My Most Embarrassing Moment


(while doing a book reading)


Yes, it’s True Confession time once again. This time, I am motivated by a recent post from Kathy Pooler on Seven Lessons I’ve Learned About Doing Book Readings.


As I mentioned in my comment there, I enjoy the book readings that come with having a book for sale.

In addition to doing readings at book stores and libraries, I’ve spoken in schools, Rotary Clubs, and other social or educational groups. While my talks to school groups focus on how culture impacts food, table manners, and clothing, and how to spell and pronounce the word Kazakhstan, when I speak to adults, I talk about:

  • joining the Peace Corps as an older, married volunteer;
  • how important it is, as our world gets smaller and smaller, to appreciate cultural differences among our fellow human beings, (with a few ideas on how to do that); or
  • the revolution that’s happening in the publishing world and how the explosion of self-publishing options has changed the face of publishing.


It was that last topic that drew me to the Rocky River Public Library in Ohio last October. Dubbed, Presenting Self-Published Authors, the panel of three was moderated by Michael Heaton, the self-proclaimed “Minister of Culture” who writes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (and, even more exciting for me, the brother of Patricia Heaton … yes, the Everybody Loves Patricia Heaton.).


Michael Heaton’s FB profile picture



Meanwhile, along a parallel path


I’d recently gone from my book’s second edition (typos fixed and a bit more fleshing out of the marital subplot) to my third edition.

This third edition had become necessary only after the second edition reached Kazakhstan, when I learned I’d used the wrong patronymic for my counterpart Gulzhahan on the Dedication page! Without thinking, I’d used the patronymic of my colleague Gulzhan. I had to fix my faux pas.


Thinking what better time to bring in a professional proof-reader, I had the entire manuscript, digital version as well as print, reread with a professional fine-toothed comb.


I might as well make it perfect, I told myself.

Perfect.  Is there really such a thing?  Maybe the Taj Mahal, or the Mona Lisa.  Certainly not a book. At least not my book.

But I didn’t know that yet.


The as-close-to-perfect-as-I-was-going-to-get Third Edition was finally released in early October and with my departure for Ohio for my upcoming talk looming, I had the twenty books I ordered for the event delivered to my son Jon in Ohio, where I’d pick them up the day before my Rocky River evening.


Oh, so clever of me.



Thanks to
Thanks to


Yes.  That was a red flag.


Back to my Rocky River gig


It wasn’t billed as a book reading, so I didn’t bother to read over any passages I might be reading that evening, as had been my pattern with all of the previous book readings I’d done. I didn’t even bother to open the new books. They’d been proofed after all.  This time, professionally.

We would be given the opportunity to sign and sell our books following the panel discussion, so I brought the box of books straight from Jon’s house, stopping only long enough to cut open the mailing carton and move them into a rolling duffle bag on wheels that I use to cart my books around.

I placed a few of my newly-perfect books on the table with me during our panel discussion.  I might need them for a visual aid, after all. The rest were stacked on a back table where we would sit for the signing.


The event was well-planned and, since I’d gotten my new “now perfect” book in time, I decided my experience working with the proof reader would nicely inform my presentation.


My message to the audience was clear: Pay the money and do it right.

I bemoaned the prevalence of poorly proofed books.

Self-published authors, I told my listeners, have enough of an uphill path to climb as we strive to counter the stigma of self-published as “less than.”

And just as we will all benefit as the industry gets more professional, we also suffer when any self-published book comes out that is unprofessional.

Whether it’s how the headers and pagination are formatted, the quality of the cover, or the readability of the text, all parts of every book are important as our industry combats the public perception of self-publishing as a path of last resort.

We need to take our job as publisher as seriously as we take our job as writer.


Thanks to for the image.
Thanks to for the image.


If we are going to self-publish, then for heaven’s sake pay the money to have your work professionally proofed. After all, I had just done that and I was proud that I had. And I believe I lifted one of my books and fanned it for the audience to see.

Trust me, I was pretty obnoxious about this.


