I don’t get writer’s block. I know, that sounds like some weird brag (nyah–nyah, fuckers!). Or maybe it brings to mind Billy Crystal’s character, the failing writer, from Throw Mamma from the Train who insists “Writer’s write. Always.” (They also start their stories with “The night was moist.”). But no, I’m not bragging (please tell me I’ve got more to brag about than this?!). When I have a deadline, I meet it; God willing and the creek don’t rise. If I’m struggling with a particular piece, I beat my head against the brick wall until I bash the bastard down. Or I get terrified and run away screaming like a little girl. More on that in a minute.
So who gives a shit? Well, I’m clearing the way for a different writing problem I have. It’s something like a panic attack. I used to get them before readings, or before gigs back when I was a performing musician; they were pretty standard: shakes, nausea, panic (natch), crushing feelings of self-doubt, the occasional mock heart attack or loss of bladder control. Perhaps I exaggerate.
But, the thing is, it’s inconsistent (incontinent?): it doesn’t happen with any regular pattern, or even when one would think. I’ve done plenty of readings and haven’t been a bit nervous. Sometimes, it happens when I’m writing something, but again, rarely something I’d think would make me nervous. I’ve sent off novels to publishers or final revisions right before publication and haven’t been at all concerned; on the other hand, a (very, very small) press (no one has ever heard of) recently asked me to put together a collection starting with some stories they really liked, and I’ve been doing everything I can think of to dodge working on it (including writing this). Similarly, I’ve sent work off to some pretty panic-inducing journals, and haven’t batted an eye (even when they rejected me, or worse, accepted me). I’ll plow through a novel in a crazy-short time, but then put off working on a story (for years, sometimes) because every time I think about it, I feel like I’m going to throw up.
When I was a performing musician, I didn’t mind going into the studio (the one time we did that) or recording at home. I’d write songs all day with my buddies, but playing them some riff I’d been working on for weeks terrified me.
The thing is, I’ve talked to several writers, and they all have the same problem. One described having panic attacks before some readings but not others; one said she didn’t panic before readings, but the idea of revising her novel for the umpteenth time terrified her; and others talk about struggling to send work out to journals, but have no problems performing it in front of strangers (who are right there close enough to throw things!). But why fear some things and not others?
For me, I think it has to do with the expectations of others and my unorthodox value system. The reason I’m so nervous about finishing the story series is because the publisher asked for it; with my novels or what-have-you, I’ve sent the work out on my own, revised it, etc. Against all the odds, I placed books, and I approached what could’ve easily been a nerve-wracking experience as just part of the job. But this time, someone sought me out. This press thought enough of my work to ask to see a manuscript (after they’d already published a few stories individually) and it’s a press I really respect. I’ve actually sent work off to much larger presses as part of procrastinating from doing this work!
Similarly, I value certain accomplishments in strange proportions. When I placed a couple poems in Clackamas Literary Review – one of the first journals I ever fell in love with – I felt like some people would feel placing something in The New Yorker. More so, for me (though I’ve never been in the TNY, of course) because I respect Clackamas so much. And it’s such an arbitrary thing – there are tons of great journals out there; this just happened to be one of the first I really encountered. Or The Arkansas Review. Or Margie – whose editor called me on the phone to talk about my poems (he’s done the same for friends of mine, I learned). That phone call filled me with equal parts jubilation and terror – I actually hardly ever send work to print pubs anymore, and it might still be because I’m afraid the editor might call me (and others did, for some strange reason that year).
And from many other writers, I’ve heard similar stories. So are we all fucked up? Well yeah. I mean, we’re writers. A very talented friend – JD Chapman – said we’re writers because we’re damaged in such a way that this is how we communicate best (I’m probably mangling it, so no quotation marks). And I get that, completely, but I also find it kind of encouraging that writers are so quirky. If I were outside looking in, I’d like to think I’d be proud of me for being so damned proud to be in some tiny journal nobody’s heard of, rather than the hip one everybody’s talking about. A very pretentious prof. once asked my goals as a writer for the future, and I told him I wanted to be one of those mid-level writers who puts out books with small presses, maybe university presses, sells a few thousand copies that a handful of people love, and I’d be happy to be that guy. (Not the answer he was looking for). Another prof. once declared a piece of mine would ‘never fly in New York’. To which I replied, “Who gives a shit?”
The point is, the crazy, for me, is something like the butterflies you get the first time you hold somebody’s hand you like-like. I think it means the passion’s still there. It’s when I don’t feel terrified every once in a while that I’ll know this has become a kind of routine, like mental flossing (except flossing can be really satisfying). Luckily, the terror’s still happening pretty often for me. So I guess I’m okay.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at here. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for story South‘s Million Writer’s Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.