Kate Flora here, musing on a conversation I had with my husband on Saturday while we were driving on the Maine Turnpike. We seem to have some of our best conversations in the car, probably because otherwise both of us are sitting hunched over our keyboards, and we tend to mumble responses because our minds are elsewhere. Out on the road, our conversations are only distracted by the absurdness of other drivers–like that guy in the humungous SUV who is trying to pass on the left and force himself in front of us–or trying to puzzle out what some of the vanity plates mean. Like RNNGONMT.
We were talking about the amazing ability some of my fellow mystery writers have to work a room, whether it’s at a conference or in a library. How they can smile and schmooze and always make a point of finding the most important people and showering them with attention. We talked about how brilliant the current Sisters in Crime national president, Hank Phillippi Ryan, is at connecting with people. I admired the way Katherine Hall Page displays her old fashion manners and love of librarians. We talked about Vicki Doudera’s vibrant energy.
We drove along in silence for a while and then I said: “I’m an Eeyore.”
A little more silence, and he said: “Yes.”
I’m not naturally outgoing. I’m naturally reclusive. But there’s a strange duality in the writer’s life. Our work demands the ability to sit, alone and isolated, for long periods of time. It takes me nine months to a year and a half to write a book. Often, that’s only a first draft. Then it can take several more drafts to get the book into final, publishable shape. When I’m working on true crime, like Finding Amy or Death Dealer, it can take years to do the interviews, shape them into a readable narrative, go back and reinterview and fill in the blanks, and then edit it into a finished book. That is a lot of hours all alone at my desk, living in my head or living in story.
I spend so much time with imaginary people, or the dead, that sometimes, when I get out into the world, I feel like Alice in Wonderland. Wow, I think, there are people out here. There is bustle and commotion. There are people who live lives full of adventure, or who do things on weekends besides the occasional trip out to the garden to battle with pests and stake up the fallen. They are biking and boating and skating and fishing. (My warden friend, Roger Guay, says that this summer I MUST go fly fishing and catch a big trout.) Other than trips to the grocery store, or to practice my secret vice–scoring designer clothes for absurdly low prices at my favorite thrift shop–I really don’t get out much. Except in role as an author.
The other part of the writer’s life is that once we’ve finished the book because we can keep ourselves in the chair all that time, disciplined and isolated, suddenly, we’re supposed to go out and market the book. These days, it’s even worse, because there used to be a cycle–write for six or nine months, go out and promote for the rest, then come back and write. Now we are supposed to tweet brilliantly, make a million Facebook friends, pin up clever photos on Pinterest, and otherwise market ourselves 24/7.
It is hard for me. I can’t imagine anyone is that interested in what I’m doing, thinking, or seeing, moment by moment. I like the old system better. I prefer human contact to electronic. When I do get out, it’s usually to go to a library, or a book club, or to present to a group that has invited me to speak, or teaching a class of aspiring writers. Invariably, before an event, I have a moment of panic, thinking I won’t have anything to say. I will struggle with the author’s dual challenge: Being authentic and interesting while talking about something I’m passionate about–writing, while finding an unobnoxious way of doing the “buy my book” dance, which we all have to do to survive.
This Eeyore thinks of herself as not very comfortable in groups of more than four. So I suffer great trepidation as I head into larger groups. But then, when I find myself seated in front of an audience, that all goes away. I remember that I am a storyteller, and storytellers can employ the oral tradition as well as the written one. I am reminded, by the attentive faces, that readers are genuinely curious about how writers go about creating our stories and what is our process for plotting. How we find our characters. How we create tension. How we sustain a series character over the arc of several books and how much will we let them grow and change. What it is like to deal with a real murder and whether the writing process and challenges are different.
If I can stumble through my talk without losing my place too many times (I can claim the excuse of an aging brain, right?), then I will get to the questions. If–as I hope it is–my talk is a treat for them, then the audience questions are a treat for me. Just as readers are curious about how a writer works, writers are deeply curious about what our readers are wondering. What questions will they ask that I’ve never been asked before? What questions or observations will I carry away that will influence my writing or how I see my characters?
