by Stephen Lee Naish
Instead of the words rolling off the tongue, for some unexplained reason they seem to echo around inside my cheeks and wedge themselves behind my teeth. I revert to the safe ‘Oh me? I work for the library here in Kingston.’ Still a fact, but hardly one that generates much enthusiasm. Another great aspect of being a writer is being willing and able to read your writing aloud to an audience. Book signings, audience Q&As, presentations, literary festivals. The world is your oyster when it comes to opportunities to stand up and read words you have written. When I daydreamed about this scenario, as I yet again struggled to knock out another half decent sentence on my laptop, I worked the audience with the knowledge and articulation of Chris Hedges, the charisma of Steve Jobs, and the wit of Charles Bukowski. A fantasy for sure as at that time I was barely capable of reaming off the previous day's sales to my bookselling colleagues at the morning briefings without turning rouge and drying up like a prune.
It wasn't always like this. When I was a kid I'd shock my parents by getting up on stage to tell jokes to rooms full of drunk adults (admittedly an easy crowd to please!). I sang and danced in a production of Oliver, and no word of a lie, actually cherish the experience to this day. Maybe I had cuteness on my side.
The last year, though full of defining moments in my writing life, has also dealt some harsh truths. I am entirely an introvert, and I am also terrified at the thought of speaking in front of an audience. I am content to sit in front of my screen pouring out polemics about films, society, culture, even Canadian coffee house, Tim Hortons, but I'm not able to stand up and open the discussion, at least not in a public space. The times I have spoken in public, and they are few, have been horrendous experiences. People often state that ‘it gets better the more you do it,’ and I'm sure that is the case, at least for them. For me it seems to get progressively worse. Thinking back to some recent incidents makes me shudder in shame. Running out of a venue five minutes before I was due on stage to an audience of only 20 people was not a proud moment. It still gives me a headache even thinking about it. Looking back on the times when I organised a tiny short film festival in a bar that seated barely 30 people and had to give the opening prologue, which descended into mumbles, sighs, and then awkward silence from myself and the audience, still makes my skin crawl.
When you suffer from stage fright you are inexplicably aware of almost every single body movement: a curve of the lip, a twitch of the finger, a closing of one eye. You begin to wonder how these actions are making you appear to the audience. This suddenly becomes your core concern. Recently, whilst re-watching the first-season of Friends, Chandler Bing summed this up when he weighed up the decision to go and talk to a beautiful woman: ‘I'm very, very aware of my tongue.’ Then a strange external shutdown begins and you enter into a place where all your internal chemicals combine in a twisted science experiment overseen by the ghost of Timothy Leary. At that precise moment you become aware of the growth of your own fingernails and hair. Star Wars fans might say this sounds a lot like The Force, though it offers no such powers. If this is what The Force feels like then it most certainly is the Dark Side. All the water in the Pacific Ocean couldn't quench the thirst in your mouth. Any liquid in your body instantly runs away from the mouth and accumulates under the armpits, the back, the forehead, and fills the bladder within a few seconds.
At this moment a vital decision has to be made. Fight or flight. I've done both and neither is desirable. To continue talking whilst your body goes into some sort of death-like paralysis is to reopen every physical and emotional wound you've ever acquired in your entire life. It's like having to confess to the entire audience that you have had frequent sex with both their mothers and fathers. To admit defeat and withdraw is to feel a momentary sense of relief, even euphoria, as your adrenaline returns and your heart rate slows. Yet this option lingers for years as the worst of the two. When you stick it to the end, the audience sides with you, even though they may or may not be aware of your dilemma, they consider you brave. When you run, the audience's perspective is that you've taken the cowardly way out.
From my own point of view, nobody wins in either scenario. I lose because of all the above. The audience loses because they have to witness all the above. To randomly bring in one of my own literary heroes to sign off, Charles Bukowski was a great public talker. Fuelled by booze, a devil's grin and a bibliography of solid writing, he flattered and insulted the audience in equal measure. His gravestone at Green Hills Memorial Park in Los Angeles reads ‘DON'T TRY’. For me this is the best advice.