Saturday, December 31, 2011

Guest author Joanne C. Hillhouse: Got an author reading? Don't sweat it

Photo by Emile Hill
Antiguan and Barbudan author Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of Oh Gad! – a novel scheduled for publication by Simon and Schuster in 2012. Her previous books are The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. She’s published in various literary journals, and her literary prizes include a UNESCO Honour Award, the Michael and Marilee Fairbanks international fellowship to participate in the Breadloaf Writers Conference, and the David Hough Literary Prize from the Caribbean Writer. Her activities include youth writing programme the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize.

I don’t sweat.

Well, okay, I do sweat; quite a bit, actually. I’m talking the kind of dampness that has people (okay, one person, one time) approaching me in the supermarket, concern wrinkling her brow: “Miss, you okay?”

But I don’t sweat when I’m nervous, like I invariably am, right before a reading. No, the signs are subtler: For only I can hear my heart trying to sledgehammer its way out of my chest, and the way everything gets dark and tight until passing out is a real possibility. And only I, once at the lectern, can feel the way one leg locks, firm, while the other trembles – not shaking like it does when idle, but trembling like an earthquake; And only I can sense the weird standing beside myself thing that happens.

One self chastises, “your leg is shaking, stop it, stop it”, worrying that the leg will give out and leave me sprawled on the floor; while the other keeps reading, initially stumbling over familiar words before catching her stride. This self is, by definition and inclination, a writer not a reader nor entertainer – which people seem to expect writers to be. But her motto is ‘feel the fear but do it anyway’, and so she does. She’s impressive really, this second self. On good days, she will begin to feel herself vibesin’ with the audience – encouraged by their laughter and murmurs. She’ll assert herself, as she tunes in to the story and her audience tunes in to her and the story she’s telling, the two of them hitting the same frequency. And just like that, they’ll merge. And soon she is one with them, the audience, herself, and Sexy Sadie (or whichever character happens to be commanding their attention).

I am no authority on readings. But since publishing my first book, I’ve survived (yes, you read that right: survived) more than a few readings – at this writing, I just completed one at the University of Toronto which included the first ever previews of my forthcoming book Oh Gad! alongside previously anthologized poetry. It went amazingly well.

I’m not sure how the next one will go, of course, but while I’m in the zone, here are some of my tried and true tricks, which you might find useful too.

1. Breathe. Cliché but true. I suck it in and hold it, counting down, trying to slow my heart beat. And it works. Deep breaths keep me from passing out – because like all humans, I need oxygen to live – and they slow things down. They remind me to trust the work; it’s ready…and with another deep breath, I’ll be ready too.

2. Distract Yourself/Be Present. Now, this sounds like a contradiction but it really isn’t. I try not to obsess about what I’m about to read. As I prepared for tonight’s reading, I ironed, watched music videos, surfed the web, tried to work (couldn’t settle down enough for that), tried on my outfit, took it off …all before leaving the hotel room.

At the event, I listen to the other speakers. I clap. I laugh. I am there. Beats sitting and worrying (read: obsessing) about all the things that could go wrong.

On this particular night, my debut reading from Oh Gad! nothing did. And isn’t that usually the case?

3. Prepare. Of course, distracting yourself only works if you’ve prepared; you know, like you can only sleep the night before the big test, instead of being up all night cramming, if you’ve actually been keeping up with your reading throughout the term. So, I prep and practice (when you’re not a natural, you have to) then, like they say in those Italian mobster movies, fuhgeddaboutit. Which is not to say that during early performances of my rare acting turns (in local productions of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and Antigua & Barbudan equivalent When a Woman Moans) you may not have found me prowling back stage running lines trying to get into the right emotional head space; I’m not Meryl Streep, after all.

4. Take it in. This is a big one, and one I still have to work on. I’ve been known to treat readings like I did those big tests in that, I do not want to discuss or think about it after it’s done. I was not the girl to stand around discussing what answer I put for question six, when it was past the time that I could do anything about it. Move on, that’s been my mantra. But, this approach doesn’t work with readings where it’s advised that you hang around and discuss the book, make small talk, socialize. Me, I fled my Breadloaf reading as soon as it was done; turns out, several people actually found me in the days that followed to congratulate me on the reading, would have been better if I had hung around to hear it. In Toronto, I stayed put and survived (no, I can actually say that I enjoyed) the small talk, and embraced the response from the audience that, as I subsequently told a friend, felt like love.

So, my final bit of advice to you – and me – be in the moment. After all, it’s your moment.

5. Oh, and, go to the bathroom before leaving your room, or sweating may be the least of your worries.

So, what are your tips for giving your best reading?


Charles Gramlich said...

Good advice, I have been doing public speaking long enough that, even though I dread it's approach, once I get in front of the audience it's like turning on a switch. I hardly even notice what is happening to me then, just the connection with the audience.

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, Joanne!

I read somewhere that most people fear public speaking more than they fear death. Don't think I'd go that far, but it's a close second. I'm in the process of facing down that fear and will keep your advice in mind.

KeVin K. said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces!

Excellent essay. I think your tip #3 is the key. If you're prepared, everything else follows. I went through college determined to become an actor, became a teacher instead -- for a decade teaching "those kids," the conduct disorder class. The one lesson I learned (other than to discourage my own children from entering education) was that being prepared is the only defense. When everything else falls apart, preparedness enables you to improvise on the fly. Knowing you can do that makes all else possible.

I have to confess I haven't read you before, Joanne but I enjoy your voice. Going to have to seek you and your work out. Good way to start the new year.

Joanne said...

Thanks, guys. And yes, Kevin, I swear by number 3; some people are naturals, the rest of us have to do our homework. Great to hear you'll be seeking out my work. Right now The Boy from Willow Bend is probably easiest to get via Amazon and, of course, I have a new book scheduled for release this year, Oh Gad! excerpted here