Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sara Lippmann Gets Over It

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Sara Lippmann, author of Doll Palace (Dock Street Press), discusses overcoming shyness and offers tips on giving a reading.

I am that kid. Small, hunched. Shagged in thick bangs designed to hide my watery eyes, which at any second are bound to spill; the kind of child people call “sensitive.” My clothes itch. Turtlenecks dotted with cherries strangle my neck. Polyester pants on the story rug attract a steady wave of static electricity. People are shocked if they touch me.

When I say my name it sounds like this: SA-WA WIPPMANN. Oh, it’s endearing – when I am four; cute, maybe, at five and six. But by nine, I am no button. I am dead fucking serious. I have opinions and ideas. I want desperately, more than anything, to express them, to be understood.

Just don’t make me talk in public.

School play: The South Park version
Excuses ensue. In the school play—on tooth decay—I bow out of a speaking part. All I have to do is Velcro a cardboard cavity to the buoyant blonde playing the lead bicuspid. When the spotlight shines I nearly trip over my pigeon toes. I dart along the back wall, the black hole wilting in my grip.

My grandmother wipes away tears: “So you won’t be an actress.”

If only it were simple. But maybe you’ve heard—the world’s a stage. I practice my speech. Girl, hurl, world. Stretch my tongue down to my chin and up to my nose, curl it into a bun; I fold it in half like a sheet. It is pathetic. In high school, my English teacher counts the number of times self-doubt rears its ugly head during an oral report, every “like” and “I don’t know.” He intends to teach a tough lesson: Words alone won’t transcend a performance. Sound like a bimbo and people will pin you a bimbo. I am a bimbo 87 times in 10 minutes.

So I write. In college, I keep my mouth shut. Before graduation, my thesis adviser tells me to stand up straight, better advice than any note on my manuscript. But it doesn’t immediately sink in.

When asked to co-host the Sunday Salon reading series in New York’s East Village, I laugh. Me—on stage? Of all the cruel jokes.

But Nita Noveno, series founder and cohost, is an inspiration. Her commitment to celebrating a diverse group of writers every month is heartfelt and unflagging. How can I not help out?

For the past handful of years now, I get up. I’m no Jimmy Fallon. I don’t ad lib. I redden like a teenager in love. But if I’ve learned anything from the experience, I’ve learned it’s not about me. It’s about fostering a warm, meaningful connection between the audience and the authors we host.

When you have a book, there is no choice. Putting yourself out there is a necessary component of the writing life. Every time I have a reading or an event, I face the constellation of old fears. The child inside wants to dive under the covers. Some of this unease is probably on par with that of others who spend countless hours holed up alone in their heads. We tend to be an introverted bunch. But over the years I’ve had the immense privilege of reading with writers born for the stage, who have broken into pitch-perfect song, and the incredible honor of hosting writers who have brought the entire room from full-bodied laughter to chills then tears. While I wouldn’t say it’s gotten easier, I know I’ll get through. Sometimes, I even enjoy it.

Here’s what little I know:

Be yourself. The biggest and fanciest don’t necessarily make the best readers. Whoever you are, it’s not enough to bumble through your piece in a dismal monotone. Know your music. Play that song.

Check your ego. Consider the audience. People have come to hear you. Look up and acknowledge them once in a while.

Keep it short. Satisfy the listener, but it’s all right to leave them wanting more. I once heard a very important writer drone on from her very important chair without lifting her head for almost an hour. This is never okay.

Preparation helps. Sure, you wrote the thing, so it may seem counterintuitive to practice, but reading your work out loud demands a different kind of attention. Print your document in a large font or if you are reading from your book, mark up the text for pauses, emphasis, etc.

Captivate your audience. Remember your beloved school librarian? And the kid next to you who wet his pants because he was so enthralled by her swash-buckling pirate tale? Strive for that. Bonus points if they forget all bodily functions.

Storytelling – that’s why you’re here. Tell a damned good one. This is your job.

If you still have the jitters, hit the bar. One drink—not six—before show time should do it.