anyone else to read it. I don’t want people laughing at me.

I’m being facetious. But, if I’m honest, some version of all these thoughts have passed through my head in the last month or so. I fluctuate daily between an unshakeable belief in my own genius. “Just wait ’til they read what I’ve written, then they’ll give me all the prizes,” I’ll think, and five minutes later, honestly believe I can’t string a sentence together. Over the years various people have told me that I can’t write for biscuits whilst others have told me, (and I employ a direct quote here), that I am, “quite frankly the most important thing to happen to Irish literature in the last century.” (Nb. the speaker did not clarify whether they meant the last century i.e. post millennial, or the last hundred years, which would take in Joyce, Beckett and about two thousand Irish writers more significant than me). Just last week a man came the whole way across the room after an event for the sole purpose of telling me, he’d bought my book and didn’t enjoy it at all. I quote these examples to highlight the fact that most of us are constantly being told we’re wonderful or completely untalented. There’s rarely a happy medium. It’s hard to have a sense of how good your work actually is when no two readers respond in the same way. It’s no wonder I’m grinding my teeth. I feel like I’m waiting to run the same gauntlet of responses when the new book comes out. It’s a little like bracing yourself to have your hand slammed in a car door. I remember this sort of thing happened before. Between book number one and book number two I went -what I later came to call- a bit wobbly. Then it happened again, just before book number three. I’m no psychiatrist but I’m guessing there’s a pattern emerging.

For writers, the space between books is a particularly vulnerable one. What do you do when you don’t have a book out? You wait on a bed of self-imposed nails for the critics to get the hold of it. You try to grow a thick winter skin in preparation. You go to festivals and read from old work. It doesn’t even feel like it belongs to you anymore. Someone else wrote it. A better, more confident writer. You talk about writing. You lead workshops trying to teach other people how to write. You wonder why they’ve paid good money to listen to you. Half the time you feel like a great big fraudster. If only these people who are drinking in everything you say could see how insecure you are about your next book, or know that you haven’t written a bloody word since the last book came out. They’d not be chortling along with your anecdotes and tolerating your long-winded explanations of where you get your ideas fro, if they knew you’re absolutely terrified your next book won’t be as good, or well-received as the last one, or the one before, which, let’s be honest, is the one everybody really loves.

Above is a photo of a sculpture of Jesus being crucified which I saw at Milwaukee’s Art Museum last Thursday. This is how I feel every time I do an author event at the minute. One of my faces is looking at the audience. This face is all smiley and professional. It is holding its shit together. The other face is looking over my shoulder, freaking out a bit, desperately trying to see where the next book’s coming from, wondering what people are going to say once they’ve read it. I’ll say it again. It bears repeating. I know publishing a book’s not like going off to war or being crucified, but it’s stressful enough. I’m not that surprised I’ve started grinding my teeth. I’ll bet half the writers I know are secret tooth grinders. Perhaps, there’s a market to be had in literary themed mouth guards with little quotes from Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway tattooed into the rubber.

I’ve quit grinding my teeth while I’m on holidays. I’m going to put it down to resting properly and turning my out of office on, putting a little distance between myself and social media. This isn’t a self help blog. I don’t have any good suggestions for how to pull myself out of these loops when they start. I know rest, exercise and a good writing regime definitely helps. I also know comparing myself to other writers is a really dangerous path to go down. Nobody writes like anybody else, (except maybe, that woman who does the Poirot spin-offs. She’s made her name writing like AC). Trying to work out why one person got a prize, or an agent, or a publishing deal, and you didn’t, is like trying to work out why some people like orange fruit pastilles better than the red ones, (probably something to do with faulty taste buds).

I know it also helps me get over myself when I make a concerted effort to enjoy other people’s work. It’s strange how telling someone else -even a Twitter-only friend- that you really appreciated their book or story, seems to make you feel a lot healthier about your own work. I firmly believe in the concept or artistic community. I want to be someone who is genuinely pleased for other friends’ successes even when I’m having a bit of a desert period. I know, in my head, that success isn’t a limited commodity. There’s plenty of it for all of us and actually supporting each other’s work seems to increase our capacity for success. But sometimes, it just seems easier to sit at home feeling rubbish about yourself and eating Doritos.

Maybe, let’s not do that anymore. For me, anyway, it just spirals into a big loop of tooth grinding anxiety. I’m going to try and be more honest when I’m having an insecure moment. Quite frankly I don’t have the capacity to make it through another round of book promoting with both of my faces pulling in different directions. I can’t get up on stage and pretend to be the most significant thing that’s happened to Irish literature in the last century. Because I’m not. No one writer is. I bet they all had insecure, ugly moments and terrible first drafts and shite reviews in The Guardian. It’s a mess trying to juggle success and disappointment, creativity and exhaustion, ego and that little voice which is always -even when you have the big prizes ranged across your mantelpiece- going to tell you, you’re nothing but a terrible fake. I think the best we can aim for is honesty. I’m happy to be honest about my anxiety, if it means I don’t start grinding my teeth again the minute I hit Irish shores.

I saw an amazing exhibition at the Toronto Museum of Contemporary Art this afternoon.  The artist had used a series of video installations to explore the political and social implications of classic cartoons. Bugs Bunny. Road Runner. Mickey Mouse and the like. Apparently the first law of cartoon physics states that “any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of their situation.” You know what he’s talking about. It’s Wiley Coyote treading thin air over a ten thousand foot drop, capable of motoring on until he looks down and realises there’s nothing beneath him. It’s amazing how far you can go if you don’t let self-consciousness come into play, if you refuse to notice just how high up you’ve managed to get. It’s not blinkered thinking. It’s brave and focused and very much determined to keep on keeping on. It’s not as if you have any other options when the only way is down. I think I’m going to be employing the first rule of cartoon physics quite a bit in the next few months.

3 thoughts on “On Becoming a Tooth Grinder

  1. Thank you Jan for such an incredible piece. I could identify with so much, except with your writing success. I’m a tooth clencher which is probably a lazy grinder. Thanks so much. I did a IWC course you ran in Enniskillen a few years ago. It was great. Sandra


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