High Anxiety

by Robert Gregory Browne

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 from 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?

——-

P.S.  The winner of my Videorati
opening scene contest has been chosen.  My favorite opening was this
one:

"At the end, there was so much blame to spread around that we
could all have taken a few shovelfuls home and rolled around in it
like pigs in stink. But that’s not the way it goes with most of us.
Most of us like to think that blame belongs on somebody else’s
doorstep. And I’m no different.

I can picture the way it was on the day everything went bad, just
as clearly as if I still had my sight. Of course, I probably made up
most of it. You know how it goes: your mouth fills in the details
your mind doesn’t catch. And then later, when you’re looking back
over everything that happened, your memory just smoothes out some of
the corners, takes away that metal taste of fear, makes you seem a
little braver than you really were, and then paints in a rosy-toned
sunset.

You’re always the hero of your own story. Even if
that’s not the way it happened at all."

My fellow Murderati-ite, Louise Ure,
wins a signed UK paperback copy of KISS HER GOODBYE.  Send me your
address, Louise, and it’s on its way.

15 thoughts on “High Anxiety

  1. Jacky B.

    Rob,

    Worst public appearnce disater: Any and all. Take your pick.

    This one does stand out. Perhaps because it was the first. High school graduation, I was receiving an award for best English Lit student. At the podium, any meager command I had of the language, promptly deserted me. I muttered something about “not being worthy of this award” and made for my seat. Based on my acceptance speech, I think everyone there probably agreed.

    Talk about being worthy, way to go Louise! Your opening is terrific. Got me hooked, can’t wait to read the book. Of course, I’m a fan. Have been since your “Splinters from New Mexico” post. “Forcing Amaryllis” sealed the deal. Well done.

    Jacky B

    Reply
  2. pari

    My worst appearance was at the Roswell International UFO Festival in 2004. All the “authors” were given fifteen-minute slots, but the woman who appeared before me had gone on for more than 45 minutes about her abduction experience at the hands of nasty aliens. (I should write a short story about that whole Roswell marketing trip. . . )

    Anyway, when she finished, the crowd was in tears; it was so obvious that she’d been terribly traumatized.

    Me? I had this entire, very funny talk ready to go. But when I walked up on stage, I could tell that this audience was in no mood for humor. Instead, I merely introduced myself and said, “You all don’t look like you’re ready to laugh yet, so I’ll cede to the next speaker.”

    That’s the first and only time I’ve ever shirked an opportunity to appear in front of an audience.

    The other bad time was at Con Misterio when I was on a panel with two other people. I’d gotten up very early to travel from ABQ to Austin, little sleep the night before, and was quite giddy. The moderator was all right with me, but the other panelist was truly offended at some of the things I said and took them personally. It wasn’t pretty and I hope that never happens again . . .

    BTW: Congrats to Louise!

    Reply
  3. JT Ellison

    Oh gee, it’s such a toss up.

    Let’s see, maybe fainting while presenting my senior thesis?

    Or in grad school, having a complete and utter mental blackout when the cameras started rolling on an relatively important interview? Frozen, people. I had nothing. All I heard was hissing (talk!) and (Oh Man, she’s done for.)

    In front of the boyfriend too, who had some pretty high hopes that I may be the one in front of the camera instead of behind the scenes (he married me anyway, bless him)

    I hope for the day this gets easier. I’m not quite as consumed with the panic that I used to be at the thought of appearing, so it must be.

    Thanks for sharing this, Rob. It’s heartening to know it might be overcome.

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    I was that little girl with the squeaky, off-key voice singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” or, in my case “Blue Bonnets.” I’ve always loved public speaking/making a fool out of myself.

    Thanks for the kind words about the opening paragraphs of The Fault Tree. I can’t wait to read Kiss Her Goodbye.

    Reply
  5. JT Ellison

    Karen, Xanax is good. Ativan is better. Inderal is the holy grail. No narcotic side affect and no worries either. Though if you have an hour long deal, it does tend to wear off halfway through.

    Reply
  6. J.D. Rhoades

    I’ve been a trial lawyer for 18 years. I got over the fear of speaking in public a long time ago.

    But the worst I can remember is suffering an uncontrollable fifteen minute post-nasal-drip driven coughing jag in the middle of a closing argument. I literally could not get my breath. The judge finally called a recess so I could get over it. I lost the case.

    And as for THE FAULT TREE: I second what Karen said. It’s great.

    Reply
  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hmm…. I’m always nervous about public speaking but because of acting I so long ago realized that the nerves are just what you have to endure before the adrenaline rush of actually performing and then the heroin high of being DONE… that I can’t even remember a disaster. I’m sure there have been many, but few and far between the fun. It never gets easier, but it gets more and more fun.

    Rob, you are a doll on stage. Blushing is sexy, doncha know.

    I would have picked Louise’s opening, too, hands down. This woman can WRITE.

    Reply
  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    btw, Pari, that is a fascinating story about your Roswell experience.

    I mean, Roswell SPEAKING experience.

    I was in a situation like that just last month, at a reading in San Clemente. The woman who went before me, Antoineta Villamil, is a Columbian poet who was reading about her brother who is one of “The Disappeared”.

    http://casaromanticareadingseries.org/calendar.html#aug

    It was devastating. Truly profound, powerful, shattering. And I’m supposed to get up and read from my ghost story. I was really sitting there thinking – I can’t do this.

    It was a total exercise in the art of segue. I talked about my profound reaction to her reading and her experience, and the difference between the Latin American reality and American reality and the total non-reality of Hollywood, and then told about my experience teaching gang kids in the LA prison system that led me to write The Harrowing, and by the time I started reading, it was okay.

    But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do on stage. Really, really humbling.

    Reply
  9. simon

    I hate public speaking, but it’s part of the job. I have quite a few that have gone awry for various reason. The one that still stings goes back to panel at Left Coast Crime. I was moderating a panel featuring an author I was in awe of. Sadly, he acted out, leaving me looking like an idiot. Now, I would have handled things differently, but you don’t learn these things until you’ve been kicked in the balls a few times…

    Reply
  10. toni mcgee causey

    I used to be terminally shy, but still liked to perform (piano lessons, dance lessons, all of those recitals). But I think I got over the terminal shyness part when I soaked the coroner’s sleeve with breast milk. Once you’ve done that and survived the humiliation, you realize that any other situation is just not going to be as big a deal.

    Reply
  11. Rob Gregory Browne

    Toni, you were NEVER shy.

    It seems I’m not alone here, but as much as I say I’m cool about this stuff now, I can’t imagine doing what our own Ken Bruen did a couple months ago — appear on a late night talk show. I’d be horrified.

    But Ken handled himself with grace and humor and was an outstanding guest.

    Reply
  12. spyscribbler

    Aww, Rob! I was shy, too. When I was in preschool, my teacher talked with my mother about waiting for another year to go to Kindergarten because I was so shy. I wanted to go to Kindergarten SO badly, but I was too shy to speak up!

    One of the greatest things I’ve learned from performing is that no matter how bad it is, no matter how horrible it feels and how you think everything is going to fall apart and the world is going to end … you will get through it. You will live. I’ve also learned that if you practice something smart enough, you can do it.

    And that you’ll have a great performance if you have fun up there, like you said!

    Reply
  13. Will Bereswill

    As a professional environmental engineer, I present quite a bit. In fact, my biggest presentation was in Beijing, China to about 400 people with simultaneous translators. Meiyou Wenti (No Problem).

    But the first time I read my own work in front of a group of 30 writers I thought I was going to pass out.

    Reply

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