Some years ago, I was at a conference and my teacher, a brusque and somewhat imperious man, was scheduled to read from his new novel. I went to the reading, of course, and was surprised to see he had a glass of scotch hidden behind the podium—suffice it to say, I recognized the color and that was not Poland Spring. Every time he read a page, he took a swig of scotch. It was a long reading. When it was over, he couldn’t move, and some obeisant MFA student had to cart him off, but I remember thinking at the time, “Oh, get a grip.” And I thought that up until I had my first reading at Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago and looked down at my glass of water on the podium and thought, if only…
Even I think it’s ridiculous that I get so nervous before a reading, particularly given that what I do for a living is stand up in front of people and talk. And I never feel nervous before a class, but there is something about reading your writing in front of people that feels different. There’s a strong autobiographical element to my writing, and so, when I read, I feel as though I am quite literally baring my soul. It would be a little bit like going to a psychiatrist and beginning to talk and then realizing that there were thirty people listening to you.
Matters were not helped along by the fact that I got to my first reading about an hour and a half early. I am chronically punctual, and the positive side of that is that even if a train breaks down, I arrive on time, but the bad side is that I am always roaming around the city, trying to kill time, and in this particular instance I was with my husband, who has a very loud voice. We walked into the store, my husband walked right over to the New Releases table, and remarked, so that any but the deaf might hear, that there were no copies of my book to be seen. I snapped that he was going to get me banned from Barnes & Noble and we argued for a while and then there was an hour and fifteen minutes to go.
So then we went to get something to eat. There was a wonderful bakery on the fourth floor of this particular B&N and I got a latte, but for some God-unknown reason my husband did not want his own latte; he wanted to share mine. (You see how after twenty five years you begin to argue about everything.) I am good about sharing, but I was absolutely convinced he was going to knock the latte onto my shirt—I could literally feel it searing a scar onto my chest—and so every time my husband would reach for the latte, I would knock his hand away. It seems funny to me now, but at the time I was ready to knife him, and things did not get better when he told me to make sure to go to the bathroom before the reading.
Anyway, we finished the latte and now there were about ten minutes to go and we argued over which of us would walk into the auditorium first and whether to put our coats onto an empty chair in a front row and then my son showed up, which was a great treat. And from then on everything went well. It turned out that the reason there were no copies of my book downstairs was because they were all on the fourth floor. There were quite a few people in attendance, some of whom I didn’t even know, and they all smiled and were friendly and clapped and some even bought books, and then we went out with old and new friends for a wonderful dinner.
On the train ride back, Brad and I were both glowing. He seemed to genuinely enjoy the reading and I was relieved to be alive and for the first time in a while I felt relaxed. In fact, I was quite calm and then Brad said, “I have an idea. Let’s check your amazon ranking!” The rest of that discussion I’ll leave to your imagination.
So what about you? Do you get nervous when you have to speak in public?