By Eric Olsen
Not long ago, as the date of a talk I was to give about the creative process drew closer, I found myself becoming more and more nervous. Like a lot of writers, or maybe like most of them, I’m an introvert. I dread speaking in front of a group; I’d rather write them a note if I think I have anything to say. In school, I was one of those kids who would always sit in the back of the room if he had a choice. I’d never raise my hand even if I knew the answer. I hated oral reports.
No doubt my introversion is one reason I found myself attracted to writing in the first place. And certainly it helps to be a bit of an introvert if you want to write, since writing means hours a day sitting at a desk, alone, lost in an imaginary world of one’s own making, “a Borgesian mole” hiding in dark corners, as T. C. Boyle puts it in “This Monkey, My Back.”
There are no dark corners on a stage, and certainly not on the small stage in Tsunami Books, the swell independent in Eugene, Oregon where I was to speak.
To try to manage my growing panic, I sat by myself, Borgesian mole that I am, and wrote out a script of my talk, resolving to memorize the sucker, as if that might help. But then when I would practice my talk in front of my wife Cheryl, I kept looking down at the script and reading — I couldn’t help myself — mumbling in a sort of zombie-like monotone, while she kept telling me to snap out of it, look up, make eye contact with the audience, you’re boring them to death, engage, engage, engage, jeez will you friggin’ engage?! She sensed disaster in the offing….
But then this introvert got lucky. Just before the talk, I met a couple of local writers for dinner at a place just down the street from Tsunami Books. One was Tom Titus, a biologist at the University of Oregon who wrote Blackberries in July: a Forager’s Field Guide to Inner Peace. The other was Valerie Brooks, a writer who some years before had helped start the Mid-Valley chapter of Willamette Writers, the group I’d be addressing later.
Our dinner conversation covered a lot of ground. Among other things, Tom regaled us with his adventures in Antarctica studying what he described as a particularly ugly fish that has evolved over millions of years to thrive first in a warm Antarctica, and now in a cold one. Valerie talked about the origins of the writers’ group. Then the discussion turned, as discussions among writers these days tend to turn, to the matter of self-publishing, e-books, the evil ways of big publishers, and what the future holds.
Of course we all understood that these days a writer will have to promote his or her own book since publishers can’t be bothered, unless the writer’s a Big Dog like Boyle, maybe. And that means getting out of that dark corner now and then to give readings, talk to writers’ groups, meet people, and engage. That is, a writer has to adapt to a changing publishing environment to survive, like Titus’s ugly mutant Antarctic fish adapted to a changing Antarctica.
But how does a Borgesian mole manage that?
No one’s really only an introvert or only an extrovert. Rather, we all operate somewhere on a continuum from the one extreme to the other. True, writers might tend to skew toward the extreme introvert end of the scale, but it is possible even for a scribbler to let that inner extrovert out into the light now and then.
I found my inner extrovert talking to Tom and Valerie at that dinner. By the time I got to the bookstore just down the street, I had decided what the hell, I’d toss the script and pretend I was simply continuing the discussion, as if I were still at dinner, and now the conversation had shifted from mutated Antarctic fish and the future of the lit-biz to the creative process.
So I got up on stage in front of about 50 writers, pretended they were my dinner companions, and began to blather, and with only the occasional brief glance at the script. I made eye contact. I cracked jokes. I waved my hands. I’m not sure I made much sense, but Cheryl tells me I didn’t stink up the joint. “Look,” she said, “you don’t have to make sense, as long as you engage with the audience. Engage with the audience, they’ll think you make sense whether you do or not. How do you think politicians get elected?”
What’s the lesson here? How do you release that inner extrovert? First, it certainly doesn’t hurt to rehearse, and better yet rehearse in front of a critical spouse or other significant other.
Next, if you can swing it, have a drink or meal or at least a conversation with a few others in a casual setting as soon as possible before stepping onto the stage, like a warm-up. Ideally, talk with them about anything but what you’ll be talking about later, even ugly mutant Antarctic fish.
Of course, I was giving a talk, not a reading, and there are differences. A reading has particular advantages. For one, you get to, well, read. But a reading also presents particular challenges, not least the fact you are, well, reading. So you’ll have to learn to tear your eyes away from the page and look up now and then and engage. And since the folks in your audience can always buy the book and read it themselves, you’ll need to convince your inner extrovert to deliver more than making eye contact or not mumbling.
A good reading is a performance. That means rehearsing. Better yet, rehearse before an audience, whether a critical spouse or other relative, or a friend or two. If you have the nerve, videotape yourself and watch yourself later, a brutally painful process for some of us, but valuable practice. If you can, try to memorize bits of what you’ll read, if not all of it, so you can more easily look up while speaking.
If you can manage it, give your various characters — if you have them — unique voices. Select passages that have some action and movement. Keep the long passages of exposition to a minimum, if possible. Feel free to compress. Of course if your book is all narrative, cool, but try to find passages to read that have the most movement, whether of action, of scene, or rhythm. Feel free to break in now and then with a personal aside, what you were thinking when you wrote this part, what you felt, that sort of stuff. In truth, I especially enjoy readings where the author talks to the audience now and then, whether to set up a new passage to be read, or to comment on the passage during or after reading it.
I always like to hear from the author about why or how the book came about, whether in introductory remarks or along the way. Was there research involved? Were there surprises? Did the author have to overcome any particular challenges to get the book done?
At my talk, I left a list of books about creativity and the creative process for anyone who was interested. It had my name and contact info on it, in case anyone had more questions. For a reading, it might not hurt to leave a list of your favorite books, or books that influenced your work, or whatever. With your contact info, of course.
For millennia, before the Sumerians invented writing, all literature was oral. Storytellers told stories. They performed before an audience because there were no books. We call ourselves “writers” these days but we’re still part of a long line of storytellers, and painful as it may be for us introverts, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to get back to our roots now and then and engage with an audience. From such engagement come ideas and material, maybe something like an ugly mutant Antarctic fish….
What tricks do you have for unleashing your inner extrovert?