Amanda Leduc is the author of the novel The Miracles of Ordinary Men, (ECW Press, 2013). Her stories and essays have appeared in publications including The Rumpus, Elle Canada, Prairie Fire, Little Fiction and—just last week!—Tampa Review Online. In 2012, she was shortlisted and published in both The New Quarterly‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and PRISM International‘s short fiction contest. Amanda is the editor of Little Fiction‘s sister non-fiction publication, Big Truths, and lives in Hamilton, Ont., where she’s working on her next novel. Below, she tells us how it feels to read in public—which she’ll be doing for us on May 7!
My knees shake whenever I’m about to read my work in public. It happens every single time. I’ll be standing there in front of my mic, flipping through pages, excited and happy because isn’t this what you’ve always wanted, Writer, this chance to read your VERY OWN BOOK out loud to an audience? Isn’t this what you’ve longed for and hoped for and thought about all those long nights ago when you were still in the process of putting words down on the page? You imagined reading to a crowd and thought: that will be so much more than perfect.
And then you get to that stage with your book, and your knees start jittering and to cover it up you try to say something funny but it fails—polite titters of laughter, that most terrible of sounds—and your throat clams up and you miss one word and then two and suddenly your mind is filled with four-letter words that you should not, cannot, MUST NOT say in public. (Unless, of course, your book is already filled with them. In which case, go ahead.)
You pray that no one sees your leg, hop-hopping there behind your mic stand. Failed, un-funny introduction behind you, you start reading. You won’t freak out. You won’t. And slowly, your nervousness slides back into excitement. Your heart beats and you remember: this is great. This is what you’ve always wanted.
Then you realize that the rhythm isn’t coming from your heart at all. It’s coming from your foot, which is thumping against the stage like an overexcited rabbit. Loudly. Obviously.
The audience, bless them, hasn’t said a thing.
I was not prepared for how weird it would feel, having a book out there in the world. Sure it was great. Spectacular, even. And sure, I enjoyed everything about this new turn of events—seeing my book on shelves, talking to strangers about it, reading it in front of these same strangers. But I hadn’t expected that the enjoyment itself would seem strange—not deserved, in some way, or tricksy in others, like all of this was happening to another person who happened to look like me and talk like me but was, in fact, someone different altogether. I thought I’d prepared enough that the enjoyment would slide over me like a set of nifty, longed-for, Audrey Hepburn-esque gloves.
I did not expect to find these gloves itchy. Audrey Hepburn did not itch.
Because the simple fact of the matter is that the real me spends most of her time in pyjamas. She has, on occasion, eaten peanut butter straight out of the jar. She spends days at a stretch in her apartment, fooling around with words and eating dubious things for dinner. She avoids talking on the phone like vampires avoid garlic. She loves to clown around on Twitter but is rarely so sharp in person.
And she has shaky knees in public. I thought this would go away but each time, these knees betray me. What gives? Isn’t this what you’ve longed for, Writer? Isn’t this everything you’ve wanted, and more?
The answer, of course, is yes. And no. As a writer of a certain type, especially in today’s digital age, there’s a part of me that longs to be public. I love Twitter (probably too much). I blog (probably not enough). I live for talking about books. And I love nothing so much as the chance to meet up with other writers and have provocative discussions about what writing means to ourselves and others. It’s a way of stepping beyond that apartment-sized world. It can be glamorous and exciting and also just plain fun.
But the urge to crawl away into a hole still sneaks up on me, the way those shaky knees still ambush every event I’ve ever done. It’s not always easy to talk about writing, much as I might love it. It’s hard to distill four years of writing a novel into a few choice sentences—ones that sound coherent and inspiring and make light of the fact that most of the time spent writing a novel is time spent frustrated and sobbing and/or wanting to die.
It’s hard to admit that those gloves itch all the damned time. And harder still to admit that you’ll wear the gloves anyway, even if they never get as comfortable as you had once hoped they’d be. In what universe does that make any kind of sense?
I’m convinced, on some level, that one day an astute reader is going to out me as an imposter. “You’re awkward,” they’ll say. “You’re not smart, and you’re not funny. Real authors don’t get nervous. They always know what to say. Please go back to your apartment.”
And really, who am I to argue? I write things. I don’t speak them, at least not as much. I am not David Sedaris. (I would really like to be David Sedaris.) People come to hear authors speak because they believe that authors can talk about creativity in a way that makes sense. They engage with authors at festivals because it’s magical and thrilling to see Stephen King be exactly as cool and quirky and slightly, charmingly odd as you’d imagine Stephen King to be. Expectation: met.
You don’t go to a festival to see an author shake uncontrollably and make lame jokes. Where’s the fun in that?
And yet, I have a book out in the world now. There’s no getting off the train. Every time I do an event—and make no mistake, I am intensely grateful for every single opportunity—I’m reminded that mental juggling is part of the gig. Most writers are intensely private on some level, but are also expected to be intensely public—especially when the time for promotion comes.
It’s a strange feeling. Sometimes I have this urge to grab the hands of random readers at events. I hate reading in public, I want to say. And I LOVE reading in public. Yesterday I wrote three words and erased five hundred and ate a can of kidney beans for lunch. Honest to God, I don’t know how my book got published at all.
But that would be weird, so I don’t do it. We don’t want weird, right? In the age of Twitter, we want witty literary luminaries all of the time. We want our writers to be as electrifying in person as they are on the page. We want them to be well-dressed and well-spoken and well-versed and well-everything. And when we have questions, we want them answered in an exact, succinct way.
Sometimes we forget that it can take years to find the right word, or that creation itself can be slippery and bizarre—fuelled by cans of kidney beans and self-doubt and the same nervousness that makes a set of knees shake together on the stage. Writing is about delving into the muck and trying to make sense out of chaos. Writing is weird. It is an inherently awkward profession, dressed up in those Audrey Hepburn gloves. And bewitched by their beauty, sometimes I forget that the itching underneath will never end. The imposter syndrome never really goes away—you just get better at ignoring it.
One year on from putting my first book into the world, I’ve discovered that it is possible to be both a private writer and a public author all at the same time. After all, the people who come to a reading don’t actually seeyou sobbing over that half-finished manuscript. They get to see your finished book. And thanks to the magic of time, you usually get to talk to them about it after a year or so of decompression. You can prepare for the gloves.
Writing is hard, messy work. It stands to reason, then, that talking about it (or even reading it off the page) will sometimes also be messy and hard. But as worried as I get over my shaking knees, it usually transpires that the knocking never seems as bad to the observer as it does to me. Same goes, I think, for the rest of the neuroses that inevitably spring up in anticipation of having to read and/or talk about your book in public. They’re never as bad as you think they are. Sometimes, they can even be refreshing. I am always thrilled when the authors I meet prove to be quirky and awkward in ways that I completely understand. You can be an author, and a real person too? Even in the age of Twitter? Amazing!
So three cheers, I say, to the awkwardness that lies beneath the polish. To the itchiness that lies beneath the gloves. Because ultimately, stories come to us through what is awkward and terrible and hard. Next time my knees shake at a reading, I will remember that, and be thankful.
I might lay off on the jokes, though.
Amanda Leduc visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, May 7, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Adam Abbas, Kate Cayley and Tom Cho. Come early, too (6:30) for Amanda’s talk, “From Couchsurfing to Cafés: The Magic of the D.I.Y. Book Tour”!