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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Let’s Put On a Show! The Introvert’s Dilemma

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Keep it classy, Bird.

The other day Monica Edinger writes to me, ” I hate performing in public and am far more comfortable shmoozing at dinners and lunches. You seem to be just the opposite.”  An interesting statement, to be sure.  For while I love me a good lunch and dinner shmooze, I certainly won’t pass up an opportunity to grab a spotlight and milk it for all it’s worth (I also believe a healthy mixed metaphor early in a blog post is good for the constitution, but that’s neither here nor there).  Case in point, my recent hijinks alongside Jon Scieszka, hosting the Children’s Book Choice Awards Gala.  But Monica wasn’t writing me to merely comment upon my inclinations to dance to Uptown Funk in a purple tux.  Recently she wrote a blog post that takes on a problem that I would argue has existed since authors first started to hawk their own books to the public.  In Should I Take Up the Banjo? or The Question of Charisma, Monica addresses Paula Willey’s recent statement in a really remarkable BEA round-up post that it’s unfair that the children’s book creator occupation calls upon its denizens to be more of the camp counselor types than of the “cave-dwelling cheeseeater” variety.  Monica disagrees to some extent, saying that it wouldn’t be fair to say that everyone is called upon to act this way since we always have introvert role models like Suzanne Collins to consider.

All this reminds me, to a certain degree, of a blog that existed from 2007-2012 that addressed this very issue.  Shrinking Violet Promotions was begun by a core group of around seven children’s and YA authors, but was run primarily by authors Robin LaFevers and Mary Hershey.  The site included everything from an Introvert’s Bill of Rights and a section dedicated to those that want to quit when their sales tank, to Jung Typology Tests, interviews with introverts, and thoughts on marketing.  It was a good supportive site but like many on the web it couldn’t sustain itself beyond the five year mark.  In its time it was really the only place I’d ever found that addressed this issue of the writing persona vs. the public persona.

Wild Things McNally Jackson from Yvonne Brooks 25 Oct 2014 YVB_1692  copy 2

When in doubt, mug. Photo by Yvonne Brooks.

Because the fact of the matter is that you don’t have to be a song and dance man (woman/small inanimate object/etc.) to be a successful children’s author.  That is not to say, though, that knowing how to pluck a banjo, use a yo-yo, or sing “Hello” in front of a bunch of juggling children’s book creators won’t be a huge asset to you.  Without naming names, I can think of a couple authors and illustrators who are merely okay book creators but do such wonderful live performances that you almost forget that the quality of their books is only so-so.  I agree with Paula that to sell yourself is to sell your book.  And I agree with Monica that it’s not something publishers should assume that their authors and illustrators are comfortable doing.  That said, I sympathize the most with the librarians in this case.  How so?  Well, many is the librarian or bookseller who has hosted an author or illustrator to a packed house only to find that the person has no ability to keep or hold the attention of their intended audience (i.e. small fry).  I once hosted a picture book author of a truly fine, engaging, rhythmic book.  It was only when the person started to speak that I realized that (A) They had the world’s quietest voice and I didn’t have a microphone and (B) They had no sense of rhythm when reading their book aloud.  They could write it, sure.  But read it?  That takes an entirely different set of muscles.

Yet it behooves us to remember that that author didn’t get into the business to become a performer. They like, and are very good at, writing for children.  But in our current era of self-promotion, publishers often don’t have the money and/or the time to spend on every one of their creators.  As a result, you start trying to figure out what your special skills are.  I won’t lie to you. I’ve honestly tried to figure out how I could work spinning on a spinning wheel into my talks (it’s my one craft-related skill).  Also, Monica’s a teacher and I’m a librarian and I feel those occupations really do give you a leg up when you start in the book creation business.  You know the material that’s already out there and you know how to engage the attention of kids.  It’s those folks who come into it cold and do it for the love of the books alone that sometimes find themselves out to sea.  Fair?  Not a jot.  But as Shrinking Violet and Monica’s post proved, you’re hardly alone.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Just to say, I enjoy speaking in public — about books, teaching, and stuff. I get a kick when I share something in a talk that gets a laugh. And I love, love reading aloud. What I’m horrible at is being silly or goofy, making faces, dancing around, and stuff that shine the spotlight on me instead of whatever I’m talking about. (I’m lousy at doing this even in small social occasions, say a bridal shower.) And as I tried to make clear in my post — I love others doing it — you and many others who are awesome at it are good friends. So this was more about not pushing those who aren’t good at it to do it than anything else.

