#1 Fear Banished

098Among my many phobias, I’ve conquered only one. But it’s a biggie. The #1 ranked fear shared by so many: fear of public speaking. I hated presenting in college and high school, suffered through speech classes, shuddered to even introduce myself in a group.

That’s why I’m a writer. I work alone, communicate easily online, love my blog, am addicted to Twitter. The first time I walked into a classroom and realized that I had to actually talk to these people, I wanted to turn around and run back out. What was I thinking?

I was thinking a degree or two in English would be fun: lots of reading and writing, my favorite things. And I could teach, which to me seemed like discussing exactly what I loved. Ha. I was in denial about the “talking” part, and to this day I work really hard to get my students to do most of the talking in class.

xmas 09 001When I published my first book in 2007, I realized I needed to promote it at least a little bit. I had 1,000 copies in my closet that were not going to move themselves.

I arranged to give a two-part talk at my local library, and I only got through it because I took a pill that many actors and musicians use to stop the fear of public performance. I felt energized on that stage with a room full of people who had come to hear me. This was a very different audience from a room full of teenagers forced to read poetry and novels. I liked those talks and wished I could feel that way without meds.

Duty done, I went back to routinely refusing all offers to speak about my books. I read one poem at a writer’s function, because it won a prize and they paid me. When the hostess asked me to read the longer piece, which had also won, I declined. The poem was hard enough!

Just last week I was invited to read a poem or short bit of prose with a group of writers and I declined, automatically. And then I remembered: I wasn’t afraid to speak in pubic anymore. Magically, that fear had evaporated.

It happened at a workshop called “Public Speaking for Writers” facilitated by The Write Concept‘s Linda Anger (pronounced Ahn-Jay). Sounded like something I needed, so I signed on. Right away she had us warming up with partners in preparation to speak in front of the group. I am fine one-on-one but was dreading the going to the front of the room and claiming the floor part.

I walked to my doom, clutching the notes I’d taken. And suddenly, something lifted. I felt it. I was as comfortable as if I were in the last weeks of a semester with a great, engaged class. I was having fun. I loved it.

So, maybe teaching for many years helped, maybe Linda has some kind of magic not in pill form, probably both. I don’t think it was a coincidence that my life-long fear of public speaking vanished at the moment I stood in front of Linda’s DWW workshop. I think, between the two of us, we banished it.

Public Performance Tonight

Tonight marks my final public speaking performance, at least for now. Last Thursday, I got to the library not knowing what to expect. My life is pretty full, so I didn’t have time to go in and check out my speaker’s space early. I know what my library looks like. It’s spacious and gorgeous and only a few years old. There are several meeting rooms and I figured I’d have one of the smaller ones.

Instead the director, a very nice young woman named Jamie, took me into the auditorium. There were a lot of chairs set out in front of a slightly raised stage, a podium off to the left, and a huge screen behind that. I had not brought anything for the screen, since I’d imagined being in one of the little rooms with a conference table and chairs. All the accoutrements for a Power Point or video presentation: laptop, hand-held controller, laser pointer, were at the podium.

Since it was only the two of us in the room, I joked to the director that it might be a small crowd. She said they’d had 28 people sign up, which is just about my normal class size, so I relaxed a little to hear that. I’m not sure if I was nervous that nobody would come or that too many people would show up, but neither of those things happened.

It was a nice crowd. They listened attentively while I talked about finding subjects for writing from your life. I used a lot of examples from my own life, including my single mom Cup of Comfort piece, my creative writing text, and several others. I showed how the events that sparked the work was all stuff that happened to me that sort of organically made itself into story.

I talked about ways my current novel-in-progress has pieces of my own life in it in the form of two characters who carry unusual but interesting traits of relatives: my aunt who ran away to join the circus and my great-grandmother the fotune teller, rumored to have Gypsy blood.  

I had the audience write to some directed questions about their own lives, probing for events that might make good story fodder, for about 20 minutes, in five minute bursts. I loved looking out at the crowd and watching everyone writing furiously. Make me smile. Plus I got to rest my voice.

I really had no idea who would show up to this event, or at what level they’d be. The library description that went out in the community newsletter said something about “getting started writing” so I didn’t want to speak too much to craft or revision. I was more about finding ideas and getting first drafts down on paper.

Near the end of the session, I took questions for about 15 minutes, though, and people asked really good questions. Writing is about the only subject about which I feel like I have most of the answers, so those Q & A parts of my talks are always fun to do.

I tried to make the presentation upbeat and informative. People laughed at my jokes, so I think it went okay. It helped that I felt relaxed and had fun on stage. Writing is a subject I’ve spent a lifetime learning, after all, so I am pretty confident when I speak about it. Especially to people who actually want to be there and were not forced to come so they could stay on their parents’ insurance policy (one of the things my more reluctant scholars often confess as being the only reason they are in school). 

And for the cherry on top of the sundae, I sold out of books afterward! Okay, I only brought a dozen, but some people wanted them after I’d sold out and said they’d wait until tonight. I’ll bring a bigger box this time;-)

Tonight I’m doing a Power Point slide show. The topic is “publishing” and I’m covering everything from commercial publishing to self-publishing to breaking into print via literary and popular magazines. I have a script all written out, although I have taught this so often in classes that I should be able to riff on my bullet points without even looking at it. I hardly glanced at my script last week, and I didn’t even have an screen to keep me on track.

