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August 06, 2010

The things I cannot do

The Things I Cannot Do

by Louise Penny

Today Michael and I are heading to Stratford, Ontario.  It's about a six hour drive from our home in southern Quebec.  Not exactly a pretty drive, but a very familiar one - through Toronto and out the other side.  Then it becomes lovely.  Rolling hills, old Ontario farms, Mennonite villages, horse drawn carriages.  Very peaceful.

But what I'm going for though both scares me and brings me peace.  

It's a speaking engagement at the Stratford Festival's Celebrated Writer's Series.  I'm sharing the stage tomorrow morning with another Canadian crime writer, Giles Blunt.  All they want from us is 20 minutes of readings each, then 20 minutes to take questions from the audience.  Easy enough - sort of.

For many years Michael and I would go the the Stratford Festival - a wonderful and renowned Shakespearean festival - and we'd often time our visits to coincide with one of the Celebrate Writer's events.  It comes as a shock to now be the one on stage.  I wish I could be unreservedly delighted and thrilled.

But a thin film of fear stands between me and total enjoyment.  Actually, it's quite a wall - and a moat - and I think I see a turret.  A turret of terror.  Yikes, how's that for purple prose.  Actually sounds like something out of Get Smart...the old turret of terror.  

I dislike speaking engagements intensely.  I've gotten much better at them, and I know I give the impression of being at ease...which is certainly better than letting people see what's happening on the inside.  Shaking, panic...difficulty breathing.  

Now, I don't want to give the impression it's always like that.  But like most writers I know, I'm happiest in my own company.  Quiet, at home.  And, I can even fine-tune that.  I'm happiest in our bedroom.  In bed.  With a book.  And diet ginger ale.  And gummy bears.  So basically, my genuine comfort zone is approximately five feet by six feet.  

The further I get from the bed, the more my anxiety rises...and the more people around me the higher still.

This has been one of the significant challenges, and surprises, of my writing career.  How public it is.  On the surface it would seem I'd be perfectly suited to it.  A quiet, peaceful, private life in the country, writing. And that's certainly part of my life.  But then there's the rest.  The touring.

Last year I was invited, as part of my tour, to Rochester, New York, to speak in their celebrated writer's series.  I, of course, was pretty sure they got the wrong person.  When it was clear they knew who they were speaking to - and weren't drunk - the magnitude of the event also became clear.  It would be a one hour talk to 800 people.

I declined.  Couldn't say "no" fast enough.  Indeed, my hands on the phone were already numb from fear, just hearing the description.  

But then one of the organizers wrote, and she assured me it was a very friendly group, and the layout of the hall was such that it didn't appear so big.  

I could see myself standing on the cliff.  Arms out.  

Before I could change my mind I wrote back, "Yes, thank you.  I'll do it."  I felt like I'd flung myself over.

Then I spent, I kid you not, the next seven months worrying about it.  The day arrived - I'd flown in from doing an event in Phoenix the night before.  The organizers picked us up at the airport, drove to the hotel. Took us to a lovely meal...and then the event.  I saw the hall.

It was, as you might imagine, HUGE.  

I started trembling.  People were arriving.  They took me back stage.  And put me in the "green room" - a place, I imagine, where people who are green in the face go.  But then a miracle occurred.  At least, it seemed a miracle to me.  

The Green Room was a library.  Small, old, with that unmistakable aroma of dusty books.  When I travel I always go into bookstores and libraries and used bookstores...and feel at home, no matter where I am.

And that's what suddenly happened.  From feeling apart from myself, I suddenly came back to my body, my core.  My balance was restored and my heart and brain began to work together again.  Calm.  Peace.

I walked around the little library.  Pacing.  Around and around.  And I prayed.  For peace.  To be able to say what I wanted to say.  And to have fun.  To actually enjoy this.  To remember what a blessing this is. Not a curse, not a chore.  A blessing.  My dream come true.

And all I have to do, for my dream to come true, is be courageous.  And not give in to all the fears that swirl around me everyday.  And the more I do, the easier it gets, the bigger my world gets, the more joyous my world gets.  

I sure don't want to be lying in my deathbed realizing I'd been offered everything I'd dreamed of since I was a child - a career as a writer - and I gave it up out of fear.  

The magnificent Eleanor Roosevelt said, You must do the thing you think you cannot do.  

When I get on a plane and thumb my nose at a long-standing fear of flying, I do that.

When I get on a stage in front of ten or a hundred or a thousand, I do that.

