Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Spooky Part

By Cornelia

So I did a Q&A last week with author Jeff Cohen ['t make the link thingie behave this morning] for an upcoming issue of Mystery Morgue []. One of the questions he posed concerns a topic that’s been on my mind a great deal recently-- The Sophomore Effort: “Your first novel, A Field of Darkness, has been widely praised and extremely well-reviewed. Does that relax you or increase the pressure for a second book?”

I began my response by saying, “I’m a total wuss so it’s terrifying. I’m convinced the first book was a fluke. The initial response to A Field of Darkness has been so kind and generous that I worry a great deal about readers finding the sequel a disappointment.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about why the idea of my first book doing at all well has a tendency to make me writhe in terror. It’s not a question of glass-half-full / glass-half-empty perspective, it feels more like, “oh sure, the glass is half full… of some tremendously volatile explosive,” which I’m meanwhile supposed to ferry across a hockey rink, riding a shoddily manufactured pogo stick.

A couple of weeks ago I read Sidney Sheldon’s autobiography, The Other Side of Me.

Sheldon not only wrote eighteen phenomenally successful novels, but seven Broadway plays and the screenplays for twenty-five films, including Easter Parade and Annie Get Your Gun. He created The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie. And yet the man was himself often subject to bouts of terrified writhing—usually in response to pinnacle moments in his career.

Immediately after receiving the best original screenplay Oscar for The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer, for instance, Sheldon’s date for the evening, Dona Holloway, said to him, “That’s so wonderful. How do you feel?”

Sheldon recalls thinking,

How did I feel? I felt more depressed than I ever felt in my life. I felt as though I had stolen something from people who deserved it more than I did. I felt like a phony.

The awards went on, but from that moment, what was happening on stage became a blur… Everything seemed to go on forever. I could not wait to get out of there.

When Dore Schary told Sheldon that MGM had decided to make him a producer, he writes,

I went back to my office and thought, I’m thirty-four years old, I have an Oscar, and I’m a producer at the biggest motion picture studio in the world…. I was overcome with a feeling of dread…. There was no way I could do this. I would call Dore and tell him that I could not accept it. He would probably fire me and I would soon be looking for a job.

I’ve heard Lee Child quote Graham Greene on what success means to a writer: “failure deferred.”

It’s somewhat reassuring to know that the terror thing isn’t just my own invention, but I’ve been wondering a lot about the root of it. Why the fear? Where does that three a.m. conviction that you’re hanging over the abyss by your last broken toenail come from?

I kind of doubt that it’s a state of mind common to CPAs: “well, there went the last spreadsheet I’ll ever create where the numbers all added up twice in a row….” Or that, say, Lee Iacocca lay awake at night after designing the original Mustang convinced the thing’s wheels would fall off for no apparent reason. And there are probably writers who finish a manuscript and say, “gee, that went fine and I bet it will do okay. Can’t wait to start on the next one, soon as I top up my coffee mug, here.” I just haven’t met them.

Why is that? What is it about writing that leaves us feeling shaky? My friend Muffy said to me the other day, “I’m working on this treatment for a screenplay, and somehow I appear to have utterly lost my balls in the process.”

With my usual penchant for high-flown diction, I replied, “Dude, oh my GOD… I so totally relate!”

WTF is that sinking loss-of-balls sensation?

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure it out, and the only thing I can come up with is that successful writing is, at least for me, dependent on what I think of as “the spooky part.” Those little epiphanies that appear out of nowhere… sparks of illumination or insight or wit thrown off by the back burner of one’s consciousness when you least expect them… the juice, the juju, the mojo—the tiny-but-full-blown Athenas popping into the head of Zeus.

I’ve heard Our Jackie say that Maisie Dobbs leapt into her head when she was stuck in traffic one day. Most of us are familiar with J.K. Rowling’s response when she’s asked how she got the idea for Harry Potter: “I was taking a long train journey from Manchester to London in England and the idea for Harry just fell into my head,” she said in one interview, adding in another, "It was extraordinary because I had never planned to write for children. Harry came to me immediately, as did the school and a few of the other characters such as Nearly Headless Nick, the ghost whose head is not quite cut off. The train was delayed and for hours I sat there, thinking and thinking and thinking.”

The. Spooky. Part.

Favors of an evanescent muse, serendipity… et cetera, et cetera. If I try to picture the source from whence they cometh, the image that comes to mind is this ancient well into which you can drop a stone and have time to sing at least three verses of “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?” before hearing the splash.

