This is kind of a memoir I wrote for someone who’s currently writing a book about public speaking and anxiety. I thought I’d share it here, you know, just ’cause. I hope you enjoy.
During my final semester of college, a couple of guys came to me asking if I wanted to participate in a public poetry reading they had set up with their English instructor. I said, “Sure,” because… I don’t know why, it just seemed like the thing to do, and told them about the poetry class I was in. They visited the class and got a number of students to sign up for the reading, a few of them sounding very excited about it. My poetry instructor also promised to attend and read some of her poetry. We were pretty close friends at the time so I felt better about standing up and reading my own poetry.
The day came, I showed up to the presentation area about a half-hour early and met up with one of the two guys who informed me that all but two of the students from my class had pulled out of the reading. Okay, at least there were going to be three people there who I knew and could maybe find some comfort with. See, my strategy for getting through a public speaking event was pretty simple: find a couple of people in the audience who I’m comfortable with and only make eye contact with them while speaking. Essentially, it was like putting a spotlight on who it is I’m comfortable talking to, dimming the lights on everyone else, and making myself feel like I was having a casual conversation with only those people I was comfortable with. Terrible strategy, I know. And here’s why: over the next fifteen to twenty minutes, the other two students from my class who hadn’t yet canceled, called in and canceled. There are things people want to do, but life gets in the way, you know.
To make matters worse, people were filing in, people I had never met or even seen before. That was scary. With people I’ve met, at least I know what to expect from them. I know how to talk to them. I know the things that make them smile or laugh; the things that may offend them. I know that I’ve already said something stupid in front of them and they were okay with it. But people I’ve never met? How would they react to the poems I was going to read? How many of them were there because they were genuinely interested in poetry? How many of them were simply there to collect the extra credit points the English instructor had offered them for being there? How many of them would hate me the very moment they laid eyes on me? Or worse, be indifferent to me? At least hate is a form of caring, a reaction I can play to. Indifference makes me feel like I don’t matter, like I’m not worth caring about either way, love or hate.
To make matters doubly worse, my poetry instructor and pretty close friend hadn’t shown up yet and I wasn’t sure if I could rely on her to show up. Maybe she got busy with something else or simply forgot. With all of this crap floating in my mind, I exited the presentation area, sitting at a table outside. This crap still floated around my mind as the poetry reading began with an introduction by the English instructor. As I heard things getting underway, and as my heart started beating faster than a heart was made to beat, I struck a deal with the universe: if my instructor didn’t show up within the next five minutes, I would make a quiet getaway, hoping no one would notice my escape. And hoping those two guys who asked me to be there would be kind enough to show me some indifference about it.
I sat as one minute ticked by. I consistently looked to the entrance of the speaking area as I sat and another minute ticked by. As the next minute ticked by, I started to feel calm, like the universe was giving me an out. I wouldn’t have to do this public speaking thing after all. The fourth minute goes by, slow as can be. I swear, the more you concentrate on the passage of time, the more it slows way the heck down. In the fifth and final minute, as I counted down the seconds, I feel a gentle tug on my shoulder from nobody I could discern was there, turned my head, and there, walking up the sidewalk to the entrance was my poetry instructor and pretty close friend, beaming a smile at me as she asked, “Have they started?”
“Yeah,” I said, standing up while, in my mind, cursing out the universe for not allowing me to get out of this reading. Looking back, that mental cursing probably distracted me from the sudden nervousness I should’ve been feeling at that point.
We entered together and sat along a side wall, so we wouldn’t disturb anyone, as the introduction came to an end. One of the two guys managing the reading came up to us and gave us the order in which we’d be going up. After the first five or six readings, there would be a short break then my instructor would read the four poems she brought followed by me reading three of my poems.
The first five or six readings went by much faster than the increasing pounding in my chest would’ve preferred. With the five minute break announced, I began talking with my pretty close friend about what she was planning to read. I love her poetry and the way she reads it, so I was feeling like she would be the highlight of the night. Her poems were about female empowerment, so she would at least get the women on her side, I thought. I then showed her a poem I brought but wasn’t planning to read, a Valentine’s poem I wrote for… I’m not sure yet. I felt like it was the best piece I’ve ever written. But I wasn’t about to read it in front of a live audience who were likely to judge it at every turn, maybe even display puzzled faces at the abnormal images in the poem. After reading it, my instructor smiled big and told me how much she enjoyed it. That helped only slightly, but it helped.
As the break came to an end and everyone who I had never met before, let alone even seen before returned to their seats, my instructor went up to the microphone and read each of her poems with the wonderful joy and excitement the craft of writing always brought to her. I was amazed by how comfortable she was in front of the crowd… who shared neither the joy nor the excitement she was displaying, even the women, who I thought would be consistently shouting, “Amen!” during her reading. But… nothing. All they did was sit there quietly, respectfully, throughout her reading. All I did was sit there wondering how much deep shit I was going to be in when I got up there to read my poems. Seriously, my instructor was one of the most charismatic people I’ve met. If she couldn’t take hold of a crowd, no one could. I was in about as much trouble as the number of goosebumps sprouting all over my body.
The crowd applauded as my instructor took a bow and came walking back to where we were sitting. My heart began racing itself. That’s what it felt like, anyway. You know, when you’re running so fast in circles that you start lapping yourself. My arms began to quiver as did my legs. I didn’t know how I was going to make it up to the microphone, much less make it through the reading.
