I recently graduated from my Faber Writing a Novel course (did I mention I was doing a course?). The graduation day was mainly a celebration of the things we’d achieved over the six months and I was looking forward to it, but also approached it with trepidation. Why? Because it involved that horror of horrors: public speaking. We had to read out extracts from our novels, not just to our beaming classmates and tutors, but to a room full of literary agents. Cue sweating, shaking and the sudden onset of pubescent voice-wobbling.
Writers are often scared of public speaking, perhaps because we tend to be shy, thoughtful types. I wrote as a child because I didn’t have the confidence to express my thoughts and ideas in speech. When I put pen to paper the words flowed, but in front of an audience I’d turn red, my lips flapping uselessly around simple words, making embarrassing spoonerisms and Freudian slips. People seem surprised when I tell them this, because they think I have good elocution in conversation (read: ‘you’re posh’). Well, yes, because I’m not utterly terrified in everyday conversations (though I do become ludicrously even posher when nervous, as if doing a comedy accent.)
Nerves are nothing but self-sabotage, and yet although we all know this, so many of us struggle to tell them to get lost. A successful writer is probably going to have to speak in public fairly often – I doubt the ‘mysterious, reclusive’ writer cuts it in our world of media personalities – so I knew I had to overcome my stage fright.
In the hours before before my Faber reading, I started to worry, but I wasn’t worrying about the reading itself: I was worried about the fact I wasn’t worried. Why not? What was wrong with me? I worried that if I didn’t worry beforehand, worry would rugby-tackle me the moment I stood at the podium – ‘Thought you got away with it, didn’t you?!’ – and as I blathered barely coherent English I’d wish I’d practised my piece 700 more times.
Except that worry never showed up. The reading was fine; enjoyable, even. I’m not sure what changed me, but I put it down to a few reasons.
Firstly, growing confidence. I’m bad at many things – using tin openers, for example – but I’m confident I can write well, and don’t believe I’m being arrogant when I say that. Trusting my writing would speak for itself took the pressure off me speaking for it. All I had to do was make my voice loud enough to be heard. I‘ve also come to realise the value of my own writing; I have something other people want and enjoy. The agents didn’t turn up to do us all a favour, or because they were bored and wanted something to do. They’re all already incredibly busy, but they took time out of their days because they wanted to look for new talent among us. That talent could be me.
Secondly, practice. As an editor, my day job doesn’t involve public speaking, but it does involve presenting book projects to our publishing board. That means putting together a convincing presentation and not bungling it when I read it out to a room full of people who decide whether my book sinks or swims. There’s a level of personal investment, although admittedly it’s not the same as reading my own prose, which feels rather like doing an intellectual strip show. The first time I did a book presentation, I was timid, hesitant, dithering. Now I go in and say: here’s my book. I think it’s great. Do you? And they always do. I don’t think practice makes perfect, because perfect isn’t a thing human beings can achieve, but practice makes much, much better.
Thirdly, this TED talk. I found it a few days before my reading when I was listening to The Guilty Feminist podcast. One of the presenters, Deborah Frances White, mentioned how she never directs anyone to her TED talk because she hates her haircut (and feels guilty about this because she’s a feminist and shouldn’t care about her hair). Hair aside, I thought it was a great talk. I love it when she talks about how,when you’re speaking, you shouldn’t worry about how your audience perceive you: you should focus on what you have to say that will change their worlds. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t go, ‘Er, guys, is it, um, OK if I tell you about this dream thingy I had, maybe? *cough*’ He said, ‘I have a dream,’ and people listened. Obviously you don’t have to believe you’re Martin Luther King Jr. – you’d be deluded if you did – but you have to believe that you’ve got something worth saying, or you won’t be able to convince anyone else.
I’m just going to say it: I think my novel is worth reading.
Or it will be, once I’ve finished it.
Finally, the room was full of supportive friends. I know I’ve said this ten times before, but as soon as you realise other writers aren’t out to get you, and that they want you to succeed, everything becomes so much easier. I focused on them. Surround yourself with people who love the same things as you do and all will be well.