November 10th, 2010 / 11:15 am
Behind the Scenes

The Cliché, Walking about Town

I’ve gone to a few readings over the past couple weeks, good readings, readings which—for the most part—I’ve enjoyed. But at these readings, I discovered the firm cliché that I inhabit and perpetuate: the nervous writer, fraught with agoraphobia and insecurity.

I’m a nervous person, yes. I’m an anxious person, naturally. And I’m insecure, obviously. In most social situations where the social circle is greater than three in number (myself included), I perform the role of quirky, smart, anxious writer. I make myself smaller—usually by sitting with my legs under me, my body squeezed into a tight, strange shape. When I speak, I speak either too gregariously—making bold statements about this or that, generally unsubstantiated by anything but my own opinion and a few writers/thinkers I can quote with ease, old stand-bys like Nabokov or Kafka, Adorno or Bataille, if I’m feeling particularly insecure, I’ll go with Benjamin or Baudrillard or Baudelaire, people who make me seem smart—or I mumble to the point of inaudibility.

Generally, after said social situation, I will go over everything I said and tremble over every mistake. I will chide myself for being nervous. I have no real reason to be nervous. Especially if I’m at a reading, surrounded by other writers.

Logical me knows that I can go up to any of these writers and talk to them. I can ask them smart, provocative questions—better questions than most of the audience, if only because I’ve played both the role of reader and the role of listener, I know what a crappy question means, I know what kind of question a reader wants—only I don’t. I can never bring myself to the precipice of courage enough to raise my hand. And even worse: after the reading, I want to go up to the writers and talk to them. Only when I do, I come across as a moron. Best case scenario, they think I’m an undergrad, a young, inexperienced writer looking for guidance.

Two weeks ago, I went to a reading. A pretty decent poet read and afterwards, I went up to tell her how much I enjoyed her work. (In my head, I also wanted to ask her to send me some poems, to publish or review or whatever. I’m resourceful. Well, the logical me is at least.) Instead, I had the most awkward exchange where I squirmed around and she asked if I’m in school and I said yes and she searched for conversation topics and asked nicely if I was in a fiction workshop and I said no I’m actually working on my PhD in Geography but I’m also a novelist and she said o that’s nice, good luck with that, and I wanted to say no really, I’m a novelist, like legitly so, my third book just came out, and I’ve won prizes, like national ones, and I’m an editor and I’m a reviewer and I even write for this blog called HTML Giant, but I didn’t say any of this. I continued to squirm around. And then, someone else started talking to her. I was horrified.

If I were logical, none of this would’ve happened. I would’ve gone up to this pretty decent poet and had a real conversation with her. She was a good reader. I liked what I heard. I liked the premise of her book, and although there were a few lines I could’ve cut, I thought highly of her. I could’ve spoken to her about her use appropriation, etc etc, but I didn’t. I sounded a fool. I epitomized the young, inexperienced, awkward writer.

What went wrong?

I got nervous. But why?

After the disaster of two weeks ago, when I went to a reading earlier this week, I determined myself not to be such a wreck. I went to the reading, absolutely fell in love with one of the reader’s poetry, and I made it my goal to go up to him and talk, in a semi-coherent manner. I went up to him and said I really enjoyed your reading. It was one of the most smart and engaging readings I’ve heard in a long time (true) and he said that’s really nice of you to say, are you a student here?, are you taking creative writing classes?, and rather than freak out, I said, yes, I’m a student here but I’m also a novelist and an editor and if you’re amenable (yes, folks, I was over the top, I actually said “amenable,” within like two sentences of meeting this awesome poet-man) I’d love to interview you at some point, and he said well, I’d love that too.


But then, rather than extend the conversation, I nervously shuffled off. The guy who organized the reading series invited me out to dinner with the readers, but I was too worked up. I declined, even though I wanted to. Very badly.

Outside, I had sweat stained through my clothes. (Ok, so maybe I was over-dressed. Maybe two long sleeved shirts and a sweater and a coat and long underwear and slacks is a little extreme for barely freezing temperatures, but whatever.) I was shaking.

Logically, this poet-man has way more credentials than me. (But he’s also a half century older.) I had a reason to be nervous. I also admired his writing. (Expect an interview or review of his work to come!) But: there was no reason for me to get as worked up as I did. What disappoints me most is not that I had an awkward exchange with him but that I allowed myself to be such a cliché. Furthermore, this is a role I inhabit regularly. It’s obnoxious and unhealthy. It’s unhealthy for me to become so nervous.

