Are you shy? Are you an introvert? If so, you understand the horror that is public speaking. As a child you pretended to study the book on your desk so the teacher wouldn’t call on you in class (even though you already knew the answer). You stammered or stuttered or sweated your way through the dreaded oral presentation – and you still do.
I am one of those writers who would happily spend my days holed up in my dark, cozy cave, stories streaming from my fingers onto the keyboard, only coming out for chocolate and Mountain Dew. That’s my idea of a perfect writing life. No public speaking for me. No selling myself. But if a writer’s goal is to be published, she must satisfy some requirements and re-enter the light every now and then.
One of those requirements is a book event – in the case of my first one of a few weeks ago, that meant a discussion, a reading, and a book signing. (Just so you know, merely thinking of doing another one makes my hands shake and my stomach turn.)
I had done my research and knew how to prepare for the practical aspects of it: make notes and study what to say, bake goodies to share (brownies and cake), gather pens (for signing, just in case), as well as a bottle of water, bookmarks and business cards. I even showered and put on clean clothes – living in a cave can leave one dusty and rumpled.
But how does a shy, introverted cave-dwelling writer stand up in front of a group of strangers and sell herself and her book? The answer is…she doesn’t!
In my search for peace in this process, for a way to make it through the horror, I discovered two simple keys to survive a book event:
1. Don’t make it about yourself: Make it about the audience.
If you were in the audience, what would you want to know about a book and its author? Keep this in mind as you plan the talk.
- Include a brief introduction about yourself, where you’re from, how or why you started on your writing journey. The audience is made up of regular people (just like you, right?) and they want to identify with you.
- Talk about why you wrote this particular book. Out of all the stories you could have written, why did this one grab hold of you and not let go? Don’t be afraid to show your passion for the project.
- Many readers are also writers or they aspire to be. Explain what your process was like as you wrote this book – your day-to-day routine, research, the cycle of editing, your challenges and victories, how you put it all together. (My audience was especially interested in the fact that I color-coded the chapter outline of This New Mountain, cut it in sections, and laid the pieces out on the floor to decide what chapters went where.)
- In choosing what to read, what excerpt most exemplifies your writing but would also most hold the audience’s attention? Whatever you decide, keep it short.
2. Don’t make it about selling your book: It’s as simple as that.
- Selling a book would be great, but focusing on that could turn you into one of those sleazy car salesmen. You know, the ones with the fake smiles who circle round and round like vultures. Don’t go there, don’t even try – giving yourself permission to let go of this is enough to make a shy introvert dance in the streets (not really).
If I were to summarize what I learned from my first book event, it would be to respect your audience. Two simple keys helped shift my focus from myself to those who really mattered – the people who took the time out of their day to drive across town to hear an unknown author speak. And that made all the difference in my ability to handle the situation.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with public speaking. What is your advice to get past the “horror” of it all?
For this post, I’ve gone into my archives and updated one of my earliest articles.
Seeing the not quite picked-clean bones of this huge fish reminds me of similar encounters at a time when I was young and innocent, playing in the sand with my silver spoons and plastic bucket, trying to dig to China. I remember how sand crabs skittered about while I dug deep holes that filled with ocean water seeping in under the beach. I remember finding the shield-like remains of a spiny horseshoe crab with its stiff dagger tail. And one peaceful afternoon, two men dragged a large thing through the surf and onto the sand nearby. A sleek, grey, smooth-skinned body with a long tail, and side and dorsal fins. I was little and the thing was huge, and it was a shark.
That creature laying on the sand made me wonder what else swam out there in the deep, among the rushing waves just beyond the shore. What else was out there that I couldn’t see? Close enough for swimmers to capture, close enough to swim among the swimmers.
I decided I didn’t want to be one of those deep-water-swimming-with-creatures kinds of people. I’m perfectly happy to watch the waves for hours, feel my toes leave impressions in the warm sand, smell the salt in the air, hear the gulls cry. At peace with the forever cycle of sea meeting land in a rush and swell, a falling back, and a reaching out once more.
The sea and me, we have an understanding: if I don’t go in too deep, it won’t eat me alive. It’s not the fear of drowning that keeps me rooted in ankle-deep surf. I can swim just fine. No, it’s the things in the water I can do without. And I’ve always been okay with this perfectly logical fear I have.
Then I took my oldest daughter on a Caribbean cruise for her 21st birthday. We explored Mayan ruins in Cancun, hiked through a waterfall in Jamaica, visited a place called Hell. It was all wonderfully normal, until she wanted to swim with stingrays. AND she wanted me to join her. How sweet of her to think of me. The water would be warm and clear, she said. Clear enough to see all those creatures living in the ocean.
