Monday, October 02, 2006

The Imp of the Perverse

Here's one of the photos Inez took of my toothbrush after Ricky had his way with it. This is also a good metaphor for how I feel at the moment: frazzled, out of sorts, and slightly out of focus. The past few mornings, I've woken up in a knot of anxiety, with cramped muscles and churning stomach. My best guess is that most of this is nervousness about the Silver Pen Award ceremony, which is tomorrow night.

Before I go on, let me emphasize two things. First, I'm genuinely delighted to have won the award. I love Nevada, and being recognized as a Nevada writer means a lot to me. And secondly, I know that a lot of writers would love to have this kind of problem. I don't want anyone to think that I'm ungrateful.

But, at the same time, fancy award ceremonies often send me into a weird state of panic.

This isn't fear of public speaking; I'm perfectly comfortable doing readings at bookstores, preaching at church, talking to my classes. I didn't have any trouble at the ALA Alex Award panel in New Orleans in June, maybe because that was really a panel rather than an awards ceremony. And this isn't will-I-win anxiety, either, because I know I've won; it's not like there's a shortlist and I'm waiting for them to open the envelope. (I don't know how people in that position deal with it. I'd melt down entirely.)

In 1993, I won a Crawford Award for Flying in Place. The fine folks at Tor Books flew me down to Florida, to the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, so I could accept the award. As with the Silver Pen, I knew ahead of time that I'd won. There was no suspense.

But the minute I got off the plane in Florida, my brain was seized by the Imp of the Perverse. If there was something I could screw up, I did, starting with going to the wrong place to get the hotel shuttle. If there was some way for me to put my foot in my mouth, I did. I probably offended a lot of people that weekend (and if any of them are reading this, I hope they'll accept my apologies!) I couldn't do anything right.

This went on for the two days until the award ceremony. I was wearing a long skirt with a zipper down the back. At the end of the stage farthest from me were the stairs leading up to the podium. When they called my name, the rational part of my brain said, "Okay, now go to the far end of the stage and walk up the stairs."

But the Imp of the Perverse said, "No, no, that will take too long! Get onto the stage from the other end, instead! You can do it!"

The Imp won.

I scrambled up the wrong side of the stage. In the process, the zipper on my skirt gave way, and I wound up holding the skirt on with one hand clamped behind my back. At that point, anything gracious I'd been planning to say flew right out of my head: I mumbled some very garbled thanks, took my award plaque in my free hand, and escaped down the correct end of the stage. (The Imp went back to sleep the second I'd actually accepted the award; I was fine the rest of the weekend.) David Hartwell, who was waiting at the bottom of the stairs to take my picture, told me later, "I didn't know what had happened, but I knew that you didn't look like someone who'd just won an award for her first novel, so I decided not to take the picture."

I was sitting at a table in the back. To get there without exposing my backside -- which was covered by a long blouse, luckily -- I slid along the ballroom wall, with my back to it, until I was as close to my table as possible: then I made a dash to get there. When the people at my table realized what had happened, they cracked up. Then people at neighboring tables started cracking up. Then people at the front of the room started shushing us, because someone else was accepting another award, and we were being rude.

I'm eternally grateful to the supremely kind and competent Suzy McKee Charnas, who found a couple of safety pins and then managed to fix the zipper. (She's an amazing writer, too.) And the experience did teach me that most of the time, the worst thing you can imagine really isn't that bad. This was the real live version of that "I'm accepting an award and my clothing falls off" nightmare, but nothing horrible happened. It turned into a very funny story, one I've since used to reassure people who felt self-conscious about some public blunder. "You think you're a dork? Hey, listen to this!"

But the Imp of the Perverse has already started doing some warm-up jigs around the Silver Pen.

Thursday, there was a story about the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame awards in our local paper. At work on Thursday, a few people congratulated me, and one colleague made the offhand comment, "I went to that award ceremony a few years ago. All the Reno glitterati will be there."

