Tag Archives: authorial self doubt

The Actor’s Nightmare


Why, nearly ten years removed from the stage, do I still get the Actor’s Nightmare?

If you’re not familiar, the Actor’s Nightmare is a simple but prevalent one among denizens of the stage, in which a performer finds himself thrust into a performance for which he is woefully unprepared.

Common tropes of the dream:

  • You learned all your lines, but have forgotten them and everybody stares dumbly at you as you “um” and “uh” your way through.
  • You never learned all your lines, but somehow made it to performance night anyway, and everybody stares dumbly at you.
  • You know your lines, but are unable to speak, and everybody stares dumbly at you.
  • Your costume is ridiculous or unfinished or ludicrously fails to fit you, and you must go onstage in street clothes, naked, or in the idiotic costume anyway.
  • The set is unfinished or worse, still in active construction, and your performance takes you through a minefield of sharply upturned tools, unsteady platforms, and other threats to life and limb.
  • Your performance is brilliant, but the audience is completely empty.
  • Your performance is an utter travesty, and the audience is completely full.
  • Your performance doesn’t matter, because the audience is full of T-Rexes who fall upon you and your fellow actors in a bloodbath of Shakespearean epithets.

Every actor in every performance ever has played out all the ways a show could go wrong in his mind multiple times throughout rehearsal for said show, and in the Actor’s Nightmare they all parade across the screen of our minds with the saucy abandon of a dog rolling in roadkill.

I’ve had the Nightmare ever since I started with theater. I will probably have the Nightmare my whole life, seeing as the theater was such an enormous formative element of my salad days. It’s just too much a part of who I am, I think, for me to ever be rid of it.

Still, why does it persist?

I don’t buy very much into dream interpretation, except in the broadest sense. If somebody tells you that because you dreamed you were falling from the 37th floor of an office building into a dumpster full of unicycles, you will soon find a new job at the office of Forestry under a supervisor named Shwampa or something… that’s garbage.

But the Nightmare, I think, is just another manifestation of doubt, of anxiety, of the rampant feelings of inadequacy that so many of us have. Notice in the list that a common thread is “everybody stares dumbly at you,” as if you’re out of place or you’ve wasted their time. Well, that’s a very real and present fear in the life of this particular writer. Also recurrent is that idea of things being “unfinished” or “unprepared,” which, well, yeah. I never feel particularly ready even to get out of bed in the morning, let alone to ply my trade as a wordslinger (though I did optimistically and automatically call what I do a “trade”, so maybe there’s something there).

Point is, there’s an undercurrent of doubt behind everything I do, no matter how brashly or confidently I brag about it. I don’t know, for all that I love my kids and my wife, how good I am at being a father or husband. I’m maybe a decent teacher, though I am regularly in class thrust up against the reminder that I don’t really know what I’m doing up there. I fancy myself a decent recreational runner, but I’m definitely not winning any trophies these days, and I’m always afraid I’m going to injure or re-injure myself. And as for my writing, well, I talk a good game, but no matter how many words I write, the Howler Monkey of Doubt is right there, with his empty eyes and his judgmental grin.

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Of course, the upshot is that the Nightmare fills me not with the abject howling terror of being devoured by an audience of T-Rexes (okay, sometimes). Rather, I wake with the slightly bemused SOMETHING of watching a couple of cats wrestle for a moment and then lick each other’s butts. For a moment, it was scary, but now it’s just a weird thing that happened. The Nightmare is a reminder that, while that doubt can be crippling in the moment, it’s one hundred percent a creation of the mind.

The truth is, I’ve never gone on stage unprepared.

Or naked.

Or in front of a bunch of T-Rexes.

But maybe the thought that I may one day have to will help keep me sharp.

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The 2nd Street Writing Syndicate


I sweep into the office a few minutes early, grab a cup of horrible coffee from the community pot, and sit down at my desk. I brush aside the unfinished manuscripts and dog-eared personal edits to have a look at the morning’s headlines: The usual mish-mash of impending deadlines, panicky calls for help with snarled projects, each message carrying behind it that familiar whiff of desperation. I’ve been in this business for so many years now, it’s all mundane enough to make me want to walk right back out the front door.

But wait — here’s something different.

Emergency. Project out of control. Please help. Then a phone number.

It’s so simple, so concise. Your typical distress call is couched in enough flowery language to choke a goat with an unreasonable appetite, the panicky flailings of a fledgling author out to prove himself while admitting he is totally out of his depth.

But this one has the sense not to waste words. It’s intriguing. I hop up from my desk, make a few rounds of the office, ask if anybody’s checking up on this case. Nobody is. Projects of their own. Ongoing calls. November’s just around the corner, so we’re all a bit on edge for the rush that’ll be coming. Nobody wants to pick up extra work, especially a call so vague it could be anything.

