Recently, Len Edgerly interviewed me for his podcast The Kindle Chronicles. Len was gracious and entertaining, the model of a genial, intelligent, and well-informed host—even so, afterwards I couldn’t help but feel that I had come up short as an interview subject. I had stammered, answered flat on occasion, and I’d completely forgotten to mention any of the books published by my company, Backlit Fiction (thankfully Len brought up The Start-Up series). What just happened? I wondered. Why hadn’t I prepared talking points that would dazzle an audience? Why did I think I could just hop on Skype and effortlessly rattle off insightful and entertaining sound bites?
Naturally, it’s my wife’s fault.
As with many couples, my wife and I tend to divide up the skills in the relationship. There is some overlap, of course—thanks to twin toddlers, we’re both pros at diaper changing—but in general we avoid duplication as it’s a poor apportioning of resources. So, for example, while she excels at preparing elaborate and impressive dinners for guests, I focus on quick and easy mid-week fare for the family. Laundry? Gardening? My wife. Grocery shopping? Deep-frying? Stepping on a slug in bare feet and squealing girlishly? Me.
This back-and-forth distribution of skills has become so natural that I rarely even think about it anymore. When a situation arises, the person in the relationship most comfortable or skilled in its execution steps forward. And, sure enough, everything gets handled pretty well. Unfortunately, there’s an unexpected hazard to this system, which I discovered last week. And it’s this: confusing the selection of a skill based on preference with one based on ability.
My wife is perfectly capable of making Old El Paso tacos out of the box—she just doesn’t want to, whereas I love it. And vice versa with giving the kids a bath; we can both do it well enough but she likes it more, so she does it. However, when it comes to something like giving an interview, my wife—who as an actress has been interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of times—is significantly more skilled than I am. She’s personable, eloquent, connects easily, and tells memorable and funny anecdotes—everything you want out of an interview subject. Whereas I am still learning how to give answers that are compelling, concise, and at no point involve the word “awesome.”
The strangest part was that this was a discovery I should have made years ago. In 2008, the creator of my wife’s tv show offered me a tiny cameo. She and my wife thought it would be a fun, playful in-joke to spice up that week’s shooting. (“We can drive in to work together!” Molly announced, revealing much of the appeal for her.) What I was too embarrassed to admit at the time, however, was that I am a very bad actor. My weakness is simple: it is almost impossible for me to forget that someone is watching me. I get self-conscious, stiff, and worry about what I’m doing (Am I blinking too much? Is my smile weird? Why aren’t I taller?) Point a camera at me and, for an excruciating moment, all of the awkwardness of adolescence comes rushing in to overwhelm any adult sensibility and confidence I’ve amassed over the years.
Despite my anxiety, I wasn’t about to turn down the chance to appear on television. All that week I practiced my line—“Ann?”—I recited it while brushing my teeth, while opening the pantry, while pouring the milk into my kashi puffs (gotta get fit for tv!). I tried out different inflections: surprised, excited, flirtatious, confused, happy, bewildered, guileless, bemused, always in search of the perfect tone. And then the day of shooting came, and I sat nervously on-set in the background, waiting for my cue. I heard the line, and I strolled over (Don’t blink, don’t blink), smiled at my wife who was pretending not to be my wife… and that was it. We shot it three more times and then wrapped the scene. One week of preparation and it was over in minutes.
It was the speed of the experience that stuck with me, the startling and unforgiving immediacy. Whether performing a scene or giving an interview, once you’ve said it, it’s out there. Writing, however, is a private act of near-endless revision. I am perpetually rephrasing, reshaping, taking the ending and swapping it with the beginning, manipulating and fussing and kneading sentences. The performance of writing never concludes. It is only abandoned for another, newer, equally private struggle….
Alas, I’m beginning to sound theatrical. Having learned my lesson—now twice—I’ll leave dramatic intonation to the eminent and well-established talents of my wife.