Eighteen questions to ask your story
Looking for the ram in the thicket

Too much meringue

The other day I heard a cri de coeur going up in a forum, and it was from Jenn Ashworth. She's one of The Guardian's 12 Best New Novelists, her first novel A Kind of Intimacy was much admired, and her second, Cold Light is due out soon. If you didn't catch her in The Guardian, then maybe you did on BBC2, and she's knee-deep in reviews and interviews and, most important of all, promotion within the book trade. Of course I'd like to forward Jenn's post to Jerusha Cowless, but the last I heard Jerusha was several hundred miles off the Galapagos, and might not be in touch till the trade winds change at the equinox. So I replied to Jenn myself. And what she was saying was this:

I KNOW I am very, very lucky to have all this, and I'm really, really not complaining, BUT it turns me into a wreck. An utter, nervous basket case. I like doing readings and Q&As and meeting readers, because people who turn up to readings and want to ask you questions are careful and keen readers and it's always been a total compliment that they've thought about something I've written and it has affected them in some way. One of the highlights of the job.

But the other stuff - meeting reviewers and book bloggers and journalists and radio and interviews etc - I find totally and utterly exhausting. After it is over I just want to get in bed and cry. I don't know why it is. No-one's ever been rude so it isn't that. Half stage fright, half exhaustion I suppose. Any hints on getting to grips with this?

I suspect that this is a much, much more common feeling among writers than we'll often admit, or even realise. I remember sitting in a green room at a big festival, waiting for my gig, and watching everyone toing and froing: perhaps thirty or forty faces, many of whom were recognisable, mostly with publicists or friends in tow, many knowing each other already. And there was this uncomfortableness to everything that everyone said/did, to how they moved and spoke: like bright lipstick smudged, or a ring of bells that's slightly out of tune. At the time I thought it was competitive and wondered if it's just the nature of creative freelancing. But now I think that a lot of us might be pleased to have such a gig in terms of career, but basically would rather not be there. It's lonely, even if you do have a publicist in tow; it's exposed; it's asking you to make tidy and user-friendly stories out of something which is never tidy, rarely user-friendly and always deeply personal; and above all it's not writing.

But it's so hard to know as a newbie author when it's okay to say, "I'd really rather not" and what you just have to do. And complaining about something which all aspiring writers, and most published ones, would give their right arm and their granny to have, feels like complaining about having to pay so much tax this year: at best in very poor taste, at worst the most egregious kind of one-upmanship. And that's before the nasty wannabe writer - the one who projects his self-loathing at his lack of success onto those who are having some - has put the boot in.

You obviously know it's part of the job - and that you're lucky to have it. But knowing you're lucky to have children, say, and that the disgusting/stressful bits of child-rearing are part of the job, doesn't mean you're not entitled to hate those bits: if you do, you do. Ditto publicity. Plus there's a very particular and insidious little bit of stress, born of guilt, that comes with the horrid bits of things you thought you wanted... such as children, and publishing contracts. You hate those bits, and you hate yourself for hating them, for being feeble, for being ungrateful.

And still people will tell you to Just Do It, to try harder, to appreciate what you've got. That can get over some problems, but not when it's systemic - when the problem is built into the circumstances and the people - as anyone knows who's miserable being overweight, but is faced with a crap day and a bottle of wine... again. (It always reminds me of Boxer in Animal Farm: with everything that goes wrong for the animals he just says, "I must work harder". Eventually poor Boxer dies of overwork.) If just hitting the problem in the middle - telling yourself to count your blessings and pull your socks up - solved the problem then it would be okay. But if doesn't, then it's time to tackle it from both ends: you need to shift up a level in trying to work out what's really going on, and simultaneously work out ways of managing it at the practical level. So, what's really going on?

Performing takes huge amounts of energy. You have to inflate one aspect of yourself to fill the whole of you. It releases huge amounts of adrenaline, which uses up blood sugar, so afterwards it's physiologically the same as having eaten too much meringue: an acute bloodsugar low. Another meringue-quality of this world is its... falseness isn't fair, but the insubstantiality of those social contacts. They feel like friends, but they're not really, or at least only along the relatively short facet where their and your interests and tastes touch. By contrast, what develops in something like a book-group discussion is more substantial: it may be a one-off but there's some substance to the human interactions involved. Good solid fruit cake, at least, rather than meringue. But still not the meat/vegetarian-option-and-two-veg of real life and real writing.