We were three very different writers.

Karl Bort, to my left, was a nurse and former Cleveland police detective who now wrote crime fiction. He spoke about his writing process, which included hiring a ghost writer.


Kate Elizabeth Nagel, on my right, was a life coach who used her very personal memoir in gaining new clients.


And there was me, with a memoir of my two years as an older, married Peace Corps volunteer, preaching about the need to put out a quality product.


The discussion flowed smoothly, Michael asked good questions of each of us and moved us along quickly. Then he suggested we each read the first page of our book.
“Just the first page,” he emphasized.


Karl read his first four pages, stopping at the first logical place to end. His opening scene was gripping.


Then it was my turn.  I was stoked. I love my first page. After all, it’s the page that without a doubt had been edited, tightened, tweaked, and proofed more than any other page. I had no concerns as I opened my book to Chapter One, Arrival, and began to read the first four paragraphs on the page. I thought I’d probably go on through the end of that first section, just two and a half pages, as Karl had just done.


I was 55 when I stepped off that train into blinding sunshine and a new life in Kazakhstan, half a world away from the life I’d had in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. …


To do this, I’d left behind a life I loved, given away a dog I adored, and abandoned the financial security that my work in Philadelphia had promised. …


The day my husband Woody and I got off that train, we’d already been in Kazakhstan for nearly three months, …


I was a few words into the fourth paragraph when I stopped cold. These were odd words I was now reading.

I recognized them as ones that had once lived in my About the Author page at the back of the book. “Delete them,” I’d told her.


But you know how sometimes the text you CUT gets placed on your CLIP BOARD? I can only guess that this is what happened and that somehow, at some unexpected moment, the words got pasted over the original sentence, replacing it.   So, rather than reading my expected fourth topic sentence:


Our assigned destination was Zhezkazgan, a town once controlled by the now defunct Soviet Union and built with the labor from the gulags to house the workers for the nearby copper mines.


I was reading:


I’m working on several more books, including two for children: a chapter book, Grandma Goes to Kazakhstan, and a picture book, Two Bunnies.


Thanks to for image
Thanks to for image

Some public speakers would have been very good at covering up such a mistake.  Perhaps some authors might even have remembered the missing sentence and recited it.


Not me.


Thanks to for the image


“This isn’t supposed to be here,” I proclaimed, rather loudly. And I scanned the page, expecting the missing words to pop out at me. Then I tried reading the next sentence,

It wasn’t much like my City of Brotherly Love, which had been laid out in a systematic grid pattern by the Quaker William Penn in the 17th century, …

But that wasn’t going to work. There was no referent to the “It.” There is a reason we were taught to write topic sentences in grade school!

“Excuse me a minute,” I added and hurriedly flipped to the About the Author page at the back, hoping to discover that the two sentences had somehow been simply switched.

“This is a sentence that was to be deleted. It’s not supposed to be here.” I explained. “I’m looking for the right one.”


Alas. It was not to be found. And I could not conjure it up, try as I might.


“Well, that’s a mystery,” I declared to the room and I closed my book. “I’m so sorry. I will need to get this fixed.” I hadn’t even read the full first page, never mind the nearly three pages of the first section.


Michael moved on to Kate, who gave a flawless presentation. But then, she’s a life coach.


My fourth edition came out soon after, with my shiny new Moritz Thomsen prize medallion on the cover. And my Fifth Edition arrived here at the house just last week. I wanted to tighten up my backstory in Chapter Two.

My book is still not perfect. And I realize now that it never will be. And that, I keep reminding myself, is OK.

How about you? With what tales of your own embarrassment can you comfort me?


Next Wednesday: The social function of embarrassment


10 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I can picture you telling us this story as we were sitting in your sun porch in Chincoteague. For all the embarrassment, at least you have a great story. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril. Yes, there is a certain entertainment value that embarrassing moments offer. At least, after sufficient time has elapsed.

      Thanks for starting us off.

