Writers at Work: Dealing with Speaking Engagements (Part 2)

Hi everyone,

Today brings the second response, this time from Sandy Asher, to the topic for this month: Dealing with Speaking Engagements. If you need to get caught up from the beginning, my initial remarks appeared on May 3.

Topic 7: Dealing with Speaking Engagements
Response 2: Sandy
May 10, 2011

Hello, David and friends. I missed our chats as well. I’m glad we’re back on track. This topic is going to be great fun, what with our many road warrior stories to share. I’m looking forward to having lots of other folks chime in.

I do remember Berniece Rabe reading from RASS – I was in the audience at the Children’s Literature Festival in Warrensburg when she performed her magic. What I remember best is what a kick she was getting out of doing it, and that’s probably a good rule-of-thumb for presentations: Enjoy yourself, and others will be happy to join you.

I also remember the first time you and I presented together, David, or in tandem, actually, also in Warrensburg, but not at the Children’s Literature Festival. It was a graduate class in children’s literature, I believe, and we were invited to speak by the late, great Festival founder and director, Phil Sadler. You went first – and, believe me, by then you had become every bit as hard an act to follow as Berniece. I looked out at that sea of faces, all gazing after you adoringly as you stepped away from the podium, and, before I’d even said a word, I promised myself I’d never speak to a group in your wake again. Next to you, sure. Before you, of course. Down the hall from you, no problem. But after you? Uh-uh. Not until I’d learned to juggle live chickens or levitate or something. I don’t believe I ever have, either. (Not counting this blog, anyway.)

It’s odd, when you think about it, that published authors are invited to speak to live audiences. If we were such great orators, we probably wouldn’t need to sit alone at our desks and wrestle our thoughts down to the page one word at a time. And then revise them. And then revise that. And then revise it all again before feeling ready to share what we have to say with readers – who are definitely not in the same room with us.

You mention my theater training, but actors are also not necessarily great orators. If you’ve ever watched one of your favorites struggle through a TV interview or award acceptance speech, you know what I mean. They need writers! Actors contribute a great deal of thought, energy, research, analysis, memorization, and rehearsal time to a play, and they’re brave enough to trot right out there on stage and perform it, but always with the safety net of a prepared script.

So even with my writing experience and theater training, I knew I was unprepared when my first invitation to speak arrived. I didn’t even have a clue about how to get prepared. I had no idea what writers were supposed to say to anyone — outside of their writing, that is. Fortunately, I was able to ride up to Warrensburg (so important in our lives!) with a couple of Springfield teachers to attend a luncheon where Richard Peck was the presenting author. I could not have found a better role model. He had a prepared speech that was insightful and funny. He referred to it often, but had obviously rehearsed it enough to have it nearly memorized. He spoke with dignity, warmth, and humor about his readers, their needs, his hopes for them, his concerns about them, and the importance of reaching young people through books. He charmed, enlightened, and entertained us, made his point, and sat down. Not one syllable too many, not one moment wasted – his or ours.

Well. That set the bar pretty high, but at least I knew what clearing the bar looked like. I’ve been striving to do that ever since.

I hope I’ve come a long way in quality over the years, but I know for sure I’ve come a long way in confidence. My very first talk was to a group of Springfield writers meeting for lunch at the Heritage Cafeteria. When I arrived, I was invited to go through the line and order whatever I liked. Too nervous to eat, but not wanting to offend my hosts by not eating, I selected a little dish of cottage cheese with half a canned peach on top. I figured I could manage to slide that down my throat without choking to death before my presentation. I survived the event, but honestly don’t remember much beyond carefully managing that little dish of food.

Couple of years later, without giving it a second thought, I found myself chowing down a delicious dinner – complete with a glass of wine – before stepping up to the podium to give a talk about my second book for young readers, DAUGHTERS OF THE LAW. As I arranged my pages on the podium, I suddenly remembered the cottage cheese and canned peach – and I had to smile. Here I was, relaxed and eager to share what I had to say with my audience. Had I ever even imagined such a day would come? I was enjoying myself!

I like to think they were enjoying themselves, as well.

Your turn, David. Let’s hear it: the good, the bad, and the ugly . . .