Taking a place beside the microphone, nervously shuffling my papers as I focused on my instructor and the way she proudly smiled at me, I gave my name followed by a quick statement on why I’m interested in poetry. In all honesty, I can’t remember what I said to the question of why I’m interested in poetry. Hell, I can’t remember if I said my name correctly. All I remember is scanning the audience, feeling the brightness of everyone’s eyes on me, like spotlights that were blinding my vision. Taking as subtle of a deep breath as I could, because what’s worse than being a nervous wreck is looking like a nervous wreck, I tried to recall the short introductions I was going to recite before reading each of my three poems.
The first introduction was kind of clever in that I started saying something serious about life getting you down and about being consistently knocked down and having to get back up again. I then ended the serious introduction by saying something like, “This first poem is about that very thing. It’s called Dear Flappy Bird.” The laughter from the audience, just from the reading of the title, jolted me. It was the first time this whole time that they had reacted to anything. They were laughing. And they were laughing with me rather than at me. That felt nice. I became less nervous as I took another subtle deep breath and read my poem, which elicited more laughter because of how painfully simplistic it is. I mean, even Forrest Gump wouldn’t write a poem as stupid as Dear Flappy Bird. But they laughed. They liked it. They showed enjoyment. And afterward, someone actually wanted to discuss the poem, commenting to me about the way Flappy Bird hitting a wall, falling down, and getting back up again just to hit another wall and fall down again really does symbolize the way we go through our struggles in life.
I introduced the second poem, Of All That So Mindfully Wanders, which was inspired by the encouragement of imagination in the movie Saving Mr. Banks. As I began to read it, I noticed one person in the crowd inching up in his seat, paying closer attention to me as if he was actually interested in what I was about to read. That also felt nice. The poem wasn’t humorous, however, so I expected no laughter and that’s exactly what happened. But something else happened that began untangling my feelings of niceness and less nervousness: I stumbled over a line near the end of my poem. That didn’t feel so nice. Suddenly, my mind was once again being enveloped by thoughts of feeling judged, of people thinking I couldn’t talk right or something because I tripped over this one line, because my reading wasn’t as perfect as I felt it should’ve been.
With the applause following my second poem, I quickly switched over to my final poem and introduced it. The one thing I kept repeating in my head was, “Don’t get Allen Ginsberg wrong.” I gave a very (I mean, extremely) brief history of Allen Ginsberg and his work Howl, which contains a poem he wrote called Footnote to Howl. My final poem was an emulation of his poem; I called it Shoutout to Footnote.
As I began reading it, I stumbled out of the gate. There was that not talking right thing again, and my mind flooding with all of the harsh judgments they were probably mentally laying on me now. I kept going, however, picturing the way James Franco, playing Ginsberg in the movie Howl, read Footnote to Howl, and pictured myself reading Shoutout to Footnote exactly the same way. But I wanted to get through it quickly. So I did something I shouldn’t have done: I stopped breathing. Through the first two poems, I kept reminding myself to take a breath after every few lines, kept myself reading at a slower pace so that my body would feel as normally relaxed as it could. With this final poem, though, I panicked. I just wanted to get it done. And it didn’t help that James Franco delivered a magnificent performance in which he built up to a grand crescendo before bringing it down as he went into the final lines of the poem. I was doing the same thing, building up to a grand crescendo. However, I was also denying myself of life-giving breath. I could feel my hands begin to shake, along with my arms. The shakes moved down to my legs, where I wondered if I would be able to stand as long as it would take to finish reading my poem. I forced all of my body weight onto the one leg I felt wasn’t about to buckle any second now. I wondered how completely noticeable my shaking was to everyone.
But as I peeked up to the crowd, I could see their eyes weren’t focused on my body, they were focused on my words. What I was reading was a poem I had written about accepting everyone for who they were, no matter their race, religion, or sexual preference. The audience seemed to be into that. It was also helped that I threw in a couple of lines that drew laughter. I guess mentioning the Jedi when talking about religion is a surefire way of getting that type of a response.
I kept shaking, however, uncontrollably. Despite the laughter and the attention being on what I was saying rather than on what my body was doing, the shaking got worse. I was literally fighting it while reading the final lines. And as the crowd offered a thunderous applause, the largest and most genuine applause anyone had gotten up to that point in the entire poetry reading, I flashed a smile as I rushed away from the microphone… but not terribly fast because what’s worse than rushing away from the microphone is looking like you’re rushing away from the microphone.
I walked back to the proud smile of my poetry instructor and pretty close friend, who was applauding along with everyone else. She leaned toward me and said she had to leave and wondered if I needed a ride somewhere. I very eagerly said, “Yes,” as all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there so I could finally calm down. In the car, she told me how amazed she was by my reading, how I was able to grab the audience and keep hold of them throughout. I asked if she noticed me shaking like California was finally going under the sea and she gave me a puzzled look, saying, “No. I didn’t notice anything like that. You looked really confident.” Hearing those words surprised the crap out of me. It was totally strange that what I was thinking and what I was feeling and what my body was physically doing, was completely contrary to how other people viewed me. It was like the one person in the room who thought I was a shitty public speaker was me.