Monday, July 20, 2009

Public Speaking—with confidence

When I think back to the jitters—no that's too mild—the mind-numbing, paralyzing fear that I used to experience when I found myself facing a crowd and was expected to speak, I am proud of the progress I've made. And surprised at how much I enjoy the interaction with each group of people to whom I am presenting. From whence came this transformation? From years of work and counseling to overcome self-consciousness with improved self-esteem and from forcing myself to take the role of presenter in workshops, seminars, school visits and book talks. 

Practice makes perfect, and perfection is my aim. Notice, I say aim, for I haven't yet reached that lofty goal. I am encouraged, by a book I just read, to believe that it is not an impossible goal, and with planning and practice, it is within my reach. The book is Presentation Skill 201 by William R. Steele. I've read it from cover to cover and will use it as a bible to keep me on track to further improve my public persona. 

Here is a tip that has helped me move from knee-knocking, dry-mouthed fear to a more comfortable and enjoyable stance. If you are subject to stage fright at times, you may find, as I have, that you must put yourself out of your mind, completely. I don't mean you should lose your mind; I mean lose your self-concern: What will people think of me? How do I look? What if I forget what I'm supposed to say? What if I'm asked a question, I can't answer? What if they don't like me? Take care of those concerns before you go "on stage." Check yourself in the mirror to be sure your wardrobe is adjusted properly,  your face is clean, your hair is in place, and you have no broccoli between your teeth. Make sure all the props you plan to use are in order, your electronics are working if you are showing slides or using a power point display, etc.. Be sure beforehand that you are ready. 

Then forget yourself. Focus on your audience — on how you can best serve them. Focus on putting them at ease without putting them to sleep. Make eye contact. Care about each of them. You are there for them. Not for you. When you are thinking of them, you will lose the consciousness of yourself that produces stage-fright.  

For how to prepare; how to feel confident that you can meet every challenge that could arise, I recommend Steele's book. He also has a blog where he posts helpful hints on public speaking. 

For those of you who have heard me before, you may notice an improvement in my upcoming events, which include a four-day writing workshop at the Madison Valley Public Library in Ennis, Montana, August 17-20, a one-hour talk on "True Fiction: What It Is and How to Write it" with excerpts from some of my novels, also at the Ennis Library on August 22 at 10 a.m., and in Billings on October 3 when there will be readings by all award finalist authors in connection with the 2009 High Plains BookFest. 

And, I'll plan an acceptance speech—just in case Kyleah's Tree wins the High Plains Book Award for fiction at the banquet on October 2. 

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More Insightful conversation with Janet Grace Riehl

Photo shows Janet Grace Riehl with her father, Erwin Thompson.

Today, I have the pleasure of continuing yesterday’s conversation with Janet Grace Riehl author of Sightlines, a Poet’s Diary, and the audio book, Sightlines, a Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.

JMH: Janet, as I listened to your audio book, I was impressed with the way you tell your family story in poetry, music, and casual conversation. It is uniquely honest and touching. You and your father found a way to confront terrible grief as well as to enshrine the memory of your beloved sister, mother, and a way of life that is unfortunately disappearing. Your poems have helped me process losses of my own.

"Scribbler," in which you describe joy you found as a child in your father's writing is one of my favorite poems from you book. How has his influence rippled into your adult life as a writer?

JGR: Completely. It was hard when I was an English major because my father’s writing is pretty straight-ahead story telling. But, as a Recovering English Major, I can now see, once again, how good his writing is. We’re starting to get some of his 40 books into print.

His lack of self-consciousness is what allowed him to be so prolific. During the time of writing “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” it was that same lack of concern about how the book would be received by the literary community that allowed me to be so productive in a short period of time.

Last year we read together for the Alton High Creative Writing Club annual meeting. He’d co-founded the club. We’d just found and replicated an early edition of their magazine. He read first. For my turn, I read “Scribbler” in homage to him and his influence and encouragement.

JMH: In “String Bridles” (p. 42 in “Sightlines) your father tells a story about his relationship to the Bluff House, a place that remains a source of refuge and solitude for you. What does the Bluff House mean to each of you?

JGR: For Pop the Bluff House was a working chicken house for Spring, built to get the early warmth of the sun’s rays. The Bluff House was designed as a passive solar building before anyone spoke of such a thing. He also used to play there with simple toys he made. The poem is slightly adapted from a letter to his mother who lived at a distance in Rushville, Illinois. Pop wrote this letter when he was 13 in 1929. His mother died the following October the same day the same day the stock market crashed, both crushing blows to the family. The naturalness and clarity of his voice in the poem show his writing talent at an early age.