When I sit in front of the computer trying to write the book I really want to write, I do that.

Not everyday is a day filled with courage.  Some days its all I can do to get out of bed, to go outside, to leave home.  But I do it. 

I can't be fearful and have my dream.  One has to go.  And for today, it's the fear.  

Eleanor was right, of course.  In doing the things I think I cannot do, I not only get to do what I love, but I get something way more important.  Peace. 


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Been there, Louise. What got me through it was the idea that public speaking, and all public appearances, were an antidote, a balance, to being alone so much. It's good for us to be with other people, gives us fodder for the next project.

Yeah, that'll work. :-)

Preparation. For me that was key when I was doing public speaking. Turns out if I was prepared, I actually enjoyed it. I am sure you will do wonderful.

My comfort zone is my 700 sq ft apartment and from there it is wherever I can walk too. Once I have to get in the car I am generally leaving the zone of comfort.

I love your definition of a green room, I am sure there are a lot of green faces in those rooms for various reasons!

Louise I think that it is endearing that you can share some of your feelings about speaking on stage.
I would imagine the contrast of being alone with your thoughts as a writer and then being thrust into a totally different environment could be a totally awesome or scary experience.
I found that when I was a young mother and more or less isolated at home I did not practice relating to others as readily as when I was in the workplace.
Making phone calls to strangers became difficult because I was not experiencing social skills.
Practice made it easier for me and I overcame the fears once I went out into the world again.
I do enjoy my alone time reading, etc.
I know that you will do well in your next engagement.
People are already interested in your novels and want to know you better so it will be a great experience. Good luck and thanks for sharing.

That is a real honor- try to enjoy it!

Easy to say, harder to do, I know!

Bon chance

That was a courageous post, Louise. But you left out the ending--how did the talk in Rochester go?

I will borrow some of your courage this weekend. I'm participating in a public reading. I'll be reading from a memoir piece I wrote about growing up on the Gulf Coast, and lamenting the ever-changing shoreline. I wrote it *before* the oil spill. If I can read that without getting choked up, it will be a miracle.

I'm sorry, Louise, I stopped reading when I hit "Sratford, Ontario"---which is one of my favorite places in all the world! I began to mentally gush with delight. If I could retire there some day, I would! Oh, what a lovely, wonderful place. (I watch "Slings and Arrows" whenever I can catch it, just to remind myself of Stratford!)

I'm not afraid of public speaking, but I do it badly unless--like Gaylin--I'm well prepared. You'll be great!

Hi all,

Thanks forn the support! I do so much of it now the fear has diminished - but would still rather be curled up at home. On the plus side is that this is a small price to pay for meeting so many amazing people!

You are certainly not alone in your preference for your comfort zone, and dread of speaking to groups. Why is it writers, who put words on a page, are also expected to be speakers?! Two such different worlds and different skills...

But we do it, and we survive to write another day. Thanks so much for sharing!

Oh, I'm so happy to hear someone else describe how they feel the same as I feel at the thought of public speaking. I'm so anxious about public speaking that sometimes I would answer "I don't know" when called on as a child in school even when I knew the answer. "I don't know" was only three syllables and shorter than the answer would have been for me to say in front of the classroom. That's how stricken I have always been at the thought of public speaking.

The ironic thing is that I acted in a couple of plays in school and did not feel the terror that I felt when called on in class or when having to give an oral book report, etc. For me when I was acting, I was someone else, and for some reason I didn't have the tremendous anxiety I would have otherwise felt. A few butterflies perhaps, and actually more of an excited nervous; not the incapacitating anxiety and terror that public speaking provoked.

To this day strange as it might sound when I've had to speak in public, the "mind game" that I play on myself in order to get through it, is that I tell myself that I'm acting out a role, and that's the only way I'm able to do it. I still have the months of anxiety leading up to "the moment" but I'm only able to actually go through with it by pretending that I'm acting.

I was discussing this with a good friend recently who teaches at a university and also suffers from tremendous anxiety at the thought of public speaking. She is fairly new to teaching. I asked her how she manages to teach a class with her anxiety. Surprisingly to me,she plays the same exact "mind game" with herself that I do each time she speaks in front of her class.

Louise, thanks so much for sharing! I feel so much better every time I hear of someone else who suffers from the same fear and also when I hear that eventually it gets better.

Wow Louise,
I think you and I are twins separated at birth. I couldn't have described it better myself. I'm going to print this out and hang it over my desk.