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Like Merril, I can recall the oral rendition of your story with compelling body language last month. I recited your tale to Cliff because it’s hilarious – and also because he “reads” only audio books.

    Before this, your readers thought you were a goddess. (After all, you say you are married to Zeus!) Now they know you’re human like the rest of us.

    I’m happy to hear you are working on children’s books. Kids love whimsy and don’t flinch at anyone showing vulnerability.

    My tale doesn’t involve a book reading, but prancing down the main aisle at church with my skirt hitched up the back as I reverently placed my pledge at the altar. Ushers wouldn’t touch me to pull the skirt down, Cliff was too close behind me to notice, but my girlfriends in a back row wouldn’t let me hear the end of it. Like you, I survived and have a story to tell.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Is it irony in both our stories, Marian? Is that why (in time) they are funny? As I envision you, heading toward the sacred, with anything but, trailing behind — I chuckle. Just as in mine, holding forth my book as the epitome of perfection (well, a bit of hyperbole can’t hurt) only to have it come crashing down. Thank goodness for laughter to save us from ourselves.

  3. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    I wish I could have heard this story in person too, Janet. I would have died with you but laughed with you also. Glad to know you have corrected those problems and now have a “perfect for now” book. No one writes a completely perfect one, as you know.

    Now, let me see. Of all my embarrassing moments, (when I BLUSHed). Which one to choose? I have one which I would have told in person but will not put into print. Let that tantalize you.

    I face embarrassment when someone I have met in the past comes up to me and says, “Do you remember me?” With great expectation written on his or her face. I’ve met so many people at this advanced stage in life, and I find it impossible to remember all their names. I’m very grateful when someone says, “Hi, I’m ____. We met at ___” I try to remember to do the same when I reconnect with someone after many years. Of course, it’s twice as embarrassing if I can’t remember your name at lunch time after you told me at breakfast. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      And tantalize me, it does! I must find a way to grab that cup of tea with you.

      Then I can recount the board meeting where I was to thank volunteers. Two men in particular had been a big help: Joe Dick and Dick Ruth. I’ll save the punch line for another time.

      I know what you mean about all those names. Funny how some people present themselves as though of course we’d remember! I tend to assume people will not remember me. Then I can be pleasantly surprised.

      Thanks for adding to the collection, Shirley. Always good to hear from you.

  4. Laurie
    | Reply

    Nothing nearly as professional, but I write the newsletter for our neighborhood association (3000 families). The fall newsletter was due out in October and my dad died the last week of Sept. I told the board, “NO problem, I have bereavement time off and it will keep me occupied.” One board member pushed back a bit, telling me not to push myself and just be. Didn’t listen. The president usually looks over my draft and I make notes to myself: insert here, and XXX. I know what it means, but its nonsense to anyone else.
    You guessed it. I left those notes in 🙁 Someone asked at a neighborhood event what [insert here] meant. I was so embarrassed.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks for that, Laurie. I find it so freeing to look back and see things from the different perspective that time gives us. And, I want to tell you I also feel sad as l hear your story. Grief is powerful, cunning, and baffling. And it sounds like it gave you a one-two punch you weren’t expecting.

      I’m so glad you added your story. Thanks again.

  5. Cheryl
    | Reply

    Hello Janet! Don’t we all love to hear about others’ embarrassing moments! I was actually squirming for you while reading your post – I wanted it to have a happy ending, not the one it had in reality. I’m going to be a spoil-sport and not tell you an embarrassing story about myself. Maybe I’ll come back at a later date and tell you one then. Thank you for the funny read. Visiting from Esme’s Senior Salon
    Cheryl recently posted…My Husband is a Spiderman FanMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you for the squirm, Cheryl and welcome to And So It Goes.

      I’m becoming more and more convinced as the years go by that embarrassment is connected to our identity: when that identity gets threatened (my “competent self-published author” identity in this case) embarrassment is the result. So long as I have other equally valid identities, I think I’ll survive. Thanks so much for your welcome support.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Meet Lindsay de FelizMy Profile

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