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Debut novelist Amy Sue Nathan lets go of appearance anxiety

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Publishing my first book was a major event in my life and it's been full of surprises. I didn't know my throat would tighten when strangers emailed photos of my novel in bookstores and airports. I didn't know that classmates who hadn't seen me in 30 years would announce that their “friend” had written a book. I didn't know the cure for a lukewarm review would be a rush of virtual hugs and similar tales from author friends, or that my publishing story would engender support from people who didn't know me at all.


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I love being a neophyte author. It's like that elusive sunny day in Chicago that warms me from the inside out. Because even though I have worked toward this goal for many years, everything to do with being a published author is still bright, and shiny, and new. Well, almost everything. Because the truth is, I have to admit, that when I imagined myself as a published author, I imagined a thinner, slightly improved version of myself. After all, I had 18 months until my book came out. Who couldn't drop a few dress sizes in a year and a half? That would be me.

For someone who covets lists and crossing things off them — milk, butter, eggs, book deal — this non-accomplishment is predictable, yet peculiar. I didn't lose the weight before my son's bar mitzvah or for a friend's black tie wedding at a luxury Chicago hotel. I didn't lose the weight for a weekend trip to the beach in Michigan — or for any vacation in the past 25 years. But because I've been happy and proud of achieving my lifelong goal of publishing a novel, I haven't chided myself on not losing the weight. Why would I? I like to focus on the positive, and besides, this notion of weight (losing it, not losing it, feeling good or bad about it), wasn't part of the story I'd written nor was it part of my story as an author. I prefer to write from imagination as opposed to from memory. I write what if and not what is.

But I've come to realize that in addition to letting go of the book and understanding that it belongs to readers as much as it does to me, I've also had to let go of how I appear to people, in public and — most especially — in photos. A friend at a book signing posts a photo on Facebook and my mouth is wide open. Not a good look. A reader posts a picture with my eyes half closed, another with a bra strap showing — and it wasn't intended as a fashion statement. Then, a newspaper photographer arrives at my home with lights, cameras and tripods, for a 90-minute photo shoot. He snaps hundreds of pictures before informing me I don't get to see them. Not one. I'd have to trust him to send the best shots to his editors. Then I'd have to trust their editors to choose a flattering photograph to run in the newspaper. And they did.

Gone are the days of cropping photos around my face. But that's OK. Because as much as I love to stand in front of friends and strangers, talking about everything from novels to Nutella, I realized something else: I love standing behind the podium. The podium hides my hips better than any photo-editing tool on the market. I stand behind it, hold onto it, lean on it, and sometimes — if I'm feeling brave — even step to the side of it. It's a prop of the best kind, and when I talk I'm not worried about lines or angles, good side or bad side, because the podium has got me covered. Literally.

But then I went to one particular bookstore event where there was a room full of readers and writers. There were book displays. Glasses of wine. Trendy snacks. But no podium in sight. What kind of a joint was this? Perhaps I could hold on to a stack of books. Stand behind the counter. Perch atop a chair so I looked taller. I didn't know what to do, but I knew one thing for sure. My copy of my paperback novel, dotted with sticky notes, and filled with papers, would not serve as an ample shield. I was a writer with tens of thousands of words published, but this time, it would really be all of me that everyone would see. Would how I looked affect the way my book was viewed? I didn't think so, but the truth was, I just wasn't sure.

I've always said I'd rather be the biggest girl in the room than, let's say, the town lush. And in that moment, getting up to read with no friendly podium to support me, I was wondering if I wouldn't rather be tipsy. I waited for the rush of dread, the lump in my throat, the instinct to retreat — and it didn't come. The fleeting sense of defectiveness subsided and was replaced with something close to acceptance. I realized something that was bigger than the book or my waistline: I didn't care. Not that I didn't care how I was perceived or how I looked or if the book sold or if I made people laugh or think. I just didn't care that I had to admit what people were seeing. It's not like standing behind a podium magically made me a size 6 or even a size 12. It's that I finally realized that the only person who didn't see me for who I am was me.

When I look at photos from that night at the bookstore, I finally see what everyone else sees. A debut author who smiles wide and often talks with her hands. Someone who throws her head back in laughter and nods when others are speaking. A woman who loves sharing thoughts and answering questions. A woman who was very happy to be there. Turns out I was the same woman without a podium as I was with one. Maybe even a little better. I've lived in six different cities since my kids were born, gotten divorced, raised those children on my own, abandoned toxic friendships and watched good friends have bad health crises. I'd even written a novel containing a snippet of my own life. What did I think I was hiding? And from whom?

This lack of control has granted me insight. That thing you're worried that other people will notice? No one cares. Not that I'm 49 and divorced. Not that the laundry isn't always folded. Not that the Spanx simply don't change much besides my own perception. I don't relish the idea of focusing on my weight and maybe that's just it: In all the ways it matters is as many ways as it doesn't. I'm glad to be judged by the merit of my work, by my approach to life, by my friendships, by my dedication to my children and even by the size of my heart — but not by the size of my rump.

Amy Sue Nathan lives in Flossmoor and her debut novel, "The Glass Wives," was published in May.

"The Glass Wives"

Amy Sue Nathan, St. Martin's Griffin, 288 pages, $26.99

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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