Sunday, March 05, 2006


I'm supposed to be hard at work on two non-paying projects and I find myself at a creative standstill. I hate a standstill. Unlike other people who become terror struck at the initial sight of a white sheet of paper in the typewriter/blank computer screen or a fresh and unmarked canvas, my creativity comes to a grinding halt even after I've already proved to myself that I know what I'm doing.

I have a file cabinet full of published clippings. Articles and book reivews from magazines, literary journals and newspapers going back to 1991. I don't have a problem finding words, and the whole twentyfivewords reference to this blog has to do with an editor who tried to get me to use fewer words in my pieces. Give me 600 words and I'll use 850. Oh yes, and my father who quickly bored of my wordy explanations when I was a kid and repeatedly said to me, "Don't build me a watch, just tell me what time it is".

I have art projects that I've finished, much of it stuff that I never thought I'd do and about half are projects that people paid me to do. Regardless, the word artist freezes on my lips when people ask me what I do. I'm not really sure why. Maybe it's because I haven't suffered for my art. Sure, I've suffered...but not for the art. I'm not a starving, x-ray of a person living in a garret with paint under my nails and a tubercular cough. Am I an artist who writes or am I a writer who happens to be able to slap paint onto a piece of furniture and have it come out decently? I feel that it's greedy to say that I'm both, and being artistic is really just a bonus anyway. All I ever really wanted to do was to write...even when I was a kid and played detective. After I read Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, a young girl who wrote compulsively about the world she observed around her, I realized that I wanted to be just like her...minus her boyish attire and addiction to lettuce & tomato sandwiches.

Why am I telling you this? Because two things happened recently. The first thing lasted for about two minutes. I was at an auction benefitting the high school where two of our kids are students and a good number of the school's older alumni were there. I was introduced to a man by a mutual friend, and after hearing my name he turned to me and said, "Oh, yes...the writer". He then went on to explain that he had met me at the home of my former editor and that he recognized my name (the last of which is long and hyphenated and not all that common around these opposed to the notion that I'm famous or important...because I'm not). Rather than be flattered, I was struck dumb with fear because I knew that his next question (and it was) would be to ask what I was doing right now. And because I'm not doing ANYTHING with regard to writing right now except for this blog, I cleverly turned the conversation to the topic of our mutual friend, the editor who fled these parts for a plum role as editor at the New York Times. Lucky Dog.

The second thing happened about a month ago when I was asked by the local Optimist Club to speak about books. Now, I've got to say right here and now that public speaking doesn't bother me at all. I don't get all that nervous when I do it. I used to teach in several different capacities (and still do) and I've spoken to groups of adults on many occasions that required me to write something first and I harbor no doubts when someone asks me to point out a book that I think is good or bad. But my first question to the poor guy assigned the task of getting me to sign on to this gig was, "Why in hell are you asking me?"

True, my name is still on the masthead of the local alternative paper, but I haven't pitched, written or published anything for them in many months (my choice...and more on that in another post). Unlike Harper Lee who only wrote one novel in her entire life (and let me pause right here and now to insist that I'm in no way comparing myself to her) and it was a long, long time ago, yet no one in his/her right mind would question her proper designation as a writer. For me, the years of toil at the keyboard don't continue to give me that distinction unless I'm actively working on something. I am only as good as my last project, and if that project was over a month ago and there's nothing new on the horizon, I feel sunk.

And sunk I am as I make notes for a speech I have to make on the 10th of this month to a roomful of people who are waiting for me to speak to them about the tremendously subjective topic of reading and books. And what can I say that won't make them my enemies right off the bat? Should I talk about my utter contempt for the romance genre? Should I "out" myself as a reader who doesn't read chick lit so that the men in the room will lend half an ear to what I have to say? Do I blast the men in the room who never read books by female writers or those which have female protagonists and then haughtily remind them that the celebrated author of Frankenstein was a female? (That always caused the 8th grade boys in my classes to blow a couple of brain cylinders when presented with that glorious fact).

