Saturday, January 8, 2011

Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers

Last night I accompanied my husband, who is a brilliant bass player, to a nightclub at which he and his band were performing for the night.  After the predictable delay to allow sports fans to finish watching the game on television, the night got started off properly.  I took photos.  I'm not a photographer.  My spouse is not only the musician in our little family, but he's also our photographer.  Unfortunately, he can't play bass and take photos at the same time, so the duty fell to me for the evening.  Out of dozens of shots taken, I got maybe half a dozen usable photos.

The gig went well after the delay.  The band had great energy and the crowd liked them.  During the first break, my dear husband found his way back to me, and some ladies from the next table came over to me to talk to us.

Cue the anxiety.

I think it's one of the strangest truths about writers.  We love the art of writing for many reasons, but not  least of all because it, of all arts, is as close to anonymous as art can be.  Many writers even choose to hide behind an assumed identity when they publish their work so they don't have to go through what seems inevitable and maybe even pleasurable to many other forms of artist: meeting the public.

Take my husband, for instance: His art form is the most public form of art there is.  Some of his fellow musicians perform before crowds that number in the tens of thousands, and the live performance may be broadcast for millions of people to see.  Even actors don't have that sort of unrehearsed, unedited instant saturation.  Most musicians not only enjoy the saturation of attention, they thrive on it, and a musician in his or her element, on stage on a good night with a receptive audience, is a fulfilled creature.  I feel awful for those musicians who are like me and hate crowds.

At any rate, as we sat there together with these two very friendly women engaging us in conversation, I started to feel nauseous.  As long as we talked about my husband's band, though, I could cope.  I'm proud of him and have no problem demonstrating that pride.  At one point, however, my darling spouse deflected the conversation to me and the fact that I'm a writer.  Two guileless, delighted faces brought the force of their combined attention to bear on me.  I stammered and tried to guide the conversation back to the real star of the moment, the man sitting next to me.  He wasn't having it.

So here I was, staring down the barrel of one of the scariest things a writer can deal with: talking about themselves.

"What's the book about?"
"How do you come up with your ideas?"
"How long did it take to write the book?"
"Would you sign my copy?"

The last question is the easiest, but not for the reasons you'd think.  It's because it's like signing the check at the end of the meal; once my signature is affixed to the book, the process is over, right?

I know I'm expected to be witty and engaging.  I know I should be able to gush and glow about my work and demonstrate to readers that they can trust me with their precious and finite reading time.  I shouldn't be broken like this and incapable of reaching out to even the other friends of my husband's band.  I sit in my solitary confinement and watch, beaming with pride, but I don't approach people.

Maybe this isn't true of all writers.  Maybe I'm hoping that other people understand my violent aversion to all of the gracious politics of publicity.

In the end, I did manage to stammer out the premise of CORONA, and I promised to sign copies when and if these worthy and wonderful ladies chose to buy my book.  I gave them business cards (a prop I'd invented to spread the word of my work without having to be personally present) and gave them my thanks for their attention.  Then I left the gig before the second part began because I felt exhausted and completely worn out.

The attention of the public is like spinach to Popeye for some artists, but for me, it's like Kryptonite to Superman.

I can't ask you to sympathize.  Only a few people can do that.  I only ask for you to not hate me if you meet me and find me to be insufferably rude, awkward, or impolite.  I don't mean it.  I want you to understand that if you approach me about my work, I'm incredibly grateful, but unrehearsed in the fine art of adequately expressing my gratitude.

1 comment:

  1. I used to be awkward and shy, and have come a long way in feeling at home in the public eye, but I think deep down, I've always craved that kind of attention, like beautiful and intimidating shoes I hoped to someday fill.

    So while I don't think we share the same feelings on limelight, I might know how you feel through another route. I tried to sell Cutco knives in college and HATED it. I didn't like who I was while I did it, and still, to this day, avoid the role of the salesman whenever possible.

    But I believe in my work. I'm willing to do the thing I dislike most in order to do it justice in the publishing world. I'm going to try and sell it. It might take me a couple of procrastinating months to get my nerve up, but I'm going to do it.

    You really have to love your work to face kryptonite. And, judging by the potency of your personal kryptonite, you love your art tremendously.

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