Xanax and Underwear

(image courtesy Stella Polaris)

Last night, I did my first reading. As in standing-still-on-shaky-legs-in-front-of-strangers-while-trying-to-appear-clever-and-writerly and keeping-my-chin-from-quivering-and-my-dinner-from-spewing-across-the-lectern-while-I-read one of my short stories.

And let me tell you, I was so fucking nervous, I almost forgot my name.

Of course, I went online before hand to see how writers do it. I got lost watching marvelous Margaret Atwood and listening to Toni Morrison’s mesmerizing Nobel acceptance speech, but they made me more nervous and I couldn’t find anything useful for my little task, so I thought I’d post my reading here in case it’s useful to anyone else. Here’s what I said:

Heard it through the grapevine that there was going to be a party for this issue, my issue. Of course I wanted to come, but I was nervous, so I asked all my writer friends what I should do. Do they get anxious? What tricks do they have for getting over it? I was expecting yoga poses or acupressure or visualizations or vaseline on my teeth or a stuffed animal in my pocket or something involving velcro but no: the resounding consensus was that I should take a Xanax.

Xanax is an anti-anxiety drug. Did everyone know that except me? Anyway, I mooched one from an understanding writer-friend, got all dolled up, and drove into the city. I parked my car and took out my little jar or water and the pill and I felt very writerish then, with my quirks and props and crutches and such, so I gulped the pill and walked into the building and no one was there. The night watchman didn’t know what I was talking about.

Because this was last January. I arrived to this event three months ago. I honestly don’t know how I got it wrong. How embarrassing, right? But since I don’t have another pill for tonight, I thought I’d try coming up here and embarrassing myself first thing so I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.

My story is called “Down River.” It’s about Aster, an 11-year-old girl who convinces her nervous mother to take her camping at one of those tacky roadside campgrounds. It’s too long to read aloud so I’m going to start on page 4 but that means we skip my favorite image, the image that inspired the whole thing, the one I started with, when Aster sees a pair of women’s panties skewered on a twig on a bush in a dry creek bed. I love that image because it distills the entire meaning of my story which is about how vulnerable and exposed we all are in life, whether we admit it or not, no matter how we’d like hide, how our vulnerability dangles there for everyone to see.

I’ll start at the part when they have just zipped the tent shut for the night.

(And then I read THIS, as slow and loud as possible, pinching myself every time I said “um.”)

Things I learned:

  • I should be reading all my writing aloud and looking at it on paper. After seeing the shape of things on a real page and putting the words in my mouth, I had to do a major revision, because it was all so awkward and redundant and confusing. From now on, I will print and read aloud before I call anything “finished.”
  • Embarrassing myself up-front works just as well as taking a pill.
  • Even though it goes against every fiber of my being, I will always take the chance to read aloud because it’s an opportunity to grow. I feel bigger today. My edges are slightly more distinct. I met some really nice, really talented people. And I will do it because, if nothing else, it is something to write about.

Do you get the jitters?  What’s your trick for overcoming anxiety? How do you do it? 

About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

47 comments

  1. I’m so proud of you, Anna! You did it! Congratulations on conquering your fear and doing what I’m sure was a beautiful read.

  2. CJ

    That is one gorgeous chapter you read. Congratulations on giving it voice.

    • Thanks, CJ. I wish I could go back and edit the one they put in the magazine now that reading it has compelled me to edit. I guess that’s always true, though– nothing’s ever perfect.

  3. Well Anna I certainly do get the jitters. No performance artist here. Just a visual artist who feels comfortable hanging art on the wall and WATCHING from across the room the viewer’s reactions. My most fearful moment for me was a live multi-media video/dance theater performance. I rented a 12 * 12 foot rear screen projector that the company man installed and calibrated. Hell I did not have a clue what to do if I had “technical difficulties”. Nothing went wrong, but I was very nervous. I think this might be the same feeling you had. Scared sh*&less….