I'll probably get by okay...I usually do. But there will be that lurking fear someplace that what I'm saying is just so much bullshit and that the next question someone in the audience asks will force me to reveal that my opinion is just my opinion and not that of an expert. least not an expert on a national scale...just a low-paying local scale...and even that one, not so much. That my last paid writing gig was months ago and that the one which takes so much of my time right now is not only non-paying (this blog) but mostly a secret so, ssshhhh, don't tell my parents or any of the people on the PTA boards I slave for or my neighbors or the rest of my family beyond my two sisters and one best friend whom I told more than a few weeks ago.

Aren't we all just fakers anyway? I mean, one day you're sitting in your senior English class in high school listening to the teacher talk about the brilliance of Steinbeck's "CanneryRow" and wondering if the guy you're dating is secretly screwing around with this skank named Beverly (yes...he was) and the next thing you're a desk jockey shuffling paper and e-mailing clients. In between that time was college and the first job...and then marriage and/or kids. How many of us have held more than one job? How many of us have trouble answering the question "what do you do?" with a one-word answer. (doctors and lawyers need not answer this) Can you? What about those who have held several jobs in their adult lives? Those of us who live in the part-time world. Those of us who spent a sizeable portion of our prime years home with kids and subsequently killed off some of our best brain cells. What happened to you, to me, to any of us since we were kids just figuring out how we wanted our lives to go that prepared us to be an EXPERT on anything? I mean...I brush my teeth at least three times a day and that still doesn't make me an expert.

And now...because I haven't really been researching books or reading the publishing catalogs or intensely reviewing anything of note (even though my bedside table is groaning under the weight of unread tomes), I have to feel like an expert about something I love but don't feel confident enough about to begin acting the part of literary cruise director for a bunch of strangers.

I I the only person who approaches new projects with hesitation and doubt? Talk to me, people!


Blogger daysgoby said...

I had a great interview once - until the man offering me the job asked me what, if anything, I could teach someone. I froze, while thousands of things I do 'well but not well enough' flew through my head. Jack of all trades, master of none?

New projects are terrifying.

7:33 PM  
Blogger CISSY said...

You're not alone. It was strange one time talking to my grown son who shares my profession (reporter, writer) to learn that this young man who looks and talks so confidently is afraid that one day the world will find out he's a fake in a job that he feels is way over his head. That's exactly how I've felt many times -- when I had to speak as a panelist for a writer's forum; when I was asked to appear on a national talk show and discuss Oklahoma's presidential primary; when I have to write.
I always feel as if one day, someone's going to wise up and say "This person doesn't know what she's doing..." Maybe it's a fear that we all share. We just don't talk about it.

10:26 PM  
Blogger Rude Cactus said...

Don't you think most people have those kinds of fears? I know I do, so you're definitely not alone. I'd like to think it's not just the two of us either.

Little known fact - Harper Lee also wrote a book for kids. It was published in a very very limited run. I know this because it was written (try to follow this) about an ex-girlfriend's mother who happened to be one of Lee's neighbors.

5:23 AM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

RC- I knew that she was responsible for a couple of stories (in addition to TKAM), but not a children's book. Of course, this means I'll have to go out and get a copy. Hmmm. I like your brush with greatness.

6:42 AM  
Anonymous candy said...

You are SO not alone in this. I think the people who seize every day are few and far between - the rest of us are just trying to get by without scaring the shit out of ourselves everyday.

If it helps, Larry McMurtry had a great quote at the Oscars last night, after receiving the award for Adapted Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. I can't quote it exactly, but basically he said it was great that something so commercial as a movie has its roots in something so precious as a book (since it was a book first) and that we should rejoice in this because it just reaffirms the need for books...that's a rough generalization of what he said, but you get the drift.

Let us know what you end up writing about.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Tink said...

New projects are like leaping off of tall buildings, you have NO idea how you're going to land. Of course it's scary! I also hate when people ask what I'm working on or how work is going. All they're doing is pointing out the fact that you're falling. And who the hell needs that? :) You're doing fine. Just breathe.

9:04 AM  
Blogger DebbieDoesLife said...

I am horrible if I don't have a deadline. I won't do anyting until I have to. Uh, I think they call it procrastinating. I remember when the editor of a magazine I wrote for told me that she really "went to bat for us writers and got us a 3 week deadline instead of 2 weeks" and I just thought, won't really matter cuz I ain't starting until three days before its due anyway.

