Before the launch of my debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, I lost 5lbs to performance terror. Painfully shy as a teenager, my mother and music teacher once had to conspire to sneak Valium backstage so I could perform a solo in the high school band. (It’s okay, we’re talking about the seventies.) Bottom line? I was never having a career that involved podiums or microphones.
The day of my first author reading, I attained a catatonic state of anxiety so complete that I believed my heart would stop as I opened my mouth to whisper, “Hello, I’m Barbara.” For someone with high blood pressure and a family history of heart troubles, that’s not an irrational fear.
Three months ago I launched my second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, with an extra 5lbs and a normal case of the jitters. What had changed from one book to the next? Endless exposure to my fear, which is standard treatment for an anxiety disorder? A slew of polished performances? Nope. Acceptance was the key.
I learned to accept that my flaws are part of my performance. Peel back my nerves about author events and you reveal the underlying fear—that instead of projecting the professional author persona, I would crack jokes, loose track of my thoughts, rumble off on tangents, and speak from the heart. Maybe even get a little tearful or start talking about my favorite gin. I routinely do all these things in my author events and they seem to work. As I open myself up to strangers, they open up to me. The comment I hear most often is, “You’re so real.” (And then we have great discussions about my favorite topic: invisible disabilities.)
Does this mean I’m a flake who doesn’t prepare her talks? Au contraire, my friends. I prepare the heck out of every event, but I leave enough wiggle room so that I can be me—so that I can veer off on tangents and go wherever the mood takes me. I like to think of it as prepared spontaneity.
Back to basics, how do I achieve a non-catatonic state of performance being?
(1) I go to loads of readings and watch A-list authors. I take notes and time their presentations. (I like to figure out how long they spend discussing the book, how long they read for, how long they leave for questions, etc.)
(2) I practice, practice, practice…. (Often I do this in the car, which means I get very strange looks at stoplights.)
(3) When I’ve figure out what I want to say, I give a dummy performance to the toughest critic I know: my husband. I’m cheating a little here, since my beloved is an internationally-renowned academic and a master performer. Really, I couldn’t pick a better coach.
(4) After my husband has told me what works and what doesn’t, I create a crib sheet with bullet points. As long as I cover those bullet points, I can be loosey-goosey. Also, if I get too far off track, I can glance down to see what I haven’t covered and rein myself it.
(5) Then I close my office door and using my crib sheet, I practice with a timer until the presentation works. This gives me a sense of how much I can talk around one particular point (for example, why I write about mental illness).
(6) I prepare several presentations of different length. This is key for book clubs. Some book clubs want a real performance; others want a brief introduction before discussion time. Again, if you’re prepared, you can seem spontaneous (even though you’re really not).
(7) I devote a huge chunk of time to practicing the reading portion of my event, marking words I stumble over or places where I want to pause to give backstory, inject an aside, or simply make use of silence.
(8) When my brain does implode mid-flow, which it did twice in a recent event, I turn it over to the audience and say, “There goes my middle-aged woman’s brain. What was I talking about?” When people shout out answers, you get to play twenty questions. 🙂
(9) If the nerves return to haunt me, I remind myself that I AM the leading expert in the world on my novel. Yes, we all make mistakes in research, but nothing you say about your characters or why you wrote the story can ever be wrong. You are performing your book. This is your passion, your creation, your baby. Be yourself and be proud.
What tricks do you have for getting through author events or other speaking engagements?
Barbara Claypole White writes and gardens in the forests of North Carolina. English born and educated, she’s married to an internationally-acclaimed academic. Their son, an award-winning poet/musician, attends college in the Midwest. His battles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have inspired her to write love stories about damaged people. THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. Barbara’s second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, a story of two broken families released on December 31.