I’m not sure what all’s down at the bottom. Maybe Golem lives there, my preciousssss, dining exclusively on paper-thin slices of sashimi made from all those indigenous spiky blind glow-in-the-dark fish. Maybe it’s Rumpelstiltskin--cracking his straw-into-gold knuckles to pass the time. It could be Baron Samedi. The Minotaur. Even Bunnicula. Whatever its earthly form, I figure the well’s occupant is capricious since it sometimes throws up glittery ideas which are total crap, after which it goes “mwa ha ha ha” and belches in malicious satisfaction.

Right now, Baron Gol-Stilts-Cula-Taur has my second novel in its fiendish lap, along with my balls. I’m just sitting here wondering whether it wants a tribute of carrots, rum, incense, or the proverbial unblemished set of seven youths and seven maidens. I plan to lower my offering down into the spooky darkness with the aid of Janine’s green plastic bucket—keeping my fingers crossed that the rope’s long enough to reach bottom.

If the bucket comes back up empty, I might just take a long boring Amtrak ride to seal the bargain.

I just hope that Geoffrey Holder playing Baron Samedi isn't riding on the front of the train going "mwa ha ha ha," the way he was at the end of Live and Let Die.

Because that would suck.


  1. Oh, we all know the terror, whether it's First Book, Sophomore Effort, or Can I Do It Again. But without the lows, how would we recognize the highs?

    PS: I have a friend who attended the San Francisco filming of those "dropped balls/loss of balls" you showed -- right down Divisadero Street, for some TV commercial. They sent a "test ball" down to see how it would ricochet and bounce. Then filmed it all in one take.

    Taking a chance like that kind of reminds me of writing.

  2. I guess it was a bit reassuring for me to discover that Sidney Sheldon has often been plagued by doubt.

    And "Can I Do It Again" is definitely the theme song of the muse-well, IMHO (sung to the tune of... hmmmmm.... "Surfin' USA"? "The Marseillaise"?

    I love that they only used one "test ball" for that commercial!

    The other thing rather like that that reminds me of writing was watching RIDING GIANTS, the documentary about big-wave surfing. The whole sort of "well, here I am standing up on a plank of fiberglass, cruising down the face of a sixty-foot wall of water... better try NOT to fall off, eh?"

  3. Don't worry. The Baron will not be there.

    A Field of D is amazing and number two will be as well.

    My editor still has to pry my fluffy 15-inch business profiles out of my shaky hands every Friday. I think if I was completely confident that what I write is good, it would probably totally suck. If that makes any sense at all.

  4. It may be true that there are some people who luck out with a novel concept for their first book, with people who bend over backwards to help them with the edting etc. and it comes together and does well.

    And it is a bit of a fluke, but not because it was an accident. More that they get a swelled head and think they know it all and don't listen to anyone.

    I think it's when you don't worry that there's a problem. Okay, you know I'm a total worrier too and have been obsessing over edits this week and all that, and tomorrow I'll be turning it in. It goes to arc land and if there are mistakes, people are going to read them. It's incredibly depressing and nerve-wracking.

    But the one thing I keep hearing is, this is normal. And that's reassuring, because when I hear that others who know far more than I do go through the same thing, it lessens the sense of isolation, somehow.

    Of course, I'm just talking tough to make you feel better. I'll resume my panic and depression as soon as I click publish.

  5. Yo Edgy, you are awesome.

    And Sandra, any respite from panic and depression is a good respite, if you ask me. Now I keep looking at our little kid pictures thinking we should arrange a playdate for ourselves.

  6. I love how your written commentary, Cornelia: you rock!
    My muse gets up grumpy some days, blithely hangs out a sign that says 'gone flying, fishing, to lunch, etc. for the day, week, month, year' what have you, and I'm left thinking 'WTF do I do now?'
    Even after all of these years, I have big ginormous hurdles to get over whenever I paint, or haven't put brush to canvas for a long time. The 'blank canvas' fear that plagues a lot of us. So, I've learned to reason myself through it with 'if you don't like it, you don't have to show it to anyone, and start over again' mantra. Picking up a pencil to draw the initial idea can be just as difficult too. It's like my old way of washing up: fill the sink, put in the detergent, organise the dishes to go in, put the glasses in to soak - then go and make a few phone calls till the water gets cold. Start all over again. Ain't procrastination fun? :-D I do much better these days.
    Surprisingly, I find writing comes to me easier, probably because I've been doing that longer than painting, and I've been painting ever since I can remember. I did take a 10 year hiatus from my writing and thought I'd lost much of my passion and ability. But surprisingly, I found it again and have been working on it ever since. I felt a real need to write again in the days following 9/11: some essays, reviews and then a sudden coalescence of my little fantasy koala bear paintings into a full scale novel - nine chapters and counting. I started writing short stories again - some have even been published. :-D But I guess the point is that writing has always been my outlet for deep-feeling; painting is my muse of passionate self-expression. Lately, I'm taking them both to new levels. In spite of the fear.
    Remember, that since you're creating everything you write from whatever is within you: a) it's going to take a huge amount of energy out of you, and b)there is always going to be a fear of 'what if they don't like it/what if what I have created is meaningless and worth nothing'?
    The answer will always be: even if one person doesn't like what you've created, someone else WILL and think of it as something greatly worthwhile. That balance is why we keep creating. And more often than not - a little goes a long way. You all have wonderful fans who keep telling you how wonderfully creative atalented you are, and love what you write. There has to be some basis in fact. So bask in the glow, nail your muse's elegantly clad foot to your desk, place a glass of really good port or wine beside her/him, lift you pen, keyboard, or mouse - take a deep breath and a leap of faith...and create.
    We'll be waiting...

