Monday, January 26, 2009

Dear Shrinking Violets-- SOS!

Robin and I received this email from one of our readers, and wanted to get right on it! (Some details have been changed to honor the writer's privacy.)

Dear Shrinking Violets,

This past weekend, I attended an SCBWI Regional Conference. I was signed up for the Writers Intensive on the first day. Aah! Toward the end of the session, we divided into groups for critiques. I’ve never read my work in front of other people other than my husband. I actually did better than I thought I would, but I totally could not breathe. I thought I was going to hyperventilate. For real! And my picture book manuscript was only 430 words for crying out loud! I also noticed that one of our workshop leaders couldn’t breathe during her presentation as well – and she even mentioned this to the group. I have no idea how to deal with this unexpected situation. Any advice would be appreciated!


Dear Breathless,

We are so glad that you wrote, and I hope you know that Violets all over are feeling your pain! I am quite certain that we've all gone through this same experience at least once. It does feel just god-awful. That, and worse!

The mind- body connection is a mighty relationship that cannot be underestimated. As the saying goes, what goes in must come out. Your body was merely expressing the information and orders you had input. It performed beautifully!  It doesn't ever-ever-ever operate randomly, even though it does feel that way at times.

And, we don't emote in a vacuum either. It all starts in that amazing space between your ears. While you may hardly have been aware, as you sat in the critique group waiting your turn, you started a running monologue. It might have sounded something like-- Oh, lord, it's almost my turn... what if they hate my work ... what if they don't get it... what if that really cool published writer over there thinks I'm pathetic ... what if . . . what if???

As fast as you input all that, your autonomic response system was gearing up for fight/flight or some kind of serious hoe-down. Your heart kicked up its busy production schedule, prepping you for whatever you needed. It pulled in the blood supply from your extremeties to ready you. But, Breathless, you didn't move! You just sat there-- gunning your motor, locked in Park. 

So to answer your question, fixing this for future reference has to start early on. Before your monologue starts. You'll need to write a brand new one-- one that is way gentler than the one you were running. If you have a hard time with that, think about what the nicest person in the whole world would say if they were sitting next to you. As in, WWJBD? (What would Judy Blume do? Gawd, she's so nice!) Or your partner or BWBFF. They might say things like-- They're gonna love you-- this piece has got something-- you'll learn something here-- everyone is probably nervous too-- your hair looks fabulous, by the way. Get the idea?

That's my take on this, Breathless-- think prevention. But, if you get to the Point of (Nearly) No Return, and you need that pound of cure and you need it QUICK-- what then? I'm going to open the floor and pass the mike to our tribe of experts. Let's hear from those of you out there. Since we know this has happened to everyone, what has worked for you?  Short of a little brown paper bag, what works?

Thanks, everyone!  

Mary Hershey


Cheryl Reif said...

I've had this very experience--and it does get easier with practice! In the meantime, though, some friends and I take turns reading each others' manuscripts. That frees the writer to listen instead of trying to read and listen simultaneously. What if you don't know anyone else at the conference? Here's the trick: it's pretty easy to spot other writers in the crowd who are feeling a bit like you are (pick your adjective: new, overwhelmed, hyperventilatory....) Chances are, you can make a friend and ally even if you start the day solo. Kindred spirits tend to find each other at writers' conferences!

Anonymous said...

Maybe we could do these things via satellite? Bring a laptop with a prerecorded cd? Dress incognito?


Tina Laurel Lee said...

Practice is a great suggestion! Also, there is nothing to fear but fear itself! Seems strange, but it is true that anxiety is often made worse by our fear of anxiety. Struggling to breathe makes it harder to breathe. Slowing down and noticing your breath, focusing particularly on the exhale, can break the cycle. Remember it is normal to be nervous reading your work in front of a strange crowd. Let yourself feel it. Things that you embrace usually go away.

Anonymous said...

I also suggest practice: can you find some venues for practice that have MUCH lower stakes and build from there?

Even if it is reading in front of friends, all practice helps.

I went from having all sorts of real physical problems like racing heart and breathing troubles to actually being really calm and relaxed [even with big audiences in high stakes situations], and it was just through building up via practice. For me I think it was visitng classrooms that got me comfortable, probably because kids are the type of audience that really don't let you focus on yourself and your own weird feelings so much!!

Anonymous said...

