The Mad Tea Party — Pull Up A Chair.
June 24, 2009

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Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. `I don’t quite understand you,’ she said, as politely as she could.

`The Dormouse is asleep again,’ said the Hatter, and he poured a little hot tea upon its nose.

The Dormouse shook its head impatiently, and said, without opening its eyes, `Of course, of course; just what I was going to remark myself.’

`Have you guessed the riddle yet?’ the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

`No, I give up,’ Alice replied: `what’s the answer?’

`I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.

`Nor I,’ said the March Hare.

At times it feels like being a writer means a guaranteed seat at the Mad Tea Party. When the words you committed to the page so proudly yesterday read like the Dormouse talking in its sleep today, and plot holes looming as large as sinkholes threaten to suck down your house and family, that’s when you know your coffee has been replaced with Mad Hatter tea.

See? There’s the March Hare, cocking his head and regarding you quite peculiarly. There’s the Mad Hatter, (to your dismay), happily eating your partial with butter and jam.

Enter those doubting moments, those crises of confidence as you look around the table, taking in the Dormouse asleep in his chair with his fuzzy chin resting in a tea cup. Hopefully my real readers won’t fall asleep like that, you think, or use one of my pages for a bib, like the March Hare.

Is some of it good? we plead with ourselves as we hover around the computer, afraid to read it back. Please let some of it be good! Or, if you’ve just finished a novel, wondering, Can I do it again, can I really pull this off? Maybe I’m just a big-old fraud and someone’s going to figure it out any second now!

You may be interested to know that many writers, from the struggling to the renowned, have their Mad Tea Party moments. The excerpts below are from the book, Writing In Flow: keys to enhanced creativity by Susan K. Perry.

Few writers, of course, are completely predictable in their psychological tenor, and time spent creating isn’t always euphoric. As novelist Hilma Wolitzer says, writing is a “sickening joy.” Aimee Liu told me, “I mean there’s a certain amount of anxiety that I’m just not going to be able to pull it off.” Likewise, novelist Susan Taylor Chehak describes her seesawing mood:

“I love what I do. I don’t think there’s anybody happier with what they do. I get to lie around and read novels, I get to teach classes and talk about books. You caught me on a good day, though. … I’m ready to jump out a window a lot of times. It comes and goes. There’s a time when it gets to be extremely lonely. If I’m in a difficult place and I can’t figure out how to get out of it, or it doesn’t feel like it’s going right, or I don’t feel good about what I’m doing, then it’s so lonely, because there’s no one to talk to about it. You can’t take your problem to anybody and say, what do you think I should do? Should I change this scene and put it later? That loneliness can really get to me. It’s really depressing.”

It’s why staying in touch with other writers is so important: they understand the writerly “tempests in teapots” (in keeping with the tea party theme) we may experience from time to time.

My own tempests are more of the sort Susan K. Perry describes when she quotes writer Bernard Cooper:

“I’m infinitely scared that the work is somehow bad in a way that I can’t see, or that I won’t be able to do it anymore, or I’m going to make an idiot out of myself. Believe me, there’s a whole slew of things I’m terrified of. But the images, that’s where the joy is for me. …

When I get back a self-addressed stamped envelope, I feel as though I’m going to faint as I open it, and it’s not so much because, chances are great there will be a rejection, but because I just don’t want somebody to have written something that will depress me, like, “Well, I really like the last piece but you just didn’t …” or something like that. It’s the sense of bracing myself. … And when it’s just a form rejection, it’s “thank you, oh thank you!” I’m so glad.”

These tempests are part of the writing process for many of us, and the heightened drama, when diverted and invested into our plots and scenes, can be a writer’s blessing in disguise.

The truth is, the writer who faces the page each day is sometimes brave, sometimes scared, and ofttimes both; there, art is born. It’s art that sustains us during our teapot tempests so we can fill those pages with words.

Splash: there goes the inner critic, thrown overboard.

Splash: there goes the doubting mind, walking the plank.

Splash: there goes a shaky moment as the tempest recedes, and all that’s left is yourself, the computer and a blinking cursor, the muse running late, but you’re not worried.

 It is exciting to wake up each morning with a Mad Tea Party in waiting. And that’s when you realize two notable things:

1) that the Dormouse does look kinda sweet using your manuscript as a pillow, and 

2) that you wouldn’t give up your place at the table for all the Starbucks in the world.

Image courtesy of, Margaret O'Brien as Jane Eyre

Margaret O’Brien as Jane Eyre on set.

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