  4. love the chapter! the mother reminds me of mine: the driving behavior, expressions, always hovering but in “control.” good job on capturing the eleven-year-old voice. i want to read the novel! about public readings, i always get butterflies. i try to think of them now as comforting triggers. can’t wait to read more of your work!!

  5. I’m so proud of you and glad you want take more chances to do readings! Wish I could have been there for moral support.

    I had a great time reading for an audience the first time, but it was a kind of a blur like I was high or something. (Natural high.) I read a sort of prose poem called “Sparks” http://satsumabug.com/2010/11/05/open-mic-friday-featuring-re-harris/ and it got a wonderful response throughout.

    Now you would think that meant I’d be doing it a lot, and being fearless about it, but no. With regular stories, my voice pinches or gets dull and emotionless (I’ve been told.) I think I’ve become a person who may need that Xanax. But then I haven’t done an open mike in a few years. I have my fingers crossed for chances to try it again, and for the ability to get my groove back because I agree with you about all those reasons to do it.

    • I know what you mean about the voice. I thought I had it under control, but then when I did it for some friends, my voice started wavering inexplicably. They were nice about it, said it added emotionality to the reading, but I don’t know.
      I loved your open mic. When I read yours, I wanted to do one, too.
      I wish you could have been there, too.

  6. So, I too have used Xanax to take the edge off. The problem for me though was that it took about six months out of my life. Loved um so much I ate um like smarties. My life just poof! disappeared. Oh man I wish I wasn’t such an addict. I loved those little purple pills erasing all problems, pressure, and pain.

    I had a couple of pieces published in a magazine a year or so ago. When i was asked to read at the release party I read from a copy of that publication. The problem, like you, I had revised since it went to print so when i got to the part I had re-written I was totally confused. My friends told me they couldn’t tell but they lie, Yes, you could. I had a river running down between my breasts. Filled my belly button like a tiny pond. Next problem, the two pieces published were totally different. One very heavy, the other was a funny piece. I read the heavy piece first. When I read the humorous piece no on dared laugh cuz they thought I was serious. Had I not been so scared I would have laughed into the microphone as they all looked so serious and confused I found it hysterical. Perhaps that was because that’s how I was feeling at the time. Smile.

    I’d read before and I have read since and you are right, it does make you and your work stronger. I once had a man tell me that when a writer reads they listen to the audience with their third ear. Like intuitive hearing, we can sense how our words are going over. Hopefully it’s not that they are going right over everyone’e head ;).

    Good job! It does get easier.

  7. Quite proud of you, BFIPWNM (Blogging Friend I Probably Will Never Meet–this acronym is a work in progress–any ideas?). (Maybe add IP to the end–In Person–then you could pronounce it Bee-fip-win-mip). Were you very calm for several hours after taking the Xanax? I cannot stand up in front of people and speak, to the extent that I think speech class, any time before college level (where the student is presumably paying for, and therefore presumably choosing, the public exposure) is a form of cruelty, if not abuse, to extremely shy children. Seriously. You can’t force a shy child to not be shy. I know for sure that no speech class ever made me feel more confident as a speaker. Developing confidence in my friendships and feeling like I belonged in the world were the only things that ever helped there, NOT speech class. The way to get through the horror was then to raise my hand to be 2nd or 3rd speaker, get it over with quickly, then sit and relax, knowing it was blessedly over. Even now, I could, for instance, sit with a married couple that I am close friends with, trade quips and barbs with them all night, but, if I had to stand up and simply read a short newspaper story to them, as if giving a speech to them, I would be all nerves.
    All that preamble aside, I would love to try reading a short piece of mine in front of some strangers somewhere. Once anyway. I do read some of my stuff aloud to myself to see how it sounds.
    It was great that you related to them your story about being there 3 months early; I imagine it got them to be “on your side” right away.

    • One of the very nice editors let me go first, thank god, so I could get it over with and then actually enjoy the other readers. I think she could sense by my stiff smile and shifty eyes that I was on the edge. I”m amazed that writers do readings so regularly. I mean, aren’t we a notoriously introverted bunch? Once again, I think it would have been better to hire myself a spokesmodel for the evening.

