I gave a couple of talks overseas last month, and was reminded of the joy of having someone come up and tell you about some specific thing you wrote that reached them across the ocean, and touched them. A few years ago in Australia a young woman told me she’d read and reread and loved a thing I’d written on my late father, and America. That carried me along for about a year.
On the other hand:
My dad was an advertising writer who, after he retired, wrote nostalgic essays for a classic car magazine. He built an enthusiastic following of readers—mostly self-dubbed “old-car nuts,” whose devotion to their hobby was actually perfectly understandable, as my father demonstrated in every issue of the magazine. His essays, as one of his grateful readers put it, spoke to “those who love cars, songs, and girls, and who have kept a special place in their hearts for each that has crossed their paths throughout their lives.”
Occasionally, Dad would be invited to give a talk to an assembled audience of these devotees, to promote his collection, Tire Tracks Back. Inevitably, he was terrified, and he often demurred.
“I can’t give them what they want,” he would say. He knew they loved his writing, but he highly doubted they would love him; and he feared they would be profoundly disappointed.
Any writer should be able to understand that fear. Because a writer is a phony—and the better the writer, the bigger the phony.
In most compositions, a writer gets the essential idea down in about three minutes, and then spends the next seven hours “developing it,” as writers put it. Which means elaborating upon it, larding it up with supporting evidence, adding little bits of literary charm, rhetorical touches, rhythmic drum taps and lyrical sax notes, so that, like the character in My Fair Lady, the writing is as suave as writer knows how to make it: “Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor.”
Then, the writer sleeps on the piece, before spending another number of hours extracting personal faults and foibles from the text, to the extent the writer can see them. The pride, the viciousness, the smugness, the self-righteousness, the monomania, the old-fartishness and the lack of erudition: All very real aspects of the writer’s character, all pressure-washed from the prose like blood from a murder scene.
Then, the writer builds a cocktail and reads and rereads the “finished” piece vicariously, through the mind of one of his likely readers, then again through another and another—anticipating their various objections and meeting them with a rebuke, parrying them with a caveat or avoiding them altogether by deftly conceding their point.
Often, in the course of this literary charade, the idea itself evolves a little or a lot. So that what the writer meant to say in the first place—in those first three minutes of composition—has been replaced with whatever the writer thinks the reader will actually buy. Which is occasionally the very opposite of the original idea. But which, the writer hopes, is closer to the actual truth. “How do I know what I think,” almost every famous writer has said in one way or another, “until I write it?”
I’m not saying this is how bad writing gets done. I’m saying this is how good writing gets done. And it is this process, repeated over and over and over again, which builds a writer a devoted group of readers, who know how the writer thinks, who love how the writer writes—and who now are asking the writer to speak to them off the cuff because they want to see what the writer looks like, what the writer sounds like, what the writer is like. They might just as well also specify the writer should appear in the nude.
So the question isn’t why was my dad so nervous to meet his audience; it’s how any writer summons the courage.
I don’t mind doing book talks, myself. Why? Because I have faith, perhaps better called magical thinking, in the ability of my personal charms, such as they are, to make up for the comparative gross imprecision of my improvised language, and to distract from the shortcomings of my ideas and deficits of my humanity. Not that I am a truly luminous in-person presence—but I’m generally enthusiastic and warm enough to keep the people who read my stuff from saying, “Good grief, what an asshole he turns out to be!” Or, as I think my father probably feared, “God, what a dud.” Still, I do not expect that meeting me will improve readers’ opinion of my writing, or of me. Much better for all concerned for people to meet me first, and then learn I have a book.
John Steinbeck famously avoided book talks and other public appearances. Given a literary award, he declined to show up to give the acceptance speech, telling the inviter a tale about a rodeo rider who’d “received an award for a championship in ear notching and castrating calves”:
Cheered to his feet, the winner stood up blushing violently and made the following speech—”Aw shit, boys—Jesus Christ—why—godam it—oh! the hell with it,” and sat down to tremendous applause.
Tremendous applause or no, that’s how the writer feels in front of the readers, in person.
Or ought to, anyway.