I’ve been thinking lately about a recurring problem I have because I’m about to put myself in a situation where it will likely come up again. I think it’s one that a lot of people have, though, so I wanted to get some of my thoughts out. My problem is that I can’t talk to authors I admire.
I mean, I try. I go to panels and book signings, spend time thinking about what I’ll say, try to work up the courage. Without fail, though, the moment I’m face to face with the author, I clam up. Anything I thought of saying vanishes from my mind. Most of the time I can manage to utter a couple of words, thank them for signing my book and then go on my way.
When I was younger, I think the issue was that of elevating the person in my mind to a demigod(dess) status—when you’re a teenager it can be hard not to do that with people you admire. You might read a book, watch a movie, or listen to a song that seems to speak directly to you, as if the author, director, or singer plucked what you’re going through right from your brain. Maybe their work showed you a way to cope or escape, or changed your viewpoint. It’s hard not to take something like that and start thinking the person who created it, who showed you the path, could be anything less than divine. They can’t be a flawed human being like the rest of us!
But that’s not really my problem anymore. I go to great lengths in my head to not put people on that pedestal anymore—it only leads to disappointment. I think that partly has to do with the rude awakening I experienced with Orson Scott Card. I’ve never met him in person, but toward the end of high school and beginning of college, after I’d read most of the Ender and Ender’s Shadow books, I started to learn about what a jerk he is. It took me a long time to work through the fact that I could enjoy some of his work but not like him at all as a person (I’ll expand on that in a future blog post). But I’m grateful that my lesson on this happened with an author whom I liked but never idolized. I don’t think he would ever have been in my top five list of inspirational authors. Nonetheless, it was an important lesson. What an author puts on the page does not necessarily say anything about them as a person—good or bad.
Also when I was a teenager, I think I had the desire to try and make myself stand out somehow from the other fans an author would meet. Not by doing anything crazy, but I wanted to try and come up with something memorable to say or have something unique signed so the author would leave and remember that one girl who said or had X. This is also a desire that has faded for me over the years. The value in meeting someone I admire is no longer to try and be remembered by them. It’s for my own edification and enjoyment—to know that at one point I was able to meet that person and tell them how much their work means to me. So what if they hear it from the hundreds or thousands of other fans they meet at that and similar events? Why should I think I’m more special than all those other fans who have been equally moved by the author’s work? The importance is the opportunity for you to let the author know in person that their work means something, and it doesn’t matter if that message comes from one person or one million people.
I’ve been lucky in that all the authors I admire that I’ve met face to face have been wonderful people who, whether intending to or not, helped ease my nerves once it came to my turn in the signing line. Maybe I couldn’t manage to utter more than a few words, but that was no fault of the authors, who were nothing but kind and pleasant. I’m sure the rapport they are able to have in even a 30 second interaction has come with practice, doing hundreds of book signings in their careers. Maybe if I go to more events I’ll eventually work through my own nervousness.
But now that I have another impending meeting with an author whose work means a great deal to me, I’ve been trying to figure out where this problem comes from for me. I’ve outgrown what I think were some of the initial causes, but it seems the resulting behavior has stuck with me. Even though I don’t have the goal of making a lasting impression, or the mindset that I’m meeting some kind of super human or god(dess), it’s still true that these authors and their stories mean a lot to me, have helped me form opinions, change as a person, and overcome difficult obstacles in my life. They’ve done more than just tell me how to grow and become the person I want to be; they’ve taught me how, given me the skills I need to continue to improve both my writing and myself. That’s one of the greatest gifts one person can give to another, and when I consider that I think the source of my nervousness is apparent. Authors are teachers, in a way, although it’s mostly unintentional, a side benefit to them struggling with their own questions or problems. But the fact that they share their experiences can mean a great deal, can help ease the struggle for someone else.
And that’s a lot of gratitude and admiration to try and convey in what may be less than a minute. The important thing, though, is that the author already knows. I don’t mean in an egotistical way; I mean that I think they can tell, even if you’re like me and you can barely stammer through one awkward sentence. Most authors understand, because at one point they were in your place, standing in front of someone they admire and trying to express all of that without enough time and lacking the right words. And then they turned around and as they grew and had their own experiences, they used the tools someone else had left for them and improved up them, improvised their own, and passed them on. To me. To you.
It’s important to acknowledge your influences, your teachers, and to thank them in person when you can, to hear what they have to say at events, to continue learning from them. But it’s equally vital that you don’t hoard that knowledge; share what you’ve learned from those teachers and those stories that mean the most to you.
Of course, that won’t necessarily make you any less nervous when meeting the people you admire, but it might make you feel better afterward to know that even if you couldn’t get the words out, they knew what you were trying to say.