Last summer was my summer at the library. I was in a lot of Maine libraries, talking to readers, and listening to what they wondered. One of the most interesting questions I was asked was whether writing amoral or evil characters has any effect on my own character. I decided that part of that answer was that we all have many sides of ourselves, and can draw on our darker sides (as well on the evil people we’ve known) to craft those characters. Part is that I don’t think writing them has made me more evil. But is it liberating to let our characters do some of the things we long to.
More recently, I was speaking at Maranacook High School and a student asked me if it was a challenge to differentiate the voices of my characters. It was a question I faced early in my writing career and keep having to remind myself of and work on, especially in the Burgess books where it’s so important to distinguish my trio of male cops. I was able to talk about the challenge of learning to listen to how different people speak.
As we head into summer, there are some fun events on the calendar–libraries with some of my friends from Maine Crime Writers, Books in Boothbay, a talk at the Orrs Bailey Island Yacht Club, and a sit down with a book group to talk about Finding Amy, and an all-day workshop for Maine Writers and Publishers on writing the mystery. As an Eeyore, I will be very nervous going in. I often go back to the advice I got from a lovely mystery writer, Barbara Burnett Smith, whose day job was a corporate trainer. She said, “Get out from behind that podium, don’t sit behind a table. Ask for an armchair or perch on a stool. Don’t fold your arms, even if you’re nervous. Make yourself accessible to your audience.”
I will also have to remind myself of what a good friend said, as I headed out to do my first ever author reading: Remember, they want to like you. Once I get over my Eeyore habit of wanting to hide in a corner and, when people approach, mutter, “Thanks for noticing me,” I will remember this: I’m a writer who loves to talk about her work and loves other writers. Then I will start having a good time.
There is nothing wrong with being an Eeyore. Now there is even a book about introverts that praises them – sorry but the aging brain can’t remember the name of it. Dee
Nice post Kate. With minor edits, I could use this short essay to describe painters, maybe especially this one. Maybe any artist who takes it public.
And you have an older brother who is a blend of Yoda and Hunter Thompson. I love getting up in front of people, but it took spilling my guts at plenty of AA meetings to get there. as for RNNGONMT. Running on empty. I’ve watched you in front of an audience many times and you do have a bit of magic.
Kate Flora. Eeyore. Trying to make the two converge… So fascinating because you seem completely at ease in a crowd. Relaxed. Energized.
You’re so right that Hank and KHP are pros at this. They know how to connect.
Kate, this was such a thoughtful post. I am one of those middling people–I love being alone, and I love being “on stage, too.” I like to be with people, like to speak at events and entertain. But, like you, there’s always a moment where I want to turn around and flee, thinking that no one will want to hear what I have to say, I’ll make a fool of myself, or that people who are responding are just being nice. I’m with you about Hank Phillippi Ryan. She always seems to be on and to be ready with a kind word or a brilliant observation. But I suspect even she has moments when she needs to pull back and take a deep breath.
Terry…few of us can be Hank, but finding our comfort zone is important. I love talking to library audiences because they are readers. High school students are terrifying but fun. My biggest challenge is that “buy my book” dance. But I’m getting better at it.
Practice really does help.
Brava, Kate! Brilliant post! I can so identify .. although my years as a drama major taught me a bit about acting. So — when I have my “writer persona” on — I’m OK. I have a role to play. Set me down at a cocktail party and I’m lost. My husband would tell you – I’d much rather email than talk on the telephone. My comfort zone is the written word (especially when I can edit.) And, yet, I don’t mind speaking to a group. It’s those cocktail parties and informal gatherings that are the challenges …
So — you’re not alone. I suspect many of us who choose introspective professions do so because we’re most comfortable in our heads, and with like-minded folks with common interests. I wonder how Emerson felt, touring to make money? On the other hand, like some of our friends, I suspect Samuel Clemens relished the opportunity to travel! Lea
Yup. Parties. I hate ’em. That’s why I give parties…because then I have a defined role.
Probably why I’m the perpetual moderator as well…a defined role. I like the job of making other writers look good.
I wonder if everyone else is exhausted after doing a class, a talk, or a panel?