My stomach immediately knotted. I'd been fussing about what to wear anyway -- nothing with zippers, for sure! -- even though Gary keeps telling me, "You're one of the guests of honor. You can wear whatever you want." I tend to feel acutely self-conscious around Rich Beautiful People even when I'm not accepting an award; there are all kinds of class-based childhood insecurities I haven't managed to outgrow yet, although I'm working on it. So the phrase "glitterati" kicked my anxieties into high gear.

Yesterday morning at church, a few people congratulated me, too, but church is the equivalent of my living room, so that was fine. My homily went well, and I had time to swim in the afternoon before my hospital shift.

Then I walked into the hospital, and people starting saying, "Hey! I saw your picture in the paper! Congratulations!" I mean, lots of people. A couple of admitting clerks, a doctor, at least seven nurses. I'd been wondering if any hospital folks had seen the article, but I'd figured that there'd be at most one or two of them, and that most people who see me at the hospital wouldn't recognize me out of context, anyway. (One nurse told me, "I kept thinking, She looks really familiar; how do I know her? And then I finally figured it out.")

And the Imp of the Perverse woke right up. I felt really awkward accepting the congratulations, and I know I said a bunch of stuff that must have sounded very ungracious, and that didn't even quite parse as actual English. Towards the end of the shift, I managed to tell someone, "I'm very surprised and flattered that so many people here even noticed," but before that, it was all slightly snarky-sounding gabble, and I feel really bad about that. Along the way, I managed to commit a howling double-entendre with a male nurse, on another topic entirely, although the way he teased me about it -- "Aren't you supposed to be part of a religious order or something? Don't they screen you people?" -- probably means that he really did know that I wasn't trying to hit on him.

Oh, lordy.

All in all, not a terrific shift, especially since there wasn't a lot for me to do patient-wise. We had our share of sad and dramatic cases, but none of those people wanted to talk to me.

Some of my verbal clumsiness may just have been fatigue, since I'd had to get up at 6:00 a.m. to preach. But I'm pretty sure that a lot of it was the Imp of the Perverse.

So I'm already scared about tomorrow night, especially since I'm still not sure what to wear -- I'll do a quick shopping run later today -- and since the awards ceremony has created some technical difficulties at work, like my having to cut one of my classes short. It's going to be a rushed and chaotic day.

Am I a Neurotic Writer, or what?

If you have any prayers or charms to quiet perverse Imps, and to make me feel less like a spindled and mutilated toothbrush, please let me know!


  1. Try this. I am a woman of experience and achievement. I can hold my head up high in any company. I can look the devil full in the face and spit in his eye.

    If you can deal with the boss, what notice do you need to take of a mere imp?

  2. What you are describing sounds a lot like stage fright. Were you this nervous the first time you preached? Do the two incidents have any similarities?

    Or is this perhaps one of those odd feelings of not belonging up my "I'm in the wrong place" but in your case..."I don't belong here"

    If this is stage fright, what you need to do is take 3 cleansing breaths before you go on stage. When you go onto the stage focus on reaching the podium. Then once up there find one person in the audience to focus in on (about 5th row out is good), look them straight in the eyes, and speak only to them. The rest of the audience won't know. And it gives you fewer people to deal with mentally.

    If this is the "I don't belong up here getting this award" stuff then go read the book of someone you really admire and happen to know, then pop them an email asking how they felt when getting up on stage for their award. I bet it wasn't any easier for them. I'm not trying to make light of your feelings. What I'm trying to point out is that lots of others probably have them too. And they probably survived them and you will too.

    In the meantime...for what it is worth...I think you deserve the award and then some! So go get one of those basic black dresses, put on some pearls, and knock 'em dead! Yay Susan! :-)


  3. Thanks, Martyn and Lee!

    Martyn: Intellectually, I know all that, but this isn't an intellectual problem. (Although I believe neither in literal demons nor in possession, the appropriate metaphor would be that the imp is using me as a puppet: it feels like being out of control from the inside, so it's not a matter of facing something external.)

