M. Paul Emanuel, a professor of Literature and director of the school play in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, advises Lucy Snowe, about to take the stage, to “not look at the crowd, nor [to] think of it… Imagine yourself in the garret, acting to the rats.”*
It’s funny that M. Paul/Brontë addresses one fear (performing in public) by referencing another fear (rats), unless people weren’t as afraid of rodents in the more rural mid-19th Century as they are now (maybe the connection to disease wasn’t as obvious, despite the Black Plague; the “miasma” theory of infection was still commonplace then). I happen to be terribly afraid of rodents, and so would much prefer performing in a public venue to spending any amount of time in the company of rats. I don’t even want to think about rats, not even domesticated ones.
Nevertheless, M. Paul has a point, and while it probably doesn’t work for everyone, many adhere to versions of this advice when trying to overcome performance anxiety. From the stage, the audience largely vanishes in the dark seating area anyway.
Could M. Paul’s advice, sans rats, also work for those wrestling with writer’s block?
To the extent that perfectionism lies at the heart of both stage fright and writer’s block, the advice is likely useful. Perfectionism results in the paralyzing fear that our work is flawed, whether it’s a vocal performance, the opening statement of a trial, or a piece of creative writing. We’re afraid that our best efforts won’t please our audience: the ticket holders, the jurors/judge, or the readers. It makes us clam up on stage, fumble over our words, or doom our manuscripts to a state of perpetual tweaking. (See my previous post, Perfectionism and Publishing).
These fears can debilitate us even in the earliest stages of our work because we get too far ahead of ourselves. We imagine the reception (or lack thereof) of our work when we should be focusing on plot and character development.
So, for those of us too concerned about the audience, it makes sense to take a step back and think of the earlier stages of a draft as akin to a diary, meant for our eyes only. Some people like to share early drafts with critique partners and writer’s groups, scene by scene, and I’m sure there are benefits to this method. For me, though, the anxiety would be too much. The time for sharing is later. Words flow more easily when the only ones familiar with my newest projects are my cats; they can’t read, but they’re far more useful with the rodents than I am.
*The Villette-along continues; check out the discussion on Twitter (#villettealong) and the Vol. I Wrap-Ups: