Why I Don’t Speak
Each day I get one or two invitations to speak at events or conferences. People have read The War of Art, and the concepts of Resistance and “turning pro” have struck a chord. They’d like to hear more; they’d like to see who I am in-person.
Maybe they’re seeking “inspiration” or “motivation” for their group or association. All the invitations are proffered out of respect and in the most generous and elevated spirit. They’re well-intentioned; the groups themselves sound interesting and fun; and I certainly appreciate the thought behind all of them. Some even come with offers of significant remuneration. But I say no every time.
If I wrote a book on the subject of self-sabotage, shouldn’t I be open, even eager, to speak about it? What’s the difference? Speaking and writing are the same thing, aren’t they?
No, they’re not.
There’s a type of communion that happens between a writer and a reader within the pages of a book that cannot be replicated in a public setting—at least not a large-scale one. In fact, the large-scale setting by its very nature corrupts and deforms the meaning of the material.
I wrote The War of Art in book form for two reasons:
1. So I wouldn’t have to talk about it, and
2. Because book format was, in my view, the only appropriate way to deliver this material to the individual who might profit by being exposed to it.
Writer-to-reader is private and intimate. It’s soul-to-soul. If I’m sitting on an airplane reading War and Peace, I’m in Russia, I’m with Natasha and Pierre, I’m with Tolstoy. As I read, I may start to cry. I might read a passage that changes my life. The passenger next to me reading Zen and the Art of Archery is in another universe as well. I can’t enter his sphere and he can’t enter mine. We’re sitting side by side but each of us is immersed in a private and intimate communion with other thoughts and other beings.
The material in The War of Art is serious stuff. In the pages of that book I’m confessing some of the darkest hours and most shameful failures of my life. But more than that, I’m holding these moments up to the reader, who no doubt has experienced the same in her own life, as a means of confronting her and making her face her own shit. I don’t know how to do that in a public setting, and I wouldn’t want to try. It’s too private. It’s too personal.
The War of Art says to the reader, “Is this you? Do you recognize yourself in these pages? Because if you do, the train you’re on is heading over a cliff and you’d better either jump off or get that locomotive to stop.”
I don’t know how to say that to a roomful of people I don’t know, most of whom have not read the book, have no clue who I am, and are just in the hall because their boss told them to be. This is not to say that there haven’t been occasions when things worked out. I spoke to a class of actors once, where everyone was on the same page and the evening came together beautifully. But nine times out of ten the experience is excruciating. And the worst part is that nobody profits. I waste my time. Nobody gets the message. Ships pass in the night and no one’s life is affected in the slightest.
In the privacy between the covers of a book, on the other hand, I can address the reader in a voice that’s absolutely brutal without being unkind. Only the reader herself knows what she has just read. She can accept it or reject it. No one sees her discomfort (if indeed that’s what she feels.) The moment is hers alone. Not even I know what she’s thinking. What I do know is that, if at any moment the material is failing to connect with the reader or she concludes that it is without worth to her, she is free to chuck the damn book into the trash. I like that. I like knowing I’m not imposing my ideas and I’m not stealing anyone’s time.
When I speak, I don’t know that. The audience is trapped, and so am I. Their role is to receive and mine is to give. I have to entertain. I hate that. That’s not what this is about at all.
I also hate repeating myself. The subject of self-sabotage is too personal, and it’s too important. It’s life and death. I can’t deliver thirty-five minutes one afternoon in Boston and do it all over again the next day in New York. It’s depressing. It’s preposterous.
Then there’s the whole category of “motivation” or “motivational speaking.” Who was that character that Chris Farley played on SNL? I can’t be that. I don’t even want to think about it.
Are there any conditions under which I could speak on this subject in person? To two or three people. Maybe. And I wouldn’t even want to do that. I’ve done it with friends, staying up till two in the morning, and it never works even then.
A book is the only way. I’ve had letter after letter in which readers have told me they had The War of Art on their bedside table for months (usually recommended by a friend) without picking it up. Then finally they did. They were ready to hear what the book has to say.
That’s the only way it works.
Not on a schedule. Not as a planned event. And not in public.
Then there’s the final and ultimate reason why I don’t do speaking engagements (and why I do as few interviews as possible.)
I’m a writer.
I’m not a speaker.
Speaking is not my calling. It’s not my thing. I can do it, yeah, and sometimes even pull it off fairly well. But my heart is never in it. I’m not having fun. And when the event ends, even if there’s applause or heartfelt appreciation, I still can’t wait to get out of there.
I’m a writer. Speaking, for me, is a form of Resistance.
When I was lost and floundering in my own life, I experienced moments when wisdom was passed to me by others. Some were moments that changed my life. But those moments were always private and personal, often experienced in extreme circumstances, and almost always one-on-one.
No few of these moments came from books. Thank you, Henry Miller. Thank you, Walker Percy. Thank you, whoever wrote the King James Version. In the secret communion between writer and reader, soul-altering material was gifted to me, and I accepted it with gratitude. No one knew. Not even the writer. But he or she had imparted something seminal, and it changed me and saved me.
I got it from a real person or I got it from a book. I didn’t get it from somebody speaking. I’m sorry. I know people mean well and they’re trying to put together events that will aid and inspire members of their club or group or association.
But I can’t be the one to do the talking. Not on this subject. It’s too close to the bone, too intimate, too personal and too important. It ain’t me. I can’t do it.