Peter C. Vey, The New Yorker

Peter C. Vey, The New Yorker


You know the feeling.  You’re writing away.  You’re well into telling your story.  You’re on track, or at least on the right rails.  You’ve written 100 pages, or 500, or your mass-tangle of notes are finally a solid outline …. or, if you’re like me this week, you’ve got 300-ish pages of purposeful unfolding and you feel like you’re kinda sorta for the most part rolling.

And then one day, with no warning, you feel the flood of panic wash through your chest and it screams, ohmygod-ohmygod-ohmygod I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.

Mine came yesterday afternoon.  I was working over a few overstuffed but innocuous paragraphs when it hit, when for absolutely no logical reason on this earth I stared at those paragraphs knowing the entire manuscript, the whole thing, was a disaster.

I shut down the computer.  I did some grocery shopping.  I made supper for the neighbors.  I went to bed early and woke up in the middle of the night to keep reading Jesmyn Ward’s MEN WE REAPED until I fell, naturally and exhaustedly, back to sleep.  And this morning I turned the computer back on picked the words up where I left them.  The flood had passed.  Crisis, mysteriously but somehow, averted.

What’s your cure when the panic sets in?

32 thoughts on “Flood

    1. Teri Post author

      You and me, both. I used to try to work my way through it, maybe go and edit in a different spot, but that has never worked for me — just makes me more anxious. As bad as I felt yesterday, I felt completely back to normal today, so the cure for me seems to be shutting down and doing ANYTHING else.

      Reading the new Jesmyn Ward book last night helped a lot. She opens her book with “I don’t want to write this book, but I have to” and, strangely, that was some good timing.

  1. donnaeve

    What’s your cure when the panic sets in?

    It’s hard to say, because I swear to you, I have those moments within seconds of feeling the utmost confidence. I can’t explain it. Happy, satisfied, and on an up beat, and then the potential alarm. Which causes me to back up a few pages and read those to see if they are as shitty as what set of the panic to begin with. SIGH.

    When panic lasts longer than I want it to, I drink and write. Sometimes it turns out great. And when it doesn’t, I can blame the wine.

    1. Teri Post author

      Ha! I can edit, possibly add a new little paragraph or two, with a glass of wine, but that’s it. And after one glass …. nada. I like your strategy of going back and reading another section.

      And as you said, these flashes of panic seem to come after a period of relative confidence, and something in that makes me wonder if there’s more to it. Do women, for instance, panic in this way differently than men? No idea, but I’d love to hear from some men writers.

    1. Teri Post author

      Maybe it’s like smiling when you’re sad …. if you fake it long enough you become it. 🙂

      As for eating when freaking out … eating is such a constant cure for ALL moods I don’t even list it anymore. I love a full refrigerator, and I’m not even kidding.

  2. Lyra

    Oh the panic. Yes, it’s horrible.
    I hide from it and then try to convince myself that although the writing is horrible, it’s the best I can do right now. Then I grab a beer and think about why writing always seemed to be my “thing”, you know? Before I ever wrote anything, I wanted to be someone who wrote the books I read, back in the Roald Dahl, Judy Blume days. I run through how it’s alright if it doesn’t work out, how I just haven’t found my thing yet, yadda, yadda, and then I go back to how it’ll only get better if I keep doing it and stop thinking about it.
    Thinking about writing never made anyone a better writer.
    And then I write (I say, knowing I haven’t written in quite some time…).

    1. Teri Post author

      In my head, everything sounds so pure and perfect and fantastic, and then I sit down to figure out where it goes and *poof*, nothing goes with anything else and off I go to Panic Land.

      This is all so much easier with short pieces. Easier to wrangle them, maybe, without all of the spare parts flying off.

      I was listening to a Maria Sharapova (tennis) interview earlier this week. She was explaining that in the smaller, routine matches she can think about her opponents’ weaknesses, her own strengths, strategy, shifting gears to win, etc… but that when she’s playing another top player, like Serena, this kind of thinking is the LAST thing that works, that this is the time she has to just go out and play hard by instinct and let all the hard work she’s put in pay off. A little like writing, no?

      (thank you, Lyra, for leading me to that connection)

      1. Lyra

        I’m getting ready to go back in and this is such a perfect analogy. In the long pieces it’s about no one’s strengths, no one’s weaknesses but our own. Now the job becomes to play as hard and as well as we have trained to do. Yes, Teri.