Seventy-six years later when Pop and I were taking care of Mother, he told me this spot on the property could be mine. I took old furniture down there. It was a place to rest in solitude for reading, writing, and contemplation. It was a place separate from the family’s activity which I sorely needed at that time. My brother cleared a path to it and hacked out a view of the river down the bluff. We mucked it out and trimmed back scrub trees grown in the cracks of the cement floor. By that time the chicken-green house had been vandalized, with all the glass long gone.

JMH: Do you see your childhood differently as a result of writing these poems and returning to the Midwest?

JGR: Certainly. The decision to be directly involved with the family struggles and be in contact with Midwestern culture brought my entire life into stronger, clearer focus. I’d spent many years living in California. Two different worldviews could not be found. I could now see how my family viewed my life there. By being in my childhood home and working with my parents in a new way in a different role, made me confront certain illusions and delusions I’d held. My father and I forged a more mature relationship. I saw my Mother differently as she became more fragile and a transformed person in her illness.

JMH: You include two poems written from your great niece's point of view. I lost my beloved grandfather at the same age that your grand niece Amelia lost her grandma Julia. The loss was treated very differently. When I was eight, the death of my grandfather was never talked about in my presence. I was not allowed to attend his funeral. Thus I had no way of understanding and processing it.

In the poem "Amelia's Double Rainbow" (p. 16) Amelia says, “the more I talk about her, I'm crying less." I believe it is vitally important that children be given a framework in which to process and talk about their own feelings and memories. I'm thankful that your grand nieces were. It seems to be more acceptable to talk about these days than it was in the fifties, when I first encountered the loss of someone I loved. I just wanted to thank you for including poems for Amelia in your memoir. What were some of the things you did to support your great nieces Amelia and Margaret in their loss of their “Grammy”?

JGR:  I cared for my two great nieces for four days after Julia's death. That story is told in "Just Like You and Me” (p. 13).

I wrote condolence notes to both children. After my sister’s death I began to become expert at writing these notes. I developed a style that broke the usual template to become more clear and direct.

Later, I made a book for Maggie, then three, who was afraid she was losing her memories of her Grammy. We titled it “Maggie’s Deep Well of Memory” with each memory starting with the prompt: “I remember the times….” She’d dictate these to me and I wrote them down. I made these into a lovely bound book with illustrations.

Last year after we buried Julia's ashes, I wrote Maggie a letter using a similar form telling Maggie how I’d always remember her at that ceremony and ending with: Grammy Julia’s world is the world of love and it is the world of yes! That world lives in you, Maggie.

It’s been a pleasure to know you through the years as a result of our Women Writing the West connection. Thanks for this insightful interview.

JMH: Thanks, Janet. The pleasure is mine as well. I feel as if you are a true sister. I guess it’s the sisterhood of “Janet.”

As I announced yesterday, Janet’s internet tour continues July 10th on Susan Gallacher Turner’s and Mary Cunningham’s WOOF! (Women Only Over Fifty) on July 15th. Her guest post will discuss how to use collaboration to reach your dreams as an over-50 woman.

And don’t forget to participate in the drawing to win a copy of Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music?Watch the featured video of the weekLeave a comment underneath the post.  Janet will run a drawing among the comments.




Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Conversation with Janet Grace Riehl

I'm honored to have Janet Grace Riehl as my guest today and to be included in her blog tour as she discusses her audio book, Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry & Music. You can find a complete list of Janet’s tour on her blog. The previous post on the audio book tour was at Molly Lundquist’s Lit Lover book club site. There Janet posted a regional recipe of scrapple, a guest blog useful for both individuals and book groups, tips on how to appreciate both book and audio book together, and a review of “Sightlines” audio book.

Following a family tragedy, the death of her beloved older sister, Janet Grace Riehl returned to her childhood home in the Midwest. Her book, Sightlines, a Poet's Diary, came into existence as she confronted and processed the pain of this great loss and reconnected with her family, her ancestral home and family, and herself through story poems. Her father joined her in the collaboration of the audio book, reading his own poems and adding his music. Janet, it’s a pleasure to discuss your book, and audio book, and what lie behind their creation with you.

JMH: One of the main themes running through your 90 poems, Janet, is the gap between the memories you carry from your childhood of your family's home place, and what you find before you upon your return so many decades later. I can intimately relate to this theme, as I left my family home in my early twenties, returning many years later to nurse, first my father, and later my mother, in the final months of their lives. I'm sure many of our readers have experienced this gap between memory and a new reality of place and relationship. Tell us how this felt and how it crept into your poems.

JGR: One of the over-arching themes of Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary was how ephemeral, changing, and transient our lives are. Buddhist call this “Impermanence,” and include this principle as one of the four noble truths.

