Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Storm Warning"

It seems appropriate – at least for me – after a celebratory post such as my last one, that an ominous thought should emerge, like a hovering shadow. It's just how it is. All I have to acknowledge is “I’m having a ball!” for a poisonous inner voice to counter, “Not so fast.”

Yesterday, our family attended a wedding, arranged by a family in the arts. Not show business, real art – the mother’s a painter and the bride’s an art historian. The family’s talent, good judgment and unique taste were revealed in every detail of the proceedings, from the original content of the ceremony to the striking choice of the flower vases, the flowers selected from the downtown flower market by the bride-to-be herself.

That was the good part.

I found myself seated opposite a man whose wounded eyes disclosed that he’d never once received the birthday present he’d wanted. These people are dangerous. Especially to people displaying any sign that life is good.

The bride’s father, sitting nearby, asked me how my blogging was going. “I just wrote my hundredth post,” I proudly replied. That was a mistake. You should never show signs of happiness in public. Somebody’s certain to take it the wrong way.

My enthusiasm immediately triggered a barrage of probing questions from Mr. “His-Parents-Never-Understood-His-Deepest-Desires.”

“Do you know how many people read your blog?”

“No, and I don’t want to know.” (If you know, please keep it to yourself.)

“Do you make any money from your blog?”

“Not a dime.”

“Surely, this is a part-time activity.”

“I don’t do anything else.”

My interrogator seemed to take each of my answers as a personal affront. I pretended his hostility didn’t bother me. But it did, as reflected by the fact that I put off a post I had planned to write to write this one instead.

I want to say that, in America – but it may be everyplace – you do a thing that takes time and energy and effort and infinite care for one of two reasons: One – personal advantage, usually meaning money, or Two – “You’re out of your mind.”

At the core of the man’s curiosity about my blogging – besides an irrational resentment – is a reasonable wonderment: “Why on Earth are you doing that?” If he’d asked me that directly, I’d have replied, “I love it.” But a deeper response would be the Eastern-religionly tinged,

“I do it to do it.”

“I do it to do it.” A response of that nature carries with it one of two possibilities. One of them’s I’m a crazy person.

Spending hours a day crafting something that may be read by an infinitesimally tiny…

You know. That.

I’ve had enough therapy to understand that the hostile wedding guest who, objectively, meant nothing to me, wasn’t really the person who was talking to me. Who was talking to me was me. I’d simply placed my harbored reservations in his mouth.

It's a short and surprisingly swift journey from "Why am I doing this?" to "I've lost the ability to do this." What I'm chronicling here is the spiraling descent into “Writer’s Block”.

I once told a woman at this spa I go to that I’d written a book of political commentary called Both Sides Make Me Angry to which she immediately replied,

“Why should anybody care what you have to say?”

There it is. A writer’s scariest question, parroted on a stranger’s lips. I’m sure all writers have experienced these and even greater shots to their confidence. Maybe that’s why so many of them drink. (Not me. I remember a show runner who drank once asked me what I did to manage the anxiety of our chosen career. I responded without a moment’s thought: “I suffer.”)

If you know a writer, try and keep this in mind. Writers have plenty of doubts of their own. They really don’t need any assistance in that regard.

Early in my career, whatever time I was allotted to write a script, I’d spent the first half of that time writing nothing. Two weeks to deliver a draft of an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I’d spend the first week just shaking.

“How do I do this? I can’t do this. Who said I could do this? I’ll never be able to do this. Don’t make me do this!”

Mountains of negativity. Literally, in a figurative sense. I’d make a mountain out of a molehill, and then worry myself to death that I couldn’t climb it. On some level, I was just trying to make the undertaking I was – in another section of myself – certain I could handle, seem more heroic. The opposite view lacked the requisite excitement.

“Piece o’ cake!”

Where’s the glorious achievement in that?

But unlike the magician who is clearly aware that his trick is a trick, my trick would fool me, and I would actually feel scared. I believed I had good reason. People were counting on me. I had established a level of quality I was required to live up to. If I didn’t, what I loved to do more than anything in the world – making a living in show business – would be taken away from me.

There are reasonable responses to all of those concerns, but when you’re brain is aflame with self-doubt, you’re hardly a candidate for the “Clear Thinking” award.

After a while, I got on to my own game. Instead of agonizing and writing nothing that first week, I’d just take a little trip (“…along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip’”.) I’d simply take off. When I returned the second week, knowing I had no more time to waste, I’d just sit down and write the script.

