Do you remember the first time? Part 2: readings + The Voice

You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.
You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.

I’m one of those people who would rather die than get up and say a few words. I think this is in part genetic (my grandmother on my mum’s side and my grandfather on my dad’s side were both content to sit in corners and observe at social situations, and confessed their fears to me of standing up to speak) but also influenced by my experiences in primary school.

I don’t remember being self-conscious until about Grade 4. I feel like I can pinpoint the moment it began. When — as my character Layla takes up the narrative in my book — I had a teacher who decided to conduct a class experiment. Mr S told me to go outside and pick up rubbish. A strange request but I was a dutiful student (pretty much). When I returned I went to my desk as usual. Later in the day he smashed his ruler down in front of me and got me to stand up in front of the class while he accused me of hitting and hurting a small boy. This was so against my nature that I threw it off for a while, but then he got a student to go and get the little boy in question, and he lied convincingly. I felt stranded and confused. Did I actually do it? Without realising? When I sat down, my teacher revealed it was an experiment. To see how boldly I stuck to the truth. To see if I changed my story. The class all had to write about me (and the scenario). I felt completely exposed.

And recently I realised: when I stand up in front of an audience now, I feel like I’ve done something wrong — even though I haven’t. It’s a hard thing to shake off. Of course, a therapist may say I’d feel this sense of dread anyway (many writers do). So, when I finished the book, I realised I had to confront it. The public/private persona. The exposure to strangers. Writers are expected to speak and be comfortable speaking (even when this is a completely different skill to writing). I heard a saying recently, ‘hiding in plain sight’, and I relate to this well. Every day I confront it. The need to compose myself.

Harrison Craig on The Voice
Harrison Craig on The Voice

I’ve been hooked on The Voice lately. This show is my guilty pleasure. I watch all the auditions. I watch them again on the net. It’s the only TV show I get really addicted to. I love singing, and distinctive voices. But when I’m watching it’s as if I’m searching for something. For clues. And I realise I’m fascinated by that moment of connection. When the singer touches the audience (or judges). It’s about letting yourself be vulnerable. Being unique. Allowing emotion to move through your body. It is a mystery to me.

Now, singing and dancing are different from speaking. I could get up on a stage and sing and dance in musicals at school. The Wizard of Oz. Godspell. Musicals meant you could hang out with older boys (I went to a girls’ school) who played guitar. There was a freedom there. But I never auditioned for a play. I guess, people who stutter would understand this. It seems a different part of the brain handles song, as opposed to speech. When I get nervous, I go mute. Not just my voice, but my brain! I can’t access what I need when asked a question in front of people. Many times at school and university I had to leave the room. For fear of not being able to find the right words.

But recently it all came to a head. I was asked to do my first reading of the book (a preview) at the Castlemaine Word Mine with Simmone Howell and Ellie Marney. I knew that this was make or break time. That from this point on, leading up to and beyond the launch, it was only going to get harder. Or easier. Depending on how the night went. And you know what? I drove home pumping my fist at the moon and screaming ‘Fuck, yeah!’ because I got to the other side. Where it actually felt good. And here’s what I learnt.

Join a writers’ group 

Even though I’ve written my first novel, I’ve never had any group feedback. I chose a research masters to avoid classes (of course). One on one feedback I can handle. But in Castlemaine I stumbled upon the most wonderful group. All experienced writers. All willing to be both gentle and pernickety. I started to tentatively read aloud. I couldn’t look up from my page. But I started to hear my own voice.

Say yes first and panic later

Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine
Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine

Make a commitment to doing the talk. All writers deep down really want to share their work. While I didn’t write my book for an audience, it has ideas I want to share. Find out as much detail as you can about the event. How long will you read? Are you on with a panel? Who’s on first? Is there a Q+A? Can you get an idea of the questions?

