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 verbalize 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.”