Never Let Them See You Sweat

by JT Ellison

Ah, nerves.

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.

Aren’t they?

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.

Terribly sick.

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

29 thoughts on “Never Let Them See You Sweat

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’ve never had an anxiety attack like what you’re describing, sweetie. That’s an actual medical condition and you’re right to have it treated by prescription. This is a great post, really, because public speaking is so much a part of our job and people just going into it need to know the difference between ordinary stage fright (which of course I have, it NEVER goes away) and more serious anxiety issues that might need some extra professional help.

    Stage fright is annoying, but dealable. I know from long years of performance that that adrenaline edge is what keeps you on your game when you’re on stage (or behind a podium), so I accept it as part of the job. And I just love the corresponding endorphin rush of coming OFF stage!

    But there are always going to be bad days. I was having a heavy period the day of my UNSEEN launch at Quail Ridge and I felt like I was speaking from 20,000 leagues under the sea. I knew I was rambling in all kinds of directions. I’m not sure I ever really mentioned the plot of the book.

    Hey, it happens. People bought lots of books anyway.

  2. JD Rhoades

    It may have something to do with having been a trial lawyer for 20 years, but public speaking doesn’t scare me. Once you’ve gone to a jury a few times with your client’s future on the line, or stood in a roomful of people while a hostile judge fires questions at you, acting like he’s personally offended that you’re even alive, much less taking up space and air in his courtroom–well, standing up in a comfortable shirt and talking to a roomful of people who are there willingly and who want to hear what you have to say doesn’t seem so bad.

    When I started doing appearances, it was other authors that intimidated me. ("I’m going to be on a panel with KEN BRUEN?!" GAAAAAH!’) But I got over that because everyone was so nice to me.

  3. Dana King

    I used to get horrible performance anxiety when I was a musician; it almost derailed my career, as I was unable to pass the jury required for my graduate trumpet recital. Inderal was what got me over the hump. (A lack of talent finally derailed the career permanently.) It’s the secret of many classical musicians, relieving the symptoms of too much adrenaline without chilling you out so much the performance is flat, like a tranquilizer would do. I know big-time performers who use it for most gigs.

    It’s weird. For all the trouble I had as a musician, I have always enjoyed public speaking. Go figure.

  4. Chuck

    Hey JT:

    An interesting topic today! Most of my career has been spent in front of small audiences, so I have a sort of "Mendoza line". If it’s less than twenty-five people, I usually rock it without thinking. Once I had to speak in front of nearly a thousand–your description of what it does to one’s body was spot on.

    And food poisoning? Yowza! Poor you! Are you sure it wasn’t because you read some of my writing??? 😉

    Have a super day! Thanks for the great read.

  5. Brett Battes

    JT…I very much remember us having conversations about your fear back at the first Thrillerfest in Phoenix. I could see the terror in your eyes back then, and am glad, for the most part, you’ve been able to get beyond it…but I’d avoid the food poisoning as much as possible in the future if I were you. 😉

    Like Dusty, I get more intimidated by who I might be appearing with than the crowd itself. Thankfully, I was very involved in theater during high school which served to temper my stage fright (something I definitely had) very early on.

  6. Shannon

    Oh, thank you! Seriously, JT…thanks for revealing this. A question came up the other day about what we are most afraid of as writers and I said success…for this very reason. I couldn’t even get through a speech class in college. The panic, the tomato face and neck, the inability to breathe…I can hardly talk to more than two people at a time. I’m just hoping that if I do get published, blog tours will be the only promotion needed. 🙂

  7. JT Ellison

    Alex, you are a perfect example of someone who gets the right edge from nerves. They can help, that’s for sure. But having seen you perform, you’re such a pro that no one would ever know. I think that’s the greatest fear from stage fright and anxiety – that people will KNOW you’re having an issue.

    Dusty, what you do humbles me. Just… humbles me. The only time I got nervous about a panel was for BCon last year, where I was moderating a huge set of personalities, but I ended up terribly ill and couldn’t go. I’ll have to reface that issue someday.

    Dana, I was the exact opposite. I played clarinet for years and got a total rush being on the stage playing. But I passed out giving my senior thesis, and have a string of other unsuccessful events growing up. Funny, isn’t it, the things we can do and the things we perceive we can’t?

    Chuck, it was definitely NOT your writing. But I find it interesting that the number of audience member affects you. That’s one thing that I don’t seem to have an issue with.

  8. Louise Ure

    I fall more into the category of "slight nerves" before a presentation rather than a full-0n panic attack, but San Francisco writer Kirk Russell helped me through that first case of jitters by reminding me that there was no one there who didn’t want to be there, no one there who didn’t wish me well. It helped.

  9. JT Ellison

    Karen, I was partaking in Ativan at the first Thrillerfest because I was so nervous. It works, very well, but I didn’t want it to become a crutch. But I took one before I met my editor for the first time because I didn’t want to get motor mouth. I do that when I’m nervous – blah, blah, blah, blah….

