It all started after my friend Chris emailed me a link for the Pitchapalooza, which was to occur the following week at Politics & Prose, D.C.’s independent bookstore that hosts frequent book talks by bestselling authors.

Twenty writers would be chosen randomly to give one-minute pitches of their unpublished books. The lucky 20 would receive feedback—“American Idol” fashion (sans Simon)—from the authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published as well as from guest panelists, which included a literary agent.

Given my attraction to scaring myself to death by performing for audiences, this was my meat.

Let’s pause here to note that tied with my fantasy of getting published in the New Yorker, is giving a book talk at P & P, if had a book. (If we had bacon, we could have bacon and eggs, if we had eggs.)

Already deep in the throes of writing my memoir, I thought, What an opportunity! Followed by: What if I win? Will an agent make me rewrite my book? What if I don’t even get chosen to pitch?

I had a million questions about the event, three of which I sent in an email to the bookstore, who forwarded it to the authors:

Will it help my chances if I arrive early?

How many writers typically sign up for the 20 slots?

Will we know ahead of time whether we’ll be called or will we be thinking the whole time, “Yikes, I could be next!”?

Author Arielle replied that arriving 20 minutes before the start would be fine. She also said I could look forward to the “adrenaline rush” of “sitting on pins and needles all night,” because I would be called only if/when it was my turn.

Oy, I thought. But really, how many people in D.C. were going to turn out to pitch their books? And I’d only have to get through one minute. I wasn’t going to over-worry this, wasn’t going to put wine in my water bottle to calm my nerves at the Pitchapalooza.

Over the next six days, I worked on little besides trying to unearth the ideal 200 words and arrange them in perfect order.


Casey Listening

I read my pitch to each of seven friends, three daughters and, 10 times a day, to Casey. After each shard of feedback, I tweaked.

On Pitchapalooza day, I was still re-writing and reciting. I added and deleted bits about my dying mom, my daughter’s lost bear and my travel smoke alarm.

I went back and forth between a fantasy of not getting chosen and one in which I end up with a book deal as well as a movie contract.

I dressed in my usual black and white and put on my new bright yellow high tops—the Price Is Right of outfits—fun enough to get noticed without going over the top. Since author Arielle Eckstut co-founded LittleMissMatched, I decided to wear mismatched socks, believing Arielle would notice and be impressed. But all my interesting socks were in the laundry.

Before rolling out the door on my bike, I emailed my pitch to myself in case I were to lose the two copies I had printed out.

I’d had the entire day to be ready on time and arrive 20 minutes early, as planned. But lateness always happens, and I arrived seven minutes before show time; all seats were occupied, people were standing everywhere and the book was sold out (buying the book was required for participants).

A store employee collecting names of prospective pitchers must have detected an aghast look on my face. He stuck a card in my hand and told me I could qualify by hurrying to the cashier and paying to reserve a book.

“How many people have signed up?” I asked. He told me more than 60 writers were vying for the 20 spots.

With trembling fingers I scratched my name on the card and scrunched it, so it would stand out from the others and have a better chance of getting chosen. (At the time I felt okay doing that, but now that I’m exposing myself, I’m worried. Was I cheating? It’s not as bad as sneaking ahead in the left-turn lane, when you know you’ll be driving straight, is it?)

Yellow Shoes

Yellow Shoes

After reserving my book I found a spot on the floor near the front and leaned against a bookshelf, my yellow high tops extended in front of me.

The first name called was not mine, nor was the second, nor the 17th

Writers pitched and on my laptop I typed notes from the panelists’ critiques:

What is the story arc? How does this change the hero?

Because it’s a memoir about her mom, it will get them on TV

Pugs are good—dog books sell!

Single spinster—good but can’t be both memoir and self help.

Something redemptive.

Oh dear, I’m thinking, Where is my arc? Mom is dead. I have no pug. Single spinster, got that one nailed. Something redemptive—must add that now.

And I began adding something redemptive to my pitch.

“Susan Orlins.”

OMG, that’s me! 

I took my laptop rather than my printed notes to the lectern. As I read, I tried not to trail off at the end of sentences:

Confession. I’m a worrywart. In my MEMOIR, Confessions of a Worrywart, I worry about everything from my DOG’S self-esteem to decapitation by ceiling FAN.

A friend calls some of my worries, White Girl Worries, and I WORRY ABOUT THAT.

 BUT my anxiety ALSO extends to the COMPLICATED TERRITORY of relationships: with my mother, daughters, ex-husbands, boyfriends and therapists, who are like boyfriends, but who can’t dump ME.

 I am more Nora Ephron than Dr. Phil. I blog about worry, then I WORRY ABOUT BLOGGING.

 After I looked up an old beau in Paris, he took me to lunch where he choked on a chicken bone. He left abruptly and WENT MISSING for two days; I thought he had died. It would have been my fault FOR TRACKING HIM DOWN.

 When your daughter is in Colombia and hasn’t tweeted all day, IS IT EVERY MOTHER’S tweetmare that her kid is locked in the TRUNK OF A SEDAN?

After my divorce, I began searching for my popular, pre-marriage self. After an imaginary encounter with her, I no longer yearn (They stopped me right here mid-add-on sentence. Ordinarily I would never have started two sentences in a row with “after” . . . just sayin’) to be that shallow.

 Mothers and others can identify with my real worries and smile at my IMAGINED FEARS.

 Who knew it could be SO MUCH FUN TO WORRY?!

Everyone laughed. The panelists said they loved it. They said my pitch got weak at the end, which was the “redemptive” bit I had added right before they called on me. They said my book would be in the humor section. I said something about my essays, because personal essays are my genre—funny at times, but not “humor,” not Erma Bombeck.

“Don’t say ‘essays!’” the four panelists cried in unison. Apparently publishers disdain the word.

There had been so many good pitches that it took several minutes until the authors agreed on a winner, who would receive an introduction to an agent. “And the winner is . . . .” Not me.

The winner’s pitch was good, about his great uncle who was a sociopathic doctor. Among other things, the uncle cut off limbs, for example, of someone with an amputation fetish.

Before leaving, I approached the literary agent from the panel to say one of her clients is my friend. At the same moment, she was approaching me. “I want you to send me something ,” she said as she handed me her card.

I won after all! I thought as I floated out the door and onto my saddle.

The evening had gone so well that I worried I would get in a bike crash on my way home. But I didn’t. Then I unlocked my door all ready to say to Casey, “There you are, There you are,” at a high-pitch, the way I always do when I get home.

But Casey wasn’t there; I realized I’d gotten home safely, because the disaster in store for me—to offset my rousingly successful night—was that my Casey had died while I was gone.

Then, there he was, there he was . . . in his rarely-used doggie bed; I had dodged two bullets.

The next day, I sent the agent a few chapters and links to some of my blog posts. I haven’t heard back and I keep thinking how different they are from the one-liners in my pitch.

I also sent a thank you email to the authors, David and Arielle. Arielle replied appreciatively and then asked where I had gotten my yellow shoes.

Anyone else have anxiety about public speaking? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Check out some of my Home Goes Strong articles:


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