Hazel McHaffie


Out of left field

Well, this was a first, and it taught me a useful lesson.

I’m a great believer in thorough preparation. Whatever the occasion. Could be a sign of insecurity … or obsessive tendencies … or whatever, I don’t know. But I need to feel in command of the situation, in order to relax into the actual event. When it comes to speaking appointments, I do my homework, try to be totally to grips with my material, have a clear structure and aim in my head, blend humour into serious material, and make sure I’m respecting the parameters of the commission. Even so, mishaps do happen. I remember once, years ago, being unable to use my slides at a big conference because the feet on their carousel had melted! Ever after I carried my own. And another occasion where a lady in the audience became unconscious and caused a major incident.  But this week a very different unexpected event came out of left field.

As part of Book Week Scotland, I’d been invited to our local library to talk about my writing life and latest publication. Our local librarians are lovely enthusiastic people, so thank you, I should enjoy doing that. I love the fact that libraries use my work in their bookclubs. And it should be a breeze – if I hadn’t got that information at my fingertips, I was in the wrong job! Well, it should have been …

First hiccup – a streaming cold out of the blue two days before it. I went into overdrive with medicaments and positive thinking, snatched sleep and distraction therapies. I’d protect my throat by keeping silent most of the day beforehand. I’d take the car to the library instead of irritating my fragile chest with cold air. So, when I stood up to speak, no one would have suspected the battle I’d had to reach that point.

Next hiccup – a mere five minutes in, the fire alarms started up. Speaking above that level of decibels would strain the hardiest of vocal chords! But the librarian indicated to continue, it’d just be a false alarm, and went out to investigate … only to return with the instruction the building was to be evacuated, the fire brigade were on their way. Freezing temperatures outside, chatting in the icy air … I could feel my raw throat and chest palpably tightening. It took a further twenty minutes for the fire crew to arrive, pin down the problem, and let us back in. Twenty minutes to outwardly respond to conversation with all those hardy souls prepared to wait and not abandon ship (all of them!), whilst inwardly revising the structure and content of my talk. Mercifully it was completely without notes or slides so there was no need to do anything physical, and since no one else knew what I’d planned to cover, they were quite unaware of the mental gymnastics to accommodate the changed time frame.

A salutary lesson for me: you can never be totally prepared for all eventualities; accept vicissitudes with good grace. And useful reinforcement of a piece of advice given to me very early on in my speaking career: ‘if you’re feeling out of your depth, at least look the part!’


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Perfectionism is the writer’s besetting sin. Every book is flawed or even failed copy of the ideal book that existed in your mind before you began. And every book is, at some level, a correction of the one that went before.‘ So goes the editorial in the Spring edition of The Author.

How true. I used to have a sticker on my computer that said, ‘Perfection is always one more draft away‘, but I took it down in the end because … well, you know me!  Mrs An-inch-away-from-obsessive. I’d have been putting off publication date ad infinitum. In the end ‘good enough’ has to do, or the jolly old title will never see the light of day.

Over my Dead BodyBut I think it’s this abiding awareness of imperfection that’s partly what makes it such a joy to go out to meet real live folk who’ve read the books and love them, to listen to their comments and generous commendation. They come to the stories without all my baggage and yet they enter into the lives of the characters and talk about them as if they too know them personally. All very confirming.

I’ve been doing quite a lot of author appearances since Over my Dead Body came out, and people are so kind. So thank you, librarians, event organisers, audiences, readers – keep up the good work. We writers need you, just as you need us. And never underestimate the value of your feedback. If for any reason you can’t get to an event to speak to us face to face, pop a comment on our websites, or post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. We love to hear from you.

OK, my mind might have been wandering down the track of never being quite good enough, but that’s made me more aware of other kinds of perfection in our amazing world:SwanPoppySpider's webWe can’t go out and photograph the human brain but how amazingly crafted it is to be capable of conjuring up fictitious scenes and people so vividly that other brains can picture them and feel their emotions merely through black squiggles on white paper. Imagine that! I am lost in wonder.

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Honorable invitation

BlossomWhy a picture of spring blossom? Read on …

It’s a few years now since I left academic life behind, but I still get occasional requests to fulfil roles relating to my former life which are gratifying but must be declined in everybody’s best interests. I always said I wouldn’t become a dinosaur on the conference circuit and I’ve held to that resolve – even when very tempting genuine invitations came from Canada and New Zealand (two countries I’ve always wanted to visit).

But the letter that arrived here from the States a few weeks ago was doubly delightful – not just an unexpected and courteous request, but one couched in extravagant terms to boot, which I why I’m sharing it with you. The age of chivalry is not dead.

InvitationIt was headed ‘Honorable invitation’, and the text began by ‘soliciting’ my ‘gracious presence’ at a forthcoming World Congress in the USA. ‘Gracious presence’ … me?? They would be both ‘pleased and honored’ if I would ‘consent to be their speaker’. I mean, how could one resist such a charmingly fulsome request?

And no, it wasn’t junk mail; the conference actually exists. But I’m under no illusions: I am not the honorable gracious presence who could best fit their prestigious bill. Scraping the barrel comes to mind!

I duly crawled back down from this virtual pedestal and burrowed back into my secluded and unknown study where I scribbled on in splendid isolation. Ah yes, but I am emerging three times this month to honour other less flamboyant invitations: two to speak in libraries, one to a bookclub. Not international, not hugely prestigious, but much more realistic. And fun! In one of them the audience was made up entirely of young adults – all bookworms! Wonderful.

I know my level.

BlossomRather like the beautiful tree to one side of our house: one week gorgeous blossom at its best, admired and appreciated; next week petal confetti blowing in the wind, lightly resting in all sorts of places. Nevertheless still nourishing the ground it sinks into. Here endeth the lesson!

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