Thursday, March 26, 2009

Always a Student

Last week I gave a terrible reading at my writing group. As I drove home that afternoon, all I could think was, “Am I crazy? How can I get up in front of big groups of people and read my work if I bomb in front of people I know?” I took a deep breath and reassured myself that one lousy reading didn’t mean I was a bad writer, or even a bad speaker. I knew one thing it did indicate: I needed to understand why my reading had gone all cattywampus, especially if I wanted to avoid a repeat.

I’d read an excerpt of my book-in-progress, The Department, because I knew I needed practice reading the material to a group. If you’ve written a book, chances are good that you’ll be asked to speak about it or read from it at some point. Authors who are actively promoting a book are usually seeking such opportunities. I knew all that, but I never gave it much thought. Heck, I’m one of those weird people who finds public speaking enjoyable. Or at least I thought I did.

I overlooked two key factors prior to my failed reading. First, the excerpt I picked was making its debut. Nervousness over its newness made me forget to breathe while I was reading. (Have you tried to read aloud without breathing? I looked like I was about to burst into tears from lack of oxygen, which made me more nervous, which meant I forgot to breathe again… you get the idea. The members of my writing group looked like they wanted to give me a group hug.) Second, I had not practiced my material before reading it to the group. On this point, I should have known better. This is one of the most basic steps if you are presenting anything—no matter how prepared you think you are. Had I read the selection out loud at home to myself, I probably would have chosen something else. But I thought I knew the material so well that I didn’t need extra preparation. I was wrong. I was over-confident, and I was grateful that I learned my lesson in front of my writing group instead of in front of a large audience.

What’s the motto here? You read it in the headline. At one time, I thought uncomfortable moments and mistakes meant I was an idiot. Now I know it just means I’m just human, and I’ve accepted that I will always be a student.

“You are always a student, never a master. You have to keep moving forward.”
--Conrad Hall, cinematographer
Photo courtesy of Piotr Lewandowski at

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