Thank you

Louise, you do indeed appear relaxed and calm when you speak in public. And the more you do it, the easier it will get. Truly. Live in the moment.

Ah, Louise, you're describing exactly how I feel about writing, at the moment. Terrifying.

I'm usually okay about public speaking, which is a surprise to me since I'm such a wimp about everything else. But every once in a while all confidence leaves me, usually right as I step up to the podium. The first time people laugh, I'm okay though. Then it's just a blur and I know I'll survive.

You have a lovely presence as a speaker--elegant and funny.

Public speaking has never bothered me, although I know it does freak out a large number of people. One thing is to practice. Yes, you are reading from your own work, but take out a copy and stand and read it aloud. Now try it again in front of someone. Soulmates are good for this, part of that whole for better or worse thing.

You have an advantage. As a writer, no one is expecting you in a power suit. A favorite sweater or something comfy should work. You can also ask for a comfortable chair if you prefer. They did invite you. Perhaps a few extra books on the podium. Give it that library/bookstore feel.

Good luck!

Nice post, Louise. A few years ago, I noticed that people who stop venturing beyond their comfort zone end up with worlds that grow smaller and smaller and smaller. And that seems to create really wonky situations and ways of thinking. Saying yes and charging forward is not only brave, but makes one's world huge.

Wonder how Harley's vacation is going? Wish she was here today to weigh in on this issue. I know many actors are terrified of making speeches because there is no role to hide behind. Which is why so many acceptance speeches turn crazy. Then there are some who are comfortable the instant they hit the stage, and you never know who that will be.

I'm fascinated at the idea of someone who doesn't care to speak in public becoming a teacher. How extraordinary.

"Turret of terror"-I thought I was the only one in possession of one of those! I, too, get incredibly nervous when public speaking. A year ago I decided to face my fear by accepting each and every invitation to present, conduct workshops, and even just read aloud to other adults. It's worked a little bit as I am only moderately frightened now as opposed to paralyzed with fear. Enjoy your time on stage. You deserve it.

I'm terrified every time, too. And I've done live televison for 30 years! I think: some of the fear comes from wanting to be perfect. I want to be, oh, let's see--funny, and thoughtful, and insightful, compassionate, witty, inspirational,and simply give the BEST speech those people have EVER heard.

But like Cornelia, when someone laughs, I think--oh, okay, this MIGHT work. I see people nodding in agreement. Yes. I look at each individual person, not at the whole crowd. Yes, she's listening. Yes, he's with me. And the audience's reaction gives me fuel.

And oh, a TV coach (!), years and years and years ago, gave me a wonderful bit of advice: She said--"Remember, you're doing this out of love."

Ah, Hank, I like that a lot. If we're not doing it out of love, better not to do it.

When I get nervous about speaking I remind myself that the people out there *want* me to succeed because they want to have a nice time every bit as much as I want to give them one. That makes them, whether they know it or not, a supportive audience. We're all in this together, I remind myself, and they might not even have very high standards, lol!

Louise, you're a lovely public speaker--and funny!

I was shocked to realize the amount of public speaking and promotion that was required to launch a book. All of my adult life, I had managed to avoid it, until The Lace Reader came out, and I went on tour. My first speaking engagement was at the Georgetown Massachusetts Library to a crowd of more than a hundred women. I was the warm up act for the real writer they had come to see, Andre Dubus III, (probably one of the best speakers out there). My husband had to drive me around for almost thirty minutes because I kept refusing to go inside, claiming that I must have the flu or something, and that we should just go home because no one would miss me anyway, which was probably true. When I finally spoke, my knees were knocking so badly that I had to lean back against a counter (there was no podium) to keep from falling over. Three years later, I find that I really enjoy speaking to an audience. Nowadays, it's hard to get me off the stage, I only stop talking when my hosts stop pointing at their watches and start making wildly animated throat-cutting gestures. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, I guess. . .or at least chattier.

I think lots of teachers have stage fright, or whatever you want to call it - what Louise described. I taught college for several years. I think I was a good teacher, and my students were generally both pleasant and appreciative, but I never got over the anxiety before every class. (I had staked out all the ladies' rooms between my office and my classrooms ...) That being said, I miss it horribly and enjoy any opportunity to teach again. To echo what several people have said, I've sort of accepted the anxiety as part of the process of doing a good job and continuing to get better at it.

Louise......you are always great and we look forward to launching Bury Your Dead in the US on September 29th! All your TLC pals will be there.

