On Mosquitos and Creative Work
As soon as I got pregnant, previously benign things turned dangerous. The invisible mercury lurking in canned tuna. Toxoplasma hiding in a rare steak or the poop in my cat’s litterbox, and which the CDC’s website informed me, could make my baby go blind if I was infected with it during my pregnancy. Nothing, however, scared me more than the mosquitoes.
The year before, I’d moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, and I was still adjusting to the sub-tropical climate, which meant year-round, illness-bearing mosquitoes. In the winter of 2016, I was only a few weeks pregnant. My husband and I lived in an apartment that had a postage-stamp sized yard enclosed by a wooden privacy fence. A Chinaberry tree shaded one end, and a slab of concrete situated on the other end made a patio just large enough for a tiny red bistro table and chairs. I was amazed that it was mild enough all through December to be outside, without a coat, and I intended to take full advantage of it I’d planted red geraniums along the sunny patio edge, spent hours sitting, drinking my coffee (now pregnancy-prudent decaf), writing in my journal, and scrolling through my news feed. I’d been following the Zika endemic since that fall, when the CDC issued a travel advisory urging pregnant women not to travel to areas where the Zika virus—a mosquito borne illness—was endemic. Brazil was the epicenter, but Colombia, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica were on the list too. I had no intention going anywhere near those places, but the thought of a Zika-infected mosquito biting me was terrifying. Scientists weren’t sure why, but the babies of Zika-infected women were born with microcephaly. The virus caused babies’ brains to stop growing so they were born with abnormally small heads that looked like they’d been squashed.
Some quick Googling confirmed that there had been at least one case of Zika in Texas, and that the fat, mosquitoes with the odd black-and-white stripe pattern on their legs that I frequently slapped at when sitting on the patio were Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, aka yellow fever mosquitoes, the very type that also spread Zika. One landed on my forearm, and I slapped it before it had a chance to draw blood. My heart raced with the thought of how easily I could get sick from a mosquito bite. The can of DEET my husband kept just inside the patio door was no comfort because I was afraid the chemicals in it would also harm the baby growing in my body.
I gathered my things from the bistro table—and though I didn’t tell anyone at the time—I diligently avoided the patio and any other outdoor space where mosquitoes might be present the rest of my pregnancy. (As many of you know, my son was born perfectly healthy, but you may not know that the World Health Organization deemed the Zika endemic over before my son was born the summer of 2017.)
It turns out that people are really, really terrible at accurately accessing risk. I was scared of mosquitoes that didn’t pose any real risk to me. There were only 7 locally-transmitted Zika cases in Texas in 2017. The CDC reports, “Since 2019, there have been no confirmed Zika virus disease cases reported from United States territories.”
In “The Laws of Fear,” Cass R. Sunstein asks, “Do people know which risks led to many deaths, and which risks led to few? They do not. In fact, they make huge blunders.” Just like I did. His study showed that when people overestimated risk it was because “items were dramatic and sensational…and highly publicized, including tornadoes, cancer, botulism, and homicide,” which participants in the study ranked much higher in risk than any of the deadlier threats including deaths from “stroke, asthma, emphysemas, and diabetes.” According to Sunstein, “highly publicized events are likely to lead people to be exceedingly fearful of statistically small risks.” The attention-grabbing Zika-virus certainly gripped me with fear.
“Our fears are informed by history and economics, by social power and stigma, by myths and nightmares. And as with other strongly held beliefs, our fears are dear to us.” -Eula Biss in On Immunity (Graywolf, 2014).
While fears protect us from fatal dangers, they serve another purpose: fears are an important way we determine what we value and why. I cared deeply about my unborn child the year of my Zika terror. Once my son was born, my Zika fear was transplanted by other likely (and some not so likely) threats to a newborn. I’d forgotten how scared I’d been of mosquitoes until a recent trip to the public library. As my son (now 4), and I picked out picture books, I noticed a display of free coloring books produced by the Texas State Health Department. The cover declared, “Mosquito Bites Are Bad!” above a menacing cartoon Aedes aegypti mosquito, who had angry red eyes and an evil smirk. I took one home.
That evening, I happened upon another mosquito mention while reading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. She cautions, “The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.”
Our judgement about our creative work is not to be trusted. Just like we can’t accurately access what is most likely to kill us, we often woefully overestimate or underestimate the quality of our creative work. Don’t let those inaccuracies bite, Dillard reminds us. Shoo them away.
I needed a concrete reminder of Dillard’s wisdom, so I cut out the coloring-book mosquito and pasted him on my writing notebook along with her words.
There’s another lesson here, too. When I’m scared my work is abominable, it’s just a reminder that fear is telling me my writing matters to me. I’m afraid because I care deeply. I’m pouring everything I have into it, so the stakes feel high. I’ve been fighting of the abominable mosquitoes a lot every time I sit down to write, so I’ll keep bringing out the metaphorical DEET, and slap at them, or just dive into the work with such concentration that I no longer notice their buzzing.
Use the prompts below for journaling or share in the comments.
I’d love to hear from you!
*What do you find scary about doing your creative work?
*How do you handle the fear that inevitably arises when you’re creating something?
Thank you! I’ve used the metaphor of rats in the basement for my inner critic, but mosquitos are much more a part of my daily life here in South Texas, where there are no basements. As I slap away at the literal mosquitos this summer, I will also slap away at the figurative ones that buzz incessantly and keep me from writing.
I really enjoyed this. The Dillard advice is awesome. I wonder if it would make any difference if we just stopped calling it “creative work” and called it what it is: “life support.”