  2. Yay, Monica! Shrinking Violets Unite! (In separate rooms.) Oh, man, I miss Robin and Mary and their website. This conversation is quite timely, as JUST YESTERDAY my agent was saying something about “we need to think about you doing more promotion” and whenever “need to think” is prefaced by the ominous “we” I know that means HE is going to determine that I need to jump through some hoops, and *I* am going to end up doing something I don’t want to do. To a certain extent, there’s no way around it – I mean, we all want our books to sell, yes? But, on the other hand, recognizing what we can do — and doing ONLY that as well as we can — is most excellent advice for us all.

  3. I was so relieved to see the BEA ABFE auction did not feature a “talent” show this year and kept it classy. Authors and illustrators as performers when they are not devalues our art.

  4. Monica, I tried to comment on your post – but WordPress and I are apparently not on speaking terms lately and I gave up. My “take up the banjo” remark was definitely meant as a despairing ‘what are ya gonna do?’ comment. It breaks my heart to see creators of terrific work on stage at book festivals and conventions sweating bullets because that is not their natural environment.

    Thinking about this in the past few weeks – and now deep into helping organize a con myself (KidLitCon 2015! Come to Baltimore October 9-10!) – I feel like it is the responsibility of panel and festival organizers to try to present creators whose work deserves greater exposure, and to choose moderators or interviewers who can draw out even shy panelists so that their best side is revealed. Simple! Ha ha, *cough*

    Man, they never covered this in library school.

    But seriously, come to KidLitCon and we’ll all hash this out in person! http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1701772

    • Paula, no worries — I think you totally get my point:) And I think it is cultural — not just in our book world. There can be a similar assumption in the teaching arena too. I sure would love to see more discussion of this. Sadly, I won’t be able to make KidLitCon as it is the same weekend as a conference here in NYC celebrating the 150th publication of Alice in Wonderland. You know I have to be at that!

  5. It extends everywhere – according to last Sunday’s Times, fashion models are now selected with an eye to whether they are entertaining on Instagram! Although one could argue that that adds depth rather than takes it away :)

    I think social media fills the gap a bit – it’s all about connections, whether you feel like you know an author because he made you laugh from the stage or because she is funny and smart on Twitter.

  6. Matt Holm says:

    I talk about this all the time with the librarians and teachers I meet when I do author visits. The fact is that authors and illustrators are generally good at their work (the work of making books) because they are able to sit alone for hours on end without talking to anybody. Then, suddenly, you have to acquire the skills to do the complete opposite sort of thing when it’s time to promote your book. If you were trying to fill a job opening for a public-speaking position, you literally could not pick a candidate with a worse set of matching personality traits than an author.

    But that’s the reality. I’m an introvert myself. (Ask my former co-workers from my magazine days—I spent my whole tenure there trying to get a desk as far away from everyone else as possible.) And as an introvert, my advice is:

    Get over it.

    You need to get out there and talk (and maybe make a fool of yourself). But not just because you’re promoting your books. You need to be able to do that for ANY job. I often hear people complain that they “can’t write.” I’m sorry, but that’s not acceptable in today’s world. You need to be able to communicate your thoughts clearly in written form, whether it’s for an email or for an internal report or for an article or a book. Likewise, you need to be able to communicate through speech. Any person rising to any position of stature within an organization is going to have to talk in front of groups of people at some point.

    That goes double for freelancers out there. We’re in a worse position in that respect: We are not just worker-drones who never have to see anyone, we’re the bosses. We’re running our own businesses. And as small-business owners, we are also the heads of our communications departments and sales departments and every other department.

