Nag Champa Caves Cure Stage Fright


I did a reading on Valentine's night, at a bookstore called Stories. The reading was hosted by Amy Fusselman, who runs Ohio Edit and wrote The Pharmacist's Mate and 8 and the new book Savage Park which I'm reading right now and recommend to all. Saturday was the fifth reading I've ever done; the first happened about three years ago at my friend Sarah Tomlinson's birthday party at Covell. When Sarah invited me to do that reading I was psyched to be asked and told her yes right away, but in my head all I was saying was, "No, obviously not, there's no way in hell I'm getting up in some room and reading words I wrote to a bunch of strangers." Sarah had asked me a couple months in advance, and I kept up that nice warm state of denial to the point when she was introducing me at the reading. I remember standing there at Covell, listening to Sarah tell the crowd about me and thinking, "I don't know who this Elizabeth Barker she's talking about is, 'cause I'm certainly not going up there."

But then I did and it was...fine. Fantastic, even. I felt totally relaxed and only vaguely conscious of the part of my brain that was going "IT'S WEIRD THAT YOU'RE DOING OKAY WITH THIS." And last year I did three readings and they were all a good time, but none had the preternaturally chill vibes of my Covell experience. So before last Saturday I was trying to figure out why, and I kept coming back to the idea of caves. The ambience at Covell is cave-like; it's dark and cozy and candlelit and there's a feeling of everyone being huddled together - just a pack of lovely cavepeople, drinking their lovely wines.

A couple weeks ago I interviewed a cool songwriter who told me about going to write in Sweden in the middle of winter, when there's hardly any sunlight, and she talked about how good it was to spend all day writing in her cave. And that reminded me of how Jen May said that Strawberry Fields Whatever is our Pink Gemini Internet Cave, and also of the part in Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys where Viv Albertine says how she likes sweeping the floor because "there's something very healthy about keeping your own cave clean." Caves are where you're safe and you can make things and build your own little world, and it's impenetrable to the world outside. 

(That's Viv Albertine, crouched down between Paul Simonon and her boyfriend, Mick Jones)

I remember reading an interview with Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star about 20 years ago, and she talked about how she's painfully shy but when she's onstage she goes into another dimension, and that keeps her from feeling stage fright. Since I'm not sure I'm capable of crossing into another dimension on cue, I had this thought that if I could try to sink back into that Covell-cave feeling again, the stage fright wouldn't be so bad. Getting ready for my Valentine's reading, my thinking was that if I spent all day in a cave-dwelling kind of state, I could sustain that throughout the night; I could read at Stories without ever really leaving my cave. The spoiler alert is that it worked, so I figured that it might be of some kind of service to write about it. Because it's weird to me, how no other writers ever seem to talk about having stage fright at readings. I mean I suppose it's entirely possible that I'm the one fiction writer on the planet who is hyperintroverted and has anxiety about public speaking, but just in case - here's a little breakdown of my pre-reading cave-building experiences last Saturday:

I woke up a little after nine. I did that thing where you write as soon as you wake up, which is something I started at the beginning of the year and have found very helpful for my mood/overall wellbeing. (I've also slept so much better since I started writing first thing in the morning, which maybe has to do with stress?) Anyway, I wrote, and got up and drank a cup of the Yogi Tea I always drink when work is making me bonkers (the Stress Relief tea, which has kava and cinnamon and ginger and sarsaparilla). Then I went to my bank (not a cave-related activity), which is in Los Feliz. I parked far from the bank, and afterward just wandered around Los Feliz for a while: it was hot and beautiful out, and Vermont Avenue's good for wandering. I so love to watch the elegant people drinking champagne at Figaro in the morning sun.

I was also in the market for a new necklace to wear to the reading, and stopped into Leap and got myself a gold nameplate necklace that reads Capricorn in cursive. Then I went to 7-11 and bought a banana and a box of nag champa, ate the banana, walked over to the health food store on Hillhurst. At Lassen's I got a bottle of kombucha called Goodnight Rose, which I guess you're supposed to drink before you go to sleep. But I thought the bottle was so cute, and anyway "sleep-promoting" and "anxiety-reducing" are fairly similar, herbally speaking. I was afraid it would taste like perfume instead of like the rose petal tea I was hoping for, but really it tasted like a rosey soda, and I loved it. This is my kombucha with that gorgeous article on Joni Mitchell from the fashion issue of New York

By the time I got to my car it was early afternoon and I was wicked hungry and jonesing for a bagel from Noah's Bagels, so I drove over to Larchmont. The line at Salt & Straw was out the door and I wanted to go in and get a cone of Almond Brittle & Salted Ganache or whatever, but I went straight to Noah's and bought a Good Grains bagel, untoasted, so I could make a fried-egg-and-cream-cheese-on-bagel sandwich at home. Then I went home and made my perfect sandwich and ate it while watching last week's Mindy Project. Boy was I happy to see that Peter Prentice is still on! I hope Mindy continues talking to Peter on the phone forever, as he's my second-fave character (with Mindy and Danny tied for first place, and the midwives tied for a way-distant third). After that I rewatched the Courtney Love scenes from last week's Empire, including the part when Cookie makes Elle take off her fur coat and jewelry and makeup and extensions so that her pain can shine through when she's singing the bridge to "Take Me to the River."

