(Cross post with Murderati)
I was a shy child. So painfully shy, in fact, that before the age of seven, I didn’t have the nerve to walk up to a checkout counter and buy a candy bar. My sister always had to do it for me.
At nine years old, after some coaching by my uncle on the ukelele, I taught myself to play guitar, and within a year, I was in a band and practicing in my friend’s garage. If not The Beatles, we were convinced that we were definitely destined to be as popular as The Ventures.
Unfortunately, the first time we played in public was a personal disaster for me. It was an elementary school talent competition and we were slated to play a medley of surf songs, including our two favorites, Pipeline and Wipeout. But as the curtain went up, I gathered up what little nerve I had, strummed my electric guitar…
And the amp remained silent. No sound. Not even a buzz.
Feeling the collective gaze of the audience on me, I quickly checked to see if I was properly plugged in, and the moment I touched my amp, the cable jack fell to the stage with a resounding thud.
This was followed by a roar of laughter so loud and forceful, I felt as if it might blow me off my feet. The curtain closed and I quickly replugged the cable, but that laughter seemed to go on forever as a small part of me shriveled up and died.
That I was able to continue at all was a miracle. But we played our tunes, got our applause, and ultimately lost the contest to a seven year-old singing A Spoonful of Sugar in a squeaky, off-key voice.
Not that it mattered. All I took away from the night was that moment of utter humiliation.
Years later, when assigned to do an oral report for a high school biology class, I chose to do a talk on the digestive system. But as the day approached for me to get up in front of the class, the butterflies in my own digestive system got so bad that I actually stayed home from school — only to be forced to do the report the day I returned.
I reluctantly got up in front of my fellow students — one of whom was a girl I’d had my eye on (but was too shy to talk to, of course) — and stammered my way through the presentation while my classmates quietly snickered. My teacher, already a sourpuss, kept frowning at me. And I wasn’t surprised to discover that my grade for the report was a big fat D.
As I got older, like most young men, I continued to have dreams of being a rock star. I actually got pretty good at writing songs and performing them for my friends. But the idea of being up on stage scared the hell out of me and I never took my music beyond those private performances.
So I became a writer. A screenwriter, in fact. I won an international screenwriting competition and the first thing I had to do was fly to Los Angeles to accept my prize — in front of an audience of industry bigwigs.
Prepare a speech, they told me.
So there I stood, nervously clutching a podium, Jack Lemmon staring up at me with that cock-eyed grin on his face. Trying not to throw-up, I said, “I’m a writer, not a speaker, so I just want to thank the Academy for giving me this wonderful opportunity. It’s an honor to be in such fine company.”
Then I got off the stage as quickly as I could, actually believing the words I had just uttered:
A writer, not a speaker.
Oh, boy, how wrong I was. From that day forward, a good part of my time was spent speaking, not writing. Sitting in front of executives, pitching stories — terrified to be in a room full of strangers.
And it never seemed to get better. No matter how many meetings I went to, no matter how many stories I pitched, I never got over that awful, unsettling stage fright.
Years later, I decided to abandon Hollywood and set my sights on the publishing world. When I got my deal with St. Martin’s Press, I thought, ahhh, finally. All I have to do now is write. No more pressure to perform.
What an idiot.
I soon discovered that most novelists, even mere thriller writers, soon find themselves before an audience. Be it a conference, a book signing, a speaking engagement. All of these things come with the job and are an important part of it.
When I found this out, I shuddered at the idea of once again having to perform in front of people. My anxiety level rose whenever I thought about it.
Then, oddly enough, something changed inside of me. I can’t pinpoint the moment it happened, but it did. I participated in my first panel at Thrillerfest and it went quite smoothly. I’m told I blushed like crazy, but nobody seemed to mind, and I even got a few laughs.
Several panels later, I almost felt like an old pro. As if I were in my element. I didn’t love doing it, still got a tiny twinge of nerves, but I didn’t mind it either. And I found that people actually responded quite well to me.
When I was asked earlier this year to go down to San Diego and teach a workshop, I immediately said yes. I admit I had an attack of panic before it was my turn to speak, but that dissolved the moment I started teaching. And, afterwards, several people came up to thank me, telling me they really got a lot out of it.
Now, just this past Saturday, Brett Battles and I did a joint appearance, speaking together before the Southern California Writers Association about writing thrillers. I again had a momentary twinge of nerves, but they disappeared immediately and I felt comfortable and completely at ease.
Brett and I riffed off each other, spontaneously cracking jokes, sharing our experiences and offering trips and tricks to a room full of aspiring writers. And, surprisingly enough, I really enjoyed myself. In fact, I not only enjoyed myself but was a little disappointed when it was over.
And we were a hit. Afterwards, attendees told us that we had raised the bar for future speakers and, believe me, those are words I never in my life expected to hear.
Am I still shy? Of course. But these days, for some reason, I’m better equipped to cope with the shyness. I don’t know if it’s practice, age, or simply some strange miracle, that has changed my attitude about such things, but I’m actually looking forward to the next speaking engagement. And the next. And the next.
And, hopefully, I’ll always be able to keep the guitar plugged into the amp.
But now that you’ve heard about my worst public appearance disasters, let’s hear about yours. What went wrong and how did you deal with it? And if such things have gotten better for you, what was the turning point?
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