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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

page fright

Today I start with my title. The term came to me abruptly yesterday while I was going about my morning routine, preparatory to coming down to the office to write. When I looked at my mind, I saw that I have a continual, gnawing resistance to facing the task of working on my project, and when I looked more closely, I saw that that resistance was based on fear.

Fear of what, exactly? The term came to me because I recognized the fear as being much the same as stage fright, which I've had a number of times in my life. In the main it's not been debilitating, since there is a ham and applause-junkie in me always seeking a way out. The worst times have not been connected with actual acting (I used to act back in high school, and indeed took a lead role in the silent film I made with my friends in those days), but, if I recall, in business presentations. Feelings of dread and doom overtake one as the moment of facing the audience draws inexorably closer.

I take heart from the fact that even experienced professional actors get stage fright--quite badly in some cases. I remember hearing that no less veteran a performer than Peter O'Toole had terrible nerves before going on stage, would hyperventilate and flap his arms to vent his stress. The pro is (mostly) able to take that energy and use it: inject it into the performance. The schmo stands on the stage, paralyzed and squeaking, bringing on the dreaded fiasco.

I recognized my resistance to writing as being in the same genus of fear. It's performance anxiety. There comes a moment of truth, and you've either got it or you don't. Can the high-jumper clear the bar? Can the soprano hit the note? The moment comes, and we find out.

When you actually sit down to write, you've already achieved something: you've hacked your way through a thicket of excuses. That in itself is an attainment that most would-be writers never achieve. "I'm too busy"; "I can't get enough quiet time alone"; "I'm not feeling creative right now". These and their allies defeat many a proto-writer.

And why? I believe it's because the proto-writer is undermotivated, basically due to fear. The proto-writer has page fright: the fear of arriving at a moment of truth and flopping. I don't mean flopping in the sense of not getting published or produced, for those problems happen only to the writer who has actually made it through page fright and written something. I mean flopping in the sense of balling up, freezing--experiencing an emotional state much like that of the terrified actor, paralyzed and squeaking on stage.

I can't say that flopping in front of your computer screen is worse than flopping in a live performance. We've all seen those Olympic figure-skating performances that have crashed and burned, due basically to performance anxiety, and imagined the crushing disappointment of people who have spent years in relentless single-minded training, all to face those four minutes on the ice. It must be like having your soul machine-gunned.

But the private flopping of the writer has its own special poignancy, even its own special agony. There's no world audience to witness your failure, but that world audience is in some ways a boon--it gives the high-profile failure something to push back at, something to define himself against: "I'll show them!" At the very least, he can enjoy the spectacle of defeat and tragedy--we remember Hector and Troy, after all, and they have their own measure of greatness. The failure of the writer is a private affair, an unsung tragedy, like the drowning of a hermit in the wilderness. He expires quietly, anonymously, his final thoughts unknown.

My way of dealing with page fright is through structure and routine. My morning routine happens automatically, by habit. If I just let one body movement follow another, I wind up here at my PC. That gets me through the thicket of excuses.

Then I have a structured way of getting into the writing itself. I open up my Notes document to the previous day's work, click on the Word highlighter, and go through the material, looking for "keeper" ideas. It's a fairly mechanical job, and it gets me engaged with the material, recalling what I'm working on. Nowadays I'm also copying and pasting the highlighted material into another document, which I call the Workspace for the chapter: where the refined notes go, along with plotting and outlining material.

Now, having got used to the water, so to speak, I can start splashing around. I can go back to my Notes document and start typing new thoughts into it. I think, "It's only notes--you can write anything here." I talk to myself, and type what I say.

In the Workspace I feel a little more pressure, since it's a more refined level of notes. But I have the safety net of dropping back to the Notes document, to chew the cud and muse randomly, or follow tangents.

My plan is to create a third level of preparation document, a Treatment, in which I will use the material from the Workspace to write out a story treatment for the chapter. The aim here too is to take the pressure off, to alleviate page fright by providing yet more scaffolding before I attempt the actual prose.

Is this an elegant or inspired way to write? Maybe not. It feels kind of corporate. But page fright is a reality. There are plenty of author-alcoholics out there to testify to its power. If a narrow pole were stretched across the Grand Canyon, and you found yourself out somewhere in the middle of it, how worried would you be about your poise and form? Speaking for myself, I wouldn't be one of those walking with a bold, insouciant step. I'd be wrapped around it like a snake, inching my way forward, alternately praying and swearing.

Just like that pilot I talked to at Seminary: "Any landing you walk away from is a good landing." Any method that gets you hitting the keys is a good method.

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