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Year ago, I went back to school as a mature-age student to study writing and editing. Part of the course requirements, I found out, were classroom presentations and (at least) two public readings at an event the course hosted monthly. Both prospects horrified me. The course, however, understood that if you’re going to be a writer, you will at some point need to conduct yourself publicly, e.g. at a launch, or readings.

Come the night I had to read, I appeared calm – years of dealing with anxiety had taught me to hide what was going on inside, but I was terrified I would mess up, and grew short of breath (a common anxiety symptom for me). I kept psyching myself up, though. I kept telling myself I would be ‘fantastic’. Not ‘good’ or ‘okay’ or that everything would be ‘fine’. I had to aim high. If I missed, I would land thereabouts in the vicinity of ‘fantastic’. If I aimed moderately (e.g. okay) and missed, I would land in the region of ‘below average’ (ewww) or ‘terrible’.

In the end, I was good. Not brilliant or anything, but good, and that was enough for me. Best of all, nobody knew how nervous I had been.

Come the day of the class presentations, we (students) gathered in the hallway, waiting to be let into the auditorium. Another mature-age student sat on the floor, back against the wall, on the verge of the panic attack. I knelt by her and told her she would be fine. She responded, ‘Not everybody is as confident as you, Les.’

Ha. She had no idea what was going on inside my head.

Over the last thirty years (and more), I’ve dealt (on and off) with conditions such as anxiety, depression, and OCD. For about a five-year period I was agoraphobic, and struggled to get out of my safety zone. Even now if I go somewhere new, it rears up. So going into a course and fraternising with strangers, and then being required to present myself publicly was always going to be difficult, regardless how I conducted myself externally.

When I came out of the course, I’d developed a newfound confidence, and because of my background with neuroses pursued speaking opportunities first with SANE, and then with beyondblue. With everything I’d gone through, I figured I had something to offer others through lived experience.

I did a number of talks, always nervous early but eventually falling into a rhythm. My most difficult engagement was at Broadmeadows Police Station, where I talked in general about anxiety and depression in front of a group of detectives and uniformed officers. When I walked away from that, I told myself if I could do that talk, I could do anything.

Something I’ve learned – not only through my own journey in public speaking, but also in dealing with anxiety – is that it’s the pressure we put on ourselves that undoes us.

As far as public speaking/readings go, it’s that fear that we’re going to mess up, that people will think poorly of us, that we’ll be so embarrassed we’ll never be able to show our faces again.

My attitude to those fears – and others of their ilk – has become simply this: Who cares?

If we mess up, so what? For many, the first stumble lights the fuse to detonation. If I mess up now, I’ve learned to stop, reset, and continue as normal. If people think poorly of us, that’s more an indictment of them – that they’re laughing at somebody’s misfortune – than us. And if neither of those things matter (or anything along those lines), we shouldn’t be embarrassed. And even if we are, again, so what? There’s worse things in the world – illness, violence, poverty, etc.

In reality, reading in public is no different to reading aloud to ourselves. It’s not an audience who applies pressure. It’s ourselves, by introducing the belief that an audience is judging us. Once that pressure is removed – once we think, Who cares? – so is the self-judgement. And once that goes, public speaking/reading becomes simpler.

If you are somebody who grows nervous, think about it that way the next time an opportunity presents itself.

 
As an aside …
The date for the launch of August Falling has been set: Sunday, 2nd September, 2.00pm, at Buck Mulligan’s in Northcote. If you’re free I’d love for you to come along.

And if you’re not, I’d still love for you to come along.

(But being that it’s also Father’s Day that day, I’ll understand if you can’t.)

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If I asked you to guess what jobs were being advertised here …

    1. WANTED
    Do you spend all your time thinking about how to hurt people? How to torment them? How to torture them? Are there no depths you’ve haven’t ploughed? Ruin their relationships, destroy their families, dredge up the secrets from their past, and set them onto a course to oblivion? Do you not only contemplate all these courses – and more – but also take delight in them? Do you relish the damage that you can do? Do you take joy in your own cleverness? Do you take your plans and go over and over and over them, trying to perfect them?

     
    2. WANTED
    Interested in concocting plans of violence and destruction? Rob a bank. Kidnap and ask for a ransom. Commit an amazing murder. Commit many murders. Hurt and maim and kill. Devastate. And elude and befuddle the authorities. Taunt them, wherever possible. Show them up as incompetent. Celebrate your most heinous glories for all the world to see and fear, while mocking everybody else’s safety and security.

     
    3. WANTED
    Are you capable of threatening democracy? Of rattling its foundations? Perhaps you can bring down a government. Set bombs and rob the everyday people of their security. Destroy strategic targets and let civilisation know that the day of reckoning is near. Threaten to burn the world in pursuit of your own ideals, or a radical refurbishment of life as we know it.

… what would you say?

Your answers might be:

    1. Homewrecker / Narcissist
    2. Murderer / Kidnapper / Serial Killer
    3. Terrorist / Spy / Donald Trump

Your answers would be wrong. Well, in this context. The answer for all three is simpler:

!!! Writer !!!

Writers think about this sort of stuff all the time.

And it’s always miserable. Stories aren’t happy. They may have happy moments. They may end with the contemporary equivalent of, And they lived happily ever after. But the journey to get there is a passage through shit and misery, because that’s what makes stories interesting. Nobody wants to sit around reading 80,000 words about characters having a good time.

Part of what makes reading compelling is that journey, in seeing characters confront and overcome obstacles, grow, and move forward; or seeing that no matter how our way of life is threatened, we can triumph and move on.

As it is, I think writers are, generally, a lot more sensitive and definitely more empathetic than most people. That’s why (and how) they’re able to get into the headspace of so many different characters and represent them genuinely. It’s how they’re able to insert these characters into extraordinary circumstances and produce authentic outcomes. It’s how, when they’re successful, they deliver verisimilitude.

But thinking about all this can’t be healthy.

It’s been shown that our thoughts influence our outlook. You don’t have to be experiencing a terrible time to feel terrible – you can feel terrible just by recounting a terrible memory. That’s enough. Everybody would’ve experienced this at some point – watching a recording, for example, that either made them feel happy (e.g. a wedding) or sad (e.g. a funeral) even though it might be years (or decades) since those events.

Making matters worse is that writing is an isolated pursuit. Writers don’t sit in offices chatting away with workmates. They sit alone trying to get all this to work.

And then there’s that whole judgemental hierarchy, e.g.

  • Is this any good?
  • Will the publisher accept it?
  • Will people like it?
  • Will reviewers like it?
  • Will people buy it?

Most writers wouldn’t think, Yes. That confidence isn’t in their DNA. Most writers would think catastrophically. E.g.

  • Is this any good? It’s terrible.
  • Will the publisher accept it? No – it’s not good enough.
  • Will people like it? They’ll think it’s horrible.
  • Will reviewers like it? They’ll pillory it.
  • Will people buy it? Nobody will buy it.

This isn’t even pessimism. Publishers reject books – even good ones. Art is subjective, and plenty of great books haven’t been recognised as great until long, long, long after the author is gone. Tons of books – even amazing books – don’t sell.

It’s a mess. All of it. So it’s little wonder that writers can feel down.

And it’s something to be aware of. I don’t have any solutions. I doubt there’d be a blanket solution, just like there isn’t a blanket methodology to writing.

But it’s something to be aware of, and it’s equally important to find a constructive way through it.