    Lee: No, it's not stage fright. I do fine in front of audiences most of the time (and the saving grace of this event is that it will include a short reading, something I'm good at). I think the anxiety comes from impostor-syndrome I-don't-belong-here issues, especially when the other people are mostly dressed-up strangers. The event's happening at a very swank golf club, which doesn't help.

    Once in college, a boyfriend and I attended a party given by some family friends of his. These folks were mega-wealthy: they had a huge house, their own tennis courts, and uniformed servants. The servants happened to be black, while the family was white. The whole scene really gave me the creeps.

    I've never been very comfortable at swank parties anyway -- I'd much rather be talking to homeless alcoholics in the ER -- but I was so ill at ease at this particular event that I automatically fled into my time-honored strategy of offering to help in the kitchen. Which meant, in this case, that I walked up to one of the uniformed black servants and said pleadingly, "Do you need help? Is there anything I can do?"

    The poor woman stared at me like I'd lost my mind. She probably thought I was trying to steal her job.

    As for author anxiety, I know that other people go through this; my editor tells me it's common. Nonetheless, it keeps happening.

    As for the outfit: I'm very definitely not a little-black-cocktail-dress and pearls person. But I did buy a long flowing black skirt, and I have a pretty flowered top to wear with it. Neither of these garments has buttons or zippers, so I hope everything will be fine! ;-)

  4. Ah! I understand. I've been there. In this situation the audience is not one of your choosing either which doesn't help. I'm so sorry you have to go through this. Your anxiety about this situation will be added to my prayer list.

    I'm getting better at finding my inner self esteem and sense of rightness no matter where I am. Did I tell you I was hiding in a crowd at my church for almost 3 years? I wish I could tell you exactly what turned the trick for me but somewhere during Cursillo when I was talking to my Spiritual Director, who gave me unconditional love pointing out the beauty and richness of my personality and character, and the aftermath of that wonderful process I started finding the beauty God sees in me. This is so wonderful for me that I find it hard to analyze it yet because I just want to savor for awhile. A couple of the things I think have helped me recently are The Four Agreements and Life of the Beloved. I know you say your reading list is way too long but if you can move one or both of those to the top of the list and skim the first chapter or two maybe you would find some resource you could use. JSD tells me that she finds Life of the Beloved a book she can't put down. In the meantime, I'm praying for you.

    That outfit sounds beautiful. I suspect you look really good in long flowing outfits. Are you a tall woman? When the award ceremony is over can you please post a picture of you looking all spiffed up?

    Peace, Hope and Joy!

  5. I don't think I meant anything external (the 'devil' has his address right here between my eyes) So the imp must be internal.

    Okay how to deal with it; try looking at yourself in a mirror and imagine yourself in the audience. However smartly dressed the 'you' in the audience is, whatever the diamonds on the bosom, no matter how handsome the Rhett Butler at your side, the 'you' in the mirror with all her misgivings and human failings is the reason you are in the audience. You admire that woman in the mirror. You wish you could write like her. You wish you could teach like her. You wish you could preach like her. You wish you could do good like her. The prospect of actually meeting the you in the mirror makes you feel all squirrelly in that plush seat. And guess what? There's a whole audience who wish they could be you.

    I know your feeling - I could list my faux pas, detail my convictions of inadequacy - but those people have come to honour you. What more evidence do you need that you are worth it, that you have earned their respect, that you deserve the honour?

    As for the imp, put out some milk and cookies, and a note telling him he's not coming tonight. And when you get back, flushed with the splendour of the evening, take that award and show it to him. Okay, big guy, let's compare medals.

    Whatever, enjoy every second.

  6. Here's a quote from Roger Babson: If things go wrong, don't go with them. Maybe this is something you could use as a little reminder when the Imp begins whispering in your ear.

