The sight of a thick, yellow envelope postmarked from Montreal usually means a happy day for me. It’s mail from my publisher, Linda Leith. The most recent envelope was closed around an advance reading copy of my unreleased novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death. I was as happy to see it as I can get without crying.
The same week, my brand new writers’ group had its first meeting. Each of the members was invited to bring “one or two pages” of work to read aloud. The timing was perfect. Here was a small, low stakes environment where I could make an early attempt at reading my novel in public.
It sounded easy. As long as it’s all talk — no singing or yodeling involved — I’m comfortable with my own vocal performance skills. I already had the chops I needed to do a reading from my novel. All that was left for me to do was pick a short section out of the book, read through it once, jam the pretty new book into my purse, and show up at the meeting as if I do this kind of thing every day.
The first step — choosing a selection — was harder than I thought it would be. I’m ginger with other people’s time so I wanted to be sure I read something I could end neatly when I reached the equivalent of the roughly two 8.5×11” sized pages I’d been invited to share. It meant simply reading the first chapter of the book wasn’t an option. I also wanted to avoid spoilers, which meant the last third of the book was off limits and I had to be careful about what I chose from the middle.
And then there was one more consideration. I wanted to read something gripping. But it also had to be something that would not make me cry. If you know me, you know that’s asking a lot of myself.
I may have held it together the day I found the ARC of my book in the mail, but I can still call myself an easy crier. It’s awful. I hate it. Everyone hates it (especially my teenaged sons). I am such an easy crier that my own novel – a story I wrote myself – still makes me sniffle two years after I’ve finished writing it. The last sentence in it is only two words long and it makes me choke into tears almost every time I look at it.
Don’t misunderstand. I am not emotionally delicate. I react with appropriate sorrow when something terrible happens but I’ve never struggled with enduring feelings of depression or anything crippling or frightening. Alarming as it may be, I simply relieve tension best by crying. And it’s not just negative tension. It’s the positive too. When a stranger stopped on the Alberta Autobahn and helped me change my flat tire last month, I was so touched by his kindness I could hardly speak to him. I knew if I loosened up, I’d start crying. Stupid crying – or even just the dread of ending up crying — it taints most of my best moments.
I guess I should be grateful my emotional depressurization system isn’t any more complicated than simply opening the valves of my tear ducts. It’s a fine mechanism in private but in public it’s an embarrassing mess.
Back to the book: chapter nine was where I found what I was looking for. I chose a main character’s quick flashback to a bad teenaged romance. That was my selection – the very first part of my novel I would ever read aloud in public. I’ve always thought the passage was strong. It has everything except something to cry about.
Still, when the time came to read it to a room full of friendly, un-threatening writers, I felt shaky and unnecessarily emotional anyway. And when I was finished, I was a little mad at myself for being too high strung to read it exactly the way I had wanted to. I’m experienced in speaking about many things. But my novel isn’t one of them – not yet. I’m still cagey and protective when it comes to my book and the secret well inside me that it sprang from in the beginning.
Here is yet another aspect of this career as a novelist that I hadn’t anticipated. Once again, writing the book wasn’t enough. I guess I need to become slick, smooth, and professional at reading my novel out loud. Even though its opening chapter is a little long and a lot emotional, I need be able to chew up it until I can recite it with a fluent, steady voice. I need to hone my reading until those two tight passages where it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed don’t squeeze me anymore. I will transform myself into a flesh and blood book-on-tape. There – I’ve decided.
“No,” one of the nice Nancies (there are two of them) from the writing group gently protested, “the fact that your book means so much to you made it mean more to me.”
And with that, I’m weeping all the way back to where I started. Dang it, Nancy.