ON SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTING WHILE SPEAKING IN PUBLIC
At the age of 16, in the midst of preparing for an inter-schools public speaking competition, I suddenly became stage struck. Knees knocking, throat parched, mind blanked, I ran from the room in tears of shock and shame at my failure to rise to the challenge. I’m not sure why this happened. Hormones or non-specific heebee jeebees, or maybe because my older brother had won the national competition the year before and headed off to London to compete with the rest of the world. Who knows! (Sibling rivalry? Me? Never.)
Anyway, this anxiety is something that I’ve never quite got on top of since. I’ve gone out of my way over the past thirty years to avoid any kind of public speaking at all. When my first novel, Black Diamonds, was published I didn’t even have a book launch, I was so wracked with fear.
Overlaid with indignant defiance. Why can’t an author just write? I railed (to myself, obviously). What’s this public performance rubbish writers are required to do? Are we circus animals? Why can’t I be Lionel Shriver and get invited to only the best festivals (or any festivals) and schlep along moaning about the unfair demands placed upon artists in this outrageously over-commericalised world? It’s marketing madness! It’s just not me.
Oh the layers and layers of bullshit I buried myself under in order keep out of sight. Out of fear’s way.
Until the penny dropped one day: Aha! If no-one can see that you’ve written a story they might like to read, then no-one will read it at all and you’ve just spent several years talking to yourself and taking up precious publishers’ space to no purpose. A more committed writer might be more deserving of your spot, so lift your game if you want to keep writing novels and having them published, luvvy!
I did and do want to keep writing – forever, if I can. And I have therefore lifted my game. Slowly, over the past twelve months, since my second novel, This Red Earth, was published last year, little by little I’ve been pushing the boat of self-promotion out. I actually held a launch for that book. People showed up, mostly family, but people nevertheless. I cried during my speech (which was mercifully short but otherwise outstandingly terrible). And, most importantly, I didn’t die from it. Neither did anyone else, by the way.
I’ve made a couple of speeches in between, incrementally less dreadful each time. This blogging caper and facebooking bits and pieces have helped break down my neurosis too. It’s not such a bad thing to connect with others who are as enthusiastic about books and stories as you are, hm? Terrifying, awkward and comfort-zone-stretching, but not so bad at all.
And here, at the very bottom of the truth, is why…
A couple of days ago, driving to the launch of brand new third book baby, The Blue Mile, I felt the nerve-monster burbling and rising and I punched the radio button on the dash, growling at myself: “Stop it, Kim – you stupid child!” Only to hear the opening strains of The Carpenters “Top of the World” – if not the soundtrack of my childhood, then most definitely on the B side of it.
And to distract myself I started to sing along to it. Very loudly. This made me laugh as loudly too. Then, at the end of the song, I punched off the radio, and sang it again a cappella. This was, I realised, an inarguably dreadful performance. I was not about to subject my lovely little audience to anything like it – I could be more than confident of that. I was only going to have a chat about my book to people who turned up because they wanted to hear it.
And hear it they did. I can’t remember much of what I said, but I felt in my knees and in my throat that I’d done much better than the last time. My voice didn’t shake and squawk so much; I was able to see faces – smiles and nods of interest. And not one family member in the audience this time to give me reason to think they were just being kind in their applause. I must have done better, mustn’t I?
Signing books afterwards, one woman told me she’d really enjoyed it. “Really?” I smiled. I could have cried with relief if I wasn’t a little suspicious she was only being sweet or slightly doddery, but she said: “Really,” nodding with a small and thoughtful frown.
And then she told me: “I loved your first novel. Every time I drive through Lithgow, I think about it. I was hoping to meet you to tell you that.”
I could have cried then too, but I was too busy dancing inside like one of Nietzsche’s exploding stars.
There is no other thrill like this for a writer. To have someone tell you that your story touched them is magical. To have someone tell you that it touches them still seven years on is out of this world.
A tiny shard of infinite joy that I’d never have found if I hadn’t been there at my own book launch.
I’ll carry that joy onto the next event, and the next, if I’m lucky enough to continue to be invited anywhere, with the knowledge that I will only continue to get better at this speaking thing, because it’s not all about me at this end of the deal – it’s all about readers too.