Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Angst essen Seele auf

Oh, sorry. That's a Fassbinder movie, isn't it? Well, so what? It's still a good title for this post.

As we've discussed elsewhere, writing for me is an anxious process. Oh, when I’m in the zone, I don’t consciously feel the anxiety; I just feel hyperalert. Afterwards, however, I realize my whole body has been rigid for the past three hours.

The rest of the time, when I’m not at the keyboard, the anxiety is all too apparent. I worry when I walk from place to place. I worry when I wake up at 3 AM. I worry in a Doctor-Suess Green-Eggs-and-Ham rhyming-couplet sort of way (Would you worry in the rain? Would you worry on a train?…). And I don’t have only the usual writerly worries (e.g. I suck) or the accompanying self-aggrandizing worries (e.g. I suck on a heretofore-unseen, colossal scale) or the sidebar paranoid schizophrenic worries (e.g. Is somebody putting something in my toothpaste?). Oh, sure, I have all of those (and my toothpaste has been tasting odd of late), but in addition I have any number of worries that are more specific to the work in progress.

Novelist Lawrence Block has long advocated writing down one’s fears about a project so as to exorcise them. Here's seventeen of them. There's more where these come from.

1) This book isn’t enough like my previous book.

2) This book is too much like my previous book.

3) I don’t know where this is headed, and as usual I’m floundering.

4) I think I know where this is headed, but I don’t know how to get there.

5) I think I know where this is headed and I’m taking too long to get there.

6) I think I know where this is headed and it isn’t worth getting there.

7) I have too many points of view and that makes the story diffuse. (One editor rejecting my previous book noted that a thriller required a “hero” to “lead the narrative charge,” and that these "ensemble" things might be all very well in other genres, but not in this one. She was wrong, but her comments still haunt me.)

8) I have too few points of view, and that makes to story too cramped.

9) I have the right number of points of view, but they are from the wrong characters.

10) The chapters are too long, too long, tooooo lonnnnnnngggg…(They are. They really are. I think.)

11) I’m plunging forward too rapidly and need to think this through more.

12) I’m thinking too hard and second-guessing myself and need to plunge forward to get some momentum.

13) The story elements and situations are almost cliché.

14) The story elements and situations are too offbeat to be of interest.

15) The main character is too passive, and since the story is largely about him overcoming his passivity and confronting his past, this flaw can’t be remedied and the whole edifice is being built on sand and I’m writing a story that can’t be told. By anyone. Ever.

16) Every major character has a major backstory that needs to come out and I'm not sure how the hell I'm going to manage it, and in fact I probably can't.

17) I don’t know enough about this topic to write about it. In fact, who the hell do I think I am, writing about this topic in the first place? To write about this topic effectively, I’d have to learn five foreign languages (three of them spoken only by obscure jungle tribes), and spend several months--no, make that years--traveling, and get a PhD in Cultural Anthropology. And one in Biology. And Ecology. And History.

There. Though I'm not sure I've exorcized my fears. Exercised them, more likely, and they'll come jogging back up to my door, fitter and glowing with health.

Was that the doorbell?


Aliya Whiteley said...

I'm living 15 and 17 at the moment. It was actually scary to see 15 and 17 onscreen. I felt like you'd opened my head and smeared my brains on the computer. And no, seeing it there hasn't made it any better either, so thanks for that David.

Tim Stretton said...

Considering I haven't got beyond the outline of the current WIP, it's frightening how many of these I'm manifesting: in particular 1,2,4,6, 13 squared.

The really great insight of your post is how many mutually exclusive nightmares it's possible to have at once.

I've also got an 18: "This hasn't got enough genre elements to make it fit the genre I'm supposed to be writing" and 19: "This is too mired in genre conventions".

No-one knows how to screw up like writers...

Janet said...

This was simply hilarious. Especially since I've experienced so many of them too.

It reminds me of my experiences as a young mother. When the first one was born, I felt guilty that he had no brothers or sisters to play with. When the second one was born, I felt guilty that he wasn't getting the undivided attention that the first got. When the third one was born, I decided I'd had enough of feeling guilty. Each one was going to get a different life and that was that.

So I deal with my writerly insecurities in much the same way. I will do my best. Some people will be impressed. Some won't. All I can do is my best.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya.

Just like you to pick only odd numbers.

17 is prime, too. And George Carlin claimed that--amongst numbers that weren't preposterously large and therefore funny on those grounds alone--that seventeen was the "funniest" number.

Isn't this supposed to get easier at some point? On second thought--don't answer that.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Well, good old F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

On the other hand, a) he said this in his essay "The Crack-up" and b) his first-rate mind was already falling to pieces when he wrote it. So it's not all that encouraging viewed in context, is it? In fact, forget that I quoted it.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

"So I deal with my writerly insecurities in much the same way. I will do my best. Some people will be impressed. Some won't. All I can do is my best."

That might be the sanest thing I've ever heard a writer say. But, then again, it apparently took three children to get you to that state of enlightenment. Now that's payin' your dues...

Sam Taylor said...

David, I think #12 is the only true one on the list. All the others are ghosts until you're done with the first draft.

Janet said...

Actually, it was five kids, so I think I pushed past insanity and came out the other side... But thanks. ;o)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

FIVE? Yikes. Well, that which does not kill you makes you stronger.

I understand that most primitive civilizations count, "One, Two, Three, Many," and some pychologists believe that we don't inherently understand numbers above three (they claim that when we see, say four people, we count it as two twos).

If you can get through, um, mny children and still write, your powers of concentration are mighty indeed.

Janet said...

No. My powers of concentration are pitiful. Which is why it took me this long to start writing. The youngest moved out last summer.

David Isaak said...


In that case, my advice is, whatever happens, don't let any of them move back in.

Nonetheless, this original post was about anxiety, and it sounds like you're okay on that front...

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