In doing research for This New Mountain, I came across the following quote by Ambrose Redmoon:
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
At the time of the cruise, I hadn’t been introduced to AJ Jackson (of This New Mountain) and her head-on approach to dealing with fear, but I knew deep down if I let go of this chance to share something remarkable with my daughter, I would always regret it. And a part of me actually did want to [shudder] swim with stingrays.
I talked myself into it and out of it dozens of times. I was still talking to myself as I followed my daughter down the ladder on the side of the sightseeing boat. I changed my mind again, but I couldn’t climb back up, someone was already clanging down the ladder above me. My heart pounded. I tried not to look at the water below as I stepped onto the bottom rung. To keep from hyperventilating, I had channeled deep Kung-Fu-Lamaze breathing for a good fifteen minutes up to this point. No other options presented themselves besides shoving the person above me off the ladder. I took a few more slow, even breaths, told myself to just do it, and dropped into the warm ocean.
I expected to have to push off the bottom and swim to the surface, instead I touched solid “ground” after a few feet. The water resting over this pristine reef was only armpit deep. The sand spread out at my feet soft and white and unmarred as far as I could see. No shells, no seaweed, no creatures, nothing but sand. It was as if someone had swept it clean just for me. This wasn’t so bad. I could do this.
Soon a murmur started from a group of people bobbing in the calm farther away from the boat and me, and closer to the open sea. Shadows slid through the water, dark cloaks winging toward us. I screamed along with everyone else – tenor and soprano voices mixed together, men and women alike.
But these stingrays were not there to hurt us. They were more like dogs racing in for the treats the tourist boat always brought along to bring them close. The rays hugged our legs and spun around us. My daughter, the adventurous child, hugged one back. I stood as still as possible and took photos of rippling cloaks and tiger-eyes unblinking. Soon the creatures turned and swept back the way they came.
I still don’t like deep water, won’t go in it, preferring slow walks along the edge of my mind and the surf. I’m comfortable with this fear, its limitations and its limits. I suppose I’ve always known that some things are more important than fear, I just don’t like to have to practice that particular piece of wisdom. But now I can say I swam with stingrays – and I never have to do it again.
Is there a fear that keeps you from doing something you’ve always wanted to do? Is it time to take a few deep breaths, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and jump in?
On the field of the self stands a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought anew every day. ~ Steven Pressfield
In my post “You Can’t Finish What You Don’t Start” I talk about how fear and excuses can stop us from starting on a path toward a goal or dream. That post was written in mid-November 2012 during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). On the day I wrote it, I had tallied 30,000 words toward finishing the first draft of a fantasy novel. And by the end of November I was a sleep-starved gelatinous mass quivering on my keyboard – having survived the last few days on mounds of chocolate and gallons of Mountain Dew – BUT I finished the race and surpassed the goal of 50k words.
I decided last year that I would never do another NaNo in November, but it’s April now and the memory of that past pain has faded, and National Novel Writing Month’s little sibling has begun. Camp NaNoWriMo is billed as “an idyllic writers retreat, smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” And crazy is one word to describe this journey.
On day five of Camp, my resolve is already wavering. I’ve written 4,000 words toward my 30-day goal of 30k words divided between five short stories. It hasn’t been easy, but like anything worth doing, sacrifice is necessary. My house is suffering and my husband is already eating toast and dry cereal for dinner. Between bouts of writing, I work on my lengthy to-do list which includes putting together and editing a 16-page newsletter for my writing organization, plus playing interim webmaster for their website. Let’s not forget that April is tax month – yippee!
What was I thinking when I committed to this? Certainly another month would have been better, less hectic, more convenient…but there is no better month, no better time than now. And what does convenience have to do with following my dreams?
I know I can do this. I survived Army basic training. I raised four children. I’ve dressed the dead (that’s a story for another day). I can do this. But commitment is not all it takes to finish such a project. I realize now, five days into Camp, that I simply didn’t plan ahead well enough. I can’t go back, but there are things I can do from here on out to make sure I finish the race:
- Schedule. As much as possible. But be real and flexible – life happens.
- Get Up Early. And go to bed at a decent time. Without sleep, I can’t think straight.
- Creative Time. Mornings are best for me – that’s when I should work on projects.
- Exercise. A little bit everyday is better than nothing.
- Kill Time Suckers:
- Television. Record favorite shows to watch later.
- Internet. Don’t get sucked in. Make notes to do research later.
