As a kid, I was always pretty shy, but up until age 12 or so, public speaking didn't really bother me. I won the poetry/short story contest in my home town until they discontinued the contest, and I always had to read what I had written at the summer festival when I got the certificate or whatever it was I won (I seriously don't remember now...that's funny). I also did the public speaking competition for 4-H for several years (and yes, I won that one, too, until I quit 4-H because I hated it and thought it was a waste of time). I'm not entirely sure why I won that one. Looking back, I'm not entirely sure that "Mother and Son" by Langston Hughes was all that meaningful coming out of a 10-year-olds mouth...although they may have been impressed that I could remember all of "Father William" by Lewis Carroll. Who knows.
So anyway, for a long time, I was totally fine with public speaking and reading my writing. I was in a couple plays, but it really wasn't my thing. It was fun, but I'm certainly not a born actress. I am not sure what changed, or when it changed, but by the time I got to college, I hated public speaking. Maybe it was starting college at age 14 and trying (unsuccessfully) to sneak by unnoticed in my writing classes. I have no idea. All I know, is that by the time I was actually in real college at 17, I would get physically sick before giving presentations. I had an extremely difficult time speaking in class. Luckily (though I wouldn't have admitted this at the time), I went to a college and was in a department that was big on presentations. I gave many of them and, by the time I graduated, I could handle giving academic presentations and contributing to class discussions on occasion. I had to push myself, and I hated it with a passion, but I could do it.
I was writing relatively regularly at this point, but I only shared it with very few people. Most of my writing from this time period has never been read by anyone else. At this point, it's going to stay that way. If you had asked me to read something I had written (something not academic) in front of others, I would have laughed in your face. There was no way in hell that was ever going to happen. In grad school, I lightened up a bit with all this, and had to do presentations all the freaking time, so I can talk academic-speak in front of people with no problem. I share some of my writing here. But reading my work aloud, in front of other actual living people is terrifying. It feels like handing them a piece of my soul and just hoping they'll take care of it. Part of me always expects nobody to "get it," or to tell me it's a shitty poem, or to laugh at it, or...I don't actually know why it's so nerve-wracking or what it is I expect people to do. It's just really freaking scary.
It's even worse when other people are reading. If it's just me, and there is nobody to compare me to, it's a tiny bit easier. But when there are others, they are automatically about 500 times better than me in my mind, just because they're not me. I don't even need to hear what they're going to read. They could read total utter crap, and I'm still going to think they rocked it.
So at any rate, I've mostly dealt with this insecurity by not dealing with it. But today, I decided to tackle it. So I did. I went to that damn poetry reading--alone--and I signed up for the open mic, and I read a poem. And the world did not cave in. No tomatoes were thrown. All my words came out in English and fully formed. I didn't forget any words, and no dead poet rose from his grave to kill me for the abomination of reading a shitty poem out loud.
And, as if that wasn't fantastic enough, people actually really liked it! And they told me so. I went between two men, neither of which I heard because I was completely overwhelmed and self-absorbed immediately prior to and following my turn. However, I came out of myself long enough to hear the man who followed me say, "I have to go after THAT!?! Who wants to follow THAT!?!" Everybody laughed and my face turned red. I felt bad, even though I didn't really want to. Maybe I should have read a different poem, I thought briefly. How I wish I could think things like, "sucks to be you, buddy!" in those moments instead. I'm pretty sure I'd be a completely different person, if that was the case, but damn...I think that would feel good.
Afterwards, I was approached by several people--including one of the featured poet people--who all wanted to know where I was published (nowhere), where else I read (nowhere), how long I have been performing (I haven't), and if I had a card (I don't). Because the story of my life is that everybody from the clerk at the grocery store to the janitor at work to the man next to me on the metro wants to tell me their life story, a woman came and was very sweet to me about my poem, and then proceeded to tell me about her menopause symptoms, her bitter divorce, and her mother's death. She said she could tell that I was quiet, like her (like who!?!), and that "sometimes quiet people have the most to say, when you stop to listen." I believe that with all of my heart and always have. In the remainder of this 5 minute conversation (we covered a lot of ground in a very short time), she told me that, while she was listening to my poem, she got a mental image of a picture she had seen once. In this picture, there was a woman who looked like me who was looking into the mirror. The actual woman had a big pair of angel wings--but she couldn't see those wings in the mirror. "We never see who we truly are," she told me, before walking away.
I'm still not entirely sure what to make of this. Crazy lady? Or is there a message I'm supposed to get take from it?