    Brett, dear, you helped tremendously. I’ve always looked to my fellow writers for cues on how to do this, and you were such a natural. I, on the other hand, was so nervous that I forgot you were holding my bag while I went to the bathroom because I got into a conversation with Lee Child who knew my name and I went pretty much all to pieces. I still owe you a drink for that ; )

  10. JT Ellison

    Shannon, I’m telling you the God-to-honest truth here. You can do it. I’m happy to talk to you offline and see what I can do to help, because I have been in your shoes and know how scary it is. If I can do it, you can too. Trust me. Speaking is like writing, you get better with practice. I learned early on to have notes with me. A script was too hard to keep track of my spot, but bullet point notes were great. I could look down, refer to them to keep the flow moving. I have several sets that I carry with me at all times for events that help guide me. Preparation is 9/10ths of getting through the engagement, for sure.

  11. JT Ellison

    Louise, that’s just it. They want to share a part of you, and want you to do well. Readers are inherently shy too, and understand that writers spend an awful lot of time in their heads. Very forgiving, our sweet readers.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JT – what a beautiful, honest, revealing post. You are an inspiration to a newbie like me.
    I’m very excited about having the opportunity to speak publicly. However, I just got booked for my first panel – at the West Hollywood Book Fair in October. The topic – "Dark and Twisted: Testing the Limits of Taste and Depravity." Uh…..thanks, I guess. I’m afraid to meet my fellow panelists….

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Great post, and a very relevant one. People assume that being a writer means sitting alone with your computer, retreated from the world. These days, it’s just the opposite. I know writers who positively vibrate with anxiety before they get up to speak in public, or who seem very brusque when I meet them at the beginning of a convention. It’s not until later (after their panel) that I realise it was all to do with pre-performance nerves.

    My first public speaking was done as a riding instructor. I learned to project loud enough to give instructions to the passenger of a bolting pony, three fields away. Then the day-job, doing photoshoots, taught me to deal with heckling. Oh boy, they come out with some doozies …

    I have to say, though, I’m alarmed by your comment to Dusty:

    "The only time I got nervous about a panel was for BCon last year, where I was moderating a huge set of personalities, but I ended up terribly ill and couldn’t go. I’ll have to reface that issue someday."

    Erm, I was supposed to be on your panel. What are you trying to say? ;-]

    The only time I’ve had a real problem on a panel was during my interview with William Kent Krueger at Mayhem in the Midlands last month. This wretched virus that knocked me flat for most of March and April reared its very ugly head again, with the result that I had a total coughing fit on stage. Poor Kent coped beautifully, but it makes the audio recording somewhat difficult to listen to!

  14. Wilfred Bereswill

    I’ve been lucky and never had a problem speaking in front of a crowd. At least not in my day job profession. The most difficult was in Shanghai, China. I spoke in front of 350 chinese environmental professionals. They sat there with their headphones on waiting for simultaneous translators. I felt sorry for the tranlators. I gave them a script, but when I start talking, I go into a zone and never follow the prepared presentation. My Chinese associate told me that the translators did a great job.

  15. tess gerritsen

    what a nightmare ordeal at that luncheon! I would think that even worse than dealing with the nerves would be dealing with the terror of throwing up at the podium.

    I once had to speak in front of an audience of 800 while completely zonked out on drugs. I was at the Maui writer’s conference, suffered an acute herniated disk in my neck while there, and was in so much pain I could barely see straight. My doctor-husband always travels with a complete pharmacy of emergency pills, so I swallowed down a handful of narcotics and managed to wobble my way up to the stage. To this day, I’m not sure what I said, but I’m told it was one of my best speeches.

  16. Chuck

    Probably because I speak to 25 or less very often. Big crowds, not so much. All in what you’re used to.

    When you come to town, if you have to speak, I have a gift ’99 Mouton Bordeaux we could bust out beforehand. You will sing like a canary afterward. 🙂

  17. billie

    I used to be terrified of speaking in front of people, but in a required speechmaking college class, the "penalty" for missing class was that you had to give an impromptu speech at the beginning of the next class.

    The class members would write down topics on slips of paper and you picked one out of the pile.

    Lucky me – I had a terrible kidney infection and had to be in the hospital for over a week, plus a week on either side of the hospitalization I was out of class. When I got back, even with my doctor’s note, the professor said that I owed the class an impromptu speech EVERY CLASS FOR THE REST OF THE TERM.

    It was my nightmare come true.

    Weird though, how after the second or third one, the anxiety began to subside and I stopped caring.

    Some of those topics were embarrassing and some were simply ridiculous – but I became desensitized to the public speaking part of it. 🙂

  18. Pari

    You’ve done beautifully. I have so much admiration for you.

    I like being in the public eye — a ham through and through — but Denver was horrid for me too since I had food poisoning in a big way. It was awful. I have no idea what I said or if I was even coherent.