This won't help in the "oh god! I'm going to be sick" terror of the moment. But once it's over, take the time to tell yourself that you did it and nothing awful happened. Not really awful. No one died, for instance, not even you. it makes it a little easier next time.


Anonymous said...

Wow! I've never gotten that bad, but every time I read or talk in front of a crowd, I feel as though I'm in a bit of an echo chamber? I know they're all out there, they're right in front of me, for pete's sake, and they must be making noises, but all I hear is my voice, and its not like its really coming from me. I've gotten to the point where I can kind of ride the adrenaline, rather than let it knock me for a loop, but it's still there, and it's a big rush to come down off later.

What I do is really try to imagine a persona for myself, what THEY will see and hear as I talk. It's not a complete fake, because I AM competent and intelligent, I CAN write decently, and I DO have something to share. And this is true of your reader (all your readers), too.

It's just that this isn't the person I live with on a daily basis, and I have to bring her to the fore. People talk about picturing the "others" in their underwear, but I find it much more helpful to picture MYSELF as a professional. I make sure that when I'm heading off to one of these places, I dress at least a notch up from my usual wardrobe, too. If I'm going to be at the conference as an attendee, I probably still wear jeans, but I pick something other than sneaks and I DO NOT wear a t-shirt. A nice, stylish blouse and shoes that fasten with soemthing other than laces or velcro. And when I present, I take it further, if at all possible--with a skirt or nice pants and an appropriate shirt.

It's not really about how they'll see me; it's about how I'll see myself. And it helps the breathing. I take a few minutes before I have to talk/read to bring that ME to the front of my mind and actually try and project it out into the room.

Good luck!

Terry P. said...

I just had this happen to me at a retreat last weekend! I couldn't believe it! I've read my work in front of 300 kids before, other writers, and editors. But as I sat in the circle (editor right next to me and I was the last writer to go), the pressure was building, as Mary described. By the time it was my turn, I could barely whisper my story. Thank goodness the editor was next to me so she could hear! Next time I'll try your method, Mary--and do some breathing while I wait for my own turn!

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

This is what works for me:

1. Breathe slowly, from deep down in your gut. It's amazing how much this can help reduce anxiety.

2. Remember that the room is full of writers who know what it's like to share their work, and what it's like to read aloud. Think of your audience as friendly and sympathetic.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Robin & Mary for addressing my SOS. And another big thanks to all of you who offered suggestions. I think practice will probably help. Becky, your method is downright brilliant!


I'll let you know how the next round goes . . .

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I don't know about brilliant--but it helped me go from being someone who dropped EVERY class in college that had an oral report to being able to go around and do workshops. I hope it helps--try and have fun with this, too! :)

Mary Hershey said...

What a marvelous flood of great ideas! Really appreciate you all coming out to share your expertise here. Powerful good ideas.

Glad this was helpful, Breathless. DO keep us posted.

Mary Hershey

Anonymous said...

Susan Wiggs likes to sculpt with butter. (I hope I answered this on the right comment page)

R.L. LaFevers said...


Yes, sculpt is the correct answer! Unfortunately, Elizabeth L already answered it correctly in the Susan Wiggs Interview comment thread.

Maybe next time!

Anonymous said...

This has definitely happened to me. No rhyme or reason. Sometimes I'm at ease speaking and other times I get full-blown panic attacks--complete with breathing problems. I find it's best for me to just be as pragmatic as possible and to acknowledge that the experience is going to be bad, but over shortly. And sometimes to simply tell people that you're having some difficulty and to bear with you. Practice does make public speaking much easier, but occasionally we just get smacked in the face with overwhelming emotions. Whatever you do, commit yourself to the moment and don't allow yourself to run away. And make sure you force yourself to give it another go in the future. It's too easy to get caught in a crippling cycle where you really have convinced yourself that public speaking is impossible for you.

I'm not entirely sure, but it seems to me I did worse when I was practicing up until the last minute or if I felt I didn't have firm grasp on my subject matter. I usually feel in control when I've relaxed before hand--and managed to distract myself.

And I completely agree with the idea of cultivating an 'extroverted persona' to deal with an audience.

Anonymous said...

Practice does help -- but I have to share a bit of advice that my agent gave me. She said "Drink orange juice a few minutes before."

Something about it is really, really calming. I mean, it's that burst of sugar, or vitamins, or SOMETHING -- but it really does work.