Monday, November 7, 2011

Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve as a Writer and Speaker

This past weekend, I had my first book signing for "The Unofficial Family Archivist." I had a small table set up at the Toadstool bookshop in Milford, New Hampshire. (It's a fabulous independent bookstore by the way.) The store arranged a small cluster of seats behind my table for people to sit and hear me speak. I chose to use my standard informal style by pulling a few interesting old photos out to generate conversation, but I also decided that I was going to try my hand at reading from my book -- an experience I have never had in the past. As a public speaker, I have learned that when you speak from your heart people tend to perk up. I hoped that the book signing would be the same and that I could move from local author to friendly woman with expertise who wants to share ideas.

Public speaking has not come naturally to me, but after ten practiced years, it is now one of my favorite things to do. I love sharing my passion for archives, history, museums, and a whole lot of other things that keep me happy and busy. But, this book talk route is new for me, despite "The Unofficial Family Archivist" being my fourth publication. Reading one's own written words out loud to strangers is a jarring experience. It's not the same as preparing a speech to which I'll refer from time to time while presenting. And it, at first, was certainly not the same as the more cozy workshops I run that often flow like a conversation of give and take from teacher to students. But I wanted it to be more like the latter and purposefully sought to make it so. I acknowledged this before I went in and tried to prepare myself by choosing passages that come from the heart and connect to my audience.

After talking to the audience and sharing my pictures, I learned that a nice gentleman was a collector of local history papers. So, I thumbed to a bookmarked passage about a local collector I met while working as an archivist in Waltham. This was a good warm up. I have genuinely strong and fond memories of the elderly gentleman who eventually donated one of Waltham's most fascinating collections to the library. I hope that those feelings came through as I stumbled across words that seemed a little strange reverberating around the bookstore instead of in my head or against my living room windows. Though I read through my book out loud while editing, it felt much different to read in public than in private. And, while I happily read children's books to my daughter's book club and in her classroom when I teach art history, reading my own words to an adult audience was very, very different.

The audience was quiet.

Did they like it?

And then it began. We addressed the connection between personal papers and repositories. We talked about our desire to promote history and how a local collector can do that in collaboration with his local historical society of library. We talked about how to preserve valuable personal items and how to share the family information we have with other family members.... And pretty soon, many of the most important concepts of my book were out there because my written words jogged memories and thoughts and questions.

It quieted down and I decided to give it another try. I opened to another passage. After all, no one had gotten up to leave yet. I might as well keep going and pretending that my words were valuable prose that shined my ideas on caring for your personal papers in the best light possible. I read a passage on conveying a sense of place, which talks about how my daughter's childhood differs so greatly from mine because I grew up a few states away from where she is being raised. Again, I wore my heart on my sleeve and this time, I chose a passage that was even more personal than the first. But this time, I also immediately felt like the audience was right there with me. They were listening, and understanding, and agreeing, and perhaps even thinking about their own sense of place and what kind of documentation they could make to highlight how their environment has influenced them.

People wandered in and out of my little sitting area. The crowd was small, but electrifying. The experience was not only empowering to me individually, but I do think that we all walked away with a great sense of community on Saturday. Our shared experiences and the differences between our lives hung in the air like stories waiting to be assigned to paper or organized and preserved for posterity. The book signing was one of the best experiences that I ever had and I am anxious to do it again.

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