  19. JT Ellison

    Stephen, thank you. I have to tell you, your panel sounds amazing, and will be a huge draw. The sex and violence stuff gets them in the doors every time.

    Z, I was a wee bit intimidated: you, Tasha Alexander, Robert, Fate, Cornelia Read and Greg Rucka on Janie’s Got a Gun. I hope they give us a chance to do that panel again, since Cornelia, Greg and I all had to pull out. I have a great prep for it.

    Will, how cool to be translated. I know what you mean about going off script though. I rarely follow a full speech, unless it’s REALLY, REALLY important.

    Tess, don’t you wish you had that on tape? I bet you connected some very obscure dots. It is nice to have a doc handy at all times, too…

    Chuck, funny you should mention alcohol. I should have touched on that, because people always try to get me a drink before I talk (evening and private events, obviously). I will not drink before I speak. Period. I have zero tolerance for alcohol and I decided early on that I’d always wait until after I spoke to indulge, because I never knew what I might say. Though looking at Tess’s comment, I’m wondering if I should relax the rules a bit…

    And that wine will be well-appreciated no matter when it’s drunk.

    Billie, I would have revolted and dropped the class. Especially in college, when reading aloud gave me conniptions. My critique group now helped me past that.

  20. JT Ellison

    We were quite a pair, weren’t we, Pari? Pale and paler.

    Remember a few months back Dusty did that poll about wanting to be famous, wanting to be rich or wanting something in the middle? I am the one who wants to be anonymous. It just doesn’t work like that though.

  21. Jake Nantz

    "Ever experience performance anxiety?"

    Every semester before the next group of kids. First day is my ‘asshole’ day. The day I show the students what life with me will be like if they don’t do their work and take the course seriously. It’s also the easiest way for me not to lose control of the situation (me? a control freak? NAAAAHHHHHH.) Funny thing is, I am incredibly long-winded, and I don’t mean to be. I just feel so rushed by block scheduling (idiocy beyond belief to cater to the kids who DON’T do it right the first time), that I worry I won’t be able to get across to them everything they will need. So, I go as fast as I can, but I also ramble once in a blue moon.

    ^ See what I mean?

  22. Fran

    While I was teaching high school, I was giving a lecture, standing on the stage in my classroom, and I put my foot up on a bench.

    And fell over backwards, slow motion, landed on my butt then my back, feet in the air. Fortunately I was wearing jeans.

    You’ve never heard that quality of silence in a classroom before. Shocked. Embarrassed for me. Uncertain what to do.

    I came up howling with laughter. I could barely breathe I was laughing so hard. And they laughed too, and all was right with the world.

    Remember to laugh at yourself, and if you make a mistake, make it flamboyantly big. It’s easier to take it back then.

    But being sick like that, JT? You’re braver than ever I could be! I’m afraid I’d’ve bailed, no question.

  23. Catherine Shipton

    I find 10-25 people rather daunting…get above a few hundred and I’m fine. Go for a smaller group fine too. I can click into performance mode when it becomes a mass of people or connect on a more intimate level for the less than 10 group. That betwixt and between zone…I can feel my heart racing thinking about it.

    JT knowing my topic is key to me being ok with public performance of any type. If it’s a song I want to know it each way up, down ,around, through and through. If it’s a topic I want to know that if all technology disappears and I have to project my voice I can wing it if necessary. Preparation and faith that it will be ok and that ok comes in a lot of unexpected formats get me through.

    I’m glad you seem to be progressing through this. Especially to the point where you can give other people guidance too.

  24. Jake Nantz

    Oh and Alex? You did great at Quail Ridge (even mentioned the book a few times [just kidding]). Nobody there would have thought you were anything but 100% comfortable and the queen of the stage.

  25. JT Ellison

    Fran, I laugh when I fall down too, regardless of how hurt I am. It’s a basic gut reaction to total embarrassment.

    Catherine, you’re right, prep is key.

    I forgot to mention that I get much, much more nervous in front of people I know rather than strangers. Bizarre.

  26. Allison Brennan

    The only time I had a serious panic attack was when my oldest daughter was my only daughter, she was 15 months old, and I was supposed to fly to Santa Barbara from Sacramento to train a new office. I was curious about the flight because it lasted 2.5 hours, and we went to the United Express counter. I saw a plane out on the tarmac that had like 10 windows and I thought, well, it’s small, but I can do it. Then they weighed me, and I got suspicious. As I walked out on the tarmac with the other passengers–just six of us–I started toward the larger plane, then was told no, it’s THAT plane– a small, tiny plane that looked like a toy. I started to hyperventilate. Said, nope, can’t do it. I have a baby at home, I don’t want her to be motherless. I just could NOT get on the plane.

    I flex into Burbank the next week and rented a car and drove to Santa Barbara–and it still took less than 2.5 hours.


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