      Beefipwinmip has a ring to it. Beef for short. Hey hey, my beef, howzit going?

      Just roll over and show them your tummy. It works for puppies, right?

  8. “An .opportunity to grow” Yes!

    You grow girl! Well done you. And I loved the story and the story about the Xanax

  9. very brave! I actually alwyas read everything I write a loud. I constant mutteriung can be heard from my desk

  10. Marc Schuster

    Congratulations on your first reading! It definitely gets easier as you do more of them.

    I’m also a huge advocate of reading work aloud. I read everything I write to myself as I’m writing it, and then I’ll read passages aloud to my wife after I’m happy with the work I’ve done. This is probably the main reason I don’t write in public — I’d probably bug the heck out of anyone who’s sitting nearby with all of my mumblings.

  11. You’re very brave. You might know the Seinfeld quip about a survey revealing most people being more afraid of giving a speech than dying and so at a funeral most would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy!

    Perhaps you should consider some audio versions of your previous blog posts…I know Words Fall From My Eyes has video versions of some of her posts.

    You are entering into performance itself perhaps? I see nothing wrong with stand-ins by the way – many a great screen actor voices words by nameless great writers!

    • I didn’t see the Seinfeld, but I have heard that public speaking is up there with divorce and death on the list of Most Stressful Events. Audio versions is a great idea– if only I didn’t have the voice of a child. Perhaps I’ll hire some throaty voiced siren to read for me. Love it!

  12. What a treasure you are! After a story like that, I can imagine the entire room wanting to hug you. For me, all the anxiety I feel really helps bring my performance to an entirely new level. There’s an energy that reading live brings that you can’t bottle or replicate in the privacy of your own home. It’s reserved just for that moment in time and with only that audience. The best part is knowing you’re no longer just staring at the road ahead. It’s clear you’re got your feet planted firmly on it and you’re moving. Kudos to you, m’dear.

    • You’re right about that energy. I wonder where that came from. I was almost manic. I like what you say about staring at that road– the difference of observing vs. participating. Thank you!

  13. Well done Anna, and great short story too.
    I know just how you felt. Even reading a 300 word story in a critique group, I shake and sweat and my voice becomes a horrible deadpan.
    It’s because the writing is close to our hearts we’re sharing a piece of ourselves, and that can be a very scary thing.
    But you did it, and you’ll do it again, and next time it will be easier.
    I recently read somewhere that if you really want to do a reading properly, really nail it, you must practice the piece 20 times.
    By then, it all comes out how it’s meant to.
    But I agree with MSB too. There’s something extra you find on the night, and I’m willing to bet that you found some of it that night, and your audience loved it.

    • 20 times? I’m glad to know the magic number. I think I did it about that many times. I found the dialogue particularly challenging to do– to make my voice sound like the characters’ without sounding like a mommy reading a children’s book to 3-year-olds.

  14. And when you finished your reading, I’ll bet the audience’s applause made you wonder why you’d ever been nervous. I’ve read dozens of times, but of course I still get plenty anxious as I wait for my turn. The thing that helps me most is that I know what I’m reading is good, or they wouldn’t have published it and asked me to read. Then all I have to do is start, and the characters take over. The experience becomes less of a reading and more of a stage play, as I try to convey each character’s personality and motivation to the audience. A little tip that might help: with every reading, you’ll notice a couple of people who seem to really be into your story. As you engage the crowd, come back to them often–they’ll provide a little confdence boost that makes the experience easier.

    • You’re right, Joe– the worst part is the waiting, the anticipation. I am starting to wish I had more acting skills. I never realized I’d need them, as a writer. Thanks for the tip– next time, I will try to locate the friendliest faces. (It’s funny, though–real friends offered to come with me but I said no, thought that would make me more nervous.)

  15. Lex

    “My edges are slightly more distinct.”..so well put! You’ve inspired me to take on a legs-getting-jittery challenge too!

