Everyone’s Listening But I Can’t See


Professor X is the most popular professor in the English department. Students want his attention, but his quick opinions scare me. I try to stay out of his way. –which is easy since he isn’t aware I am in his class.

I am walking down the hall when he notices me. He calls out my name and marches over. His sweater is unraveling on the edges and he needs new loafers. I hug my books to my chest. “Yes, Dr. X?”

He tells me about the faculty lunch. Would I read three of my poems? He tears off a corner of one the papers and scrawls the day, time, & location down. I nod. You don’t say no to Professor X and I’m flattered anyway.

When I’m introduced to the room, I’m standing with a group of English majors. They aren’t really my friends. I don’t have many English major friends.

I take a step towards the podium. And a moment later I’m standing next to a classmate again. He says, “Great job. See? You had nothing to be nervous about.”

I frown. “What?”

“You did great!”

“Is it over?” I ask. “Did I read them? All three of them?”

He looks at me funny. “Of course you did. Just now.” The pages in my hand are shaking and he laughs. “You’re still nervous?”

I don’t answer him. I’m trying to remember reading my poems and all I can remember is darkness. Other people come over to me and say nice things. I nod and nod. “You didn’t even look nervous,” they say. “You were great.”

Twenty years I’m getting ready to read my work in front of a room of people again (though not poetry, thank god). Even when I practice in my living room, the lights go dim.

How do you feel about being up in front of people–with your own work? Do you look forward to reading your own writing for others or not?

14 thoughts on “Everyone’s Listening But I Can’t See

  1. You know, this is a tough question. I hate public speaking. I hate public anything, because I quickly become a public spectacle.

    At the same time, I’d like to get feedback from people. I don’t know whose opinion would matter, if any, but I think being introverted and shy, I wouldn’t want to have to read it to someone.

    I’d be afraid of misreading — stammering, missing a word, tripping over a sentence, that sort of thing — and making the work diminish in the eyes of the people hearing it. Nothing throws someone out of a story like an incompetent reader. I’d rather give it to them to read.

    But it’s an exciting experience, I’m sure. And I know you’ll do as well this time as you did twenty years ago.

    We’ll all be rooting for you. Know we’re all there, in spirit, encouraging and smiling at and supporting you.

    1. I can’t believe you become a public spectacle. Spectacle sounds like you’re drunk, shredding your clothes, and making passes at the boss’s wife. That’s a spectacle.

      Then again, sometimes reading one’s own work can feel like the emotional equivalent. What will people be saying in the morning?

  2. Back in college I was a musical theater major. This meant singing, dancing, and acting for an audience. I got used to it, but never stopped being nervous. I used to spend all day every day performing for someone else and being graded on it. It was not for me.

    The thought of getting up in front of people now terrifies me. Not because I’m out of practice, but because I remember what it was like. I think I’m going to have to practice for the day when I have to do a reading.

    You are so brave. You’ll do fine.

  3. I too, am afraid of public speaking, and it’s gotten worse over the years. But when I was asked to be interviewed in a fairly major venue when my last book came out, I said ok. Because I hate being controlled by fear.
    Similar to your blackout experience, I faded in and out of the moment. I couldn’t even listen to the recording of the event- I wait three years before I coudl even listen to it on the website- and you know what I found when I did? I sound present, interesting, and even relaxed. I think the creative spirit took over!
    Here’s the thing. I know you’re scared. I’d be scared too. It’s ok to be scared. 95% of the people who will be in that room with you would also be scared- probably too scared to even get up there. They’ll be rooting for you, they’ll admire your bravery, and they’ll love your work.
    You owe this to yourself. I think the universe is nudging you forward on the creative path- you offered your novel to the universe and now you are being asked to go even further. What else can this be but grace?

  4. I was petrified when I was young but have gotten to a point where I appear at ease and do rather well in front of groups. The more comfortable I am with the subject the better though and it helps to be passionate.

    I think stage fright for some people is an always thing but I think most people outgrow it as they age and become more comfortable with themselves.

  5. Sorry I missed commenting on this one at the time. You’re always so neurotic about your neuroses — I mean, about the fact that you are neurotic. It’s like meta-neurosis or something. 🙂

    The public reading seems to have gone well. I think you’re probably pretty much a natural performer, though, hindered only by your awareness of the performance. When you talk about the room going dark around you, I’m immediately put in mind of — yes — Twin Peaks, all those moments when the room (usually the Roadhouse) goes dark, leaving Cooper in a spotlight and seeing things invisible to everyone else (like The Giant; like Bob, crawling — grinning maniacally — up onto the bed where Harry is clinging to suddenly-dead Josie). The ability to shut out the outside world at that critical moment when your work is suddenly exposed will come in very handy, methinks.

    I’ve done readings of my work before (not recently, though). They went pretty well, reportedly, but were marred because I was convinced I was talking too loudly into the microphone — and so I muted my voice (which ordinarily isn’t that loud to begin with). So the people in front seemed to like it a lot, while the people in back couldn’t get to the bar fast enough. *laughing*

    1. Meta-neurosis! Oh, that makes me laugh. I shall steal it.

      And anything that reminds you of Twin Peaks makes me happy.

      Now I wish I could say that this past weekend I read my work and it went well…

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