This weekend I was in Los Angeles attending the LA Times Festival of Books, aka, my own personal heaven. I attended panels by beloved authors and poets, met new people, took many pages of notes, and peed in a hot port-a-potty. It was a weekend fueled by creativity, coffee, and the desire to learn as much as possible.
In a way, this weekend was both terrifying and exhilarating. I felt drawn in to the high of art and writing and creating; the authors before me had been successful, why couldn’t I? Each panel delivered unique advice that I scribbled in my notebook as fast as my hand could move. I felt prepared in a way I hadn’t before; reassured that I was doing everything “right,” even though art knows no right or wrong.
At the same time, I felt like a grain of sand at the bottom of the ocean. There was so much talent surrounding me, and the eloquence that poured off of the lips of these writers intimidated me. How could I write something as profound as them, or even come close? As I listened to them describe their writing processes and meeting deadlines for their editors, I was overwhelmed. My head swam with toxic thoughts of incapability and impossibility; how would I ever be able to do anything like this?
Like waves lapping on shore, my stress ebbed and flowed. One poet during the first panel of my weekend adventure mentioned that he was not “a sophisticated thinker” like the others he was sitting next to. And yet, I was captivated by his perspective and story, and felt more connected to him than the others. I remember thinking, “Well he claims he’s not a sophisticated thinker and neither am I. But if he can get this far, maybe I can, too.”
The panel I had been waiting for all weekend arrived, and I was fighting through some gnarly GI symptoms that I had woken up with that morning. I’d be damned if I let my chronic illness stop me from being in the same room as the author of one of my favorite memoirs. I popped some Pepto, took a deep breath, and braced myself for “Memoir: The Unexpected Hard Stuff,” with authors Sandy Allen, Michael Ausiello, and Meaghan O’Connell. With my notebook in my lap, and my pen poised, I was ready to absorb everything they had to offer.
I ended up not taking notes at all, too enthralled with what each author was saying to bear ripping my attention away, even for a moment.
Each panelist spoke beautifully about their process and challenges they faced while writing their respective books. I was fascinated by Sandy’s story; their book was written over a period of 8 years after their uncle had shipped them a messy manuscript of his life and his schizophrenia. Sandy spoke beautifully about what it’s like to write nonfiction, and all of the hard work that is required to do justice to a person’s life.
Michael spoke next about how difficult it was for him to write about something so tragic, so traumatic, so soon after the death of his husband (which is what his memoir is about), and yet, how writing helped him make sense of the tragedy and how he felt his late husband’s story deserved to be told. He wanted to introduce the world to the man he loved. How powerful stories can be that each person who approached Michael that day, hands slightly shaking as they handed him their own precious copy of his book to be signed, had (or will have) their own experience while reading it. Each took something different from each page compared to myself or anyone else waiting in line, waiting for the author to crack open the cover and write them a message on the title page of his book.
Never would I have thought that at the LA Times Festival of Books, in front of a panel of esteemed writers, I would overcome a major social anxiety exposure. At the end of each panel, there is time for a few questions from the audience. As I am always fearful of how I will be judged or perceived, I usually keep my mouth shut in situations like this. But three brilliant writers were sitting across from me, having accomplished what I strive for in writing about my pain. I couldn’t leave without speaking to them directly.
I had my question ready the moment the moderator sent the first question down the line; each author responded very differently to how they crafted their work, and how long it took them to write about things that are painful. My perfectionism kicked in, as I realized my question lacked form in most respects, but I let go of that judgment so that I wouldn’t miss any of what was in front of me because of the chatter in my head.
I found myself fully present in listening to each author’s response, though my heart would skip a beat when I thought about my question. I was worried I would forget it and make a fool of myself. In previous panels, audience members who wanted to ask questions at the end of the panel were brought a microphone to their seat by the volunteers of the festival. You could stay seated or stand, and I was comfortable with this. I could ask my question while still remaining “safe” next to my friend, in my seat. I was still blended into the crowd. But of course, the universe knew I was working through an anxiety exposure, so when it was time for the Q&A, those who had questions were asked to step down to the very front to whichever microphone was closer- there was one stationed on the left and right of the stage.