To be fair, I’m nervous around most people, but this anxiety exponentiates when I’m around writers, especially those I respect. Even my friends. With all the meals I’ve had with writer-friends—even fellow Giant contributors like Blake or Ryan or Gene—I’ve either not been able to eat or eaten so nervously that it became gorging. Every meal I’ve had with Josh Cohen, he’s made some comment or other about how I don’t eat enough, when it’s just because I’m nervous. Or conversely, when I hung out with AD Jameson (Happy birthday, Adam!), Jeremy Davies, and Kathleen Rooney, I ate obscenely: an obscene amount, not in an obscene manner.

AWP is looming. It will be here all too soon. Already, I am bracing myself for a tortured few days where I will aim to be calm, cool, relaxed, where I will eat regularly, and yet, I’m beginning to wonder if having these goals won’t just serve to disappoint me, give me more reason to self-flagellate. I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t simply embrace my cliché-ness and somewhere in there, maybe change will happen like magic.


  1. Joseph Young

      sounds like you are already on your way to a change. back when i was still mostly scared of talking to strangers–not that long ago–a friend told me that you should just say the stupid thing you are thinking to say and that after a while you get used to being stupid and you find that it’s ok. worked pretty good.

  2. guest

      Lichtenberg said something like if you recognize your weaknesses they can no longer do you any harm or something.

  3. John Minichillo

      I like Joe’s approach here. It’s not about writers or writing, but talking to strangers. Get divorced or go work as a cashier somewhere if you want to break out of the shell. Walk your dog. Volunteer at the hospital or old folks home.

      But probably you like being alone and you like yourself too.

      Though you want writers to like you and to connect with you. A post about Lily. Which is charming.

      Remember that David Foster Wallace’s agent absolutely forbade him from giving interviews because of social awkwardness and the way he came across. Did he want to go out and do these things? Maybe.

      Is it natural to think about the things you could have said, or about how this person has given you the brush off? Of course. You can’t change those people. If they sense that you want something from them… If hundreds of people come up to them and identify themselves as writers, no really, I’m a writer… Their defensiveness or ego-walls are also natural, at least justifiable.

      So let it be their stuff. Don’t take it hard. Plenty of writers are going to love that you are interested in your work. And given the chance, they will also be interested in you.

  4. sara

      as a young, questionably inexperienced undergrad, this makes me even more nervous to say anything, ever.

  5. lily hoang

      Oh no! I’m sorry! That wasn’t my intention at all. Please, say something! This post was to express my own nervousness, to talk about how “experience” doesn’t really change anything. Speak up, Sara!

  6. lily hoang

      My ultimate goal in life is to be charming. Unfortunately, I am by far more charming in a meta-post than in real life.

  7. Tim

      I have this same ridiculous problem. I saw a reading here recently for a short storyist whose work is lively and fast and drank coffee for a while after the reading and then went up and said something like, I, uh, nice, I wanted to, I like your work. And I am usually not like this at all, around anyone. It’s just intensely weird to suddenly have all the distance in the pages collapse and to see the person on the other side, standing there at a podium.

  8. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I feel you. When I started trying to hang out with people who write, I felt like I was in middle school again. I think one of my worst moments was the time I hid behind a shelf in a bookstore and pretended to read a book to put off introducing myself to some folks I’d been talking to online for over a month.

      …I think you’re probably more introverted than me. I am socially awkward, but also draw energy from social interaction so I’m a weird mix.

      But there were a couple things I thought abt reading your post.

      One is that I’ve found that the more community I have here in Chicago the more sort of bolstered and confident I feel interacting with new people. Your temperament may be different on that front, tho, if any larger assembly like inherently makes you more nervous. Also costumes. The costumes do seriously help. And having a wing person. Then if I’m nervous talking about myself than somebody else can do it for me.

      I also think it should not be considered shameful to save the second part of your conversation for the internet if that is more comfortable. Introduce yourself briefly in person than email the next day and be like, “I wanted to tell you x abt your work and also abt this project Im working on and maybe solicit you for my yada yada…”

  9. Tim Jones-Yelvington


  10. jesusangelgarcia

      Oh, Lily, this is (almost) funny. You know what works (mostly) for me — a concept all you grad-school peeps will likely understand more than most — is to think of “public appearances” as performances — i.e., “performative moments,” if you will — not entirely (I’m not phony) but just enough to push me past whatever insecurities I might have into a space where I’m out there and all I can do is keep playing the set to the end with as much honest enthusiasm and articulation as I can swing.

      The other thing that helps is knowing clearly that none of this is all that serious. Car crashes are serious. Cancer is serious. Talking, reading, writing, “being writers”… not so much. We’re just doing our thing, which doesn’t mean don’t take it seriously; it just means try to make it count by being present, by not worrying about outcomes or others’ opinions. Second-guessing is old-school OCD. We live in a blur in the 21st century. We don’t have time to second-guess.

      I say, let’s have fun w/ our little share of the spotlight. I dunno. Plus, you’ve got AWARDS and PUBLICATIONS and QUOTATIONS at the ready. Seriously, go for the F-U-N. Let go of the “self.” Be Lily Hoang on Stage for One Night Only — Sold Out!

