Behind the Scenes
The Cliché, Walking about Town
I’ve gone to a few readings over the past couple weeks, good readings, readings which—for the most part—I’ve enjoyed. But at these readings, I discovered the firm cliché that I inhabit and perpetuate: the nervous writer, fraught with agoraphobia and insecurity.
I’m a nervous person, yes. I’m an anxious person, naturally. And I’m insecure, obviously. In most social situations where the social circle is greater than three in number (myself included), I perform the role of quirky, smart, anxious writer. I make myself smaller—usually by sitting with my legs under me, my body squeezed into a tight, strange shape. When I speak, I speak either too gregariously—making bold statements about this or that, generally unsubstantiated by anything but my own opinion and a few writers/thinkers I can quote with ease, old stand-bys like Nabokov or Kafka, Adorno or Bataille, if I’m feeling particularly insecure, I’ll go with Benjamin or Baudrillard or Baudelaire, people who make me seem smart—or I mumble to the point of inaudibility.
Generally, after said social situation, I will go over everything I said and tremble over every mistake. I will chide myself for being nervous. I have no real reason to be nervous. Especially if I’m at a reading, surrounded by other writers.
Logical me knows that I can go up to any of these writers and talk to them. I can ask them smart, provocative questions—better questions than most of the audience, if only because I’ve played both the role of reader and the role of listener, I know what a crappy question means, I know what kind of question a reader wants—only I don’t. I can never bring myself to the precipice of courage enough to raise my hand. And even worse: after the reading, I want to go up to the writers and talk to them. Only when I do, I come across as a moron. Best case scenario, they think I’m an undergrad, a young, inexperienced writer looking for guidance.
Two weeks ago, I went to a reading. A pretty decent poet read and afterwards, I went up to tell her how much I enjoyed her work. (In my head, I also wanted to ask her to send me some poems, to publish or review or whatever. I’m resourceful. Well, the logical me is at least.) Instead, I had the most awkward exchange where I squirmed around and she asked if I’m in school and I said yes and she searched for conversation topics and asked nicely if I was in a fiction workshop and I said no I’m actually working on my PhD in Geography but I’m also a novelist and she said o that’s nice, good luck with that, and I wanted to say no really, I’m a novelist, like legitly so, my third book just came out, and I’ve won prizes, like national ones, and I’m an editor and I’m a reviewer and I even write for this blog called HTML Giant, but I didn’t say any of this. I continued to squirm around. And then, someone else started talking to her. I was horrified.
If I were logical, none of this would’ve happened. I would’ve gone up to this pretty decent poet and had a real conversation with her. She was a good reader. I liked what I heard. I liked the premise of her book, and although there were a few lines I could’ve cut, I thought highly of her. I could’ve spoken to her about her use appropriation, etc etc, but I didn’t. I sounded a fool. I epitomized the young, inexperienced, awkward writer.
What went wrong?
I got nervous. But why?
After the disaster of two weeks ago, when I went to a reading earlier this week, I determined myself not to be such a wreck. I went to the reading, absolutely fell in love with one of the reader’s poetry, and I made it my goal to go up to him and talk, in a semi-coherent manner. I went up to him and said I really enjoyed your reading. It was one of the most smart and engaging readings I’ve heard in a long time (true) and he said that’s really nice of you to say, are you a student here?, are you taking creative writing classes?, and rather than freak out, I said, yes, I’m a student here but I’m also a novelist and an editor and if you’re amenable (yes, folks, I was over the top, I actually said “amenable,” within like two sentences of meeting this awesome poet-man) I’d love to interview you at some point, and he said well, I’d love that too.
But then, rather than extend the conversation, I nervously shuffled off. The guy who organized the reading series invited me out to dinner with the readers, but I was too worked up. I declined, even though I wanted to. Very badly.
Outside, I had sweat stained through my clothes. (Ok, so maybe I was over-dressed. Maybe two long sleeved shirts and a sweater and a coat and long underwear and slacks is a little extreme for barely freezing temperatures, but whatever.) I was shaking.
Logically, this poet-man has way more credentials than me. (But he’s also a half century older.) I had a reason to be nervous. I also admired his writing. (Expect an interview or review of his work to come!) But: there was no reason for me to get as worked up as I did. What disappoints me most is not that I had an awkward exchange with him but that I allowed myself to be such a cliché. Furthermore, this is a role I inhabit regularly. It’s obnoxious and unhealthy. It’s unhealthy for me to become so nervous.
To be fair, I’m nervous around most people, but this anxiety exponentiates when I’m around writers, especially those I respect. Even my friends. With all the meals I’ve had with writer-friends—even fellow Giant contributors like Blake or Ryan or Gene—I’ve either not been able to eat or eaten so nervously that it became gorging. Every meal I’ve had with Josh Cohen, he’s made some comment or other about how I don’t eat enough, when it’s just because I’m nervous. Or conversely, when I hung out with AD Jameson (Happy birthday, Adam!), Jeremy Davies, and Kathleen Rooney, I ate obscenely: an obscene amount, not in an obscene manner.
AWP is looming. It will be here all too soon. Already, I am bracing myself for a tortured few days where I will aim to be calm, cool, relaxed, where I will eat regularly, and yet, I’m beginning to wonder if having these goals won’t just serve to disappoint me, give me more reason to self-flagellate. I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t simply embrace my cliché-ness and somewhere in there, maybe change will happen like magic.