Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Tongue-tied Writers

Sandra Parshall

Speaking isn’t the same as writing. That seems obvious, yet a surprising number of readers expect writers to be the embodiment of their print voices. Just as they believe a stand-up comic will provide hilarious casual chit-chat, they're prepared for an insightful author to bowl them over with profundities each time she opens her mouth, and they may be annoyed when it doesn't happen.

Some people will actually stop reading books they enjoy if the writer proves disappointing in person.

The truth is, a lot of writers are disappointing up close, unless they’re spouting speeches or remarks they’ve written (and rewritten and tweaked and polished) ahead of time. In an essay titled "When Writers Speak" in the September 27 New York Times Book Review, Arthur Krystal recalls watching film of a late 1950s interview with Vladimir Nabokov and being impressed with Nabokov’s verbal eloquence – until he saw the handful of index cards from which the literary giant read his prepared answers. Krystal admits he was disappointed at first, but he reasoned that writers don’t have a duty to be brilliant conversationalists; they’re only required to shine when they’re writing.

Unfortunately, in a time when publishers do little to promote books, they hold authors personally responsible for the success or failure of their novels. Even the shyest mouse of a writer has to get out there and charm readers at signings, appear on conference panels, and speak to rooms filled with strangers. I know a few authors who are terrific at this sort of thing, and the force of their personalities makes people want to buy their books, but for the shy ones – I’m one of them – talking will never feel as easy and natural as writing.

I think Krystal was on to something when he speculated in his NYT essay that a writer’s brain requires the physical act of writing to unleash its full creativity. While a great raconteur needs the spoken word and an audience to excel, the writer needs the exercise of transforming thoughts and emotions into written words. Yes, a writer has the luxury of revision to get it right, but something about the act of writing taps into a well of perception and feeling that few of us could verbaliz
e coherently. And the writer has the page to herself. She can develop a flow, a rhythm to her expression that would be impossible in back-and-forth conversation. Even written dialogue is significantly different from real speech. It has to sound believable, but it can’t be a literal transcription of verbal expression, complete with uhs and ums and digressions and stutters. Who would want to read that? On the page, even our confused, desperate characters express themselves better than they could in speech.

I’m slowly getting better at speaking in public, but only because I’ve learned how to prepare. Don’t believe for a minute that panelists at conferences are giving spontaneous answers to the moderator’s questions. Plenty of planning goes on behind the scenes before the authors mount the dais, and they know
what they’re going to be asked and how they’re going to answer. After a few panels on the same general topics, the whole process becomes much easier because it feels so familiar. I don’t think I’ve ever disgraced myself on a panel – although I’m sure my nervousness in the first few minutes is obvious to everyone – and I hope I never will.

Person-to-person conversation, or chatting in small groups, is still a challenge for me, though. When someone tells me that he or she likes my writing, I have a moment of stark terror because I know that anything coming out of my mouth will fall
short and disappoint. When I’m around someone I admire, I’m likely to be so intimidated that I freeze up and can’t produce a single intelligent sentence. I have a choice between babbling or remaining mute, and in either case I’ll probably seem about as smart as a box of rocks. (If you ever meet me and I behave this way, please realize that it’s only because I absolutely adore you.)

Although I’ve always known that I’m smarter when I‘m writing than when I’m speaking, and I had observed the same about other writers, I never fully understood what’s going on until I read Krystal’s essay. I have to thank him for that. This new understanding, unfortunately, doesn’t address the problem of readers’ expectations. Maybe I should start wearing a big button I can flash when someone tries to extract a memorable verbal statement from me: “I’m saving it for my book.”


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I think it's a very individual thing--like voice or the writing process itself. For me, it's all about connecting, whether the words I reach out to others with are written or spoken. And I never know in advance what I'm going to say on a panel or giving a talk. Please DO believe I'm being spontaneous. If I'm giving a lecture, I might riff off an outline, especially for a very large audience. I was shy for many years--but in my case it affected how I felt about one to one encounters, not performing.

Sheila Connolly said...

If your publisher had warned you from the beginning that you would have to go out to unfamiliar places and face crowds of strangers (or the total absence of?) and say something witty and bright, would you have stopped writing?

Like Liz, I've been shy much of my life, but I've found I enjoy talking to readers. And the only writers who turn me off are the divas who think they're too important to mingle with the masses.

And I agree with you--writing and speaking publicly are two very different acts, and not necessarily connected.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, you're one of those writers who excel in speaking off the cuff. Even so, you always know what your topic will be, don't you? Whether you've actually written out your responses in advance or not (I doubt that many of us go that far), some degree of preparation has taken place.

I enjoy talking to readers too, but I let them do most of the talking. That's actually useful to me -- I like to know what kind of people read my books.

Sandra Parshall said...

Here's a link to the NY Times Book Review essay by Arthur Krystal titled "When Writers Speak":

You may have to copy and paste into your browser.

signlady217 said...

I can sympathize. The bigger the group, the quieter I get. I do not like talking in front of a group of people. And the weird thing is I'm a sign language interpreter for the deaf and a math teacher(I'm still trying to figure out how that happened!) Over the years, it has gotten easier, but it still doesn't come naturally.

Sandra Parshall said...

This isn't just about shyness and public speaking. I'm intrigued by the idea that the physical act of writing frees our thoughts and our creativity. I'd like to hear some writers comment on this. When you sit down to write, do you feel as if you're switching on a part of your psyche that's dormant, or at least under-utilized, when you're not writing?