(Afraid of bears? Maybe you need to throw yourself in a bear pit…and maybe not. Photo by Jeremy Tolbert.)
A few more thoughts about the discovery process, below. I also firmly believe that establishing goals in the right way–strategically and not tactically–will reduce your stress level as a writer and make it clear which things are important and which are not. I deal with setting goals in my book and in Booklife workshops. This fall, you can catch a full-on Booklife workshop in Seattle, a much shorter version in the San Francisco area, or just discuss these topics with me in Asheville.
How can you work on problem areas without being overwhelmed? Make a list of your strengths, your weaknesses, and those gray areas in between—things you’re not terrible at but not great at, either. Even though you’ve presumably had others help you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses to get to this stage, take this list and give it to a couple of friends or colleagues you didn’t include in your original analysis. Ask them if your list is accurate. After you’ve included their feedback, and been totally honest with yourself, do the following:
—Break the Strengths list down into subcategories, rating yourself in each, so you have a better idea of what those strengths mean. Stay aware of your strengths even as you work on your weaknesses and make sure shoring up weaknesses doesn’t negatively affect your strengths.
—Select two items from the Gray Areas list that you think you can easily improve and that would help your writing career. Make sure your short-term and long-term goals include ways to better yourself in these areas.
—Select one item from the Weaknesses list, even if it’s something that also scares you. Add elements to your short-term and long-term goals that give you opportunities to make this weakness a strength, or at least something you’re not bad at anymore.
—Select one item from the Weaknesses list that you don’t want to work on improving. This advice especially applies if something on your list scares you too much. Setting it off to the side is about preserving your mental health. You can always revisit it in the context of success with some other weakness.
Live radio interviews (which now include podcasts) fit into the category of a weakness that scared me to death. The first time I was on, I mumbled and I could hardly breathe. Because I was so nervous, I wound up saying something like “You’re as stupid as I want to be” to the host, which was meant as a joke but came off as insulting and bizarre.
The second time I was on the radio, it went fine. Until the host made a strange comment about whether or not I lived in a cave, which threw me off so much the rest of the interview entered a decaying orbit.
The third time, I got the hiccups from drinking too much coffee. I spent the whole hour making sure the cadence of my speech allowed me to turn from the microphone just as I was about to hiccup. This worked better for the interview portion than for the reading I did afterwards.
What was my particular remedy? I relied on repetition and experimentation. I just kept accepting radio and Internet podcast interview requests. I also experimented with different kinds of preparation. Eventually, the combination of finding the best way to prepare and doing more interviews made me more comfortable with the format. I can’t tell you I’m the best radio interview ever—I still get nervous—but when you hear me on the radio these days you’re
unlikely to say to yourself, “Wow! That guy was horrible.”
As for a gray area that I’ve turned into a strength, public readings fit that category. Unlike radio station show appearances, readings never scared me. However, I didn’t have a good sense of performance so my readings were serviceable but nothing to excite anyone. Over the past few years, I have worked hard to add an element of performance to my readings, along with humorous anecdotes. Part of that growth process meant watching myself
on video giving readings. Another part meant being more careful about my selection of material and how long I read. Now, most people come away from one of my readings entertained, and I generally see comments on blogs afterwards along the lines of “Wow — that guy really put on a good show.”
Not only will you remove stress from your life by confronting some of your weaknesses and gray areas head-on, you’ll also learn a lot in the process. Like anything else in your Public Booklife, you just have to approach it systemically and incrementally.