I hereby announce that this Saturday, I was impressed.
If that seems like a very bland announcement, you should bear in mind that I did a lot of thinking about learning and teaching when I worked as a teacher for two years, and came to the conclusion that there are very few achievements in the world which could not be repeated by most people, were they willing to invest the time, effort and sheer bloodymindedness it takes for most of us. Consequently, I will always applaud a good performance, but I will rarely be impressed, in the sense that I will believe I just saw a display of skill that defied all probability.
The last time was in November, 1993. (A Beatles tribute band called The Cavern, who did a very good Beatles impression, which I was thoroughly enjoying, but not more, up until the moment they performed Back in the USSR. I happened to know that the song was never performed live by the real Beatles. Yet, had the Fab Four ever played it in front of an audience, that was exactly what it would have sounded like. Copying existing recordings is one thing; this went far beyond that and into the realm of the truly incredible.) This will give you a sense of how easily impressed I am.
As for talent—well—if you’re born with a natural talent for anything, it means you haven’t even had to bother to practise properly. In my book, there’s nothing particularly clever about being talented; it just means you won the lottery. I’ve seen more examples of great talent leading to mediocrity (since talented people rarely develop the persistence needed to become really skilled) than great talent leading to dazzling results.
This last memorable moment also had to do with live performance of music, and it was achieved by two girls about eleven years old.
My youngest had just performed in front of an audience for the first time ever (a piano rendition of Old McDonald Had A Farm), and I was beaming with pride since he had carried it off flawlessly. Three or four acts later, up came two girls to play four-handed, which isn’t easy in the first place, what with trying to coordinate your own hands while listening to what the other person plays and adjusting accordingly so that you don’t end up finishing half a verse ahead. Their first song ended rather unexpectedly; it might have been intentional but looked more like they suddenly forgot what they were doing. Then they started on their second song (one of Beethoven’s German Dances), and... faltered after two bars.
They started over. And stopped after two notes.
And they started over. And stopped after two notes.
And the same thing happened a fourth time.
You could hear a pin drop.
Silence for about five seconds. The girls sat immobile by the piano.
They started over. And played it through perfectly.
The worst thing that can happen on a stage happened to them, and they pulled through. Sheer will force and, yes, bloodymindedness showed them through. (There’s no realistic way anything worse can happen on stage. If you drop your trousers, at least there will be laughter, and you can pretend this was exactly how you planned it. If you start babbling incoherently, you’re having a plausible case of nervous breakdown and will probably be led off and fed brandy by some kind people. If you start fornicating with the stage props—well—I did say realistic.)
The reason I’m writing this in a blog which is, ostensibly, about writing, even though I have noticeable difficulties staying on topic, is that the inestimable Lynn Price has once again posted a piece where my thoughts won’t fit snugly in the comments space.
Lots of people are scared witless by the very thought of having an audience. Personally, I’m perfectly happy with the idea, but I was still nervous enough the first time on stage that I was very fortunate to have a microphone stand to hold on to, as my knees had inexplicably turned into porridge. And when you’re a writer, you might think you sign up for a solitary lifestyle in the confinement of an ivory tower. But hey, you’re chased by publishers, agents and publicists who are eager to put you in front of an audience, and they all expect you to say interesting things.
Enough to drive anyone nuts.
So, while I have never actually been to a book signing, much less held one myself, here are my tips. I was teaching for two years, meaning I was on stage full time, in front of an audience who would much rather have been anywhere else; I played in some of the crappiest punk bands in the town where I grew up, more about which later; I was a manager at a translation agency for four years, which also entails a lot of public display and outright acting. So while there might be reason not to listen too closely, there’s at least reason to listen.
1. They Can Not See You Being Nervous.
This is extremely important to remember if you’re given to nervousness. If you start getting nervous about being nervous, the feedback loop will petrify you inside ten seconds. But guess what? Your audience can never see how nervous you are. If you don’t believe me, think back to all your job interviews, and all your performance evaluations, and remember this: the person hiring or evaluating you was very nearly as nervous as you. I’ve been there. See above. You didn’t notice. Nor will the book signing audience.
2. They Will Fulfil Their Own Prophecy.
They’re there of their own, free will. They’ve read your book with interest, and they expect you to be interesting. And amazingly, whatever you say, they’re going to find you interesting, no matter how dull you find yourself. There’s probably a name for it; I’ve been known to call it the Eric Olthwaite Effect.
3. They Will Excuse Any Eccentricity.
Face it, you’re an author. You belong to a class of people not fabled for their mental stability. Should you suddenly decide to arrive in a diving suit and answer all questions in medieval German, it’s only par for the course. More realistically, starting to mumble incoherently about a deceased uncle isn’t going to make them just up and leave on you, even if a thorough search should fail to yield any uncles at all, dead or alive. (The only problem is that if you start to e.g. use the nearest flower pot as a toilet, they will start to expect such behaviour from you in the future, which might not be altogether convenient.)
4. Even If The Worst Happens, It Will Pass.
This is where the above-mentioned punk bands come in again. I was seventeen. There was this huge gala. We were the opening act. We were so abysmally crappy that the drummer left the band fifteen minutes before curtains up, saying he couldn’t go through with it. He was replaced in a panic by the guitar player from another band who took pity on us, but had never rehearsed the songs or even heard us play. The bass guitar player could be persuaded to enter the stage only by me promising him that he could have his back to the audience at all times. I stood there, waiting for the curtain to rise, having the singing ability of the average train wreck, knowing that absolutely everyone who meant anything to me socially was going to witness this. I was dressed up as a condom.
I lived through the next twenty minutes.
Absolutely nothing about a stage can ever frighten me again.