I get a surge of adrenaline (or is it panic) when I know I HAVE to do a project and then my ass gets moving.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Mignon said...

It's scary to already be accomplished at something and feel the pressure of having to live up to those expectations. If you're a newbie, nobody expects anything and you can just wing it.

Why don't you pull out a few of those old successes and refresh your memory as to why they were successful?

10:38 AM  
Anonymous TB said...

New projects always seem daunting to me at first. But once I take a few steps forward, even baby steps, I always feel so much better.

With regard to what you have to offer, I think people would be interested in anything topical from you because you add such an interesing and informed perspective. It's not really so much about subject matter in many cases, more about adding relevance to the subject through your processing of it.
And you do that so well.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

Before I became whatever I am now (a mom who doesn't work, at least not in any way that lets me do more than buy the occasional cute shoes), I taught British literature and literary theory in a nice liberal studies program. One night at a dinner party, after one too many glasses of sangria, the very nice host asked, 'So where DID the novel come from?' because I had mentioned that my unfinished dissertation was on the history of the novel and everyone else at the table was an attorney and they had been talking about law school ALL NIGHT LONG.

And? I froze. I had no fucking idea what the origins of the English novel were. I couldn't even remember what novels I had written on. Ha ha ha! Because I'm an idiot.

And now, when people ask about my writing, I have the same brain seizure, and I worry that they're going to find out what a fraud I am. So you're in good company here--or at least large company.

Good luck with that talk.

7:13 PM  
Blogger The Gradual Gardener said...

I'm the same way with gardening. There are times when I'm feeling very confident, and others when I'm sure that someone will ask a question that exposes how much I DON'T know.

I'm with TB. Adding your opinion to what you write about is what makes it so good. You do that very well!

3:46 AM  
Blogger Catherine said...

This is what I love about blogging... you wander upon somebody's space and realize that, WHEW! I'm not just in company, but GOOD company. No need to compose a post on this topic anymore; somebody has already said it TEN TIMES better than I could. Thanks for sharing, by the way, and I hope that by now you've relaxed and regained the silent confidence you should already have in spades.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Sometimes yes, Sometimes no. Tough question. I can't bs. In public with my class I felt underconfident. Sometimes, a project just isn't right. Maybe it has less meaning to me than when I started. Sometimes, I get nervous when I am in the middle of investigating a project that I chose. I mean in an organization of 1500 people, I am the only one investigating podcasts. Are they crazy? Why are they depending on me?

As for writer's block, I sometimes have nothing to say. That's the end. There is no more blog. And then the ideas come.

As for the books and reading seminar, the people that show up and fill that space are interested in what you have to say. I think you can challenge them and respect their limits at the same time. Both you and your audience have a love of reading. That sounds like alot of common ground. Doesn't it?
And as I said in the next post, regular people are interested in the arts. Sometimes, we can surprise you.

And as for the creative standstil, why don't you just throw ideas out in a mixed up draft, then your subconscious will figure it out, and you will have a much better second draft.

And obviously your creativity does not come to a halt forever.

And oops, I see you do know your market. I always start with the latest post first. I have to get out of that habit. you think I would know from my blog!

"Haven't suffered for my art" That annoys me Really talented people always say that because beauty and detail comes so easily to them, and sometimes they ignore their gift. Not you, but I have seen it happen twice.

So suffer. Take your art to the next level. Do what is beyond being comfortable for you.

Artist? Writer? Just labels. I think your creativity touches and can touch many different applications.

What can I say? Long entries require long replies sometimes.

Good night.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous V-Grrrl said...

Writer is the first word I use to describe myself, even now when I haven't been paid to write in a year. I actually write more now than I did when I was being paid to write. I put more hours into the craft of it then I ever did before When people ask me whether I'm working, I still say, "Yes, I'm a writer. I work from home." Being paid doesn't make me feel any more authentic. If anything, because I'm far more passionate about what I write on my blog, I feel more REAL now than I did then. Some people may like what I write, others may not, but the fact that I created it is enough for me.

I doubt many things about myself. I sometimes feel uncomfortable with the label "Christian." I don't think I'm a particularly good mother or wife. But "writer" I claim fully. Like you, it's been part of my identity since childhood.

7:18 AM  

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