In later years, the “I can’t do it” period contracted to a fleeting stab of doubt, or a troubled night’s sleep. It never totally disappeared.

I’m a writer. It comes with the territory.

And now it’s the blog. The pressure is self-imposed, but wasn’t it always?

Before it was scripts. Now, it’s five posts a week. And always trying to maintain the quality. And there it is, in the pit of my stomach. Hello Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to block you up again.

Here, I’ll save you thousands in therapy bills. Whatever your negative tendencies – the ones that really mess you up – you can never overcome them. What you can do is this: Acknowledge your liabilities and minimize the damage. Write it down.

“Acknowledge your liabilities and minimize the damage.”

There. You’re cured.

(Digression: In my sillier moments, I like to believe that Minimize was Mickeymize’s Italian girlfriend.)

If you want to encourage me in my struggle, what would help most would be a cold-water-in-the-face dousing of the truth, along the lines of

“Stop worrying, Earl. Your quality level isn’t that great.”

I’d appreciate the support.

I want to keep doing this. But the demons are definitely lurking.

It’s a real-life cliffhanger.

Stay tuned.


karyrogers said...

The fact that you are a successful, professional writer and yet you share your gift with us for free for no other reason than because You Are A Writer is a beautiful thing.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'll give you a few minutes. Why do I like reading your blog? You're funny. You write good stories well. That you can bring yourself to reveal your inner demons and not suffer emotional vapor-lock doing it makes me both like you and respect you. And still, you're funny.

Anonymous said...

Even when you write about self doubt, you make writing look easy. You're always entertaining, and you keep me coming back for more.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading you since day one. The internet is so FULL of people writing stuff that is basically crap. So finding someone worth reading every day is a great blessing. Don't forget about the formula, I don't remember it exactly but for every letter a business receives, there are 100(?) more out there, unwritten. Write on!

--A fan in Canada

Anonymous said...

I just reached a year blogging on my own blog and I understand fully your inner demons. Was what I wrote interesting? Is anyone reading it...there are no comments posted, yikes! Can I keep up this pace?.
As you say, it's hard enough dealing with your own inner demons, don't let idiots add to that. What's the worst that can happen, we don't post that day? World going to end? Nah.

Enjoy what you do, we'll be watching and reading and trust me, not judging you. :-)

Jon Weisman said...

My philosophy has never been to post X times a week, but rather to write when I have something to say. I'll take a day or two off now and then, but I hardly ever run out of topics, and sometimes end up doing more than one a day at that.

I think your blog is wonderful.


Anonymous said...

From Samuel R. Delany's About Writing --

Writers are people who write. By and large, they are not happy people. They're not good at relationships. Often they're drunks. And writing -- good writing -- does not get easier and easier with practice. It gets harder and harder -- so eventually the writer must stall out into silence.The silence that waits for every writer and that, inevitably, if only with death (if we're lucky the two may happen at the same time: but they are still two, and their coincidence is rare), the writer must fall into is angst-ridden and terrifying - and often drives us mad. (In a letter to Allen Tate, the poet Hart Crane once described writing as "dancing on dynamite.") So if you're not a writer, consider yourself fortunate.

B. Rehder said...

I think I could write some brilliant, insightful comment about self-doubt, but I'm probably wrong.

Connector said...

I spent an entire 8 hour Writing Day today staring at a blank page in the middle of Chapter Three of my first novel. To jumpstart inspiration I read a chapter in a book on creating great characters, but ended up throwing it across the room when I read about a writer who wrote an entire book in six weeks. Six weeks? My six-week output averages 20 pages. (Reminds me of giving birth: A number of friends delivered butter-ball babies -- 30 minutes, start to finish -- while my creaky cervix took 40 times that long just to dialate fully. But that's another story.) The self-doubt virus affects everything. Even family email updates. Even two line emails at work. I thought: Some news about my beloved Dodgers would relieve the pain so I opened up Dodger Thoughts, read Jon's recommendation, and clicked on your blog.
I'm adding you to my favorites.

Anonymous said...


Without your posts, my weeks would be dimished. I love reading your blog, and look forward to every day (or at least 5 days out of 7).

Anonymous said...

I've been an avid fan of Ken Levine's blog, and popped over here a few weeks ago when he posted a link to your post on the downslide of the movie business. After reading that post, I immediately added your blog to my Google Reader started quoting the post to various friends/family members.

So self-doubt be damned. Keep 'em coming.

impwork said...