Practise for a week

Choose an excerpt from your book that you really love, and that has strong narrative drive. As a fellow writer told me, don’t go for beautiful words. They may look good on paper (and the reader will appreciate this) but they inspire daydreaming. Take your audience on a trip; include them in the journey. Read your excerpt out loud, once a day, for a week leading up. Learn the words that you stumble on and change or eliminate them. Write down where to pause. Write down where to smile. Reminders are great. Most importantly, write yourself an intro, even if you have to write ‘Hello! I’m Kirsten Krauth’! For me, the stumble is that initial opening. Once my voice actually comes out, I’m getting there…

Good old NLP + love your toes

Neuro-linguistic programming seems odd. Replacing words and concepts with others. Too good to be true? But every time you say ‘nervous’ to yourself or friends and family, replace it with ‘excited’. I did this and it worked. Couldn’t believe it. By the time I got to the reading I was pretty fucking excited. But actually, something weird happened and the nerves seemed to evaporate as the (very long) day wore on.

Moments before I stood up to read, I concentrated on my feet. They were dug into the ground. I scrunched my toes up (another tip from a friend) and thought only of them. When the time came my feet were happy to move me from A to B.

The art of performance: become your character

When I hit the stage, my only goals for the night (other than turning up) were to slow down and look up from the page once. But as I started to read the practice paid off. The words and timing seemed effortless and as I was reading in first-person, I started to play with the voice of 14-year-old Layla. I started to embody her, and she started to embody me. It turned into a performance rather than a reading. As we moved together, I actually started to enjoy it. Character acting. That’s what it was about.

Invite your friends and family

I’ve had lots of conversations about this one. Most writers agree that it’s easier to speak to a room full of strangers; and to read from a script. But as my eyes furtively darted from the page, I began to see people I know. People I like. People who had given up precious time to turn up on a cold night and listen. I saw they were smiling. They were keen. They were encouraging me to keep going. And this was an amazing help.

I wasn’t in a classroom being humiliated or attacked. Things had moved on.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU A NERVOUS (READ EXCITED) OR COURAGEOUS PUBLIC SPEAKER? ANY TIPS OR ADVICE? HAVE YOU EVER BEEN BLOWN AWAY BY SEEING A WRITER SPEAK? HAVE YOU EVER WISHED YOU COULD SINK INTO THE FLOOR?


PS And … the exciting news is that you can now pre-order  just_a_girl online (it comes out 1 June). I’m really excited about the cover. Although I originally didn’t want a girl on the cover, I was talked around. It’s dark and techie and murky — not girlie — and represents the book well, I think. If you can’t afford to buy a copy, and let’s face it, many people can’t, it would be great if you could request it at your local library. That way, they can order it in:-) Or, if you want to get a review copy for your journal or blog, let me know! It’s also available as an ebook.

12 Comments

  1. Victoria Dawson April 19, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    I also found public speaking difficult but I got over this about 20 years ago. Because I was nervous when I had to stand up and speak to a group of people I’d forget to breathe and would literally run out of air. The Alexander technique was helpful in getting over this problem, It taught me how to pay attention to my body and breathing and to stand tall with my shoulders wide and head high. It’s a bit like walk the walk and talk the talk – if you stand as though you’re calm and confident your body will think you are and respond accordingly.

    I was training to be an Alexander teacher at the time and actually had an Alexander teacher work on me in front of my class of Alexander students while I read the short story I was due to read in a bookshop in a few days. I also find it helpful to imagine that I’m speaking to people individually rather than as a group, which in a way is what you’re doing. Each listener perceives what you’re saying as an individual.

    I’m looking forward to reading your book and will pre-order it pronto!

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 19, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      Thanks, V. Alexander Technique sounds amazing – I’ll keep it in mind. But hopefully I’ve got to the point where I can keep doing it without so much trauma! I hope you enjoy the book. I think I still have your Bad Seed novel. Email me your address!