But it’s just that unknowable nothing that has me piqued. I pick up the phone, dial the number.

The voice on the other end is haggard, like he’s had about eighteen cups of coffee on two hours of sleep. “Hello?”

I tap a pen on my desk, prepare a notecard to jot down some vitals. “This is Ella Lucida, with 2nd Street, calling for Geoff Owens?”

A sigh of relief on the other end, and a scrambling clatter, like a bunch of cans being shoved off a desktop. “Yes. Oh, Jesus. That’s me.” A pause. “Can you help me?”

“That depends.”

#

Every once in a while, a call takes me to a nice place. Penthouse apartment, or mansion set way off away from the traffic and hurly-burly. This is not one of those calls. Geoff’s place is yet another shitty fifth-floor walk-up in a career full of shitty fifth-floor walk-ups. The building looks like if a few more windows were knocked out or a few more vagrants were sleeping in the lobby it could be condemned. But it isn’t, apparently, because the lights are on, and when I reach Geoff’s door, it’s locked, deadbolted, and safety-chained shut. It’s quiet inside, the quiet of a house with a sleeping newborn in the back room, the parents terrified to make a peep.

I knock.

There’s a scuffling of feet inside, a shuffling of papers, the sound of clicks and jangles as chains and bolts are slid back. The door cracks, and a wily eye peers out at me.

“Ella?”

The guy’s clearly been through it, judging from the bags under his eyes and the dusting of stubble under his chin. I nod.

“Come in.”

Inside looks about like you’d expect. Peeling floral-print wallpaper, revealing even worse psychedelic-striped wallpaper beneath. Piles of paper covered with notes and heavily-used paperbacks tossed all over the place. Overpowering stink of stale cigarette smoke. I’m about to ask him to crack a window when I notice they’re nailed shut.

We’ve been through it already, but I find it helps to let a client talk it out first. So I ask him to tell me again.

“My story,” he flashes his tongue across his lips, “has a demon.”

#

He spins out the tale in a rush, his hushed whispers barely stirring the ashy dust caught in the sunlight through the window. I nod and listen and purse my lips thoughtfully here and there, pausing to write down what he thinks are notes but what are actually meaningless scribbles. It’s become clear to me that there’s nothing special going on here; he’s just another neurotic writer who believes that the problems of his story have gotten out of hand because of some magic. He talks about characters acting strangely. Plot lines that he can’t resolve. Antagonists who talk too much. A shadowy figure that he didn’t write flitting through his scenes and replacing his carefully crafted text with gibberish.

“Wait a second.” He didn’t mention that on the phone. “What did you say?”

“I’m writing a simple love story. Boy meets girl — zombie apocalypse happens — girl devours boy’s brains — girl and boy unlive happily ever after.”

“I got that part.” It’s among the more terrible premises for a book that I’ve heard lately, but it’s not the worst. “Tell me about the figure.”

“So the book has zombies, sure. And werewolves. And one guy who might be a vampire or maybe he just has alopecia.” A nervous shrug. “I haven’t decided.”

“The figure,” I insist.

“When I go back and read my work, there’s this… thing. It appears in scenes out of nowhere and… look, it’s easier if I just show you.”

It’s dangerous work diving into an unknown author’s work. You never know what to expect. So as he boots up the laptop, I unpack my kit, laying the tools of my trade on the desktop. Spell-correcting goggles, because the average new author has the spelling ability of an ADD sixth-grader. A high-diffusion plot-detangler, which can sniff out and eliminate an extraneous development before you can explain that it’s necessary for character development. A de-purpling prosometer, which cleans all the adverbs and adjectives right out of a paragraph. And finally, my correct-all quill. I haven’t used it in years — not since the great Wikipedia overflowing of 2012, where an overly ambitious author cleverly began rewriting entries in iambic pentameter and couldn’t stop. It took seven agents to subdue him, and I fancy I can still see bits of the de-versed Shakespearean entries about penguin mating habits swimming in the beads of ink at its tip. I won’t use it, but any author worth his salt recognizes a powerful instrument when he sees it.

Geoff’s eyes linger on the quill. Not all authors know about the syndicate, and fewer still know all the tools we carry, but somehow, he does. “Is that thing for real?” He asks.

I nod. “Wanna touch it?”

Fear replaces wonder in a heartbeat. His eyes get wide and he stammers uselessly for a moment before declining. His manuscript has opened on the laptop. He steps back and I begin to read.

It’s as idiotic as I expected. Another zombie outbreak story, ho-hum. But as I’m reading, I get this weird impression of a figure all in black lurking at the edges of each scene. I re-read, but there’s nothing there. Strange.

