If your book is as buzzy as Julia Bartz’s debut thriller, “The Writing Retreat,” you know what’s in your future: Podiums. Microphones. Even worse, lavalier mics! And of course: people in folding chairs, quizzically wrinkling their foreheads.
Bartz shelved two unpublished novels before channeling her frustration into this dark story about a failed writer. (Perhaps unsurprisingly considering the universality of the subject, it was an instant best seller.) But, for Bartz, the ghosts of old rejections paled in comparison to the looming specter of public speaking, which is an important component of an author tour. In a phone interview, she described her fear as “particularly intense,” to the extent that her throat used to close up at the thought of talking in front of a group. Bartz knew she needed help, so made an appointment with Erika Ackerman, a somatic therapist and voice coach who works with actors and performers.
Ackerman helped Bartz tame her demons — by paying attention to her body, being honest and vulnerable with audiences, and approaching each book event as an opportunity for connection rather than as a performance. The pair also worked together to identify where these demons came from. “I unpacked growing up and being told not to speak, on many different levels,” Bartz said. “I grew up in a Christian environment and wasn’t allowed to share the problematic things I was seeing there.”
Bartz also found courage in the experience of her maternal grandmother, Marianne Denes, a Holocaust survivor from Budapest who now lives in Kalamazoo, Mich. In a memoir Denes wrote for her family, she described what it was like to live in a country that was controlled by the Hungarian Communist Party under Stalin. “We walked around in a mask for years, never saying what we really thought,” she wrote. “I am convinced that the hardest thing to endure had been the pressure caused by losing the right to say what one thought and repressing the ‘illegal’ thought one might have had.”
Bartz first read Denes’s account in 2000, when she was 15 years old. But her grandmother’s belief in the power of having a voice — and the importance of using it — took on new meaning as the author contemplated her slate of book talks. The circumstances and context were very different, of course, but Bartz knew the time had come to lift her own voice.
How’s it going so far? “People have been complimenting me about my public speaking after events to the point where it’s surprising and a little unnerving,” Bartz said. “I’ve been able to speak out and hopefully help people feel more empowered and less shame as artists or just as people. That’s given me a lot of confidence.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”
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