Fear

If you haven’t heard me talk much about Foolscap, that’s remiss of me. I hate feel like I’m selling people on things, so I don’t tend to talk much about what I like. More on that in a future post, but at the moment, what matters is that I was at a con I heard described by other attendees as

  • a “nice little relaxacon,”
  • the “Wes Anderson movie of conventions,” and
  • a “fandom supercollider.”

I’d like to think that at least two of these would be selling points to anybody, and as such I would recommend it. We’re going to be in the Seatac Hilton next year — that’s the RainFurrest hotel, if that means anything to you — and I have a good time when I attend.

This year’s fun, however, took a really weird hit when Keet suggested I do a book reading.

Now, this shouldn’t have in itself been a big deal. It was the sort of thing that, as an author, one might expect authors to do. I had copies of my books with me — I had my laptop, ergo I had PDFs — and Foolscap is explicitly a cross-fandom convention, so the fact that my books are all heavily anthropomorphic characters wasn’t itself a roadblock. I was even able, after some prodding, to find a chapter each in both Bonds and Beautiful World that didn’t contain any sex and still had the flavor of the text, no small feat.

Why, then, was my heart sitting in my throat? Why did I feel like I wanted to hide in a corner and pretend I was anywhere but in the vicinity of the convention? Keet even volunteered to read, so it wouldn’t be me at the center of attention. None of that mattered. All that crossed my mind was, “I can’t do this, I don’t want to do this, don’t make me do this,” over and over like a looped hypno track.

Part of it, I think, is the format. Foolscap is an Open Space convention, which means in short that the programming is mostly designed at the event itself. It’s really neat, but hard to explain in any more detail than that. It really is kind of hard to explain, but there’s probably videos on it online, and if there aren’t, Foolscap’s concom has talked about making a few. Because of my job and my tendency to sleep in and wander into con space late, I missed all of the progrmming sessions, and so if I were to do a reading, it would have to be outside the flow of ordinary programming.

Now, Foolscap does provide such a space explicitly for such exception cases. In a back corner of the commons area, we’ve always allocated a few comfy chairs in a circle and called it the Strange Attractor; it’s a space specifically set up for small discussions, and we even put a sign up on the wall saying this was the space to talk about things that didn’t quite fit into a panel. In years past, it’s been explicitly used for readings from other authors, so it’s not like this was an intrusion into the programming, but the area really had its heyday back when Foolscap was a more traditional con with more traditional programming. The Strange Attractor was a sort of spontaneous Open Space event, with a little sign-up sheet for half-hour blocks of time to let people discuss thing that weren’t in the schedule. Now that the entire con’s basically that model, the Strange Attractor has become somewhat neglected; I was literally the only person to sign up for a time slot, which amplified my anxiety. This wasn’t the source of the problem, but it didn’t help.

Another part of it, too, is that this was an off-the-cuff idea. Keet will almost always be the first person to tell you that I hate surprises. Often, the reason she’s the first is so that when I say it, it’s not a surprise to anyone. (That’s a joke.) I was able to pull together a plan with some pushing and poking, but as late as “walking to the location to start the reading,” I had no idea what exactly I was going to say by way of introduction. I thought about trying to explain the scenes that I had chosen, to offer some kind of setup, but I fumbled and flailed my way around even a message as simple as, “Julia is a software developer that’s been hired by somebody named Fuki to hack an immersive virtual reality called Irokai, but she’s also a long-time fan of Irokai that got banned for in-world activism.” The words simply would not come together.

None of this, by the way, should be construed to say that I think of doing book readings as a bad idea. Quite the contrary, I like the idea. I just needed more preparation and a chance to do it in such a way that I was actually part of the natural flow of things. If I’d come to the con with the idea that I would do a book reading, prepared for such an event, and then gotten on the schedule or even made a fallback plan happen, I probably would have been a lot more ready.

None of this should also be mistaken for the core issue, though, which is that even if all of these things had been true, I would have been sweating and shaking right up until I started. I’m an introvert. Even if I’m highly skilled, well-trained introvert, I’m still an introvert. Putting myself in front of others, especially strangers but even more especially vague acquaintances — people who are close enough that I’m likely to see them with regularity but not close enough to cross the community barrier, like, oh, say, coworkers or fellow con attendees at a local relaxacon — causes me psychic heartburn. My guts clench, my paws get sweaty, my vision tunnels, and my muzzle goes dry. It is a visceral fear reaction that no amount of training actually makes go away.

When I was at Amazon, I worked with a couple of close coworkers — some of whom have even come to Bandaza — on a training class for new hires to help them learn our toolchain and get faster at committing new code. I was, while I was there, widely regarded as being one of the top trainers, so much so that I was nominated to be one of the course owners when the previous team stepped down. I only turned down the offer because I’d already put in my two weeks, and teaching that course remains one of my highlights of my time at Big Orange. I taught thousands of interns in live-code exercises. I walked people through real-life bugs during high-severity incidents. I had students recognize me in the hallways and tell me how great my help had been.

I walked up to the podium every time feeling like I was going to throw up and leaving with shaking hands and a top soaked in cold sweat.

How do you handle it? Those of you who enjoy the spotlight, what goes on in your mind when you talk with others? Those of you who don’t, what tricks do you use to help you with your nerves? I have my own suite of tools, but I’m curious to hear from others how they manage. Nobody gets better in a vacuum.

got to maintain my foke… but sense others… foked on me….