During this period of time impermanence showed up in several ways: Julia’s sudden death; my parents aging; my mother’s vulnerability in her illness that required constant care; the fragile and fractured family system; my displacement from the place I’d called home in Northern California back to the place of my childhood.

I’d visited the homeplace often in the gap after I left for part West in 1979. But, that’s not the same thing as living there. Life and circumstances and the physical identifiers on the Homeplace had moved on.

All of these changes and signs of impermanence were unnerving, but useful in illustrating this powerful principle.

JMH: As a writer of children’s fiction, I often borrow from my own and my children's childhood experiences in order to express the natural emotions and responses to life-like situations through my characters. Thus I am especially interested in how your childhood influenced the woman you have become. What part did your childhood experiences play in the way you chose to confront the grief of the tragic death of your sister?

JGR: In childhood my parents emphasized self-sufficiency. I often roamed the woods. They also emphasized hard work, being stoic, moving ahead, achievement, a life of service, and the deep importance of family and heritage. My Buddhist training and intuition led me to go into the small retreat around my birthday at the end of 2004 which gave me the leading to write the book.

The hard work, moving ahead, achievement, and life of service came together in making the book. My motivation for writing the book was a prayer that it be useful to others. This wish shaped the form of the story poems as the narrative vehicle. Moving ahead, achieving, and working hard were all needed in completing the project.

Me, stoic? Not so much. Rather the opposite. But, my father is, and that influenced the understated, simple way I revealed emotion. If I was overcome with emotion, I cried upstairs into my pillows or went out into the woods to wail and keen.

Self-sufficiency was essential because the situation I found myself in was rather isolated, with minimal support.

Emphasis on family and heritage is clearly one of the major themes in Sightlines.

JMH: Your father's music is an integral part of your audio book. Was music a big part of your childhood?

JGR: Music was part of our lives, big time. My father’s music is part of his heart’s blood. Other than his family, music is no doubt the thing in life Pop is most passionate about. We sang in the car together. We went to square dances where I learned to waltz standing on my father’s steel-toed work boots. Each of us children played several instruments and joined music groups at school.

My father’s greatest grief is that he had to give up playing music while we were kids and well into his middle-age because of family demands. It’s a joy to see him doing that again now.

It’s only because singing and playing were a natural part of life that I felt I could sing by myself at my talks and on the audio book. I have at least as good a voice as Garrison Keeler, I reckon! That gave me courage.

JMH: I have a few more questions for you, but since this is getting a bit long, I’ll limit myself to one more today and continue with a few more important questions tomorrow.

You have described your childhood as "anachronistic." I think I can see this in your poetry in Sightlines. Could you tell us more about what you mean by "anachronistic childhood?" How did such a childhood affect you as the person and writer you are now?

JGR: My parents came from families that were wedded to their land. We lived on land in the family for generations. We carried a sense of legacy and stewardship.

Our main goal as a family was to save up enough money that each of us children could go to college, with everything paid for. Mother made Pop promise this as they walked away from the altar. This meant that we worked like serfs raising and putting up food on our land and my grandparents on my mother’s side.

Living in the country we were socially isolated. While my friends lived in suburbs just stirring in the 1950s and ‘60s, we lived outside time within our own family culture. They had Barbie Dolls, training bras, make-up, the newest fads, new clothes, and TVs when they first came out. We did finally get a TV so we wouldn’t be next door watching it there.

I read books from the late 1800s and early 1900s, scouring our bookshelves for what I’d missed. I wore clothes mother cut down from Julia’s. Mother knitted me this beautiful outfit, but it was so incomprehensible within the context of current fashion, that everyone laughed at me when I wore it. That happened a lot—being laughed out and excluded—because I was out of touch with the times—not modern—and a thoroughly odd duck.

This gives you a sense of my childhood. There were losses in this way of life, but gains as well. I’m sure I wouldn’t have shaped such an idiosyncratic life if I’d grown up more conventionally bounded by conformity. As a result of my upbringing I’m stronger and make my own choices, with less outside influence.

JMH: Thanks for your time and in-depth answers, Janet. I look forward to continuing our discussion tomorrow with more questions about childhood influences on your poetry as well as some about your grand nieces. 

Janet Riehl’s internet tour continues July 10th on Susan Gallacher Turner’s  and Mary Cunningham’s WOOF! (Women Only Over Fifty) on July 15th. Her guest post will discuss how to use collaboration to reach your dreams as an over-50 woman.

Want to win a free copy of  Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music?Watch the featured video of the week.  Leave a comment underneath the post. Janet will run a drawing among the comments.