[The following is a lesson for writers, but the headline is the same for all creatives: the more you present in public, the better you will become at presenting yourself and your work. Please enjoy!]
One winter evening, I find myself in the green room of the beautiful new theater on the campus of the North Carolina School of the Arts, waiting to give a creativity chat to a crowd of a few hundred Carolinians. I’d given this chat many times before, varying the title to suit the audience but presenting essentially the same material, and can now deliver it on a dime, starting up the instant they say “Go!” and ending directly on the hour. In fact, when I delivered this chat to a group of Indiana arts administrators, what impressed the conference chair the most, more than the chat’s content, was the fact that I ended so promptly—perhaps a little left-handed praise, wouldn’t you say?
Nowadays I deliver my chat without any notes, although I keep a sheet handy with seven headlines in case I blank out. This is a far cry from my early days of speaking in support of my books. In 1992 I gave my first book talk at the Green Apple, an independent bookstore in the Richmond District of San Francisco, on the corner of a street of Chinese vegetable markets and Russian bakeries. I had no clue what 1 was doing. It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared—no, indeed—but what I’d prepared was wondrously odd and constituted the strangest chat that any audience has ever had to suffer through.
Instead of describing Staying Sane in the Arts, the book I was hawking, or, simpler yet, reading from it (as most writers on tour do), I prepared a cross between a stump speech and an academic white paper on something I called “The Artist Corps.” I think I meant the speech to be a visionary call to arms on the order of “I have a dream . . . for artists.” It might have fit the bill if I’d been delivering it on the Washington Mall to a crowd of a million marching artists. To this small crowd, drifting in off Clement Street after shopping for sugar snap peas and piroshki, it was a bore and a monstrosity. To seal their fate and further make them wish that they had chosen the comedy club across the street, I read the darn thing, slowly (to give it weight) and softly (because I always speak softly).
No one left as I spoke—perhaps because they had nodded off. No one cheered when I finished. No one had any questions. My literary agent at that time, Linda Allen, who had come to support me, couldn’t find a way, despite her many social graces, to compliment me. So I wandered home alone—but not crestfallen. What went through my mind was the following question: “I wonder what would work better?” It took me a while—some years—to figure that “better” out, but I knew to retire that Artists Corps speech and never to dust it off again.
There are four paths in life for the public performer. One is Mozart’s: you do things perfectly at the age of six and continue perfectly until your last breath. That’s the path or say, oh, one in a billion. Then there’s the path of not trying, of having no interest or too much fear. That’s the path of most everyone. In the middle are the folks who perform and do not get better and the folks who perform and do get better.
During one six-month period in the early 1960s Bob Dylan made some truly incredible strides. His guitar playing improved by a quantum leap, his new songs soared, even his voice, which you wouldn’t think could improve dramatically, did. At the beginning of that year he was ordinary; by mid-year he was extraordinary. Not a single soul saw the change coming, but come it did.
I, too, improved. The distance between the Green Apple chat and the North Carolina School of the Arts chat was more than a dozen years and three thousand miles. It was that nonlinear distance known as a learning curve. I had learned how to speak in public. This is very important news for your writing life, since you may be preventing yourself from writing out of fear that you won’t do an adequate job of supporting your books when they appear. Maybe you won’t—the first time. So what?
The specter of speaking to an audience about their books frightens many writers. It can frighten them seriously enough that they don’t write the book. This fear is based on a fundamental confusion: that there is some reason why they should be expected to do a good job of public speaking on their first attempt. There is no good reason. They should be expected to do goofy things like present a manifesto on the Artists Corps, read with their head down, be inaudible and quaking, or in some other way fail to mesmerize their audience. In short, they should be expected to make a fine mess right out the gate.
If you were at the Green Apple that evening in 1992, I pity you. I know that you would never have guessed that the stiff, boring fellow reading his speech would one day approach oratory. Fooled you! As a writer supporting your own books, you can perform the same magic trick. You can appear one year in support of your first book and make a riotous hash of your chats and your interviews. Then, two years later, having learned a ton, you can appear in support of your second book and look like Kennedy in Berlin. The task is not to get it right the first time. The tasks are to learn from your pratfalls, and, by learning, to improve.