Fear of Writing: Q & A with Patty Chang Anker

Writing Fearlessly with Author Patty Chang Anker

(This Q & A originally appeared on Book Country)

As soon as I picked up SOME NERVE by Patty Chang Anker, I started thinking about ways fear relates to writing. SOME NERVE is a hybrid between a Memoir and a smart self-help book about overcoming fears in everyday life. (Below Patty dubs the genre of her book an “immersion memoir.”) Patty shared her thoughts on the experience of writing a book about fear, and some fantastic tips for some of the fears writers face most: throwing out their work, reading in front of an audience, having the world read their innermost thoughts. Writing fearlessly–read on to find out how.  – Lucy Silag, Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country

In writing SOME NERVE, how did you work through the fear of baring so much to your readers?

The very first chapter I wrote was about my struggle with clutter which was hugely personal because your stuff tells the story of where you’ve been and what matters to you. The emotional fears of letting go were at the heart of why I was afraid to take new steps in my life.  When we cleared the clutter, we started with the hardest thing to part with – a box of my work triumphs from a decade earlier. That was excruciating! But once that was gone, everything else was easier to let go of, and it made room to envision a new future. It was the same with writing the book – by getting at something very personal first, the rest was easier to tell, I felt free to be myself.

I thought a lot about what the reader needed to know in order for the story to resonate – many personal details can and should stay private. But if there was a reader out there who felt as alone as I did when I first started facing my fears, if it would help them to know what I went through, then it was important to share. The fear of what others might think of me were tough but paled in comparison to the fear that I might let someone else feel alone unnecessarily.

It’s an ongoing process, though. There were stories I resisted writing where I forced myself by thinking I could always delete it. Through revisions, I held onto that little security blanket: “I could just take it out.” Until the day my book was published – and then I hid under my covers thinking “What have I done?? Now the world will know!!” I’m facing my fear for real now. Deep breaths!

 

SOME NERVE started as the blog Facing Forty Upside Down. What are the biggest differences between writing a book and writing a blog?

Blog posts are highlights – the people, events, and moments that took my breath away that day or week.  Readers react immediately, it starts a conversation.

The process of writing a book is much slower and wider ranging, and with immersion memoir you’re incorporating all your memories plus new events happening in the field so there’s heaps of material to draw from. A single event (that would be one contained blog post) in a book might develop into a main story line, or be a bit of background detail, or not fit at all – you don’t really know until you’ve done tons of research, mined your memories, free associated and have 30 events percolating to tie together for a single chapter. And you don’t know what people think until the book is done!

Books allow you to explore in depth and with perspective – to be able to take peak experiences and put them into context of who these people are and why it matters. I love both forms of storytelling. Blogs connect in the moment; books, I believe, connect for life.

 

Chapter 4 of SOME NERVE is about the fear of public speaking. As a professional writer, why is it so important for you to be able to speak comfortably in front of a crowd?

It’s important for everyone to be able to speak comfortably in front of a crowd because we all have things to say that the world could benefit from hearing. But for writers, especially – we’re trying to tell a story, or deliver information, to educate or to uplift – but no one will read our book if they don’t know it exists or if they don’t understand how it will help them. Readers have so many choices of where to put their time and attention, writers can’t rely on our writing alone to reach them. Speaking in public (whether at a bookstore, your church coffee hour, workplace, or on a radio show) is an opportunity to deliver your message personally, to touch people in a way only you can. I think writers, even those who write alone at night and hide under the covers when their books are published because they’re afraid of criticism (ok, I’m talking about me here) – all of us want to connect in some way, to make a difference. If you choose to not speak up, your connections will be limited, your impact will be less. I don’t think we should choose to make a smaller impact.

 

Tell us about times you’ve shared your work in front of an audience in less than ideal circumstances.

In the past week I’ve been heckled, blanked momentarily onstage (thank goodness for notecards with legible notes!) and had a last minute mic change that made me think I was breathing like Darth Vader. Publicity pro Rick Frishman told me to remember that “People know that you’re human and that S^&@ happens.” But that’s the fun of live events and live TV – how will it go? No one knows! I think if my life has an interesting blooper roll at the end of it I will have lived fully.

 

What are your top three tips to other writers preparing for a public reading?

  • Practice reading out loud. Note where to pause and take a breath so listeners can visualize what you’re describing. Cross out unnecessary “she said”s and parts that don’t make sense if people haven’t read the book yet. But don’t over-practice. When you read, pretend the scene is unfolding in real time – you’re having your thoughts for the first time with this audience.
  • Smile and acknowledge the audience. Tell them you’re glad they came, thank the organizers, appreciate this opportunity to share your story. You will break the ice just by being a nice person. People are just getting settled, taking your picture and turning their phones off, you have time to settle yourself. Take a sip of water, take a deep breath. Smile again.
  • Let the nerves come, let the nerves go – If you feel trembly, drymouthed, or like you’re going to vomit and die, it’s okay. This is just part of life, this flight or fight response. Our brains are wired to feel fear first and figure out what to do second. Your body will settle down once your brain recognizes you are not actually dying, and you will be able to deliver your talk. As long as you don’t run off the stage, you will be fine.
  • Oh, and go to the bathroom before!  But don’t stay there. The world needs you.

In addition to being a writer, a yoga instructor, and a mom, you’re also a book publicist. How has your experience working in the publishing industry affected the experience of publishing your own book?

Having worked in publishing, I know exactly how much goes into getting a book ready for publication, and how much competition there is in the marketplace. So I haven’t taken anything for granted. Having pitched media during the Clinton impeachment, the OJ Simpson trial, 9/11, several presidential elections and Olympics, I know how hard it can be to reach readers, especially for a first-time author.  I know that I’ve hit the lottery with Riverhead/Penguin USA. Every person who has worked on SOME NERVE has done it with so much passion, creativity and expertise.

I also now have a greater appreciation for authors! I used to put them out there in front of audiences, the media and the critics without really knowing how terrifying that can be. Attention all my authors: Now I understand! You are so very brave.