I once new a writer who had writen just about every kind of fiction you can think of succesfully. He'd started as a poet Liverpool in the poetry boom of the 60s and along the way sold for short stories and novels along with scripts for stage, radio and TV that were produced. He'd written lyrics for bands and even a musical film that was finished, bought by a US studio but never made. He even once co-wrote all the gags for a quiz show host after the writing staff walked out after a huge in studio fight.

Then suddenly only his poems for children were selling for foreign educational books. His agent dropped him. His scripts came back unread. He took an editing job at a provincial company that assembled magazines for multinationals. It was better than writing motor manuals.

One day he got a letter out of the blue from a young TV exec who'd spotted his name as the editor in a free magazine. Turned out he was a huge fan but also now setting up the writing team for a TV show that had been picked up. He got a gig as a consultant overseeing all the scripts, advising young writers and writing a few himself.

Then one day he ran into a producer he'd worked for who said he thought he was dead. A quick check with various trade magazines and he found three copies of the obitury of someone else who shared his name.

If this was a certain type of TV show I'd give you the moral punchline here but I really don't think I need to...

Anyway I really enjoy reading your blog five days a week.

Rusty James said...

Yer great Earl - and it's too late for you to start drinking...

If you need a break I suggest you buy a Nintendo Wii, become terribly frustrated with it, and then get back to blogging.

R.A. Porter said...

A funny and talented man once wrote, "Stop worrying, Earl. Your quality level isn’t that great."

I think those are words we should all take to heart. Except for him. He's awesome.

Mark Mayerson said...

Hi Earl. My wife is the daughter of Gordon Pomerantz of Thorold, Ontario, and I believe that her family is related to you.

I worked in TV animation and managed to create one series. It wasn't a pleasant experience and I hoped to discover if future experiences would be better, but the future never arrived. After 29 years, I fell out of the animation business and am now teaching animation.

Slowly, I'm building my creative chops back up. I heartily recommend a book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, a screenwriter and novelist. His take on the nature of resistance really spoke to me and got me past several stumbling blocks.

And if somebody ever says, "Why should anybody care what you have to say?" the correct response is "And vice versa."

Michael said...

Keep up the great work. I figure one of these days enough of your brilliance will rub off that my writing will be that little bit better (not that my writing is so good, it's just that I hope to improve by reading that much, oh never mind. See!)

Keith said...

If I'm writing something, once I get all the jokes down on the page, I lose interest. The problem is that I'm not desperate enough for money that I pursue writing as a career. Once I have those jokes, I'm satisfied. Story lines are universal and timeless. Jokes can be unique.

In fact, there has only been one effective motivation for me to ever complete a writing project: to impress girls. Maybe you could get Dr. M to feign disinterest when you get writer's block. Just little things like not laughing at your jokes and sighing for your benefit.

Anonymous said...

“Acknowledge your liabilities and minimize the damage.”
I figured this out a few months ago and have been a lot happier for it. As an example, one thing my husband and I war over is my the quality of my housekeeping.

(As an aside I acknowledge that this is the 21st century but I managed to marry the last Neanderthal...in my defense I thought they were extinct)

Anyway, since I write at home I am often mocked by the evidence of my incompetence. Always up for a challenge I made a valiant attempt to become a HOUSEKEEPER...why look at me I'm perfect as evidenced by my perfect home. I can't write with such a challenge lurking.

Then one day out of the blue I realized I am not inclined to be the perfect housekeeping partner.

(Another aside, my mother could get unbelievable joy out of selecting the right tableware for dinner and then lecture us about the importance of such things...leaving me to wonder if she'd ever had good sex.)

Not only am I not inclined...I don't have to be! Ha! That's not what I was put on the Earth for...

So I have set about to minimize my weaknesses by purging my house of stuff...get rid of clothes...less laundry...YES!...get rid of magazines subscriptions...no more moving piles to find the remote...YES!...Stop paying bills...ok that didn't turn out so good...

The result? I have written more in the last year than I have ever before. I'm still waiting to sell it...but I'm not taking that as proof of my worth...I'm happier and so I take that as a measure of my success...

keep writing Earl...

Anonymous said...

I was there and that guy was a jerk. And I love reading your blog! RB

Anonymous said...

If I may butcher a favorite Robert Benchley story.
He starts the day putting a blank sheet of paper in a typewriter and typing by the word "The".
Then he allows whatever might distract him to have its way.
Finally, as Happy Hour draws near, he goes back to the "the" he typed. He types "hell with it."
And his writing day is done!

Anonymous said...

love you confessing your inner doubts. it's so comforting that there are other humanoids out there that go through this!