    Best of Luck!

  7. Thanks for the tips, Lee and Martyn and JSD! Lee: no, I'm a short woman, but I'll try to remember to post a photo. Martyn: I like the milk and cookies idea. JSD: nice quotation!

    Yesterday I was talking to some friends at work about this, and one of them said, "Okay, clearly this is happening because you're such a fabulous writer that the universe needs you to make some goofs to show people you're still humble."

    Whereupon I coughed very hard and then said, "Oh, yeah, THAT makes me feel humble," and we all laughed.

  8. Ha! You think YOU'RE a dork? Listen to THIS:

    The day before our wedding, Peter and I had an aufruf. This is a Jewish thing (a pet-loving Jewish punster we know calls it a Woof-Woof) where soon-to-be-newlyweds are called forward during the regular Saturday morning torah service to get a special blessing and generally be made the center of a big fuss. Singing, dancing, candy-throwing, hoo-hah.

    Besides our regular friends at Peter's minyan, a lot of other friends and a bunch of his relatives were there. He and I were nervous enough to arrive a few minutes before the service began (standard operating procedure for Peter, maybe, but not for me or most of the regular worshippers). So we went down to the basement to get a cup of coffee. Well, what would YOU wear for your appearance as about-to-be-bride-of-honor at a traditional, conservative religious service? Why, an off-white silk skirt suit, of course! Can you guess the rest?

    Peter and I have an unspoken agreement that there's no point in assigning responsibility for the botched coffee handoff to either one of us. Bottom line--THREE minutes before the aufruf I'm standing there in the basement, covered in coffee, hyperventilating and repeating to myself, "I'm NOT going to freak out. I'm NOT going to yell at anyone. I'm NOT going to let this ruin my day." The only problem was I couldn't figure out what I WAS going to do.

    So a couple of nice onlookers, whom I never saw again, did something with a large navy-blue scarf and some safety pins, and I went up to my aufruf wearing an off-white silk skirt suit plus something that looked kind of like a navy-blue girl scout badge sash. I'm told I didn't really appear to be a basket case (even though I kind of felt like one of the glassy-eyed, staring variety). I spent much of the early part of the service thinking "Wow, I really REEK of coffee! I wonder whether anyone else can smell it?" I didn't really want to make a big deal out of it by starting to ask people, "Excuse me, I've just been the victim of a ridiculous pre-nuptial pratfall, do I smell?."

    When it came down to it, though, the singing, dancing, candy-throwing hoo-hah part became another totally touching, once-in-a-lifetime wedding memory.

    I can never remember this story without remembering that after the service someone came up to me and said, "Oh, I'm just going to be worried all day tomorrow that someone will spill something on my dress!"

    So: (1) at all costs, try to avoid drinking coffee at the event, and (2) no matter how big of a dork you feel, chances are there's someone else in the room who's an even bigger dork!

    No, seriously, here's my best advice: Just assume something's going to happen that will make you feel stupid. Rather than dreading it or trying to think about how to avoid it, try to short-circuit the whole process by going into the event imagining it's already happened and you've already overcome it. Maybe use the Crawford story--imagine it's that night but the skirt rip has already happened so you already feel better about it. Does that make sense?

  9. Hi, Claire! Great story! And yes, your approach makes sense. Thank you!

    Re coffee: I always just assume that I'm going to spill it. This is why I usually drink my morning coffee when I'm still in my jammies, but it's also why I very rarely wear light colors.

    I wear LOTS of black. Not just because it's arty, but because it hides spills. Although there is the problem of white cat hair -- but that's a subject for another post!

  10. Anonymous5:23 PM

    I have no idea what you can do to thwart the 'imp of the perverse', but next time he rules please write about it! LOL! I've had that 'pronged by the imp' experience, and reading about yours helped me put it in perspective. Thanks.

  11. You're welcome, Anon!


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