I’m Melting: Thoughts on Reading Your Work in Public

By Jillian Avalon

audio-2941753_1920 (2).jpg

           I am not a nervous speaker. I believe it was Seinfeld who said that most funeral guests would prefer to be in the casket rather than give the eulogy. However, I never experienced the paralyzing fear of public speaking so many people suffer, as anyone who knows me will testify.

           I was a performative child, as most children begin and many children outgrow. I danced, sang, acted, and spoke without fear of my audience, no matter the size, age, or setting, and I could not identify with professional performers who admitted to vomiting before every show. What was there to fear?

           It took me twenty-six years to experience stage fright. I signed up for a Friday reading slot at my MFA residency. I selected a reading I felt good about, and I practiced it meticulously. Muscle memory is essential to a good performance, no matter how good or bad the material, and I was determined to have this piece ingrained. Friday, I resolved, would be nothing.

           The symptoms began before breakfast: muscle tightness, stomach flipping, occasional trembling whenever I thought about the reading. I started second-guessing my selection. Was it the right tone? Had I picked a section that was a poor representation of the voice of my character? Was it well-written at all? I waded through my work for the day, increasingly worried that I had made a mistake, either in my selection or in signing up to read at all. I imagined that horrible smattering of polite applause, which sounds suspiciously like normal applause, but with a measured, muted quality that signaled no one actually liked the performance.

"Three minutes of my life did not feel like three minutes. I was still shaking when I sat. I took deep breaths, rubbed the sweat from my hands on my lap, listened and applauded the other readers. My stomach wouldn’t settle."

The half hour before I was to read, I was well past anxious. I felt carsick. My hands were shaking. My too-empty stomach flipped and squirmed. I could see where the sweat from my hands smudged the pages I was to read.

           My friend told me it would be fine, and I knew she was right.

           “It would be fine,” I told myself. I would go into auto-pilot, read my piece as I’d practiced. I would not die if I got polite applause. But it felt suspiciously like death.

           My hands still shook when I took the podium. I worried my voice would sound as queasy as I felt. In the winter, the teacher who had worked on my piece wasn’t present, but he was in the summer. And worse than simply being present, he is one of those listeners whose body language telegraphs listening and draws the eye. I looked up the first time at the audience, as trained, and I saw him leaning forward, and I felt dizzy.

           Three minutes of my life did not feel like three minutes. I was still shaking when I sat. I took deep breaths, rubbed the sweat from my hands on my lap, listened and applauded the other readers. My stomach wouldn’t settle. I told myself it would pass by the end of dinner. A bit of a boost to the blood sugar, some time for the adrenaline drop to level out. It would be fine. Some people would say they liked it and I would feel better.

           The food did not settle my stomach. The trembling didn’t stop. I did get compliments, but it mysteriously made things worse. Each compliment from a professor made the nerves spike on the scale again, and I admitted to one that I still felt a mess when I left dinner early and hurried back to our meeting place for the next event.

           She assured me this was normal. She said reading is her least favorite part of the program. Coming in the previous summer, I would not have understood her, but walking beside her with my stomach doing incomprehensible acrobatics and my fingers vibrating like a plucked guitar string, I knew exactly what she meant. I paced alone for half an hour, and even then my nerves only settled to the levels from breakfast.

           It wasn’t all bad, though. I got good feedback on the section, and I slept better that night than any other during the week. And I was left with an important question to mull over. Why was reading my words so different from every other performance I’d done in my life?

           At first, I thought it was something about the stage. In dance and theatre, I usually had bright lights blocking the audience from view. But this wasn’t always true, and almost no musical performance I’d done had this benefit. I certainly had never had a public speaking engagement where I couldn’t see faces.

           Then I thought about content. With dancing, acting, singing, playing, I am taking content created by someone else and sharing it with the world. I am a vessel for someone else’s expression. If it doesn’t go well, I perform something else and move on.

           But my writing is mine. It is what matters most. If ithe reading doesn’t go well, if people don’t like it, it isn’t a matter of performing something else tomorrow. Those words are a bit of my soul, which I’ve spent years forming and crafting and imagining.

           I'm still not a nervous speaker. I'd still rather give the eulogy than lay in the casket. And I'd still describe myself as performative. I wouldn't stop forcing myself to read, because I think it is good for me. But I have resigned myself to a life of hours of before-and-after agony on a reading day, and I do not imagine it will go away. In fact, I am fairly certain this is one of those things that only gets worse with practice.

Jillian Avalon is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.