  7. This is why I love critique groups. You never have to wonder if your writing sucks. Every week you have ten people telling you that it does.

  8. I only have five in my critique group, Patty, but they work double hours.

    And Marianne--WOW!! It's great to hear about this from the perspective of a writer AND painter. Thank you so much for the awesome comment!!!

  9. I think that "loss of balls" fear is the sudden awareness that someone out there actually is listening/reading/paying attention. It's amazing what one can accomplish when one is completely care-free and unconcerned with a watchful audience. But tell them there's a spotlight and a crowd focused on their actions... and you get vapor lock.

    What's the old saying attributed to Twain -- "dance like nobody's watching..."?

    Methinks it's somehow applicable to such moments of testicular paranoia.

    Lock and load, Cuz.

  10. I heard an interview with Dennis Lehane recently. He was asked what motivated him, what got him to the keyboard every day, and he said, "Fear". It seems to me that a certain amount of self-doubt or fear drives an artist to do the best work they can; conversely, I'd think that complacency or self-satisfaction would be the absolute kiss of death.

    And, I have not a doubt in the world that, although it can't be fun to deal with them, your doubts will make your book even better than I know it already is. (And boy, was that a lousy sentence, but you know what I mean ;-)

  11. Funny thing is, the sophomore slump for most writers is a misnomer. Like so many other writers I know, I have that first effort (the real freshman effort) in the form of a manuscript sitting on a shelf. So my first published novel was really my sophomore effort. So, Cornelia, perhaps you too are already out of the sophomore slump's cone of danger.

  12. I was convinced my second book sucked. Despite enthusiasm from my husband, agent and editor. But now that I've gotten three good reviews on it so far (it's out Sept. 27), I'm starting to think maybe it doesn't suck.

    We all live with the fear.

  13. Cornelia, I'm not allowed out to play until after I'm done my edits. :( I had to shimmy down the drainpipe to the clubhouse to get this message out.

  14. Dear Cornelia,

    I met Geoffrey Holder. This was post-7-up commercials. He came to my college and did a big show. This has nothing to do with me being worried that my books suck, which of course I do (WORRY, that is).

    And Sandra, I'm telling on you.

  15. Unfortunately it isn't only
    writers who live in fear.
    Those of us who earn
    a living, meager or otherwise,
    by the sweat of our hands connecting with actual paper
    using pencil, ink, watercolor
    or other media duke it out with the blank slate more often than not as well.

    Whenever I have to actually begin
    putting ink and/or color to paper
    I flinch. I can spend minutes, sometimes hours staring at the
    wall, pretending to do something else, all the while trying to negotiate with the damn thing so it will let me approach the drawing table. And I'm just a
    dinky commercial artist.

    Of course, once I actually put pen
    to paper, the spell is usually broken.

    But not always. It can be hell.
    And I've been doing this for
    over thirty years.

    Saw the movie POLLOCK last
    night and was captivated,
    not by the often hard to
    watch drunken histrionics
    and the hell it played on
    Jackson Pollock's personal and professional life, but on the
    very accurate portrayal of the
    internal struggle of genius.
    The 'how' of creation. I've never
    seen it depicted as well or as clearly before.

    The scenes where Pollock
    spends weeks staring at a huge
    blank canvas until the moment
    when he gets the internal 'okay' to begin is totally mesmerizing. Yes, I thought, that's how it works.

    Not that I'm comparing myself
    in any way shape or form, believe me, but that sequence did speak to me in a very familiar voice.

    I would imagine it speaks to
    writers as well.

    Later, the scenes of Pollock
    doing his splatter paintings
    are mesmerizing. "I don't accept
    the accident," he says. (Or
    words to that effect.) He always
    believed himself in complete control of the painting.
    Imagine. That is a very heavy burden to bear.

    We're all, on various levels,
    waiting for the okay to begin -
    the okay to take control.
    Filling part of the time with terror.

    I believe this is normal.
    More or less.