  16. Lex

    “My edges are slightly more distinct.” …so well put! You’ve inspired me to take on a legs-getting-jittery challenge of my own. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  17. I’m so very proud of you, Anna, and I know exactly what you mean. The last time I read in public a few weeks ago I forgot — not even kidding — how to put my reading glasses on. I was terrified.

    (no. really. terrified.)

    And where did you read? Somewhere in the North Bay or the city? I’m not that far so I wish I’d known!!

    A week or 2 ago there was that conversation at Betsy’s about readings, remember? And someone said, “Don’t read any of your prose.” Now I kind of see what they meant. Of course you have to read something, especially for a lit journal piece, but I swear, next time, I’m going to prepare differently, maybe talk about how I wrote the story, read a funny section, ask for a question or 2. That sounds sooooo much easier!!!

    Cheers to you for getting up there and doing it. It’s so very very painful. But I’m guessing you were awesome. :-)

    • Thank you Teri! It was in SF at the California College of the Arts for their lit. journal, ElevenEleven. I didn’t even invite my husband, I was that nervous.

      Paul Harding, last year’s Pulitzer for fiction winner, was at that lectern just before me. (!!!!) Before I started, I took in an extra deep breath, hoping to suck in a little of his talent and confidence.

      I tried reading my whole story aloud and even I got bored. Not that the story is boring, but that it’s an internal thing. I think you’re right– it’s good to break it up, inject some life and humor or anecdotes.

  18. Reading out loud for editing is so important. With that said, I also mumble. Or tell myself I’m reading to the dogs. And I feel stupid (when it’s just me. I love speaking to a group). But reading out loud during editing does work because the voice says what I thought my words were supposed to say when I wrote them. Two people in my writer’s group read out loud very dramatically, assuming voices, accents, etc. One does it very well and should be in acting. The other one makes me cringe and swear I’m going to continue to mumble. And finally, one good friend doesn’t just read her material out loud when editing, she sits at a table and asks her characters questions. Then hops up, runs to the other chair, sits down and answers the question. She swears it allows her to see things missing in the stories. Once, she said, a character demanded to be allowed to be the villain. In retrospect she realized that made more sense and rewrote the story. Me? I’m still mumbling.

    • How interesting about the role-played interview. The line between the writer and the actor/character is an interesting one for me (I spent my last novel thinking about it) (although I never acted out the parts) (maybe I should have!).

  19. Once, when I was a featured poet at a crowded event at the (always) embarrassed age of sixteen, my legs shook so hard that I leaned back to perch on a nearby tall stool behind me on the stage, and I sat right on a raw egg the last poet had left up there. Good times.

    Honestly, A.F., you bring up some of the big essentials about doing readings while talking about your own first experience. Congratulations on your first reading! And, yes, please do read out loud when you revise— it helps so much. I do this every day when I’m working in my office. I think my new(ish) neighbors are starting to get used to it, finally. Or they think I’m bonkers. Both, probably!

    Congrats again, and thank you for writing about readings so thoughtfully!

    • Tee hee and what a booby trap they left for you: No fair! I knew some people were reading aloud before I wrote this, but I never dreamed so many writers were really, really doing it. What a bunch of noise all you writers must be generating. “Oh no, a writer just moved in next door. Get out the earplugs!”

      • Sorry so late! Just found notifications on WordPress!

        There’s this apocryphal story about Kerouac driving his landlady nuts by reading his work out loud while he revised.

        He’d pace while he was doing it, too, which made her wonder if there was something wrong with him.

        (He says he didn’t revise— that’s part of his mythos. Kerouac did revise his work.)

        This is how I do it and not drive people nutto— I remove my big stereo headphones. (I listen to music while I write.) I make sure the windows and doors are closed in my office, and I read at a normal, modulated tone of voice. (It isn’t my “live reading” voice, which is louder and more precise.)

        Oh my gosh, your writing will open up to you in a way you never dreamed, AF! You’ll love it!

  20. GAH! Anna how wonderful. Your anecdote about the Xanax, what a fantastic way to start. Congratulations.

  21. Thank you, Lyra. I don’t know about them but it certainly made me feel better.

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