Now that I've been around for a while, new writers sometimes tell me how terrified they are of reading in public. All I have to offer them is enormous, sincere sympathy and the story of how I started my public life as a writer.
No one warns us that we can't hermit in our garrets and only leave to buy more Amy's frozen dinners. No one tells us that writers don't merely write, we also must market. No one tells us in college speech classes that it's not over with the semester - we'll have to keep speaking to rooms and auditoriums filled with people for the rest of our shy lives.
It's another trick, like the one where they lead us on to think we can earn enough in royalties to be able to write full time when in reality we'll be working at jobs full time and squeezing in a paragraph here and there when the boss isn't looking.
The first time I read to a group, I was so scared I cried. The story was about a couple of schoolteachers in the closet and the glimpse they had of freedom. I hadn't realized the depth of my sadness about their situation, but, in my fear at reading aloud, especially in Tee Corinne's living room, especially to a large group of mostly back-to-the land pilgrims to the rural northwest, especially as I'm an urban Yankee - I got all emotional about the story and cried in front of them.
I thought, humiliated and relieved, that was the end. No one would ever want me to read my work again. But the audience loved it. Crying made me real to them, a dyke who wrote their stories. They enveloped me in their warmth.
This experience should have made my next reading less daunting. My publishers had laughed and told me I'd better get used to it. Again, I was in a living room, this time back east. I was so scared I was practically comatose. The fact that I knew these women made the experience more, not less, frightening. I started to read, stumbled, got more anxious and then the cat who lived there jumped on my lap. In front, as cats are wont to do, of my reading material.
There could have been no better ice breaker. The audience laughed. I felt visited by my totem animal. It was as if a caring hand had come and lifted enough of my fear that I could give something to the audience rather than steel myself against them.
My fear made me inaccessible. I wanted them to disappear, I wanted a spaceship to land in the middle of the living room and take the focus off me. I also wanted to share something with these people I was writing for. Reading aloud was for them, not for me, and I needed to change my focus away from my fear and toward these readers with their expectant faces.
Did I learn my lesson? Of course not. The third time I was on a conference panel. I was teamed up with some very accomplished women, including Jewelle Gomez and two filmmakers. My publishers were in the audience. Was this a moment I had dreamed of all my life? A pinnacle? The opportunity of a lifetime?
I spent most of the 24 hours before the panel on the toilet, or with my head in the toilet. I missed a meeting to prepare - my mind was frozen. This was not something I had the courage to do and it wasn't something I could get out of doing. The room was gargantuan. The faces dissolved in the tears I tried not to shed. I was weak and dizzy from hunger. My hands shook, but not as badly as one of the other panelist's hands. I remember reassuring her, this veteran of two appearances. That's all I remember. I was a block of wood, or ice. Or a scared little dyke writer.
I was like today's new writers who quail when it's their turn to read.
Here's what I did. I learned to speak with my higher power: goddess, universe, my own highest spirit, it doesn't matter. I began to take a few minutes to ask for help in giving the audience what they needed. I breathe slowly and deeply. I envision a personification of that higher power holding my hand. I even take a small dose of a tranquilizer to dissolve the fear chemicals in me. My wife hugs or holds me, whichever I need. We both hang out with the audience, introducing ourselves, exchanging a few words, breaking down artificial walls. So many readers and writers are as shy as I am.
Does the stage fright ever go away? Not entirely for me, but with exposure, time, practicing the steps that calm me, I usually don't embarrass myself. Last month at In Other Words in Portland, Oregon, there were seven of us reading. I remember assuring one scared little dyke that, for the most part, readers would rather like us than not. When I let myself like them back, instead of fearing them, and remember that I'm there for the readers, not me, reading in public becomes a kind of holy lesbian ritual that enhances us all.
© 2011 Lee Lynch
Lee Lynch, Author of Sweet Creek from Bold Strokes Books