- Email. Check email once a day, and set a timer to do so.
- Plan Meals and Snacks. Note to self: I can eat dry cereal three times a day, but my husband shouldn’t have to.
- Use Tools: A calendar, master to-do list, daily to-do list, and giant marker board are my friends.
- Prioritize: Some things can wait and some things can’t. Do what’s most important first, carry over the rest to the next day, then re-prioritize.
I should have been better prepared going into Camp, but I won’t allow myself to use that as an excuse to give up. It takes a lot stronger dragon than that to drive me completely off course. That said, the focus of NaNoWriMo is to encourage writers to do what they long to do – to write. To help us move forward on our writing journey. And as I said in my November post, whatever the final word count ends up being, I will be closer to finishing than if I hadn’t started at all.
What is keeping you from moving forward on a dream? What do you do to stay on course?
If you wait for the perfect map before departing on your journey, you’ll never have to leave. ~ Seth Godin
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve torn up a letter I wrote because my handwriting was crooked. Or how often I’ve scraped the elements off a scrapbook page and started over because something wasn’t quite right. I drove my publisher crazy by proofing the manuscript for This New Mountain over and over and over, making little “necessary” changes every time. Thankfully, they made the decision to cut me off and declare the book ready for the world. If they hadn’t done that, I would probably still be tweaking the thing.
I recently came across a blog post on another site that points out being a perfectionist means: 1) little tasks take a lot longer; 2) you have a compulsion to dot the i’s and cross the t’s; 3) you’re never happy with what you produce; 4) you are hypersensitive to criticism; 5) hitting “publish” on a blog post causes anxiety and doubt; and 6) procrastination rules. I agree with all of these points. I also know my perfectionism doesn’t extend beyond myself (see my post about imperfection) because I can leave a friend’s bathroom and not feel compelled to turn the toilet paper roll around the correct way. You know, so it unrolls over and not under.
In the past few years – and especially since my near-fatal publishing incident – I’ve been working hard not to be such a perfectionist. I’ve had to do some serious talking to myself. (Do people really care that my hand-written cards and letters are crooked?) I’ve had to step out and just do it, whatever “it” is.
Like taking on the editing responsibilities for SouthWest Sage (my writing organization’s newsletter ) – a perfectionist’s nightmare, making sure every page is filled up and laid out exactly right. But monthly deadlines have helped me get things done and learn to let go.
And then there’s the matter of all the photo albums I need to finish. Knowing my children would really like to have their baby albums in hand before they die (they’re all in their 30s now) motivated me to get them done. To do so, I had to remind myself that the world wouldn’t end if the paper didn’t fit the page or the colors/patterns weren’t exactly right or the photos didn’t line up. It was a battle.
If you’re not a perfectionist, you can laugh at all of this. If you know and love a perfectionist, maybe you can try to understand the person’s need. It is a hard thing to overcome, and I’m certain I won’t be able to completely – it’s one of the things that makes me a good editor, after all.
The biggest thing that has helped me want to change is knowing that my perfectionism has interfered with reaching my goals, or even starting on a path toward them. I’ve reached the point in my life where I have fewer years ahead of me than behind. It’s time to stop wasting time and get on with it, whatever “it” is.
How has perfectionism affected your life?
I wish I could remember what it was like to be a baby or a young child. To feel my mother hold me close or hear her sing me to sleep. Of course, I only want to remember the good things about babyhood, and not the scary feeling of waking up alone in the dark, or the frustration of not being able to communicate. The closest I can come to remembering those very early months of my life is to observe babies through my grown-up eyes. And there are a few things I’ve learned from those little guys.
Babies give life everything they have.
They eat and drink with gusto. When they laugh, they light up a room. When they cry, the sound carries for miles. And when they give themselves over to sleep, they become little boneless heaps, completely one with whatever surface (vertical or horizontal) they’ve fallen asleep on. If we put that much energy into what we do, imagine what we could accomplish.
And the world is at peace – and then they wake up ready to go. Enough said.
To babies, everything is important.
When they see that bottle coming towards them, they are focused. To them, losing a raisin is equivalent to losing a diamond ring. They are in tune with their bodies – hunger, pain, sensitivity to heat or cold or soiled diapers – and they don’t mind letting the world know about it. What’s important to babies becomes important to those that love and cherish them. Respecting how others feel, even if we don’t feel the same way, can bring peace to our world.
Babies don’t give up.