Kate, you did a beautiful job of expressing the dilemma of the introverted writer. I’m with you, never happier than when I’m alone at the computer or with a notebook and pen. After decades of running a university women’s center and doing tons of public speaking and teaching, though, I’ve learned how to slip into my public persona. (Like Lea, I’m just not so hot at parties and social gatherings.)
For introverts, it takes energy to do these public events, whereas extroverts gain energy from them. We, on the other hand, need that time alone afterward to recharge.
And you’re so right about #SuperHank and darling Katherine Hall Page. I want to be one or both of them when I grow up!
Linda…your observation about energy is right on the money. I come home exhausted and wondering why? Because it takes a lot to be “on” for an hour or more.
I’m definitely an Eyore, too, so I totally get the panic at large groups. And I do admire those writers who make connecting look easy. Nice post!
Kate, I so agree with you about the duality of what we are expected to do was writers. and I share your pre-event anxiety. Six months beforehand, when I accept an invitation to speak, I think, ‘Piece of cake!” Six hours before the event I’m beating myself up for having said yes. but then I get started and have fun. I quit speaking for a couple of years because of the anxiety, and a friend who is a terrific extemporaneous speaker, said, “I don’t know why you’d do that. You’re a great speaker!”
I always have that. When the event is months away it looks like fun, and then OH MY GOSH…I have to go and do it.
I think most writers are shy and introverted. But we also have a desire to let readers know about our work. It’s not easy balancing the two aspects of our personalities.
Kate–were we separated at birth? I agree completely–about all of it. The nervousness before the event, the ease as it happens. Performance anxiety, I label it (as I try not to snap at the people closest to me in life out of shear nerves).
Plus my husband points out that no matter what I’m doing, I always feel like a bit of a fraud. The idea that I have wisdom or ideas to share seems a bit laughable.
Well done post Kate! This is something I am struggling with now myself. I know I have to promote, my new book is due out next month, and I just want to go sit in the corner and bake brownies. They have to like me if I bake, right. Social media also has me flumoxed. Where does the time come from. Your post has given me hope! Thank you. By the by – Finding Amy is the best. I read it from cover to cover in two days, recommend it to many and keep it on my shelf as a reference source for how to do it right. As someone who lives in Florida but still considers herself a Mainiac (St. John Valley), I wonder why we have more of that kind of crime than other places. Thank you for a wonderful book.
Thank you, Kait. If you read the comments here, you’ll see how many of us have to gear up to go out and do this. As for social media, I read something recently that made a lot of sense to me–it said you work to your comfort level. Maybe it’s not twitter. I may never learn to tweet, but I love my blog group and the fascinating stuff others post makes me so glad to be a part of Maine Crime Writers.
Running on empty! BRILLIANT!
And thank you Kate…so lovely of you to say so! ANd I do love what I’m doing and the book world I get to live in.
But listen. My very first foray into book world was at Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, at the Christmas party. You were there–and I was SO bowled over to meet you. You were charming, friendly, encouraging, welcoming and completely wonderful.
YOu taught me!
Teaching the new kid is one thing SIsters in Crime is all about, right, Hank.
It does help to belong to such as supportive chapter as the New England chapter, there is always someone to go to for advice. I’d still like you to do a glamor seminar for the rest of us….
Terrific blog, Kate. As you can see from the comments you hit on a topic so many of us can relate to and you expressed it so gracefully. Now I feel as though it’s okay that author parties always make me want to cry. I feel like I’m not alone. Thanks.
Chris…I think I’ll always have those moments of anxiety, but it sure does get better over time, doesn’t it?
I think we should caucus about strategies for the “buy my book” segment of the program, though I am supposedly famous for giving that speech….
Nice post. I’m an Eeyore too! Can we start an Eeyore group? Seems like there are plenty of us out there.
Good post, Kate. I have to force myself to get up and go out to engagements, even though I often have a good time after I get there. The readers make it all worthwhile, but it does take effort. Well said, Kate, all of it.
Excellent post, Kate! I like the idea of starting an Eeyore group or maybe even #Eeyore on Twitter. You would definitely have a following 🙂
great post– I really can identify with it. Especially about the “buy my book dance.” Would love to see a post on how to manage that dance. It feels awkward, stilted, like I’m sitting with a begging cup on the street…or in the subway.