      And if that doesn’t work, I suggest a flask of Old No. 7.

  11. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      my incorrect and also unnecessary usage of “than” is annoying the crap out of me and I tried to edit it but the edit wouldn’t post. Oh well.

  12. Laura

      I like Joe’s advice too. And as someone who also used to feel very nervous about talking to strangers, when a friend pointed out that what feels incredibly awkward/anxiety-inducing/obsession-worthy to me is probably being registered to a much lesser degree by the person I’m interacting with—simply because they presumably have other things on their mind and are entering the conversation with lower stakes—it helped. Not that I thought people were devoting a lot of time to thinking about my skills as a conversationalist, but trusting that I and whatever awkward thing I did was forgettable in the larger scope of things seemed like a comforting idea. Although, as I think back on my most mortifying social encounters, maybe that’s wishful thinking in certain situations. I am naturally extroverted and social now, but I was also super awkward and shy when I was younger and that former self still flares up from time to time.

  13. n. b. aqeel

      i’m like this around people but I don’t look at it as something i need to overcome. i realized many years ago that if talking to people caused me so much distress then maybe i shouldn’t talk to people anymore.

      not everyone is social. our culture teaches us that it’s more normal, healthy, less dysfunctional the more social interactions you have but that’s not always the case with a lot of people. there are lots of people who are loners and don’t know it (and if they do know it they don’t embrace it) because they’ve been taught that things done alone are inferior to things done with other people. So, their natural temperaments get suppressed.

      i regret the times when i walked up to someone and told them i liked their writing or their art or their band. When i realized i didn’t ever get much pleasure out of those situations i stopped doing it. i just walked home and got lost in my own thoughts, which always ended up feeling more rewarding than the experience of sharing broken and hesitant thoughts with someone else.

  14. Roxane

      I can really relate to this. I find interacting with people, especially in literary settings, to be fairly excruciating and in my head I am generally screaming and losing my mind. I stress about every little thing. Am I dumbass? Are they staring at me? Am I going to die? Am I smart enough to open my mouth? Will I do something lame? Will I know what they are talking about? I never feel qualified to participate in the conversation at such things so I lurk and stress and lurk and stress and do my best to fake it when I am interacting. I only recently started doing readings because the anxiety of having to speak in front of and to people is so overwhelming. AWP is… exhausting because I have to work so hard not to come off like a complete socially inept freak. I generally pass out for a full day after the conference. It literally takes me the whole year between each conference to prepare for being on panels (ugh) and working the table (fun but ugh) and readings (ugh). People often tell me they didn’t realize I’m terrified of social interaction but really, I’m great at playing hide & seek. Social awkwardness is so hard.

  15. Tim Horvath

      Thanks for your great candor here, Lily. In my nervousness when I met Nicholson Baker at a reading a couple of years ago I stammered something about having read The Mezzanine while working on Wall Street (as a temp, one of my least proud “achievements”). And so he signed my copy of The Anthologist “To a Fellow Wall-Streeter.” I thought it was hilarious but there was some definite self-kicking going on on my part as I walked away. Fortunately I had the chance to meet him again and I didn’t make that mistake again (it would be amusing if somehow I had “Liar Liar” syndrome and was only able to talk about Wall Street in his presence, but thankfully was not the case). The first time, it was all nerves, however.

      “Amenable,” by the way, is the coolest of the little-known French poststructuralists. If you can drop his/her name into conversation, you’re golden. I can almost envision the word as a sort of a verbal beta-blocker–if you can get that word out, relax and breath easy.





  17. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      photons are hawt.

  18. Anonymous

      i was on opiates for my first awp specifically because of social anxiety.

      sam pink still accepted me though. i am glad i met him.

      i know you want to sound hip and humorous but, seriously, shut the fuck up about hard drugs unless you feel like talking about them in a responsible manner.

      or at least have some rad drug stories to share.

  19. jereme_dean

      stop thinking, start experiencing.

      fuck lily, don’t be so hard on yourself.

      for awp, you can practice on me.

      i’m no writer.

  20. jereme_dean


      not everyone is an asshole.

      don’t be afraid to make sounds.

  21. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      also — just go around believing nobody’s an asshole — the one’s that matter will rise to meet you.

  22. jereme_dean

      fuck yes.

  23. Sean

      You can’t escape the age of anxiety, the watching of self–unless you get into running. So I suggest you get into running.

  24. lily hoang

      went running earlier. (before you posted this.) for some reason, i thought it was a swell idea to run outside because there was sun. i didn’t account for temperature. it was a brutal run. next time: treadmill.

  25. lily hoang

      you’re a writer, jereme. i’m not fooled.

