The weekend before Thanksgiving I did something terrifying but rewarding: I read an excerpt from my book in progress to a room full of people. Live. To me, this is the psychological equivalent of jumping off a bridge in a tutu, and performing air ballet before hitting the water in an arabesque. In other words, public performance is high risk, especially because I was reading to a crowd of peers.
Peers raise the stakes in the best of ways. On one hand I was happy to be surrounded by their presence, grateful to have the chance to gather with people who understand the writing process from the inside out. On the other, I worried my work would not please them. Of the four readers, I had the fewest books published, the fewest awards, the fewest residencies, prestigious appointments and meetings with kings. The crowd was peppered with novelists, essayists, and satirists whose awards and accolades ranged from NEA grants to New York Times Bestsellers.
Usually, I don't compare my credentials with those of other writers. We all know this career path is a long, unpredictable one. At the end of the day, I am always happy to have written. But presenting my work last Sunday required more courage than I expected. I was reading in front of an editor who had told me, in no uncertain terms, that my book in progress, The Extraordinary Project, made her eyes roll.
I wish someone could remind me, every minute of every workday, that gracefully riding the ups and downs of the creative process is the real work of writing. I know, and defend the fact, that everyone has her own preferences. I don't know, however, if handling that truth will ever get easier.
I had prepared. I had read my piece through several times, wore a cute outfit, including lucky boots. I arrived on time, and had invited friends for support. I kept breathing steadily once my turn grew closer (I was the fourth of four to read). Heat shot up my spine, my stomach dropped to my ankles, and my face tingled as the organizers introduced me. All of this I expected; the paralysis was familiar. But the dread that filled me while the crowd started to clap was new. I wished I had never even endeavored the Extraordinary Project, let alone made the research and development process so public. I stood and took my spot at the front of the room. Somehow, I smiled.
I know it's normal to feel sick before presenting my work publicly, but knowing it's normal is hard to remember when my heart is in my throat and my face is melting. What I did remember, however, was to stand up straight. I remembered to project my voice. I even remembered to find a part of me that could laugh a little, because even though I felt more wretched and disembodied than if I was in the midst of an alien abduction, I still willingly stood in front of peers and attempted to entertain them.
Then a wonderful thing happened. I started to read and reconnected with the work. I stopped worrying about all the possible ways to feel, and shared what I had created. I heard people laugh a few times -- once or twice very loudly. I could hardly believe it when I reached the end. I felt strong.
If I could tell every person one thing about presenting her work to peers, I would say this: prepare a lot, and when you feel like you're about to die, find a way to laugh and congratulate yourself because you're doing it right.