the thing about my brain that makes book events challenging

This week was the NYC Teen Author Festival, which is always a blast. It’s so much fun to get to see lots of my author and reader friends in one place, and it’s so inspiring to hear other writers discuss their craft and their new books. This year I attended Tuesday’s panel at the Jersey City WORD and the Saturday symposiums at the NYPL. I also spoke on a panel on Wednesday night, and I felt honored to be on a panel with writers whose work I admire so much. Finally, today was the blow-out Books of Wonder signing, which loads and loads of readers came to, and many of them said such nice things about my books, which made me feel great.

Even though this week was obviously so fun, I do find events like the Teen Author Festival to be stressful. And I wanted to take a moment here to explain why.

The reason is because I have a disorder called “prosopagnosia,” which is just a fancy word for face-blindness. And that is just a fancy way of saying that my brain doesn’t record and recognize faces in the way that most other people’s brains do.

Like everything else that happens in the brain, facial recognition operates on a sliding scale. Take, for example, attention spans. Some people have fantastically good attention spans. Most people’s attention spans aren’t fantastically good, but are sufficient. Some people have such poor attention spans that they are considered “disordered”; thus, the term “attention deficit disorder,” or ADD.

Facial recognition is the same way. Some people are amazing at it, like my high-school friend Emily. Emily can see somebody once on the subway and recognize him again two months later in another part of town. She can see an old classmate for the first time in two decades and recognize her instantly.

Most people aren’t as skilled at facial recognition as Emily. But, for the most part, they recognize a co-worker even if they run into her at the mall. If they’re introduced to a new person in the kitchen of a house party, they will recognize that person when they see her an hour later in the living room of that same house party. Stuff like that. I can’t do that. That’s what it means to have a facial recognition disorder.

If you’re interested in understanding more about how people with face-blindness figure out whom they are talking to, I recommend reading this webpage. I can reassure you here that I have a lot of ways to figure out who people are, based on context and haircuts and posture and all sorts of other clues.

And eventually I do learn who people are. There are some people with prosopagnosia who never learn to recognize themselves in the mirror. I don’t have that problem. I recognize my parents and my friends, even if I see them in a place I wouldn’t expect. When I meet somebody a number of times in one-on-one contexts, I learn his face.

But events like the Teen Author Festival are hard for me because I am seeing a lot of new faces all at the same time. And a lot of these faces look similar to me–i.e. white-skinned women with brownish hair. At my panel on Wednesday, I met a number of kind, complimentary readers. Some of them I re-met at the signing today. I didn’t recognize them. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t process our conversations, that their thoughtful words about my books didn’t resonate with me, that I didn’t pay attention to personal information they provided about themselves. On the contrary, I listen very carefully to the things readers tell me, and I take their words home with me. I just don’t associate those words and ideas with faces.

I love going to events where everybody wears name tags. I don’t always need to look at the name tags, but it makes me feel more comfortable to know that I can look if I need to.

I love doing signings where people in line write their name on a Post-It and stick it on the book’s title page, so I don’t have to ask, “Whom should I personalize this for?” and have them say, “Me, duh, your mom’s friend’s daughter; we’ve met like ten times, remember?”

If we’re at a book event where there are no name tags, and there are no Post-Its for you to write your name on, it never hurts to re-introduce yourself. I’d never be offended. If you say, “Hi, Leila, it’s so good to see you again! Belinda–we met at BEA,” then I can just say, “Oh my gosh, Belinda! It’s so great to see you again!”

I know it can sometimes be a nerve-wracking experience to meet an author. I remember the first time I met Dave Barry, who was (and still is) my idol–I thought I was going to throw up from nerves! I just didn’t want to say anything stupid to him, anything I would regret, and I didn’t want him to say anything that would disappoint me when I’d built him up so much in my mind.

We authors never want to be a disappointment. And I hate to think that I might ever disappoint a reader by not recognizing her, that I might ever make her think she’s not important enough to be on my radar. So I just wanted to put this out here, where all my readers can see it: you are important to me. And while I may not always remember your face, I will always remember you.