My life as a cabdriver/writer changed dramatically in 2004 with the release of my first book, Hackie: Cabdriving and Life. Until then, my writing was, by intention, almost entirely anonymous. Although the "Hackie" newspaper column had been around for many years, I never attached a photo to it, and I turned down the occasional request for interviews by the local media.
But, when the book came out, I realized I had to appear publicly to help sell the darn thing. I couldn't afford to be coy if I wanted to move the merchandise! So, I began to do book readings at bookstores, schools and organizations, along with TV and radio interviews.
I've gotten better at public speaking over the last three years. In the beginning I was so nervous that I couldn't even take a drink of water during my presentation lest the bottle shook so tremulously that the audience would catch on! But, like anything else in this world, you can improve on any activity by repetition and paying attention; slowly, but surely, I began to relax and enjoy the ride.
Part of the problem is that writing and speaking are surprisingly dissimilar activities. Just because I had the ability to express myself with some verve and clarity while sitting quietly and tapping at a keyboard doesn't exactly translate to standing in front of a room and talking out loud. But, as I said, I worked at it, and I learned and improved.
In a couple weeks, I'll be appearing at a creative writing class at CVU High School. More often I'm asked to speak at college classes, but I really enjoy being with teenagers.
A couple of years ago, I spoke at a high school class in Concord, New Hampshire. It was in a tough, working-class neighborhood, and don't ask me how they even heard about my book down there. I was introduced; I read a story; I spoke briefly about my approach to writing; and then I opened it up for Q & A.
The audience was a sea of hooded, bored faces, with a few scary-looking pierced noses in the mix. Finally, from the back of the room, a rugged, pocked-mark young man stood up and leveled a stare right at me. He wore baggy sweat pants and a Boston Patriots T-shirt. He asked, "How much'zya get paid for writing that book?"
Without missing a beat, I looked right back at him and said, "I got one million dollars."
I can still recall the sound of his jaw hitting the classroom floor.