Hell no, I thought. I was not about to embarrass myself by standing in front of everyone and asking my not-yet-fully-formed question. How would I stand? Would I cross my arms as I waited behind the other woman with poofy blonde hair who had already positioned herself at the mic closest to us? Would I draw my hands together behind my back, or should I let them fall by my side like limp noodles? Seeking final reassurance, I leaned over to my friend as the woman on our side addressed the panel. “I want to ask a question, should I go up there?” I whispered, as inconspicuous as I could manage. I didn’t want to come across as disrespectful by talking in the middle of the Q&A. My friend smiled and nodded vigorously as the poofy-haired woman wrapped up her question and stepped away from the microphone. I slipped out of my seat and down towards the stage, praying that I looked confident despite my strong desire to become endowed immediately by Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
I wound up being the last question of the day, an honor I received anxiously, as I peered around to make sure someone with a more eloquent or pressing question was waiting in the wings behind me. There was no one. All eyes were on me, and I was the only one in the room standing. I smiled awkwardly, leaned in towards the microphone, and began to speak.
The mic wasn’t working. No one could hear me. Of course the microphone wasn’t working! Michael looked at me and said, “Use the microphone!” to which I nervously called back, “I don’t think it’s working.” So, naturally, the moderator had the girl with social anxiety cross in front of the entire audience, directly in front of the panel (including the author she admires), to the microphone on the other side of the stage. When I had finally obtained a working mic and the audience had died down after the laughter that ensued my impromptu runway walk in front of everyone, I cleared my throat and began to speak. This time, my voice echoed through the lecture hall, and I made eye contact with Michael.
I definitely rambled, but managed to form my question in a way that could actually be responded to. If memory serves, it went something like this:
“I’ve heard before that when writing about trauma, there is a Three Year “Rule” to abide by; you should wait three years after the traumatic event to begin writing, to give yourself some distance and perspective on the experience. I was so interested in the time it took you and Sandy to write your respective books, and how different each process was. I’m curious, do you think if you had waited until after you had gotten some distance from the tragedy, you would have produced a similar result? What is your opinion on the difference between waiting or writing during the grieving time?”
With quivering legs I waited for his answer. The moderator jumped in by “correcting” the Three Year Rule I had mentioned; “That’s not really a ‘rule’ necessarily,” she said to me, causing me to blush and my anxiety to rise. Of course, I had not planned on following the so called “rule” that I had heard the day before, but was merely curious about how writing about personal trauma is different for everyone. I pushed away the thought that people in the audience were judging me for mentioning this Rule, and focused on what Michael had to say.
First, he thanked me for telling him that I had loved the book (I wasn’t sucking up, I genuinely loved it. Everyone go out and buy yourself a copy.) and then dove into his answer. He mentioned how he wouldn’t have written the book had he waited. Writing it so soon after his husband’s death gave him a fresh perspective; the memories were still vibrant in his mind, and he knew that if he waited, he wouldn’t get the opportunity to tell his husband’s story the way it deserved to be told.
This ended up being the response that catapulted me into a discussion with Michael at the signing afterwards. I expressed how writing through pain and chaos is a way for me to make sense of what I’m going through, and ultimately, helps me get through it. I ended up telling him I’m in treatment for an eating disorder, and if I didn’t write about it, I would be in a very different place. I was able to tell one of my favorite authors that his book helped me through a very difficult time, and that I was so grateful to him for writing it. It was a great ending to a phenomenal (albeit, stressful) morning.
This festival as a whole was so brilliantly designed. Each panel audience stocked with seasoned readers and writers, as well as those who didn’t know who most of the authors were, but were curious about their topic at hand. (Except for the man who fell asleep and started snoring during the Poetry: Trauma and Beauty panel…maybe he had just had a long day.) From the nerds to the newbies, there was something for everyone; some piece of advice or line from a book or poem that someone grabbed onto and will keep in their memory bank forever.
That is what great art is about. Everyone will interpret experiences differently, and that is the beauty and power of great literature, art, poetry, theatre, film. The world is endless, and I am small in a sea of stories waiting to be told.
PS- I originally wasn’t going to disclose the book I wrote on the wall above for fear of being judged for it (#socialanxiety) but my copy of this book is worn with pages falling out because of how many times I read it growing up. Hell, I read it a few weeks ago to find some inspiration, and it was just as good as the first time I read it. The book that changed your life doesn’t have to fit a certain mold or be any profound piece of literature. It can be something as simple as a children’s novel that sparked inspiration and power within you.
Books You Must Read:
Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies Michael Ausiello
A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia Sandra Allen
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready Meaghan O’Connell
I definitely want to go to more writers’ events and book festivals now. What an experience!