  3. sherrystanfastanley

    I try the usual self-lecture: “It’s better to get something, anything, on the paper. I can always make it better later.” Then I pray that later comes sooner–or at least comes at all… Glad your agony was short-lived. Which clearly means you were on-track from the get-go.

    1. Teri Post author

      This definitely works for me in the earlier draft stages, but it’s getting harder now that I have so much down on paper, so much invested. I see now it’s nothing but pure fear. I read somewhere today that human beings do 80% of what we do based on fear instead of desire. Isn’t that crazy?!?!

  4. jpon

    Mostly the panic comes from a fear that readers will find my writing and ideas naive and unrealistic. Happens at least once a week. What works best for me is reading really good writing. It inspires me to go deeper into the characters and story, to do more research and work out the weaker aspects. To be honest, I need that feeling once in a while to keep me from becoming too confident about my writing.

    1. Teri Post author

      Reading really good writing. That’s what happened when I woke up to read the new Jesmyn Ward book, and it’s why I’ve been rereading some old favorites lately, the kind of books I feel are beyond my ability to write myself but the ones I swoon over.

      I remember when I stared this memoir, my biggest fear was writing about other people. Over the years that fear has dissipated a great deal, with more words on the pages, but the new fear of my own failure to tell the story has grown exponentially. Maybe it’s good for me in the end.

  5. independentclause

    “Pure fear” yes I think I’m entering that phase.

    I also close the laptop, do something else, do the dishes, go for a walk, run an errand, drink, read, go to bed, some combination of the above, and look at it again tomorrow.

    And I just ordered “The Men We Reap” from the library.

    1. Teri Post author

      Walk the dogs, EAT, cook for someone, watch sports, have a glass or 3 of wine and shut down for the night. One thing I used to do when I was stuck (in writing, in life) was call my mother and have a chat — 12 years on and I still can’t find a replacement for that, the one person who was always available — sadly, you’re always home and available when you’re sick — and had all the time I needed and gave it happily.

      1. independentclause

        Me too. God. So true. I used to call her in airports when I was bored, in the middle of copyediting when I needed a break, when I had a question about laundry or pie, for no reason whatsoever.

  6. jameskeeneyhill

    You’re not supposed to write about this topic, or even mention it…:) I think when it hits it’s time to walk away. Taking a walk usually helps. Sometimes I’ve found myself hating every word of every sentence, and when that happens, I know that’s not possible. So it’s time to walk away, and when I come back, I usually realize that some portion of the piece set me off because it wasn’t getting to the truth, or strangely enough, I had gone through a lazy spell and forgot to be creative. Nice blog you have here.

    1. Teri Post author

      Thanks, James. It is like one of those things we aren’t supposed to talk about lest it become permanently true. I’m with you, in the walk-away-just-walk-away camp.

      And … welcome to the Library. It’s a good crowd.

  7. Catherine

    Great post Teri. Oh the panic. When my work turns on me like that I run away, pray my feelings will change, try to remember the ideas I believed in at the outset. I swim or jog, shop and cook as well, go away from writing for a bit into other worlds. It happens more when I’m overtired, so I look for sleep. I think it’s a phase you have to go through if you’re half-serious about writing. Do you think Hemingway believed in every sentence or story line he threw together?

    1. Teri Post author

      Oh Cat. Your last line = so true. I’m the opposite, I think, in that I start to get the best ideas and ways to move the story forward when I’m tired, or rather when I’m winding down. The mind relaxes, maybe I stop trying so hard?

  8. girl in the hat

    I get on my spin bike and stuff earbuds in my ears and stay there until euphoria happens, goddamnit. Or maybe I go thrift shopping and forget myself moving metal hangars along a metal bar. (Today it’s the first rain of the season and I’m snugged under the covers, reading a certain arc by a certain someone we both know. I can’t think of much else and haven’t for days. Sometimes, I’m glad I read so slowly!)

    1. Teri Post author

      It IS the first rain of the season and we’re enjoying it as well, Anna. I read that book you’re reading — the one by our certain someone — last weekend and loved every minute. Enjoy.

  9. JustAnotherEmpress

    Oh, the panic. It’s funny, panic hits me in every corner of my being EXCEPT writing. Writing-related stuff, oh yeah. Publishing, editing, talking on the phone. Any interaction whatsoever with gatekeepers. Trying to get a better deal with Comcast. Negotiating curfew with my teen. All of those things raise my blood pressure and render me naked.

    Writing is my drug. My cure for panic.

    1. Teri Post author

      Now this, Suzy, is the shift in perspective that I need. Writing is the cure. In the end, this is the absolute truth.

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