Then, at the end of the third chapter, suddenly there’s a blank page before the fourth. “Did you leave this gap here?”

“What? No, I — Oh god, he’s eating whole pages now!”

I return to the manuscript. The seventh chapter has been replaced with a copy of Green Eggs and Ham, complete with illustrations. Chapter ten is nothing but ones and zeroes. Chapter thirteen is ASCII art of a donkey’s privates.

“It’s getting worse,” Geoff moans.

That much is clear. I reach for the prosometer and aim it squarely at the screen. The ASCII art rearranges itself into a fist with a defiantly extended middle finger.

“What the –”

Then I see it.

I didn’t even think those things existed, but there it is, just to the side of the blinking cursor, hiding behind it as it winks in and out of existence underneath the pile of rudely arranged punctuation. A GrammaDemon.

It’s rumored that GrammaDemons are single-handedly responsible for the loss of all the greatest literature the world has ever known. The missing counterparts of the Rosetta Stone. Cardenio. And now there’s a GrammaDemon lurking in a godawful zombie story written by a nobody in the middle of nowhere.

The demon winks at me — it actually winks — and begins filling the next page with arcane scribblings in symbols I can’t even hope to read. It’s trying to come through, I realize.

I don the spell-fixing goggles and begin to type. The only hope is to contain the monster before it can escape the page and wreak hell in the literaverse. I conjure a hero with a flaming sword to attack the demon — the demon washes the hero aside in an effortless wave of capital A’s. Sweat breaking out on my brow, I try another tack — into the setting I write a bottomless pit for the demon to fall into, but the little bastard is too fast for me; out of the pit fly a thousand unicorns that buoy him, cackling, up and around the page. The demonic symbols have spilled over from the word processor and are covering the desktop now; there isn’t much time.

I aim the prosometer at the page and fire; the symbols scatter from the blast, but they don’t disappear — instead, they begin to leak out of the side of the screen and congeal on the desktop. I raise the de-tangler and level it at the pool of inky blackness, but a hand congeals out of the babble and slaps the device across the room. It hits Geoff between the eyes and he drops like a sackful of query letters.

With horror, I back away from the desk. The hand has become an arm and a shoulder, steeped in inky ichor, rasping in a voice like the turning of a thousand pages and smelling like rotted parchment.

My eye falls on the quill. If ever there were a time, it’s now.

I hurl myself at the desk, ducking under the swiping arm of the GrammaDemon. My fingers close around the shank. Its ink runs thick and viscous over my hand, like the blood of a ravenous beast. I snarl and swing my arm around just as the demon kicks me across the room with a foot made entirely of the word “the”. I crack my head on the rim of the trashcan by the door. My vision goes blurry. The last thing I see is the quill, embedded in the GrammaDemon’s chest. Then there’s a loud crack, and everything goes black.

#

It feels like I’ve lost consciousness, but I haven’t. I feel Geoff tugging at my arm and realize that I’m wide awake, I just can’t see. I wipe my eyes — they’re covered with ink, just like everything else in the room. The laptop, the desk, Geoff, the windows — all are dripping with ink and congealed random letters: the lifeblood of the slain GrammaDemon.

“Are you all right?” Geoff asks. I put a hand to my head — it comes away soaked in ink, rather than blood. I nod.

“Your manuscript,” I say.

He runs to his desk, wipes the sheen of ink off the screen. Gone are the demonic symbols, the ASCII art, the ones and zeroes, the eggs, the ham. All that’s left is his horrible story.

“You did it,” he says, and before I can stop him, he’s hugging me. Ink is on his shoulders and in my hair and squishing out between our shoulders.

I pack up my things, cleaning off as much of the ink as I can. The quill is ruined: the shaft shattered, the plumules scattered around the room, sticking up at haphazard angles out of the ink. I don’t pity Geoff the cleaning bill he’ll have, but then again, the black is an improvement over the wallpaper. I leave him hunched over his laptop, finishing his manuscript, giddy — or maybe just lightheaded — on the fumes of the slain GrammaDemon.

As I hit the street, my cell chimes. There’s an APB out on somebody rewriting the lower third of the news broadcast in Gaelic. I check my watch. Not lunchtime yet.

I wipe a smudge of ink from my eyebrow and hail a cab. It’s gonna be a long day.

**************

Chuck’s challenge this week was to take a title created by another author and spin it into a story. I picked, obviously, “The 2nd Street Writing Syndicate,” offered by one David Marks. I had more fun writing this than I care to admit. It probably needs some work, but writing it was a creative and cathartic burst that I needed this week. Hope you enjoy!

This story was influenced more than a little by Jasper Fforde’s works about literary detective, Thursday Next.


The Last 10,000


The novel is down to the last ten thousand words.

