Notes From A Public Reading

Savannah College of Art and Design, 1987:  My final project for drawing class is four feet by ten feet on board, a beast of a thing.  I get to class very early so that I can haul this monster through empty hallways.  I prop it up in the front of the classroom and take a seat at a drawing table.  I’m the only person in the room until the fashion illustration professor hurries in, looking for something.  He looks at the 4’x10′  board and scurries over to me.  In a catty, conspiratorial whisper –like we’re at a party dishing on the other guests — he says, “Oh my God, what is that?”

That was pretty much it for me and public appearances of any sort.  Lesson learned:  There are the things that are said to one’s face (I received an “A” on that project) and then there is the real truth (“Oh my God, what is that?”). 

Honestly I don’t think that professor caused me to shut down; rather, I think that the incident simply validated feelings of worthlessness and self loathing that already were there.  It was a great excuse to clam up, and to dismiss any compliment that happened to come my way.

Less than a year has passed since I fired up “Why It Matters” and started putting work out there again.  The benefit of a format like this is that I never have to see your faces.  There’s never the possibility that we will have that awkward moment where you avoid eye contact because you’re uncomfortable lying and you can’t very well say “Oh my God!  What is that?”  I am in a public yet very private space here, and that’s a good thing for a fragile little bunny filled with self loathing and social anxiety (Note to self:  Doodle a bunny filled with self loathing and social anxiety).

So what in the world compelled me to read last night at ThinkHouse Collective in Sacramento?  This is not me.  I would rather have gay sex with a grizzly bear (Note: Only if I’m a top.  I have standards) than stand in front of thirty very nice and lightly liquored up people and present my own writing. 

At dinner I ordered a Long Island iced tea, just to get the nerves under control.  The restaurant was so noisy that I couldn’t hear any of the talk at the table, so I crawled into my little hole and drank my adult beverage.  I’ve never had a Long Island that wasn’t strong, but this one didn’t make a dent so I ordered another.  Thanks to some confusion at the bar I ended up with two more, so by the time we got to ThinkHouse I was three cocktails in and for the most part ready for battle.

But there was still an x-factor here:  Three Long Islands might steady my reading nerves and keep the social anxiety wolves at bay, but there were two lines in my piece that had to be sung.  Sung!  Twenty-five years in my little “Oh my God what is that” shell and now I was going to sing?  This is analogous to saying, “Look, I know that you suffer from crippling shyness.  Why don’t you go masturbate in front of 30,000 people?  It will be good for you!”

The readings kicked off and were well received.  The two writers ahead of me had solid material that they delivered well.  They seemed comfortable up there, like they were actually enjoying themselves.  The longer they read the more phony I felt.  What the hell am I doing her?  I don’t even like this story.  It’s bush league, an embarassment.  This is a huge mistake.   And on top of that I was scrambling to solve the singing problem.  No solution in sight other than fail forward, I added a little red wine on top of those Long Islands. 

My turn arrived, ready or not.  I was representing my long-lost brothers, The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam:  Levi’s, Chucks, and a black Cheap Trick tee beneath a sport coat because, you know, I’m all growed up now.

Polite applause.

“I can’t sing worth shit, and there are two lines here that have to be sung so here’s what we’re going to do:  I’ll sing the first one and then you’ll sing the second one.  By applause, who is willing to play?”

A little laughter and a lot of clapping.  See?  I told you they were nice people.

“This one is called ‘You Can Check Out Any Time You Like.'”  I launched into the story of visiting my childhood hero during a perfect Nebraska summer.  They laughed at the right places — so far so good — and then the big moment came:

“On a dark desert highway,” I warbled.

“Cool wind in my hair,” returned the audience along with some laughter and a little clapping.  I felt like I had them now.  I continued building the perfect Nebraska day and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

And then I drowned Johnny O’Donnell in the middle of the paddle boat pond. 

The room grew very quiet, or maybe I did I don’t know, but when Big John screamed “Johnny!” and leaped into the water I perhaps yelled a bit too loudly into all of that quiet.  Sorry about that — rookie mistake.

When it was finally done there was applause.  It felt like real applause, or at least what I think that would feel like: warm, validating. 

If you were there and you were thinking “Oh my God, what was that,”  please keep it to yourself.  It has taken me twenty-five years to dig out of this hole and I don’t need you dumping dirt on my head.

I feel good today.  Except for the headache.


Related “Why It Matters” pieces:

Categories: Memoir, Music

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11 replies »

  1. Congratulations! Sounds like you are on the road to being a confident public speaker. You’re writing is wonderful and you should be proud to share it.

    I am terribly shy, but public speaking doesn’t bother me much because there is something that feels unreal about it.


    • Whoa, whoa, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s quite a bit of distance between “not running screaming from the room” and “confident public speaker.” But thank you for the kind words. I truly appreciate them.


  2. F**king A, Stafford! You did it, and not only lived to tell the tale, but write beautifully about it, too. I really would have done just about anything to have been there.
    Brilliant way to handle the singing part. Fortification with Long Island “save me” juice is kind of required, I think.

    Thanks for doing this and sharing the experience. Those of us still mired in paralyzing anxiety and self-loathing are starting to rely on you a little bit. 🙂


  3. If I had such a lovely way to tell a tale I too would be shouting into a too quiet room.As for the sing a long technique , well it worked for Robbie Williams!


  4. If I had such a lovely way to tell a tale I too would be shouting into a too quiet room.As for the sing a long technique , well it worked for Robbie Williams!


  5. I would loved to have been there…however, if I had said your work was great you wouldn’t have believed me just as you didn’t all those 12 thousand times I said it way back in the day. What…you think I was talkin’ just to hear myself talk???


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