I’ve never had writer’s block. I can’t always write a strong enough piece for a website or anthology when I’m occasionally asked, but I never end up with a blank page (knock on wood). My writing problem is more that I have a difficult time writing something other than that specialized form of prose that so easily flies from my fingers, the literary genre known as “mortifying dreck.”
But I once experienced something like writer’s block. I suffered a creative paralysis that, like writer’s block, was brought on by external forces, and was as stressful and debilitating as the real thing. What better subject, I thought, for an introductory post on a site called The Nervous Breakdown?
I was living in Seattle at the time,
and hadn’t been writing that long. One afternoon, an e-mail from McSweeney’s writer Paul Collins arrived, asking if I would like to read with him at the Elliott Bay Book Company, where he was appearing with Sherman Alexie, Dan Savage, Tommy Wallach, and Ellen Forney. Paul was on book tour to promote his line of out of print books republished by McSweeney’s. Casually, at the end of the e-mail, Paul said I would simply have to read something from my favorite out of print book. Was I interested?
Was I interested?!
Was he kidding? Here was a small dream, coming true. I hadn’t really thought of myself as a writer, but the world, manifested as Paul Collins, was telling me that I was, and bestowing the hallowed status of litterateur upon me, at least for as long as the reading would last.
I fired an e-mail right back. I would love to read from my favorite out of print book! What writer would pass on an opportunity to share a winsome piece of secret literary knowledge with the book-store-going public? It seemed like the sort of thing writers did. And this was what I was now, apparently, a writer. I mean, Paul Collins was saying so.
The invitation was sweetened by the promised venue. It is every Seattle would-be writer’s dream to read at the Elliott Bay Book Company. That brick room in the basement, lined with hardback classics and adjacent to the bakery cafe that inspired the set on Frasier, holds a special place in the heart of every Seattle book person.
For the next 48 hours I wandered around in a kind of vain delirium, thinking I had arrived and feeling proud. Me! Featured at a McSweeney’s event at the Elliott Bay Book Company!
I imagined my introduction. How I would humbly nod as the audience clapped.
“Sean Carman, Literary Figure,” I said to myself, trying on the words for size.
This dreamy, fugue-state engagement with reality continued until, two days later, a thought that had somehow stayed hidden appeared to me, bringing me back to earth.
I didn’t own any out of print books.
In fact, I had never read any out of print books.
Come to think of it, I couldn’t name a single out of print book.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel like a writer so much as a pretender who had been lured in over his head. The youngster drafted into the big kids’ pick-up game, who had no move to the basket and no shot.
Sherman Alexie, for example. He no doubt had basement rooms of out of print books. For him, the assignment simply meant browsing his private library, which was probably decorated with Tiffany lamps and those stylish rolling ladders. I imagined him, in his smoking jacket, running his fingers along his favorite antiquarian titles and pulling out the perfect thing to read for Paul Collins.
But I didn’t have a basement library, a rolling ladder, or a smoking jacket. Nor did I own, or even know of, a single out of print book. The truth hit home: At my public reading debut, in the best place I could imagine to be introduced as a writer, I would have nothing to say. I was, I realized, about to make a fool of myself.
Looking back, I’m amazed it took two days for all of this to occur to me. What was I thinking? Did I trick myself into believing I had a home library of antiquarian books? Did I think some charming piece of literary antiquity would just fall on me, out of the sky?
Concern grew into mild terror as I began a crash tour of Seattle’s used book stores. As I plowed their shelves (and, being a coffee city, Seattle has many used book stores), a second grim truth revealed itself, one that also should have been obvious but only dawned slowly, and late in the day: Books generally go out of print for a reason.
I went to great lengths in the next three weeks to find something — anything — of even marginal interest to read to an audience. I looked everywhere. There was nothing. I even took a day trip to Victoria, British Columbia, traveling four hours roundtrip by hydrofoil to spend a short afternoon at Wells Books, a quirky antiquarian bookseller that has since moved to Nova Scotia. I doubt Paul Collins imagined that any of his guest writers would be so desperate as to flee the country by hydrofoil in search of material, but that is what I did.
Luckily, at Wells Books I came across “Ian Fleming: The Fantastic 007 Man,” Richard Gant’s pulp biography classic, published in 1966 by Lancer Books.
I was so happy to find this book, I cannot tell you. If he is still around, I would like to specially thank Mr. Gant for penning such an unintentionally comic masterpiece as “The Fantastic 007 Man.”
Listen, for example, to the teaser on the cover: “Sexy, stylish, sensational — the full story of a full life in the success book that caused a scandal in switched-on England”!
The most remarkable thing about this claim is that it has not been translated from a foreign language. English, apparently, was Gant’s native tongue.
On the inside cover, Gant promises to answer the most tantalizing question of all: “Was James Bond himself really a thinly disguised version of Ian Fleming?”
Chills the spine, doesn’t it?
But I think we know the answer. Yes, writers tend to imbue their protagonists with autobiographical details. But unless Ian Fleming carried a booby-trapped attache case, drove an Aston Martin DB5 with a hidden onboard machine gun, and received orders from the British Secret Service to save humanity from madmen bent on planetary destruction, James Bond could not have been a thinly — or even a thickly — disguised version of him.
The cover photo is also a thing of beauty, depicting, as it does, a distraught Clairol model holding Ian Fleming’s shoulder and imploring him to . . . to what, exactly? Be careful writing his next spy thriller? You can almost hear her pleas: “I know it’s something you have to do, Ian. But the risks — the plot complications, the problems of characterization — they scare me.”
“The Fantastic 007 Man” was a gushing fountain of quality material. It was a gift that delivered me from my creative paralysis. My relief was complete because I had struggled so desperately. I had not been in the death grip of writer’s block, but I may as well have been. The creativity I needed to call upon was absent, the forces withholding it invisible and seemingly beyond my control. I was under the gun to write something, but I had nothing to say.
In the end, I lucked into something even better to read than the Richard Gant. In Boswell’s London Journals, which aren’t really out of print but are close enough, I found a remarkable exchange of letters between Boswell and the British philosopher David Hume. At the reading, I stood up and read some excerpts of Boswell’s journals that tell that story, and it seemed to go over pretty well.
After the reading, a woman from the audience came up to me, put her hand on my shoulder, and with a smile and a twinkle in her eye said, “God bless you.” I guess she really needed to hear that James Boswell – David Hume story, and this was her way of saying thanks. If she had only known the tortured journey I had taken to bring her that story.
Sadly, she wandered off before I could tell her.