    So you need to learn how to speak in front of people, and how to tailor your talks for your audiences. I do different things for a sales conference than I do for a roomful of librarians and educators than I do for a gymnasium full of 3rd-graders (and way different things for wiggly Kindergarteners and sullen middle-schoolers). It takes a long time, a lot of practice, a lot of messing up, a lot of being put on the spot and thinking to yourself, “What am I doing here? What am I going to say?”

    And it helps if you can play the banjo.

  7. I think this is less about introversion and more about social anxiety, two different things that are often conflated.

    • Brooded about this on my run so here is a bit more of what I was trying to get at in my original post (in which I did not mention introversion as I didn’t see that as the reason behind this). For me and I’m guessing some others, there is a difference between an audience focusing on your work versus you. I love the former and hate the latter. As a child my parents were amused that I enjoyed acting as I was otherwise incredibly shy. But when I acted I wasn’t me, but the character. I have heard that is true for some famous actors and actors as well.

      And I again want to say to anyone that read the beginning of this post and now has taken me off a list of possible speakers: I LOVE speaking. I’m good at it. I can talk well about my book, about Africa, about teaching, about other books, about Alice, about all sorts of things. Ask me — I’d love to! But not to put on a purple tuxedo as Betsy did and clown about with the likes of Jon Scieszka (I mean, look at her face!). These are different things.

      Finally, I’m mixed about forcing those who really hate any sort of public speaking to do it. Because it is so expected of my students as they go through school I try to find ways to make it tolerable for them — ask them to jot thoughts down before having to speak, give them loads of time, models, structures, and try to make the classroom environment a safe one to give it a try. But I still would prefer we celebrated different ways of communicating, one of them public.

  8. I have done a lot of kid events with real musicians and performers. I refuse to put on a costume and become the balloon artist or magician (and thank you to those who do this, not an insult). The audience is left with an understanding that what I do is about words and pictures in a book and not my persona. I try to be articulate, engaging, dramatic, and fun in my story telling. The rest looks (to me) like total drama queen/king and pandering which cuts down the value of my art. And here’s another thing, whenever a book artist goes beyond their book into schtick and persona I get turned off. And guess what else? Now that I have probably deleted that person on social media because they seem too unreal and I’m not buying it, I am also NOT buying their books. It’s a double edged sword.

  9. I’m an introvert. I know this because, after doing school visits or other kinds of presentations, i’m pooped as well as sick of the sound of my own voice. But WHILE I’m in front of the kids, or the people who love and work with kids, some mysterious chemistry occurs. I’m on! It must be a combination of my wanting to give the audience a meaningful but also fun time, and their willingness to listen and learn—as well, of course, as what has brought us all together, the magic of stories. For the record: I don’t do puppets, banjos or costumes, but I’m down with funny voices.

  10. I read an excellent treatment of this topic in Susan Cain’s QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING. Monica’s trait of being happy in the speaking spotlight, while being more of an introvert in other areas, is mine as well, and something I’ve wondered about. Susan Cain highlights, in one of the chapters, a professor who gives all the evidence of being an extrovert when he lectures to his students, and who spends many hours energetically speaking at conferences about his passion– though he holes up in his home, incommunicado, during his off hours. The key, Cain says, is passion. If an introvert is passionate about something, deeply engaged, and believes that speaking about it will benefit the world in some way, then speaking in public becomes far easier, and in fact something the introvert will seek out and enjoy.

  11. Maia Cheli-Colando says:

    This thread reminds me of the current stigmatizing of lecture as an instruction method. Yet, why else do folks go to CLNE or the Arbuthnot — okay, yes, for the company, but we love to hear thoughtful people talk too, right? I have been moved, challenged, informed, inspired, annoyed and otherwise altered by many a lecture. It is not the *only* way to communicate, but if we don’t teach our children that method of communication, what else goes by the wayside? Sometimes, it really is best to shut up and listen; it can be immensely satisfying to experience the flow of another mind, be it via speech, a piece of music, a dance, etc.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      And there are folks out there that straddle both forms of communication. Brian Selznick, for example, is capable of delivering a marvelous lecture when called upon to do so. He has also, it would be noted, worn suits so eye-blazingly bright that they eclipse the very aura of the sun. One does on preclude the other.