Response 1: David
Hi Sandy! I missed our weekly chats during April but judging from our calendars, those chats weren’t likely to happen and taking a month off was a necessary idea.
I know that we both have busy Mays as well, but let’s rev up another topic for Writers at Work—our eighth—and hope for the best. Okay? Away we go. Let’s tackle one of the important side benefits of being a writer. We occasionally receive invitations to speak before live audiences about who we are and what we do. These opportunities can be scary for the unprepared so I’ll tell you about my first one and I’m betting that a lot of our readers will have their own first-time experiences to share. Most of us who speak also have some horror tales about being abused and mistreated at the hands of inept festival, school, or conference folks, but I think we ought to save those stories for another episode. No doubt there will be juicy ones to share for that session too!
Sandy, do you remember our visits with Berniece Rabe at the Children’s Literature Festival in Warrensburg, Missouri? She’s a fine writer of young adult fiction and in 1973 her first Rass book had just been published. My picture book, Little Turtle’s Big Adventure, came out four years earlier so we were both pretty new to the trade. The year that Rass came out I was invited to speak at Lindenwood University in O’Fallon, Missouri to a group of students, teachers, and librarians. The invitation came from Nancy Polette, a powerhouse professor of education and advocate of children’s literature. At that time she may also have been director of the lab school on campus. I think she paid me $50 and I was pleased. It was my first check as a speaker.
On the big day I drove to Lindenwood and found myself sitting in the auditorium listening as the speaker before me, Berniece Rabe, was introduced. At that moment I became painfully aware that I had no prepared remarks. Nancy had said to talk about my books and say what came naturally. It seemed like good advice over the phone a few months back. Now I wasn’t so sure.
Berniece walked onto the stage with an engaging smile and made eye contact with everyone in the room. In a charming, confident, poised, prepared, professional voice, she enchanted the audience with the story of her journey as a writer. She then threw herself into long excerpts from Rass in which she became the characters, assuming their voices and acting their parts. As she moved about the stage we were all mesmerized by her performance. She was amazing.
I was toast.
“And now our next speaker, David Harrison . . .”
I’ll spare you the details of what followed. Berniece herself plucked me from the dumps later with her warm encouragement, and Nancy was right there to shore up my defeated ego. Maybe I wasn’t as bad as I thought. Nah, I was. But lessons learned that way do stick with one.
After all these years I’m still flattered when someone invites me to speak. I’m most at home in front of students in a classroom but these days I’m prepared when I stand before a group of any kind. Maybe I’ll never be Berniece Rabe but no one has tossed a tomato either.
Sandy, you are, in addition to all your other talents, an actress. Your voice always comes from somewhere that makes me believe what you are saying and hope for more. I’m still not comfortable with a script because I tend to wander off the page now and then and find myself adlibbing my way back to my point. I can’t do PowerPoint presentations for that reason. What works best for me is to have notes or an outline to follow, think about what I want to talk about before the big day arrives, and then sail forth with all the canvas up.
On formal occasions such as keynotes, commencement addresses, and dedications, I do write out my speech. But before I read a speech to an audience, I read it aloud fifteen or twenty times until I essentially have it memorized. Sandy, I’m eager to hear how you deal with your own speaking engagements. Over to you!
Response 2: Sandy
Hello, David and friends. I missed our chats as well. I’m glad we’re back on track. This topic is going to be great fun, what with our many road warrior stories to share. I’m looking forward to having lots of other folks chime in.
I do remember Berniece Rabe reading from Rass—I was in the audience at the Children’s Literature Festival in Warrensburg when she performed her magic. What I remember best is what a kick she was getting out of doing it, and that’s probably a good rule of thumb for presentations: Enjoy yourself, and others will be happy to join you.
I also remember the first time you and I presented together, David—or in tandem, actually—also in Warrensburg, but not at the Children’s Literature Festival. It was a graduate class in children’s literature, I believe, and we were invited to speak by the late, great Festival founder and director, Phil Sadler. You went first—and, believe me, by then you had become every bit as hard an act to follow as Berniece. I looked out at that sea of faces, all gazing after you adoringly as you stepped away from the podium, and, before I’d even said a word, I promised myself I’d never speak to a group in your wake again. Next to you, sure. Before you, of course. Down the hall from you, no problem. But after you? Uh-uh. Not until I’d learned to juggle live chickens or levitate or something. I don’t believe I ever have, either. (Not counting this blog, anyway.)
It’s odd, when you think about it, that published authors are invited to speak to live audiences. If we were such great orators, we probably wouldn’t need to sit alone at our desks and wrestle our thoughts down to the page one word at a time. And then revise them. And then revise that. And then revise it all again before feeling ready to share what we have to say with readers—who are definitely not in the same room with us.