It takes practice and working their little muscles before babies can roll over. They have to concentrate and experiment to figure out which body parts to move in order to crawl. They fall, a lot, when they’re learning to walk. And when they finally master a few steps, they trip and fall some more. But they just keep trying, over and over. Imagine what would happen if babies gave up learning to talk. There would be no verbal communication in the world. Where is our determination? Where is our courage to try?
Everything is new and exciting to babies.
Of course, the whole world is new to babies, because it is. Colors, sounds, smells, tastes. Everything. And their wide-open eyes, kicking feet, and delighted squeals show how they feel. It’s been said too many times to count, that we need to see the world from the eyes of a child. How much more exciting and fulfilling life would be if we could only relearn how (or let go) to do so.
Babies thrive on attention.
They love being held and snuggled. They love music, your soft voice singing them to sleep, and the joyous sound of laughter. When you smile, they learn to smile back. The need for love, security, peace, and respect are things we never outgrow.
Babies don’t care what they look like – or what you look like.
Some babies are chubby and dimpled, some are thin, many are bald (or mostly so). But they’re all precious and beautiful and worthy of love. Just like you and I.
What have babies taught you about life?
I’m not so foolish to think that something in my life will change if I don’t help it along, but I do have a bad habit of putting things off for another day. And then I’m surprised at how much time has passed without making headway.
I’ve known for a long time that I need help remembering to do things. That’s why I have a huge whiteboard in my kitchen with notes circled and starred all over it. If a to-do item is written there, it will get done (eventually). But here we are in a new year, and there are still things on the board left undone – from months and months ago.
Well, I’m finally ready for a change. So lists have been compiled and a plan is in place (with the help of my very organized husband who has been patient with my piles and undone-things for too long). Time will be spent more wisely and goals will be achieved. This is my hope and dream.
And to help organize my life, I’m going to pay attention to the following online resources:
- Marla Cilley is The Fly Lady. “She weaves her way through housecleaning and organizing tips, with homespun humor, daily musings about life and love, and anything else that is in her mind.” If you follow FlyLady, you’ll get FLYmail everyday with FLYing Lessons to help you set up short, manageable routines to get rid of clutter and put your home and life in order. She says “you are not behind – you are just getting started.”
- Kathi Lipp is the queen of projects. Sign up for her newsletter and you’ll get a free copy of The Ultimate Guide to Man Food, plus she’ll keep you up-to-date on projects such as organizing your house and connecting with your kids, and her most recent Christmas Project that shared daily strategies to prepare for the holiday.
There’s an old country saying that goes something like this:
“When is the best time to plant an oak tree? Fifty years ago. When is the second best time? Today.”
Change can be scary, but it’s easiest handled bit by bit (like eating an elephant is easier one bite at a time). One step after another, and soon I’ll have reached a mile marker. Each small goal achieved will bring me closer to my bigger goals – whether it’s to have an ordered house and life or to finish my latest novel.
I’m excited to start this journey of change today. How about you?
The Going-to-the-Sun Road wound upwards around the ice-carved mountainsides of Glacier National Park in northern Montana. Forests of evergreens, patches of fading wild flowers, and the yellow-orange of still-changing foliage spread out before me along the road on three sides. Even the cliff face on my left, climbing toward an autumn sky, held beauty in its grey hues, and jagged lines and shadows. Mountain buttes hid the foothills of ridges. Ridges bowed before peaks. Each layer a darker shade of blue to purple-grey. All filled the horizon above v-shaped valleys.
I went around a curve, the traffic slowed to a standstill, and there, blocking the panorama, was a rocky outcrop with a rough-hewn tunnel leading through it. In comparison, the harshness of the lifeless stone and the spiny, leafless trees here didn’t hold the same beauty as what I’d just passed. Behind me, the view was still so awesome I could have stared at it for hours, if not days, if not years (so different from the grassy mesas and the looming shoulders of barren mountains I often hike near my home 1250 miles away).
On through the tunnel, and the vista was again wondrous ahead, this time less so behind. And so, The-Going-to-the-Sun Road shifted before and behind, in varying degrees of glorious – because, really, even the views that held too much brown and grey or not enough mountain or sky, still held perfection in their own way.
During one of those moments in my ascent when I just had to stop and stand and try to take it all in, I thought of how much looking back can ruin my present and my future. The landscape of my past is filled with both beauty and ugliness. But living in the past – whether glorious or gritty – has often been a trap that keeps me from living in the present. At the same time, working busily for tomorrow (even if tomorrow means the end of the day) without enjoying this very day, seems as much of a waste.
I don’t make true New Year’s resolutions, but one thing I’m going to try very hard to do this coming year is to enjoy my every today and hope more in the future.
What changes do you want to make in the new year?