Or that’s how it felt.
For 45 years I’ve given speeches--and not once did I come unprepared. Right in front of me on the podium I invariably placed my notes, a few brief reminders in case I unexpectedly lost my way. Sometimes I needed them, sometimes not.
But last Saturday was wildly different.
For starters, I was asked to be an additional speaker for my gifted student, Bob C., , who was being feted for his first published book. We were also to help as fundraisers for the local library.
Since the audience would largely consist of Sixtyish readers, Bob and I had agreed in advance that I’d speak on the topic, “Turning Your Real-Life Experiences Into a Book.” To both of us, my topic seemed obvious. Clearly we’d be addressing a typical, mature, memoir-writing audience. As usual, I’d provided detailed handouts for all those wannabe writers to follow along.
Bob went first, and then it became my turn. As always, I started with a brief, humorous story, and after the laughter subsided, and almost as an afterthought, I asked, “How many of you are writing, or expect to write, your memoir?”
Dead silence. And then one woman raised her hand. I scanned the room, back and forth and into the far corners. But she was the only one. To my horror, my prepared talk had just become totally irrelevant.
There I stood at the podium, facing more than a hundred people, all giving me their undivided attention and each expecting me to give an inspiring, half-hour talk. And now, unexpectedly, I was caught in what is well-known to be one of life’s terrifying moments, being asked to speak before a crowd . . . but in my case with absolutely nothing to say.
I noticed immediately that my mouth had dried up and my heart rate increased. Will I even be able to say anything? Out of a jumble of useless thoughts, I came up with an opening sentence: “Well, I see we’ve got a roomful of readers, and almost no writers.”
A few people smiled and nodded.
“Well, I guess I’ll have to go in a different direction.” Like, for instance, what?
I plowed ahead. “I noticed Bob mentioned that his favorite book was To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, that’s also my favorite.” Oh good, you’ve managed to say something. From there I continued with little-known stories about Harper Lee, and how, as a budding writer, I’d taken her book and my typewriter up into the hills near my home and sat in my car studying her words while I tried to figure out how to be a decent writer.
From there I segued into my early writing attempts, how, at age 12, I’d received two typewriters for Christmas, then on to endless rejections, and finally into today’s wicked world of publishing. I managed to quote—sort of—the famous editor at Simon and Schuster, Michael Korda, who wrote the book, Another Life which detailed the decline of traditional publishing . . . now, sadly, turned into a bottom-line industry. From memory, I recited his bitter laments about today’s big-time editors: “God forbid that they should ever read a book.”
Okay, you’ve recovered, just keep going. By now, the audience was clearly with me. Next I spoke about keeping my rejections in a ratty shoe box, and how one day, when published, I’d dump them all out, because my image of myself as a published writer was always “When,” but never “If.” (When United Airlines finally gave me a check for $350, enough for a flight to Hawaii, the rejected items numbered 129.)
God, you seem to be doing okay! I said some other things about writing. Finally as an illustration of the all-important beginnings to books, I read a few paragraphs from HIGHER THAN EAGLES.
Just then, ready to read briefly from another book and then stop, I felt the M.C. closing in at my side. Clearly, he was shutting my down . . . me who twenty minutes earlier, imagined I’d been struck dumb.
The outcome was everything an author could wish for: a few congratulations about how I’d recovered my mo-jo, then readers enthusiastically buying 23 books.
Best of all was my private assessment of what had happened. After that descent into hell, you managed to think on your feet. In my own eyes, I’d suddenly become years younger.