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After participating in UU World's session on Spiritual Writing yesterday, I come away with the following advice for first-time speakers at General Assembly: Get yourself on a panel with someone who draws a crowd.
Being a nervous beginner, I skipped the Thursday morning plenary and found my room so that I could scope it out. I discovered the too-short microphone, the podium that shifts with a loud WHOMP if you lean on it the wrong way, and the odd fluorescent lighting that makes penciled-in corrections completely disappear. Valuable information. But mostly, as I made my final edits, I wondered if the empty room I was rehearsing to would be just as empty when I gave the talk for real. I knew my wife was coming, but I wasn't too sure about anyone else.
I needn't have worried, because the other panelist was Meg Barnhouse. We're the two columnists for UU World's website (a new feature this summer) and in the program our pictures are the same size, but I am definitely the new kid on the block. I've had a few articles published and a handful of people are starting to recognize my name, but Meg has five books, some musical CDs, and actual fans.
They packed the place. The room rated capacity was 200, and the organizers had to keep warning people not to stand in the doorway or block the aisles. Meg's books are interesting for anybody, but I think her fan base is mostly women. So as I stared out at this sea of female faces, I had the sneaking suspicion that it was not my rugged good looks that had drawn them in.
UU World managing editor Kenneth Sutton introduced us and the question that the session was addressing: "What makes writing spiritual?" I spoke first and was well received. I had intended my opening—in which I confess to suffering from Male Answer Syndrome, which compels me to answer when asked a question like "What makes writing spiritual?"—to be disarming and self-deprecating. But as it turns out, I couldn't have planned a better pander to my audience. They stuck with me, laughed when they were supposed to, and seemed to be as moved as I was by the Philip Booth poem "First Lesson" that I closed with. (The full text of my talk is up on my Free and Responsible Search blog.)
Meg followed and brought the house down. She read from one of her books and performed two songs, one of them for the first time. I briefly fantasized that Kenneth, I, and UU World editor Chris Walton might turn into Pips and do spontaneous choreography, but none of us were brave enough to start it.
Everybody seemed to leave happy, including me. I survived my first GA talk, had a full house, and didn't screw up my text or lean the wrong way on the booby-trapped podium. Undoubtedly most of the audience went back and told their roommates about "Meg Barnhouse and some other guy," but I'm OK with that. The next time I have an article in UU World, a lot of them will probably say, "Hey, I think I know him." That's good enough.
Reported by Doug Muder.
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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.
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