It's also lonely. I only realised that properly when I arrived at Ilkley for a festival session of the historical fiction panel, and there were Roger, Rose and Maria already at the hotel: real friends. I almost burst into tears at how different it felt from the usual good-mannered-strangers, and staring-at-the-walls-and-TV. And, unlike you, Jenn, I'm someone who likes performing, and (shhh!) rather likes hotels.

Finding a performing persona does help. That needn't be fake: it's still you, but it's only one aspect of you, just as you can be Clown Mummy to get the children through the dentist's appointment even when things are horrible in some other part of your life. Make sure you have lots of blood-sugar-restorers such as doughnuts to hand afterwards (though don't tell the dentist!). And this may not be true for you, but I know that for me the high of performing is, inevitably, followed by what I call 'piglet time', as when Piglet was ruthlessly washed by Kanga, and had to roll all the way home in the dust till he was his nice, comfortable colour again. It's hard to return to normal, from the outwards of performing to the inwards of writing; from the shine-time affirmation (however meringue-like) of others for what you've already written to the oh-god-I'll-never-make-this-work of the scruffy new WIP; from having a publicist ponder which senior bookseller she ought to lead you to talk to next, to wiping snotty noses...

Would it also help to think about what it is that makes you hate it so much? On the face of it, why wouldn't we enjoy having people listening to us talk about something we spent years writing? And clearly you're happy to do in a personal, thoughtful context such as a reading group. But the newspapers the radio and even TV - wowee! - you find stressful and upsetting beyond simple tiredness, or the oomph you need to launch yet again into a pseudo-intimate relationship with an interviewer. Distress which is much more than seems reasonable for what's involved is usually rooted in fear, so what is it that you might be fearing? I've asked around myself and other writers, singers, actors, so try some of these for size:

  1. being caught out as not really a writer ("imposter syndrome")
  2. being thought too big for our boots (especially if you're British: if the French have no word for entrepreneur, the Americans have no word for Tall Poppy Syndrome)
  3. being thought a bad writer, or someone who's written a bad book
  4. making an idiotic mistake or drying completely. One golden tip is to write down the names of your characters: your mind can go extraordinarily blank under the tunnel-vision that adrenaline imposes. Another is to pour out your water before you start.
  5. saying something unguarded - particularly if you're naturally honest and straightforward

I'd suggest that all of these come down to fear of being judged: fear of the annihilation which threatens when someone who matters (to your self-esteem or your sales, or both) has decided you or what you say is Not Good Enough, is a Failure, is Wrong or Stupid or Embarrassing. The roots of such feelings are buried deep in childhood and I'm not sure, if you're wired for feeling vulnerable to judgement, that you ever gets unwired completely. And don't discount how much more stressful it makes everything, to know that there's an awful lot of money or career or both riding on you being good enough.

But, tackling it from the other end, there are things which can help.

  1. You are good enough. You are, you are, you are. Not just from the external validation that's coming your way, but because you do, actually, know it: you've written bloody good books that people loved, and everything else is secondary.
  2. Every author in the entire world has a story of making a complete idiot of themselves at some point, and it didn't matter much - the world didn't collapse and their career wasn't ruined.
  3. Every author in the world has thought that they've made a complete idiot of themselves... and no other human being present would see anything which wasn't perfectly fine.
  4. You're a beginner. That's fine. We're all allowed to learn our jobs, and making mistakes is part of learning. Even publicists know that.
  5. A publicist will tell you (actually, a publicist did tell you, on that forum) that there are often ways to work round the things you particularly hate, if you're honest about what you find hardest to cope with.
  6. It is entirely permissible to ask a journalist to leave out something you've just said. They may bargain about how close they can get to implying it, but interviewing is a two-way thing, and both of you want to make a good piece that you're both happy with. We're not celebs and they're not out to catch us out.
  7. It also makes great radio/TV/Festival Session to roar with laughter and acknowledge your mistake; it deflates the embarrassment before it's even begun, and you're still in control.
  8. Use your publicist or whoever's looking after you: ask for a glass of water, get them to hold your bag, say whether your lipstick or your hem is straight. It's in their interests too, that you feel as relaxed and comfortable as is practical. Asking for help is a sign of professionalism.
  9. Say you're nervous and you hate this kind of thing: their reassurance will be superficial, but just your own acknowledgment of your feelings will help.
  10. Wait for experience to come: it will. You'll get better at knowing what works best for you, what you need, what you hate, what you hate enough to say you won't do...

Very best of luck! You never know, you might even find at some point that you've done a whole interview, gone home and cooked the supper, and you didn't mind a bit.

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