It’s a bizarre feeling. If my first novel was written in a flurry of inspiration, stolen minutes and creeping inevitability, this novel has been written via a series of well-placed skull strikes against the keyboard. Or maybe not so well-placed. The narrative of this one hasn’t flowed as well as the first. The path was never so clear. The words more reluctant. The voice, nonexistent.

Still, I’m almost there, and the proverbial light is shining at the proverbial end of the proverbial tunnel. It ain’t far off now, which means I’m too close to even think about packing it all in. I should be done within the month, which is startlingly enough true to the (unofficial) deadline I set for myself back in … whenever the fargo I began writing it. It seems so long ago now as to be hardly worth pondering, but I want to say it was maybe February? March?

It’s taken longer than the first novel, pushing out this newest squalling bundle of joy, but that’s because I realized that the breakneck pace I set back then (1200 words a day was my goal) was a bit too much for other areas of my life to bear. I backed the daily requirement back to 600 (though I really do aim for 900 most days), which has of course made the project stretch out, but has also given me more time to assess as I go.

And I’m not sure if that’s been a good thing or not. With the first novel I plowed ahead full force, writing the story as it occurred to me, hardly pausing for breath or to check my bearings at all as I scrambled for the finish. With this project, I’m constantly evaluating how things are going, second-guessing my decisions, agonizing over each new turn. As a result, the thing has been reshaped so many times along the way it’s as if I started off building a replica of the Iron Throne and ended up with a misshapen ashtray made from discarded banana peels. And then sat on it. Eww slimy.

It’s gonna require major rewrites. Months of work. And I can’t help wondering if by taking my time a little bit more I hamstrung myself by allowing things to settle. If instead of spinning the whole tale out like a blown glass bottle, the thing is hardening and solidifying fit to break when I start to apply pressure to it.

But those are concerns for future me.

Now that I can see the end, I can feel that restless energy seeping in, that urge to push for the finish.

For the moment, it’s time to focus on those last 10,000 words, and the feeling over the last few days is that they’re going to go fast. I can feel the frenetic pacing from my first novel creeping in. I can feel myself reaching for Chekhov’s Guns that weren’t written yet, weapons that materialize under my fingers as the story demands them. The time will come when I can go back and invent the methods of their inception. Right now, the story is full steam ahead, and if a character needs a robotic limb in order to break out of their holographic jail cell, then by god, that character has what she needs. The details will come later, for now it’s time to find an ending for this thing, even if that means steering its smoldering wreckage into the side of a mountain.

So.

Deep breath.

Head down.

Time to write.


Baby Steps


Writing is a journey, yeah?

You start off uncertain whether the two words you just committed to the blank page even belong in the same zip code with one another, or whether, like tinfoil and microwave ovens, their relationship is doomed before the heat even gets turned up. But you press on, smashing words together with the blithe indifference of the LHC, watching for sparks, looking for anything that resonates, and before you know it, you have a thing.

Maybe it’s a novel. Or a screenplay. Or a short story. Or a poem. Or a lyric. But you have this thing, born from the unfathomable space between your ears, and it’s raw and wriggling and it may or may not have a chance in this world, but it’s yours.

And at first, it’s all: whoa. I did that. I created this thing from nothingness. And you float on that godlike feeling for a while. But it only lasts for so long, because we’re talking about literature of one caliber or another, here, and literature is only as important as its audience decides it is. And that means that, first and foremost, what it needs is an audience.

But it’s not ready for an audience yet. Too many rough edges, too many unshapen limbs, too many vestigial tails. You shape it, you trim it, you coddle it in some places and you axe its redundant bits in others, never really knowing if you’re helping it or dooming it, only trying your best to give it a chance to breathe the air of this strange and indifferent world. Like it or not, eventually that moment comes, when it must leave the nest and survive or die trying.

The second draft of my novel is out today to three beta readers. The first was my wife, and as much as I love and appreciate her for reading my drivel, I can’t trust her feedback alone. She’s more or less obligated to tell me it’s good, and that I haven’t been banging my head against the keyboards of various computers for the last seventeen months for nothing. And I value her feedback, I do — she’s a hell of a lot smarter than I am — but I’m (hopefully) writing for an audience that’s larger than just my wife. And I’m not ashamed to tell you, even though I know these beta readers personally, I am scared sharknadoless to get feedback from them.

It’s odd. I am hoping that they’ll be impartial enough to give me the feedback that I need to better the story, but I’m terrified of what that feedback will be.

Still, it’s a necessary step in the process. In order to grow, we must shed our skins, leave behind the old uses that threaten to keep us from becoming the new and future uses. (That’s “us”es, not “uses”.)

Of course, that doesn’t make it easy.


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