by JT Ellison
Many of you know that I nearly came apart early on in my career because I was going to have to do the one thing I was terrified of doing. And when I say terrified, I mean heart-pounding, panic-attack, sweaty-palms, spots-dancing-before-your-eyes, stomach-tied-in-embarrassingly-gurgly-knots, on-the-verge-of-passing-out terrified.
Of course I’m talking about speaking in public.
And I’m not talking about a mild case of nerves, either.
I’ve always had problems with being the center of attention. And no, I will not pay for the keyboard you just spit your coffee onto, because I am dead serious. Having people look to me to be the voice of reason, hell, to be the voice at all, isn’t my cuppa.
“But JT,” you say, “that can’t be true. You have such an outgoing, effervescent personality. I’ve seen you at conferences, laughing in the bar, having a grand old time.” And you’d be right – in my element, with my friends, I’m entirely at ease and not worried of making an ass of myself.
But being in front of a group is much, much different than being a part of a group.
I remember, long, long ago, a semi-drunken night at one of Nashville’s adult establishments where I was crying, quite literally, on Randy’s shoulder in fear. “What if the book sells?” I wailed. “I’ll have to talk to people. I’ll have to get up and speak. I don’t think I can do that.”
“You’ll do what you have to,” my eminently practical husband said, before taking me home and pouring me into the bed.
Imagine the terror I felt when the books did sell. The weeks leading up to my debut were unsettling, to say the least. I was planning a launch party, at which I was going to have to, gulp, speak. I wrote out a speech, figuring I’d just read and pray no one laughed to my face. Before I knew it, there were interviews, and signings set up in 12 states, and I knew I needed to conquer my fears, and fast.
I relayed my worry in an offhand comment to my doctor, and he prescribed medication to help me conquer my fear. And conquer my fear it did. Inderal is a beta-blocker, used for lowering blood pressure. It’s the medication they prescribe for people afraid of flying. It works to even your heartbeat so you don’t get the palpitations and sweaty palms. It nips your fear in the bud. “Take it 30 minutes before you go on,” he told me, “and you’ll be fine.”
And strangely enough, it worked.
But it had its drawbacks. Most of my speaking engagements were an hour long, and I’d noticed, somewhere around the 40 minute mark, a wild sense of unreality, like I was outside of myself looking in. My head would feel sort of floaty, and my heart would pound a few beats more than entirely necessary. Which would make me stumble. Not a perfect scenario.
Ultimately, it wasn’t a doctor who cured me, but a fellow writer. My friend James O. Born saw me popping pills at Southern Festival of Books and asked what the deal was. I told him and he laughed— that hearty guffaw that Jim has—and asked me, “What in the world are you afraid of? Do you think the audience is going to rush the stage, throw you down and gang-rape you?”
“Well, no,” I answered.
“Then what’s the big deal?”
He was right, of course. My next event, I skipped the Inderal. I made it through just fine.
That was two years ago. I’ve fully mastered my nerves now. No medication necessary, a few deep breaths before I go on and I’m fine. I’ve gotten to the point when I’m decent at the speaking part, I think. I still much prefer panels and group signings to speaking solo, but I can manage just fine either way. I just turn on JT, author girl, and become what the audience needs to see. My problems are behind me.
Not so fast.
I had an event last week, my last of the summer, in fact. I’m taking a few months off promotion to focus on me, something that’s been sorely lacking since I started this gig. I was really looking forward to this event; it felt like a chapter was closing.
Until I woke up at 4 in the morning with some sort of food poisoning.
I couldn’t cancel – this event had been booked for months, a large turnout was expected, a bookstore was coming in to sell the books – I just didn’t have the heart to bail on them. So I sucked down a bottle of Pepto and said a prayer.
To no avail. I got sick before I left the house. I got sick as soon as I got to the venue. I managed to meet my hostesses before I had to bolt to the bathroom again. When they served lunch, I nearly came undone at the table.
And suddenly, the nerves kicked in. Nerves like I hadn’t had in two years. Bordering on panic attack nerves. I honestly didn’t think I was going to be able to pull it off. Try as I may, I couldn’t put on my JT, author girl, suit and go get ‘em, tiger. I was shaky and sweaty and pale and feeling terrible, and I couldn’t for the life of me separate me from JT.
I’ve spoken before of the dual personalities that reside inside my body. The people who know me, know my real name and are a part of my real day-to-day life, aren’t always the same people who know JT and are a part of my book life. I do try to keep the two separate, if only as a buffer for the inevitable bad reviews that happen to that poor JT girl. It’s that same other person who takes over when I have to perform. No true artist can let the world see their tortured soul, the tiny, squawking baby bird inside the glorious Phoenix we must project. You drape yourself in whatever invisible cloth you have designed as your mask, do your thing, and shed it when it’s over.
But that little bit of quiet magic wasn’t working for me last week. I finally had to tell my tablemates that I wasn’t feeling all that hot and had a bad case of the nerves, because I think they were about ready to send out for some sort of elephant tranquilizers. They were very sweet, and understanding, and allowed me some space to gather myself, then smartly got me talking about the books until I finally, finally settled down.
They say never let them see you sweat. And no one outside of my table knew I wasn’t on my game, which helped. When I got up to speak I was okay. Not great, but okay. I gave them my best, but left disappointed that I couldn’t give them the whole show, the full monty. No one who was there had ever seen me speak before, so I’m sure it came across as completely capable. But it wasn’t my most stellar effort.
I’ve only performed sick one other time, at Left Coast Crime in Denver, just after the Great Kidney Stone Attack of 08. I swore that I’d never do it again, because I don’t want to shortchange the readers. There’s a level of expectation involved in public promotion, so much that I understand the desire to be a recluse. I’ve read that Henry Fonda threw up before every performance. I know there are athletes and actors and writers and politicians who do the same. And I applaud every person who tries to overcome their terror and fulfill their purpose. It’s hard, and you should be lauded for your efforts.
For you newbies out there who may be suffering from stage fright, it’s okay. We’ve all been there. The audience is incredibly forgiving. They want to see you succeed. They will be kind. And always remember, no one knows your topic like you do. You are the expert. If you feel yourself faltering, talk about your inspirations and that should get you through the worst of it.
So what about you, ‘Rati? Ever experience performance anxiety? (And that’s for everyone – not just authors have to deal with these issues.)
Wine of the Week: 2006 Cellar No. 8 Merlot