The writing life can be the strangest swing from hyper-solitary to hyper-social. I’ve touched on this before in a guest post on Writer Unboxed, but it seems like a shock to the system every time I come up for air from a draft.
I spent November through the end of February knee deep in my book. In March, when I took a break and dropped a little social activity into my life, it felt weird. Vocal tics ran wild. My voice went horse quickly. I struggled to turn my thoughts into conversation. Much like trying to run after months of being couch-bound, my brain needed practice thinking and talking about things happening outside of my imagination.
I was scheduled to speak on a panel at AWP16. While promoting my last book, I’d gotten completely comfortable with public speaking, but suddenly the old nerves were back. What if I couldn’t pull myself together? What if the draft I’d just finished had broken my brain? I decided to give myself a boost by adding some new tricks to my anxiety-busting tool kit.
I also read an Atlantic article highlighting a study by Alison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School about changing inner dialogue from “I’m so nervous,” to “I’m so excited!” (but not in the Saved By the Bell kind of way). Since the wiring of both situations are similar, we can fool ourselves into turning nerves into enthusiasm. It totally works!
And then I have a trick of my own invention. It’s a little weird, but so am I. If you’ve ever studied voice, or used to sing in high school chorus, hopefully you’ll remember the technique of diaphragmatic breathing. If not, here’s a guide. Singing with proper breath control provides the exact same goodness of the deep breathing involved in many meditation practices. Using a song that requires attention to breath (I like Lesson VII from the Vaccai Practical Method of Italian Singing, because I’m a nerd), I practice singing in a calm space. Then, when I’m out in the world and start feeling nervous, I power pose and break into song, spinning like I’m Maria in The Sound of Music and then…Just kidding! I run through the words of the song silently in my head, and my body remembers the calm feeling I had when I was actually singing it.
These tricks combined with solid talking points prep time worked swimmingly, and I had a blast at my AWP panel. Plus, the experience changed the way I think about nervousness. It’s not a fatal flaw. It’s merely something to manage. I carry food in my purse if I think I’ll need a snack, and now I keep a song in my head if I suspect I’ll be jittery.
I decided to ask some friends how they handle the shift from private to public when it’s time to get out and talk about their books again. Here’s what they had to say:
Kathryn Craft – “Before being a writer I was a dancer, where nerves could literally knock you on your butt. I would stand backstage and say to myself, “Share with this audience how very much you love what you do.” The mantra never let me down (okay there was that one time I fell back on my butt, but I rolled right back up, and I do believe it improved the choreography) and it works just as well for any public appearance. People came to rub elbows with your passion. Just share it!”
Andrea Lochen – “I prepare some hand-written notes, but not an entire speech, and I practice a few times beforehand. I make eye contact with the smiling, nodding audience members and ignore the dozing old man in the front row. I pause to breathe or take a sip or water. Also, it can really help to do a joint reading with a friend or acquaintance if you’re able. This takes some of the pressure off yourself to perform and you tend to feed off each others’ positive energy. Having a “conversation with two authors” where you’re both sitting in chairs, kind of facing both each other and the audience is one of my favorite author event formats!”
Renee Rosen – “One thing that has really helped me is creating a slideshow for each of my books. Because they’re historical fiction there’s always lots of interesting images to use and it’s a great crutch—keeps me on track with my talking points”
Cassandra Dunn – “When I can, I bring someone…my sister, a reliable friend, so I have someone to talk to if no one in the audience approaches me before/after, and so I have a friendly face to search out in the audience while I’m speaking. Aside from that, I just fake it. And so far no one’s called me out on being an imposter. It’s a very strange part of this life, going from introverted writer to extroverted sales rep.”
Lynn Cullen – “It gets easier every time, but this is coming from someone who walked out onto the stage at her first author appearance with the back of her long skirt tucked into her underwear. And I wasn’t wearing tights. It could only go up from there.”
Colleen Oakley – “It gets better— with each event I do, I start to feel more comfortable and less like someone is going to stand up in the crowd, point at me, and yell “IMPOSTER!”
Julie Buxbaum – “I meditate in the morning to relax, and then caffeinate before the event to get my personality back. when the adrenaline starts pumping I always remind myself that though I don’t find it comfortable, it’s not bad, and is actually necessary for me to perform my best. I need the nerves. It’s just part of the process.”
Brunonia Barry – “I start with a reading, but a VERY short one. It seems to ground me and calms my voice. Then I try to say something funny (though not about the reading, usually about my circuitous route to becoming a writer). And, like Julie, I also meditate, but I can’t have caffeine before I speak.”
Heather Webb – “I’m an extrovert, technically, but sort of a middle of the spectrum E instead of full-on. In other words, I still get nervous before just about every session I teach or every book talk, despite 15 years of being in front of people. What works best for me is to practice a few points aloud while alone so that the material feels familiar to me when I begin. It helps calm the nerves because I feel more prepared.”
Barbara Claypole White – “I tell myself that I’m the leading authority in the world on my books. That’s an empowering thought.”
Mary Sharratt – “Rehearse your reading in front of a mirror. I rehearse at least 4 times before my first reading on tour. I write a script. I can deviate from this script, but I always have the script to fall back on. I don’t read a huge chunk of the book, but 3 or 4 shorter sections, 5 minutes long tops, and talk in between to explain the historical context of my characters. I try to interject humor. I also appear in costume so the “me” that’s up in front of the audience isn’t the Mary that’s sitting at the computer typing this. I become a different persona when I’m up there.”
Kathleen McCleary – “I second the “costume” idea. I work in yoga pants and a cashmere sweater full of moth holes. When my first book was out on submission and I was meeting lots of editors in NY, my agent made me go to a personal shopper and get an entire outfit (including shoes and handbag) so I’d look good and could convince them I’d be a great image/marketing tool for my book. Ever since, I make sure I have something to wear that makes me feel great when I do a book event. It may not be the most expensive outfit ever, but if I feel like a million bucks in it, I feel more confident. There’s a lot of power in a pair of killer shoes, too.”
Ann Mah – “Along the lines of Kathleen McCleary’s great advice: For me true confidence comes from having my hair blown out and wearing lipstick.”
What do you do to calm the jitters?
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