You mention my theater training, but actors are also not necessarily great orators. If you’ve ever watched one of your favorites struggle through a TV interview or award acceptance speech, you know what I mean. They need writers! Actors contribute a great deal of thought, energy, research, analysis, memorization, and rehearsal time to a play, and they’re brave enough to trot right out there on stage and perform it, but always with the safety net of a prepared script.
So even with my writing experience and theater training, I knew I was unprepared when my first invitation to speak arrived. I didn’t even have a clue about how to get prepared. I had no idea what writers were supposed to say to anyone—outside of their writing, that is. Fortunately, I was able to ride up to Warrensburg (so important in our lives!) with a couple of Springfield teachers to attend a luncheon where Richard Peck was the presenting author. I could not have found a better role model. He had a prepared speech that was insightful and funny. He referred to it often, but had obviously rehearsed it enough to have it nearly memorized. He spoke with dignity, warmth, and humor about his readers, their needs, his hopes for them, his concerns about them, and the importance of reaching young people through books. He charmed, enlightened, and entertained us, made his point, and sat down. Not one syllable too many, not one moment wasted—his or ours.
Well. That set the bar pretty high, but at least I knew what clearing the bar looked like. I’ve been striving to do that ever since.
I hope I’ve come a long way in quality over the years, but I know for sure I’ve come a long way in confidence. My very first talk was to a group of Springfield writers meeting for lunch at the Heritage Cafeteria. When I arrived, I was invited to go through the line and order whatever I liked. Too nervous to eat, but not wanting to offend my hosts by not eating, I selected a little dish of cottage cheese with half a canned peach on top. I figured I could manage to slide that down my throat without choking to death before my presentation. I survived the event, but honestly don’t remember much beyond carefully managing that little dish of food.
Couple of years later, without giving it a second thought, I found myself chowing down a delicious dinner—complete with a glass of wine—before stepping up to the podium to give a talk about my second book for young readers, Daughters of the Law. As I arranged my pages on the podium, I suddenly remembered the cottage cheese and canned peach—and I had to smile. Here I was, relaxed and eager to share what I had to say with my audience. Had I ever even imagined such a day would come? I was enjoying myself!
I like to think they were enjoying themselves, as well.
Your turn, David. Let’s hear it: the good, the bad, and the ugly . . .
Response 3: David
Ho-ho-ho. Now we come to the fun part: complaining. Sandy and I have addressed the problems of showing up prepared for the gig. Unfortunately, the person who invites us needs to prepare, too, and the failure to do so can lead to some memorable experiences.
Here’s one from my bag of nightmares. I was invited to a school in Jefferson City. We agreed on payment and expenses. My contact would reserve a room and provide a map. There was no follow-up correspondence, which should have been a red flag. Today it would be!
I arrived at the hotel on a frigid January dusk the evening before my visit. There was no reservation and every room was taken. I called my contact. She had forgotten to book a room. The hotel clerk finally found a vacancy in a row of tiny cabins some miles away. It was as frosty inside as out. I lay on the bed in my coat, staring at the lone lightbulb hanging from a cord, thinking, “They’ll find me frozen here in the morning.” Back to the hotel. I offered to lie down on the floor in front of the desk. They found a room. Needless to say, things did not improve the following day. Teachers didn’t know I was coming or why I was there. Some graded papers during my presentation. One left me alone with her kids who promptly treated me to a rousing version of good old-fashioned pandemonium.
I don’t know which memory is worse, that one or the conference in Boulder, Colorado where I flew from Kansas City to speak and no one knew I was coming. The person who invited me failed to tell the program chair or get me on the agenda. Ah well, I enjoyed sightseeing around the area for a couple of days. It’s very nice there if you don’t have to stop to go speak.
Sandy, I can hear someone saying, “Didn’t you check with these people? Didn’t you have a contract?” My indefensible answer is, “No.” But both experiences happened more than thirty years ago and times are definitely different now. For one thing, e-mail is better than letters when it comes to keeping in touch with one’s host and pinning down who is doing what for whom. I think a lot of speakers do like contracts up front and invoices after. I probably tend toward a less formal arrangement but everything each party will do is spelled out in my correspondence well ahead of the event. But let’s face it, folks, there are some deplorably incapable people in every profession and once in a while one of them will be holding the other end of our string.