Note:You can pre order a signed copy at 20% of for a limited time by the box on the right.

It helps to know that the talk itself is what people came to hear, not to see the speaker, except in some cases. I got over that part fairly quickly, finally realizing that what I had to say was the most important thing, and once that was taken care of, the rest fell into place.

It also helped that much of my own public speaking (15 years, probably 100 talks a year) was done using Power Point, and before that, overheads. It gave me a "track to run on", and I rarely lost my train of thought. When I did I just said I'd forgotten what I was going to say and went on. Most of my audience was like me, middle-aged women, and they got it. :-)

My oldest daughter teaches college, and at first she was also intimidated at the thought of being in front of audiences all the time. But she found that she is the happiest when she can help new nursing students learn all she has to impart. I think that's pretty amazing.

Thank you all for talking about your fears. if you must know, we come to hear you speak because we love your books, and want to meet the person behind all that pleasure. I always thought that someone who wrote well had some inner magic. That is why I like these blogs so much. We're rooting for you, Louise!

Sometimes I learn life lessons from television sitcoms. Call me simple-minded or insert evaluation here but the show Community with Chevy Chase was clever last evening.
Each student had tasks to perform.
One student bemoaned his lack of ability in pottery making due to an inflated idea of his talents imparted at an early age by his mother.
Chevy Chase failed at his attempt at sailing.
The conclusion was that Chevy Chase picked himself up, dusted himself off and rowed to the sailboat.
Stick with me here I promise there is a lesson here.
Chevy Chase's character held each day as not a failure if he didn't win but as gratitude at the chance at life.
So, I concluded that it is indeed the journey not the winning and the chance to continue the journey that is a gift.
Thanks for listening.

Thank you so much, Louise. Whenever I've seen you speak, I've always thought how relaxed you looked. So whatever you're doing, it's working.

I have a lot of anxiety before I do any moderating or, in my past life, speaking to various-sized audiences about historic preservation. I do find the more I speak about the same topic, the more calm I feel. However, I don't usually have trouble chattering away to a group if I don't have to be an expert on anything. ;-D

My most recent sputtering occurred at this past Malice. I was moderating a panel with the wonderful, kind Carolyn Hart sitting next to me. I started off mispronouncing (several times) the main character in her new Bailey Ruth ghost series, and then I knocked over her book on display. Not quite the impression I wanted to make. I made a remark about my nervousness, and then it just faded away. The rest of the hour went smoothly, thanks to Carolyn and the rest of excellent panel members, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I was kind of sad when it ended.

Great new blogging authors. Look forward to continuing reading excellent posts.
Gerrie Ferris Finger

The first day that I taught a class at USC, I was so nervous, and hoped my business suit/skirt would convey authority if my manner couldn't. My best friend was teaching in the classroom next door. At the close of the hour, I went outside and leaned against the wall, relieved, and when Jeff came out of his classroom, I told him, "I kept expecting one of the students to come up and lift my skirt and look under it to report to the others 'there's no teacher in here.'" He laughed and said he remembered similar feelings when he had begun teaching years before.
Now, I seldom give much thought to getting up before crowds of whatever size, although I do try to prepare well so that I don't get overconfident and show up with nothing (did that once . . . once was enough!).

Thanks, Louise, for such an honest post. But I must say that having shared the best panel ever with you, you pull it off very well for someone who is quaking. And I sympathize. Up until the time I sold my first book, I was more afraid of public speaking than dying. So the first thing I did after I signed that contract was sign up for a public speaking course. It was a HUGE help. I'm still nervous, but it's a great feeling, as Cornelia says, when you get that first laugh or nod from the audience and you know you've connected.

But always, always, just when you think you have the audience in the palm of your hand, you look out and see someone in the front row sound asleep :-)

Louise, I envy those attendees who get to see you speak, green in the face or not! As a reader, I can say with certainty that your books earn you your place. It must feel strange to feel sometimes like you're living someone else's life. But as you say, books are the things that make us realize we always belong.

Hi all,

sorry for the silence...after posting we were on the road to Stratford and staying in a place without internet. The event went very well - about 250 people - stopped shaking about five minutes in. then I really enjoy it. Odd - goes from quite a bit of fear to total comfort. And yes, as I make eye contact I see such kindness. How can I not relax into that embrace?

Thanks for all the support, advice, compassion and understanding. We're now in British Columbia, in a small fishing village - relaxing. The Sechelt Festival of the Written arts - two events this week. Then home.

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