      Reply
    2. esauboeck April 20, 2013 at 2:14 am

      Hello, Victoria Dawson! How nice to see your name there again! Send me an email, so we can talk off of Kirsten’s blog! esauboeck@gmail.com

      Reply
  2. Lindy April 19, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    It was a wonderful evening and your reading was so calm and poignant. You looked and sounded like a natural Kirsten.
    Thank you so much for sharing this – it’s good to know that despite appearances writers don’t necessarily feel equipped to stand up and literally be the voice of their work. Perhaps I’ll read next time, but the thought of it fills me with dread!
    PS I felt so sad for the young you to have that experience of being used like that by your teacher for an exercise for the class … those feelings can echo for a long old time after the event can’t they?

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 19, 2013 at 8:32 pm

      I am so touched by your comments and it was lovely to meet you on the night. I hope you’ll read (but understand if you’re not ready). Yes, that teacher was a big hero of mine, and then betrayed all my trust. He used to do a lot of experiments on the class. I remember one involved hyperventilating! He was probably completely insane (it was at a tiny country school).

      Reply
      1. Lindy April 22, 2013 at 8:45 am

        Yes maybe I’ll take your advice, say yes and panic later! It’s amazing the impact (good and bad) teachers can have on our lives. You sound like you’ve come through it relatively unscathed 🙂

        Reply
  3. Samantha D April 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Hi. Kirstan
    I got to the end of this bloi entry and I was still thinking about what a psycho that teacher was. You poor thing!
    Samantha

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 19, 2013 at 8:33 pm

      Yep, he was crazy. I idolised him, though. He was such a fun teacher. But used to take things too far. He probably thought I could handle it. But it was at exactly the wrong time (in terms of my development) to try something like that on me.

      Reply
  4. esauboeck April 20, 2013 at 2:28 am

    Kirsten, a very interesting topic to bring up! First of all, I must say that your 4th grade teacher was cruel, and such experiences do resonate for the rest of your life. At least you can pinpoint that moment and put it in perspective. As for fear of public speaking, I agree with all your advice and others’ suggestions. I don’t have fear of speaking in public at all, but if a video camera is on, I absolutely clam up if I know it’s on! I also think it’s interesting that you find it helpful to have family and friends there. George and I made a pact 30 years ago never to come to each other’s lectures or talks. The few times we have had to be there for whatever reason makes us nervous, both sides–either as the spectator or as the speaker. It’s like crossing some invisible line between public and private, I think. It’s probably a sign of how separate my speaking/teaching persona is from my private persona, I don’t know. As a fiction writer, you are also inclined to express your innermost thoughts by writing, so having to express those ideas verbally can be daunting. I’m so glad to hear your friends let you know that you appeared natural and poised.

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 24, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      It’s the public/private divide that interests me most. You’re right, it’s like bringing your innermost secrets into the world (in a way) with fiction, even though of course you are removed through characterisation. Nonfiction may be different but, on the other hand, you are then expected to be an ‘expert’ and I wouldn’t want to be in that position! I’m beginning to see that with any public speaking, you are in a sense performing a ‘version’ of yourself, and you can choose where to draw the line (in terms of revelation) and this works for me!

      Reply
  5. Angela Savage April 23, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Like many of your readers, Kirsten, I cringe at the insensitivity of your Grade 4 teacher and wish I could give your 10 year old self a reassuring hug.

    Unlike you, I am one of those obnoxious people who actually enjoys public speaking. I put it down to being a pathological extrovert. I enjoy author talks and readings, as well as chairing panels.

    My strategy for dealing with nervous speakers when chairing is to come well prepared — which tends to out people at ease — and to talk if not meet with them beforehand. In my experience, you can get people’s best stories in a relaxed chat and then know what prompts to give them on the day.

    All of this is a variation on practice, which you so wisely recommend. Nothing gives you more confidence than really knowing your subject.

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 24, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      Now I’m thinkin’ maybe I’ll try and track my teacher down and show the blog post to him:-) Of course that kind of teaching would never happen these days. I never told my parents either (strange) so that would have helped I’m sure. I love extroverts (like you). It’s such a joy to see people who are relaxed in front of an audience. I always prefer to observe, though.

      Reply

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