Oh! I nearly forgot about book signings! Has anyone ever sat behind a table in a hallway or bookstore or auditorium, books stacked at hand, pen at the ready, and watched the dust settle on your shoes? I have. And again, it’s usually a matter of planning ahead to make sure that all parties agree on assigned duties before the event. I remember one bookstore signing that turned out to be a row of authors, each assigned a table. (I thought I was to be the only one.) A woman beside me was selling a book she had self-published and she was just plain serious about hawking her wares. No one could come within twenty feet of her without exciting her into a stand-up routine spieled off at 80 decibels, gobs a’ plenty to kill off every conversation in sight.
I’ve had great to good experience speaking in schools, festivals, and conferences, probably 90 percent of the time. Another 5 percent have been so-so. But oh, my, that last 5 percent will make you wish you had talked more and planned better. What do you think, Sandy? Are you a member of the 5 Percent Club too? Anything we can do to reduce the dreaded number?
Response 4: Sandy
Complaints! I had to dig pretty deeply into my supply of suppressed memories to come up with anything in the same league as your flight to nowhere, David. I can’t imagine the horror of showing up in a distant city only to find out you’re not on the program.
Rummaging around in that dark corner of the attic of my mind, I did come up with a doozy, though. Wayne, Nebraska. Did you know Wayne, Nebraska, is the home of the annual Chicken Cluck-off? Yup. Happens every July. But I was not there in July. I was there in the dead of winter, and I do mean “dead.” All was bright and clear as my plane landed in Omaha. I was met, right on time, by a friendly gentleman in a pickup truck. I was eager to get to our destination, looking forward to two days of school visits, plus a couple of presentations at a regional teachers’ conference. Amazingly, over the past few months, the teacher who invited me had ordered first 100, then another 100, then a third 100 copies of my latest paperback, Teddy Teabury’s Fabulous Fact, perfect for the elementary-school kids I was going to meet. Apparently, they thought so, too!
About halfway down the two-lane highway toward Wayne, we hit a wall of snow and sleet. Suddenly, we were fishtailing back and forth across black ice, narrowly avoiding ditches on either side of the road. Finally, my companion got his four-wheel drive switched on and we settled into our own lane—just as a huge semi roared past in the lane we’d just slid out of seconds earlier.
That was for openers. It snowed, and it snowed, and it snowed. By the time we got to my motel—a Super 8—you couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the earth began, in any direction. It never stopped snowing, the whole time I was in town. School went on, though, and the principal maneuvered his car over snow-packed roads each day to pick me up and deliver me door to door. But with delayed starting times and early dismissals, my classroom visits were reduced to a quick “Here’s the author. We have time for a couple of questions. Bye.”
The teachers’ conference was canceled. And all those books? Never saw a one of them. Apparently, they never made it out of my hostess’s garage. She hadn’t sold a single one, let alone 300. She’d simply forgotten—twice—that she’d already ordered books, so she kept on ordering them.
During my stay, I was taken to the same little restaurant for an early dinner and then left at the Super 8 until the next morning. When I finally couldn’t stand my room anymore—or gazing out at the unrelenting whiteness all around me—I wandered down to the tiny lobby. There, I found a single tourist brochure, announcing the annual Chicken Cluck-off. In July. Missed it!
About halfway back to the airport in Omaha, the snow suddenly stopped, and all turned bright and clear again for my flight home, leaving me to believe that the blizzard never touched any other part of the state—only Wayne.
But let me end on a more cheerful note—concerning Warrensburg, again. That’s where a little boy taught me an important lesson about how much children appreciate honesty. As you know, David, Children’s Literature Festival participants visit one author after another throughout the day. In one of my groups at my very first Festival was a skinny boy in a faded T-shirt who waved his hand madly as soon as I asked for questions.
"How old are you?" he wanted to know.
There was some tittering around the room and a few dirty looks from teachers, but we both did our best to ignore that. "Thirty-eight," I replied, which was true at the time. "How old are you?"
"Ten," he said.
"A good age," I told him. "Mine is, too."
He seemed satisfied, and I went on to answer a wide variety of questions from the rest of the group. Toward the end of the session, the same boy's hand shot into the air again. "Do I dare call on him a second time?" I wondered. "Oh, what the heck." I did.
"You're very good at this," he announced. "The other lady only got one question."
We can only guess what that question might have been—and who asked it.
As for those book signings, David, a bookstore owner once told me the national average for books sold during a signing is two. That’s right, two. So any time I sell three, I announce that I’m above average and rejoice! And those events where no one shows up? Have you ever thought about attending something, decided against it, and then imagined everyone who DID go really enjoyed themselves? That’s the way I’ve come to look at it. The PR goes out announcing the event, always a good thing. Everyone who doesn’t show up thinks everybody else DID show up and had a terrific time. It’s a “virtual success.” Not so bad.
Life on the road is very educational, don’t you think? And not just for the kids we go out to visit with—in rain, snow, sleet, but so far, not dark of night.