It’s been a big month. So big that the thought of even trying to sum it up, or write something pithy has had me avoiding my laptop altogether. But then a wise elder (thanks Grandmama) asked me if I had been writing it all down, and I, the writer, had to admit that no, I had not done any late night scrawling in my journal, had not even made voice memos in my phone at the traffic lights – I’d failed to record what has been one of the most frightening and rewarding and overwhelming things that has ever happened to me.
A month ago today, my first novel, Skylarking, hit the shelves of bookshops, hot on the heels of Harry Potter. My wonderful friends started sending me pics of my book on shelves around the city and I was ecstatic at each one I received.
I had a radio interview that day with David Astle on 774 and so felt that I might avoid the ‘letdown’ I had read about in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, where she and a writer friend who both released books on the same day sent each other flowers to avoid the emptiness, the silence of the phone.
I didn’t have to worry about such things. My crew have kept me in champagne and flowers and my extraordinary publicist had a schedule crammed full of interviews, articles, podcasts and festivals. There were reviews in all the right places. The book was launched on a glittery Melbourne night to a full house at Hill of Content. Everyone, including my publisher, Aviva Tuffield, and the talented and generous Lucy Treloar, said very lovely things and I cried when I tried to thank everyone. It felt kind of enormous. Like a wedding, except that I couldn’t share the limelight and had to meet it head on.
A dear friend commissioned a beautiful necklace for me and on it hung a tiny book. My 5 yo cuddled up on my knee later that week, opened the book and began to speak. It took me a moment to realise that she was reciting lines from the first page of Skylarking, which I had never read to her. As I listened and my heart got all wobbly I realised that she had heard Lucy Treloar reading from the book at the launch and had memorised the words. I felt that if I never had anyone say another nice thing about me or my work for as long as I lived that I would have had my fill of emotion – I didn’t have space for any more.
Then I went back to my old high school for a local celebration supported by the excellent Eltham Bookshop where I chatted to the fabulous Toni Jordan. As the punters started to show up, I had to steal outside to try and quell the anxiety, the total overwhelm, that I was feeling. There were ex-teachers and old school friends and parents of old school friends and people I didn’t event know. I’m not scared of public speaking, in fact, it’s when I begin to speak on the stage that I begin to calm down. I can control that part. It’s listening to people say that they are proud of me, that they loved the book, that they were moved – it is this that makes me feel like I’m having a heart attack. I feel like I can’t possibly respond in the way that they might like me to, that I won’t live up to their expectation of me, or of myself.
Above my desk, there is a scribbled note to myself from a session with my cousellor just before this all began.
Not everyone has to like me.
I can’t cover all bases.
It’s ok to receive.
Anxiety and excitement, she explained to me, feel the same in the body. Physically, you experience the racing heart, the caught breath, the racy, spacey, uber-awareness. All it takes is a flip in the mind to convince yourself that, this time, it’s excitement that has your pulse frenzied, not anxiousness. Sometimes, that flip is easier to make. When I’ve got back up (in the form of my sister, my folks, my friends, alcohol), or when there has been little time to let it build (thank goodness for the all-encompassing work of small children on some days). And sometimes, the moment the anxiety catches me is not as I wait to head on to a stage or to an interview, but the night before, or the night after, when I curl up in a ball on the bed and heave out big messy sobs until I can laugh at myself (with a little help from my husband – a psych nurse…it helps.)
Releasing a book has been an immersive experience in exposure therapy for an anxious perfectionist like me. There are reviews, and as much as I hear the advice not to look, it’s impossible not to. There is GoodReads (best not to look). There is the astonishing fact of readers, out there, who are reading the book and responding in their own way, and some of them are being moved to tears, to grief, to contacting me. There is the imagined pressure that I should be always grateful and thankful coupled with the conflicting pressure to also be authentic, to say it’s been hard work. There are panels and interviews and conversations with incredibly talented and experienced writers who’ve done this before, who have PhDs, who seem to know what they are saying, how to say it, where to hook the battery pack for the microphone. And these writers are generous and lovely but when I searched, I could not find the article I wanted them to have written – something like: How to survive the first month of publication. Or What to pack for your first writers festival. Or How to start writing again when the hoopla dies down. Or, mostly This is how it feels.
So I thought I’d write it myself. This is how it felt for me. One month down. I’m excited. And I’m anxious. And I’m everything else in between and around. And that’s ok. This is how it feels.