If you live in the area, and want to learn more about how to pursue publication, come on down to the Clinton-Macomb Public Library at 7 p.m. for an hour or so. Unless you’re a current creative writing student, because I’ll be doing a similar lecture, plus the shiny new Power Point presentation, in class closer to the end of the semester.

Everything Changes

Change is the only thing that never changes. Just when I think I’ve got my life all planned out, a new phase ready to go, everything changes. Everything I thought I had figured out gets tested, and some of my plans go comically awry.

Like my plan, after I wrote my book, to quit teaching college and start doing more public speaking, maybe teach in my community. Ha! Maybe you don’t know…my husband works for Chrysler. He works in a truck plant that is discontinuing one of its bread and butter lines. Well, honestly, the whole company may be discontinued at any moment.

All of this took us totally by surprise. We knew the auto industry was changing, but the crisis hit so fast it stole our breath. We figured we’d have three to five more years to get our retirement picture in order. Ha.

So, since my job is not in jeopardy, it suddenly seems wise to keep teaching at the college, to teach more instead of less, and to tuck my idea of public speaking and teaching in my community into a drawer. Because really I don’t want to do both. It would take too much time and energy away from my own writing.

Already set in motion–a commitment I need to honor before I can completely close the book on the public speaking idea. I hardly got this idea off the ground before everything changed. I am fine with the changes. Actually I’m more comfortable teaching at the college. I was going to try to stretch myself, try something new. Ha.

Now that I’m back in my safety zone, I can hardly remember WHY I wanted the change. Oh yeah, I wanted to use my book more, use my real life writing experience, talk to and work with people who were excited about writing. I wanted to be done with grading essays for bored kids forced to take my classes.

There’s always a trade-off. I’m not really the public speaker type. So really, I’m happy to retreat back into academia. Except I can’t quite yet.

This week (and next) I have to figure out what to say about writing to a community group. It’s not like a class or a workshop. They’re just coming to hear me talk about how to get started with writing. The talk is for 90 minutes. I’m not 90 minutes interesting. I’m 20 minutes max, so I have to work out how to get everyone writing. I have a few ideas.

Not that I want Chrsyler to go out of business or my husband to lose his job, but the introvert in me is really glad things changed so I don’t have to gear up for public appearances anymore. And that’s the thing I love about change. Even when it seems like it’s the worst thing that could happen, it usually turns out to be just fine.

About the Library

Finally met in person the fabulous Cindy LaFerle, who I have known for months via the internet. She invited me to be on a panel of writers and editors free and open to the public for the writer’s series she hosts as Writer-in-Residence at the Royal Oak Public Library. It was the perfect way to get my feet wet as soon I’ll be speaking in libraries and other public places about my work. I’d love to see any of you who live in the area there next Thursday, from 7 to 8:30.

I was the only poet on the panel. Well, ex-poet. Cindy asked each of us to talk a little bit about how we started our writing careers, what were the first things we published, and how we made it happen. We had a lot of panelists, maybe 10. Two or three were local magazine and newspaper editors, a few were columnists, most were freelancers. One or two wrote children’s fiction and one other person mentioned that she had written a novel.

They all seemed to know each other, many had worked together, some were long-standing members of DWW. It was a little odd to be the lone life-time fiction writer, but I was not bothered by that. I’ve been the new person in groups a lot in my life, and almost nobody I know writes fiction. What I liked most about meeting these new writers was hearing their stories.

Everybody (writer or not) is interesting to me. It’s always been that way. I wonder if it’s a trait of the fiction writer.  Anyway, the experiece was great, lots of people took my card. I didn’t bring any fliers because I’m having some scheduling challenges in October. But next week I might bring something that announces the November workshop I’m facilitating for DWW. 

Wanted to mention that the practice I did for a few weeks to get rid of my long-standing fear of public speaking (an exercise from Ainsley MacLeod’s book The Instruction) really worked. When I did my spiel the other night, in front of a full house, I was totally relaxed. Same for my first day lecture, which always used to make me totally anxious. It is wonderful to be free of this phobia!

A New Path Opens

I am a writer because it is something I can do all alone. Writing is a satisfying way to be apart from other people. I’m no hermit, but I’m a bit of an introvert and I need a lot of quiet time at home to feel okay when I do eventually wander out into the world.

Which is why what happened yesterday makes no practical sense. I was at the local historical society, picking up tickets to a talk on Jane Austen this Sunday when I heard myself ask if they might be interested in having me in to speak on “Writing Your Family History.” And the woman at the desk said yes, she thought that sounded interesting. She gave me the name and contact info for the program director and suggested I send her a proposal.

Then I came home and realized that even as my days in academia dwindle, I am building a public speaking career. How did this happen? Where did my lifelong fear of public speaking go? Or is it still there, waiting quietly, ready to strike at the first step toward the podium?

Although I don’t know the answers to the last two questions, I think this change happened because it was supposed to and I was ready. Many mentors (thank you Annick, Cindy, and Joan) have entered my life since I published my book. As I admire them, I also emulate. It’s happening naturally. This is a good thing. How do I know? By the way it makes me feel: alive, vital, and ready for change.