It would seem there are two types of writers – those who are comfortable with reading their work to an audience, and those who would rather be trapped in a lift with Piers Morgan than stand before a microphone.
EM Reapy, author of Red Dirt, is of the latter variety. In an upfront piece for the Irish Times last week, she explained that, though thrilled with the positive reception her debut novel received, she struggled with the public appearances that were expected of her as part of the book’s promotion. This came to a head when she won Newcomer of the Year at last year’s Irish Book Awards, an award that’s arguably more about the writer than the book. To her horror, she had to give an off-the-cuff acceptance speech at the glitzy awards ceremony, with TV cameras present:
‘It was a sort of out-of-body experience walking to the stage. I don’t remember what I said in the speech but I recall lights, the crowd in their glamorous suits and dresses, the blur of faces. I had an intense desire to leave but was ushered to a green room and was then brought in for an RTÉ interview. I don’t remember that either, I was very much on autopilot. Some part of me had shut down….
‘…Two days later, I was struck with a stabbing pain in my side. I couldn’t walk or stand up. I was sent to hospital with suspected appendicitis. The highlight show of the awards ceremony was on that night. The doctors ran some tests and checked me over the course of the day but I was sent home in darkness, appendix intact. I watched the highlights through my fingers, reliving the fear I’d felt on the night, feeling nauseous all over again.’
To make matters worse, this was after several years of trying, and failing, to overcome her fear of public speaking. She began to wonder whether she would have to stop doing what she loved altogether when public appearances were proving such an obstacle. Fortunately, the story does have a happy ending as she has found a way of coping using a form of therapy.
Obviously this level of exposure is something most aspiring writers can only dream of, but even on a small scale reading in public can be very stressful if you’re shy, self-conscious or prone to anxiety. And yet readings are very much part of the literary landscape, so shouldn’t they be something to embrace?
This article struck a chord with me because the prospect of reading also fills me with dread. It took me a long time to even be able to read my work to my writing group without quaking, and I trust those people completely. Doing a reading in front of strangers seemed like a rite of passage that was beyond me. But then I became annoyed with myself for being such a wuss when others could just get on with it without making a fuss. So I decided it was time to face the fear once and for all, and made myself take part in the open mic section at the most recent Fiction at the Friary [which, incidentally, was terrific as always. Check out the April guest speaker Susan Lanigan on Soundcloud for a great excerpt from her WWI-set novel White Feathers. Now there’s someone who knows how to read confidently].
I have to confess I was shaking like a leaf, and was clamping onto my pages so fiercely to keep them steady that the nerves had to travel elsewhere, which meant my legs were practically buckling. Luckily, the mic is set up in a quirky sort of pulpit so my interpretive-dance lower half was hidden from view.
For anyone with a similar fear, plus the means to get to Cork, I can recommend trying this particular venue. The room is encouraging and attentive, and organisers Madeleine D’Arcy and Danielle McLaughlin are the most supportive people you could hope to meet. It was daunting, particularly as much of the audience was made up of people who know a thing or two about writing, but I’m glad I faced it and that I managed to get through it without keeling over or weeping with nerves. It also allowed me to figure out that – in my case, anyway – much of the fear is the worry that the material is not good enough to lay before an audience. So if you’re going to read, make sure it’s something you feel you can stand by.
Will I be more confident the next time I get to read, or will I continue to be a bag of nerves like EM Reapy? I know for a fact it will be the latter, but at least I’ve gotten over the terrifying hurdle of the first time.
For those whose phobia runs somewhat deeper, there’s also professional help at hand. On Twitter this week, I spotted that the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin is running a series of workshops called Mindshift, aimed at helping to improve confidence and performance skills, among other things (such as social media training and the art of self-promotion, which can be equally challenging for shy and retiring writerly types). Details can be found here of events coming up soon in Listowel, Dublin and Belfast.
Short story competition
Entries are now being accepted for the Books Ireland Short Story Competition 2017. Stories can be up to the rather quirky limit of 2,600 words, and the competition is open to writers of any nationality writing in English. First prize is €400, a place on a writing course at the Irish Writers Centre and publication in Books Ireland. Second prize is €200, and third €100. It isn’t mentioned whether the runner-up stories will also be published.
There’s an entry fee of €10 (€5 for subscribers or members of a writing group), with a closing date of July 31.