Friday, March 17, 2006

Like Stand-up Comics But Different

Bruce Hiscock, an author and illustrator of nature books, appeared at the teachers' conference with me earlier this week. I didn't meet him until the end of the day. The very end of the day. We were unlocking our cars, which were parked next to each other in the parking lot, and started talking.

When I commented on the low turn-out for the conference (see yesterday's post), Bruce said, "It's entertainment. Sometimes the audience is there, sometimes it's not."

Oddly enough, Gary VanRiper, the third author at the conference, and I had just been speaking about how our experiences speaking before groups are very similar to the experiences of entertainers we've read about. Live performers--theater people and stand-up comics--will sometimes talk about the importance of an audience. Each group and how it responds to you is different. And when an audience responds to you, you are different. When people don't respond, oh, you are different then, too. Different in really painful ways.

I've been at schools giving my presentation at 10 in the morning, and it's clear that everyone loves me. Every joke gets a laugh. The kids have their hands up in the air because they want to talk to me. The teachers are on the edges of their seats.

At 1 that afternoon I'm using the very same material, the same slides, and my audience is patiently waiting for me to finish so they can get out of there.

Authors are often uncomfortable speaking in public. I think that's because we're controllers. We control the universe we create on paper. But even if we can get ourselves under control when we're standing in front of a group--even if we have a good act and great timing--we can't control the audience. We can't control how they perceive us. We can't make them get us.

In an article in the Oct. 24 issue of The New Yorker (I'm still slowly making my way through the back issues), Penn Gillette of Penn and Teller said, "All standup acts are a riddle: Who am I?" I think writers speaking in public are a lot like a stand-up act. The riddle for us, though, is: "What do I know? Do I know something you don't know? Do I know something you want to know? Do I know something that's worth forty minutes to an hour of your life and whatever you or your school paid so you could listen to me?"

When you're standing up in front of a group of strangers, there's a lot riding on the answers to those questions.

For Those Who Can't Get Enough About Gail

VerbSap, which published my essay, A Night at the Dojang, has also published an interview with me. Needless to say, I think VerbSap is a wonderful journal.

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