The assignment was for each team of two to research their assigned organ and give an oral report. This announcement promptly caused my first panic attack, I was in 6th grade. Elyse Pector and I researched and wrote our report complete with a beautiful full color diagram of the lungs that included a comprehensive key at the bottom of the oak tag poster. As the day approached I found out that Elyse was not happy about the oral presentation either and we were both dreading it. Unfortunately for Elyse, in the face of fear I can lie like a mofo and did. On the morning of the presentation I told her that I had some kind of disease that if I spoke in public it would cause me to fall down in fits, or some such. I don’t remember exactly what I said the disease would do other than public speaking would make things worse. The details of this are lost because I pulled the story out of my ass moments before the spotlight hit us and I was as stunned to hear of my affliction as she was. The story worked, I stood swaying in front of the class holding the lung poster as poor Elyse delivered our whole report. I did my best not to faint in giving up my part of the lung presentation and I was successful.
My fear of public speaking, the spotlight and being seen all run together and are a muddy mess. I do better being seen one on one and in small classes. Crowds or public forums make my head buzz, my stomach flip and I get tunnel vision almost instantly. Tunnel vision is a telltale sign of fainting for me. I have been successful and not so successful in avoiding this collapsing into a heap in the most unfortunate and unflattering circumstances. For a writer this is not good, because as we get better, as we grow in audience we are called on to stand up and read our work. Even on the path to build an audience we maybe incited to go to a poetry open mic night and read our work. Those of us who write are all driven to do so for different reasons. I think that is true for anyone who creates; there is this internal whisper, nudge or shove to explore thought and emotion in some way. At the end of the creating comes show and tell however.
A little over two years ago I decided to push myself to read some of my poetry at an open mic night. I was with an ex who is a better poet than I and he was going to read. I don’t believe he finds reading his work easy or comfortable as he is, or rather was, somewhat shy and a raving introvert. On what I believe was our second poetry reading he signed up, yet again, to mount the stage and put himself out there. I struggled with doing the same; I had my printed three-poem limit, as dictated by the guidelines of the event, in my pocket and was twitching badly at the thought of reading them. My ex was good at inspiring and supporting but never pushing. He was a quiet solid force when he was at his best. In being so he gave me call on courage to write my name on that damned list half way through the night causing me to spend the rest of the night in dread. I worked myself into a tizzy and almost backed out of doing it after every poet got up and down from the podium. He had read already and sat and just smiled waiting with me for my name to be called. I was almost last if not last and a wreck by the time my turn came. With bad poetry in hand, and I am not being modest here, I delivered a sweaty, shaky, mumbley three poems and ran. I sucked and so did facing my fear but I did it nonetheless because if I didn’t it would grow.
This past December I was notified that one of my short stories was selected to be printed in this year’s edition of the San Diego Writers Ink Anthology volume IV. I had not submitted my work in a very long time so it was a stunner and a gift. It is said each problem holds a gift for us; we create the problem because we are in need of that gift. I believe that to be true, I also believe the flip side of that coin to be true. That we receive gifts because they come with lessons or baggage to unpack. This gift’s baggage was the opportunity to read my piece at the book launch party on 2/15/11, yikes. Being the evolved soul that I am I promptly turned into a big girls blouse and ran. I said to the Executive Director in my email, “thanks but no thanks I am a writer not a reader.”
Her response was, “too bad, I think it would read well and I loved it.” I was suckered in by a sweet talking stranger who loved one of my ‘children.’ I, coy at first, responded, “really, you think it would read well?” And we went from there. Within an email or two I had turned reader/writer-complement-ho and was locked in to edit my piece down to 3 minutes and read it on the night of the book launch. FFM. I hit send on the confirmation email and regretted it immediately but I knew it was the right thing to do. I hated myself for it, but it was true. I was due to meet the aforementioned ex for dinner and on my walk up to the restaurant I called my BFF John to calm me down, build me up and make me laugh. I generally get all three when I talk to him, which is why he is my go-to-middle-of-the night-emergency-room-guy. John assured me that not only was I ready, I would be great. He went on to say it was also the exact right thing to do now. Then he added emphasis on “like right effing now”. Which meant two things: one, the stars were aligned and he knew something I didn’t know, and two, I was interrupting his consumption of after dinner pie. He’s a complicated guy what can I say.
Within the next 24 hours I had little to no time to think about reading as I got sick and hopped on a plane for Denver to attend my fabulous sidekick Marsue’s art opening of her encaustic work. The show was a brilliant success and there was much celebrating, drinking of champagne, some writing and late nights giving way to the flu on day 4 of my visit. I remained sick for the next three weeks coughing, sneezing and sounding very much like the love child of Bea Arthur and Elmer Fudd. I had only invited two people to the reading; I was embarrassed about the recognition and about the opportunity to read. I came to understand I did not believe I was good enough or worthy of the praise. I got sicker as the night got closer and lost my voice three days before the reading in an absolutely brilliant case of self-sabotage. As we all know crazy is and crazy does. What was happening was that I was having trouble owning my voice and standing up for myself and my work so I lost it. I buried it. I kind of knew this as the weeks went on but when I lost my voice it was as crystal clear but not until I owned what I was doing and said it out loud to someone did I start to mend. On the advice of my fabulous sidekick Ms. M I called a few more people to celebrate sharing my work. I became lighter and did not fret that I could not practice reading my piece before the big night. I did not fret that if I talked to long I hacked and coughed so hard people were afraid I would produce a lung.
My old fear was clear and present but it was not the loudest voice in my head. The love, support and good ju-ju I got from near and far all day from those I love and respect came pouring in and buoyed me. The band of supporters with me that night–who took pictures, toasted me, and when it came time clapped for me no matter what–made me feel wonderful.
It turned out I was number 33 out of 37 authors. Just like the night at the poetry reading I was almost dead last, crap. This allowed me more time to obsess if I gave myself over to the fear. My friends listened for almost two hours enjoying the authors and I did my best to be in the moment and not focus on the crazy scenarios dancing in my head. Number one on that hit parade was the fear that I would trip in route or on stage and have my dress over my head in an instant–very real and quite possible given some of my other stunts. Yes, I did say stage. This event was held in the Cygnet Theater downtown, complete with stage, lights, photographer, podium and yes microphone. Yikes! This was as big as it gets for me and the scariest thing I have done in years–and I do some scary stuff on a regular basis as those who know me can attest.
In the beginning of the night the prose and poetry editors read their introductions and I got a nice surprise. The prose editor referenced a few of the readings in her introduction. My work was one of them, WOW! Each time someone who doesn’t know and love me notices my work I feel validated on some level, that I can reach people with my writing. I am not sure that is good or bad, it just is. I write because I need to, it’s part of the package. Some days I do it well, others not so much, but I try. My gift is that in the process of doing this I get to enjoy the challenge of putting what I know, feel, believe to be true, and yes the crazy too, onto the page. The night of the reading I showed up for myself, I owned my voice and did well, hell I got laughs from a theater of people, it doesn’t get much better than that for me. I am not interested in being a literary star; I just want to tell my truth and if along the way it rings true for others, enlightens them or makes them laugh I did my job. If I can do all that without having to give up a lung, that’s progress!