Post-Courtney, I spent about nine hours trying to effectively photograph my new necklace + the amazing shirt I got from Avalon Vintage, which is a dream store for people who love rock & roll (I got this ripped-up U2 shirt there last fall and I'm still deeply in love). For some reason it was impossible to capture both the necklace and the shirt in the photo, and this was the best I could do. Oh well. Selfies are Soothing.

After my photo sesh I made a few last-minute changes to the piece I was going to be reading (an excerpt from my book, a flashback that involves Chips Ahoy cookies and Paul McCartney's sheepdog Martha). Earlier in the day I had an idea that I was going to go for a twilight stroll through Elysian Park, but instead I stayed in and tidied up my room and watched Taxi episodes on YouTube. Every couple years I go through a phase of wanting to watch Taxi all the time: its melancholy and sweetness are pacifying to me, and pretty closely match my own narrative sensibilities. On Friday night I came home from getting dinner downtown at Bar + Kitchen* with Rachel and Tracey and ended up watching the episode where Latka's grandmother dies and leaves him her cookie recipe, and it turns out the cookies are made with cocaine. On Saturday I watched a couple more episodes, including the one where Elaine and Bobby are briefly roommates and Elaine drinks some sort of orange wine and wears this fly jumpsuit:

*really great burger with gruyere, pickled red onions, and VIOLET MUSTARD, plus french fries and tempranillo, and they were projecting Fast Times at Ridgemont High on the wall, the whole thing twice in a row. Four stars! 

Note: from the Taxi-watching point on, I burned a whole lot of nag champa. Nag champa is a key element of my cave-building; it smells like every teenage bedroom I've ever lived in or invented in fiction. If I end up perishing due to nag-champa-induced asphyxiation I guess they'll all say, "Well, she kept doing those readings. She really made a go of it."

After Taxi I started getting ready, took a long hot coconutty shower and put on this adorable violet-blue prairie-girl dress and my motorcycle boots. I had a cup of red wine in the little Moroccan tea glass I bought one day last summer after writing Moroccan tea glasses into my book and then driving past a Moroccan store that was going out of business and selling everything at an insane discount. I painted my nails a shimmery red and gave my eyes a light dusting of pinkish-gold eyeshadow. I drank lots of water so my throat wouldn't be all dry and scratchy, and I halfway-watched part of Moonstruck. This Nicolas Cage moment lightened me up, as it always does:

And then I went to Stories. And it was really wonderful. All the readers were so wonderful. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see, as Linus van Pelt would say. themegoman was our MC and he sang the words "Strawberry Fields Whatever" to the tune of "Strawberry Fields Forever" during my introduction, and at the end of the reading he did an acapella version of "Love is the Drug" by Roxy Music, and it was breathtaking. I felt good when I was up there reading, although I truly have no specific memory of those eight minutes. Afterward my pals and I went out for a late supper at the Vietnamese place across the street, and I had chicken wings and rosé and the restaurant played "E=MC2" by Big Audio Dynamite starring Mick Jones. Then I went back to my cave and made the odd Valentine's Day choice of watching Leaving Las Vegas, and then I started Savage Park, and then I went to sleep. The next day I went to Sadie's birthday party on the patio of El Chavito and when I sat down next to Hallie she asked, "Do you smell nag champa?" Oh man.

So that's it. Nag champa caves cure performance anxiety. Also, if you don't know Ohio Edit then now's a perfect time to get on that: a couple weeks ago they ran a short story of mine called The Moon Is Not a Last Resort, and LJ's had these three pieces published there, and Jen's contributed lots of artwork (including the illustrations here and here and here and here). Jen also made that Stevie Nicks collage at the top of this post - it originally ran on The Rumblr, and the reason it's here is that my Ohio Edit story's slightly Stevie Nicks-focused. While I was writing that story I went into a cave of listening to the Midnight Special version of "Rhiannon" about a hundred times a day. I also listened to "Magic Box" by Helium and "The Voyager" by Jenny Lewis a billion times each, but "Rhiannon" was the main event. I want to live inside the alternate lyrics and all the screaming and the crazy guitar of that last minute. I wanna live in Stevie's hair.


  1. Kudos for goin through with it. When I get anxiety like that the cave will not spare me. But I do the cave thing anyway because, as you noted, caves are awesome. I thought of the cave scenes in Dead Poets Society while reading this.

  2. your food / beverage mentions make me crave those things! also i am totally with you re: Peter on the Mindy Proj! <3