Yesterday, I did something I am proud of. It was a small thing by some people’s standards, but by my standards, it was a small victory. Yesterday afternoon, I held my breath (almost literally) and then I did something I was afraid of.
I attended an open-mic poetry event at Café Tiramisu sponsored by the Edmonton Poetry Festival. The last Saturday of every month, the organization hosts a reading. Most months, there are featured readers followed by a few slots to people who sign up to read their work. This month, as a pre-Christmas event, the whole afternoon was open-mic. I invited Shannon, a woman I go to school with at MacEwan University and who is in my poetry class. We both said we’d bring something to read, but we also both said we didn’t think we’d do it because we rarely share our poetry with people we know, much less a room full of complete strangers who are also poets.
Although I taught for fifteen years, public speaking is something I have always hated. In junior high school, I was so terrified to give my grade eight speech that I was “sick” on the day I was supposed to speak. My anxiety was amped up a notch because the speaking order was determined alphabetically by last name; Anderson was, of course, first (as was frequently the case for things like speeches and needles). When I didn’t show up at the class on speech day, I still had to speak the next day… when nobody else had to do a speech because everyone had gotten it over with the day before. My stalling due to fear had not only not saved me from trauma, but it actually intensified and prolonged it! When my speech and I made it into the next round of speeches in the multi-class competition, I was horrified that I’d have to do it all again in front of an even larger group. While I wanted to hide, I did actually get up and give the speech, but it was an awful experience: drumming heartbeat, clammy and shaky hands, quavering voice.
To this day, decades later, speaking in front of crowds still brings on those same feelings. (People might say “yeah, but you were a teacher,” but trust me, it’s not the same thing, even though it might seem like it.) Last semester, I took a speech writing class, and while I learned a great deal, I did not enjoy giving the speeches I wrote. There is something terrifying to me about reading my own work in front of others, and my shyness means I have no dramatic presence, so I feel awkward and uncool (regardless of whether others perceive me that way).
All of those old memories and feelings should have led me to withdraw from reading yesterday, and believe me, I wanted to. But somehow—maybe because I was with a colleague who I don’t know well, and I didn’t want to be a chicken—I found the courage to get up there, in a brightly lit and microphoned venue, and read one of my poems out loud to a room full of strangers.
Did my heartbeat drum? Absolutely. Were my hands clammy and shaky? Certainly. Did my voice quaver? Probably (but I can’t tell how the audience heard it). The amazing thing is, despite all those physical symptoms for those few minutes, I didn’t throw up, pass out or drop dead. I got to the end of the poem, heard the applause (whether genuine or polite, I don’t know, and truly, it doesn’t matter in some ways) and returned to my seat—unharmed by the experience.
I stared down something I was afraid to do then I did it anyway—and it felt great. That doesn’t mean I will no longer be afraid to share my work in public, but it does mean that I will consider doing it again. Because I suspect the more I do it, the less scary it will become, and the less scary it becomes, the more I will do it.
I am afraid of many things, but I also believe you should do what you fear because stretching yourself is how you grow. Facing my fear of public recitation of my poetry is only one of the fears I have faced, and without doubt many of the fears I have pushed past have led to the best parts of my life. So, to everyone I say, “Do what you fear. You might surprise yourself.”
What fear will you overcome this week or this month or this year?