  26. lily hoang

      sadly, i’m allergic to alcohol. boo.

  27. Mark C

      my girlfriend likes to repeatedly tell me how charming i am. i don’t get it. deep down inside i’m dying when i talk to people, for all the reasons that other people here already mentioned.

      literary functions seem to be (to me at least) more of a support group of people who spend too much time analyzing and themselves and others. but that’s who we are as people anyway, i think; otherwise, we’d be in a field that made us focus less on human experience or the self or whatever you’d like to call it.

  28. lily hoang

      you can use as many thans as you want, tjy. no judgment here, friend.

  29. Mark C

      also, i wiped sweat from my brow when i finished typing that. figures.

  30. jesusangelgarcia

      Boo is right! I do hear heroin works wonders for social amenability. Just in case you’ve been considering an alcohol alternative.

  31. jereme_dean

      i was on opiates for my first awp specifically because of social anxiety.

      sam pink still accepted me though. i am glad i met him.

      i know you want to sound hip and humorous but, seriously, shut the fuck up about hard drugs unless you feel like talking about them in a responsible manner.

      or at least have some rad drug stories to share.

  32. wb

      It’s not weird to have anxiety about talking to someone who defaults to something like ‘soo… are you a student?’ directly after you start a conversation with them about their work, at their event. The other person just basically checked out of the conversation.. which is sort of rude/unprofessional, if you want to be serious about it, but basically just boring and a buzzkill. Moving things forward from that kind of behavior isn’t easy; if you’re shy, like me, it takes practice.. I’m really bad at it. But if you can see it happen, it’ll help you chill out when you’re thinking about what happened.

  33. jesusangelgarcia

      Seriously, Jereme? Wasn’t trying to sound hip, just making an obvious joke, clearly not advocating banging heroin, or alcoholism, or any other stupid self-destructive behavior. Stories are fine. Living well is better. My drug is love. Sorry I touched a nerve.

  34. gavin

      I wonder how much of your anxiety (and mine as well) is related to a total aversion to small talk and social chit-chat. Perhaps we think that writers should naturally have something to say to one another; however, I often feel everything that needed to be said between me and another writer was already said when I read their work. The writers I’m able to have actual conversations with, conversations that may or may not eventually weave around to writing, are ones I have other things in common with. Other authors that we enjoy seem an obvious thing to talk about (as opposed to talking about ourselves or our craft), but also, for me, sports or common geographies or raising children or zombie flicks. Often the last thing I’d want to talk about with a writer I just saw read is their work. And when I’ve done readings, I’ve often prayed someone noticed my Braves cap and would ask me questions on why their run production is always so shitty in the playoffs. That’s something I can actually feel comfortable talking about.

  35. Molly Gaudry

      You don’t have to say something. You could just ask a question. Afterward, the answer is what you’ll remember.

      I usually buy the person’s book, and ask the question while they’re signing it. Danielewski answered, “Yes,” that it was very hard to let go of his characters in HOL; Rushdie replied, “Under the right circumstances,” when asked if he would take on a student; Saunders said “You should send me a paper on that” when I asked why so many of his main characters are grotesques; Almond said “There was a drought that year” when asked what the deal was with his character who female ejaculates.

      I love finding out the behind-the-scenes stuff in writers’ heads. Sometimes I don’t want to ask my question in front of the whole audience, but the question during the book signing is handy–quick and easy. There’s no time to get awkward, because someone’s in line behind you. If you want to talk more, then do the approach. Or maybe the person will approach you after s/he’s signed everything!

      Personally, I love answering questions when asked. I also assume a few things: this person has read me! OMG! I love him or her! And also: S/he must be a writer, but who cares if s/he’s not, s/he’s obviously a reader and that’s cool.

      Asking questions is the way to go. Whatever you want to know, find out. And remember, I think that if it’s a good question, the answer will stick in your memory but the question will stick in theirs. And years later, if you meet again, you’ve got something to talk about: “A long time ago, you read at the University of Nebraska, and I asked you about blah blah. I really appreciated your answer. Can I buy you a drink?”

  36. michael

      i’m with you all the way. reading butler on performativity of gender changed my life– so much of what is quantified/reified i now think of as performative– gender and race, yes– but what stopped the sweating and the hand-wringing was thinking of intelligence as performative too.

  37. brittany wallace

      why talk when you can, you know, just NOT talk
      yep yep

  38. letters journal

      Approaching language and interaction logically (rather than emotionally) is one characteristic of autism. I find that when I am at my most logical I have trouble relating to other people. Logic != social skills. Or something.

      Did you get my postcard, Lily Hoang? I’m sorry I didn’t write you a full letter. I was nervous.

  39. jesusangelgarcia

      I wonder if we’re flexing free will only if we’re aware of this stuff. Otherwise, we’re what…? Zombies?