I gave a toast at my sister M and her wife E's wedding in October. For months, I was nervous about it. Being shy and introverted as I am, public speaking has always filled me with dread. But how could I turn down the opportunity to pay tribute to one of the most loving and enduring relationships I know? Preparing my little speech was a surprisingly fun writing activity because it involved telling true stories about people who are dear to me. It isn't so different from what I do here, really.
I was anxious until the moment I stood before that tent full of fancy dressed onlookers. But, oh my goodness, it went so well. My stories flowed. People laughed, people went "awww", people applauded in the middle of the toast! I felt so honored to be cheer leading M and E's union and so pleased to have worked up the crowd. But I won't lie, it was also a big ass ego boost for this quiet writer.
A couple weeks after the wedding, I received a Facebook invite for a local event called Wide Open Floor, which is a monthly open mic night at a small dance theater. Naturally, it often includes several dancers but also poets, musicians, comedians and storytellers. It's one of those Chattanooga arts things that I read about and think, "Oh, I should check that out," and never do. But I was still high on the wedding toast rush when it occurred me that I could tell stories at Wide Open Floor. Why not?
At the start of this year, I resolved to take my writing more seriously. Aside from just writing more, this has meant delving deeper into social media and its outlets for self-promotion, as well as submitting an essay to a literary journal. But until that moment, I'd never considered writing as performance. Maybe this was exactly what I needed to do. I don't appear to have many blog readers here in Chattanooga. One reason may be that people around here don't seem to spend as much time online (that's what I like to tell myself, anyway). Perhaps public storytelling would allow me to connect with another sort of audience. Maybe it would just be fun to try.
I missed early sign-up for the November WOF. While they allow space for last-minute contributions, I didn't feel quite ready for it anyway. I attended as an audience member instead and I have to say, the breadth and depth of talent was quite impressive. Sure, some acts were far more engaging than others, but I honestly admired every person who had the nerve to get up there. Their gumption inspired me and got me excited for my next chance.
I signed up for the December show with little idea what I would present. I considered reading some old material, perhaps one of my more story-ish blog posts. I've tried writing fiction, but my brain isn't much good at extrapolating upon past experience to create something new. I just find it easier to write honestly about my life and the things I know, which seems to work fairly well in this format. But unlike a work of fiction, a spoken blog entry (one of mine, anyway)* is just plain awkward and I felt like doing something new. Ultimately, I pieced together a few old stories, all of which I'd related in past posts, and built a narrative around my experience being a polite northerner living in the south. I liked my piece. I rehearsed it. By mid-day Friday, I felt completely ready.
I performed on Friday night. It was one of the most horrifying moments of my life. When I got off stage and back to my seat, Dan said, "You did great!" I laughed. "No, I didn't." In hindsight, I don't think I did such a bad job, but it wasn't even the quality of my story or presentation that upset me. It was the spotlight. I couldn't see any of the audience members' faces, just dark fuzzy outlines of a too quiet crowd. I felt like I laughed at my own jokes more than they did. Granted, that's an almost daily occurrence in the life of Tara but not on that scale. I was never able to harness my voice, which trembled throughout my eight minute piece. Eight fucking minutes.
Though I'd hoped to go out for a celebratory drink after the show, various technical difficulties plus my late placement in the program meant that I got off stage at 10:40. Our babysitter expected us at 11:00. It was a pretty shitty night. I didn't feel like celebrating anyway. I just went home and cried.
Now I know why narcissists do so well in spotlights. It doesn't matter, because they can never see anyone else anyway. I, on the other hand, felt so awfully vulnerable. That sense of disconnection with a silent listener reminded me of one of the other most horrifying experiences of my life, the Catholic rite of confession. I only ever did it twice, in preparation for my first communion and my confirmation. The second time was the worst. Not only did I have to drag myself into that narrow, little booth and whisper all my sins through a screen to some faceless priest, I had to admit how long it had been since my last confession. I felt more guilty about that than anything else, especially every Sunday when I walked down the aisle for communion. "It's SO WRONG that I'm doing this because I haven't confessed my sins in YEARS but if I don't walk down the aisle, everyone will know that I'm a BAD PERSON." Oh, the layers of shame. I was about 14 years old and certain I was the only one who felt that way.
When I finally entered the confessional that second time, I had to tell the priest my dirtiest secret right off the bat. "Bless me father, for I have sinned. It's been six years since my last confession." He tsk tsked and said, "That's a very long time." Then I mentioned fighting with my brother and sister and being mean to some classmates. When that didn't seem bad enough, I added some blown up charges of swearing (which I'd done only once, in private, to see if god would strike me down). I think I got five Hail Marys and that was that. I felt relieved, but only because it was over. I didn't feel like a better person. And that was one of the early inklings, one of those nagging moments when I had to ask myself, does this belief system make any sense at all?
Within a year, I was faithless. I would still go to church because I didn't want to make waves, but my inner self was done with being Catholic. Around that time, my English Lit teacher, Mrs. P, read Frank O'Connor's short story "First Confession" to our class. It's a brilliant, hilarious tale, in which a little Irish boy dreads admitting to a priest that he wants to kill his crass, ill mannered grandmother. Most of the kids in my class were Muslim, so I don't think they necessarily appreciated it. I had tears and snot running down my face, it was so fucking funny. But Mrs. P was also a gifted storyteller. She recited the whole story in a brogue. That still stands as the best reading I've ever attended. Come to think of it, I probably should have taken her forensics class. Maybe I'd be better at this public speaking stuff now.
I'm not positive that I won't do this Wide Open Floor thing again. I still stand by my story being good, even if the presentation was nerve-wracking. Maybe next time I'll talk about being terrified. Maybe I'll ask the tech guy to raise the house lights. Maybe I should have asked the priest to pull back the screen. I remember that being an option. It seemed like the craziest idea at the time, but I have this weird feeling it might have helped me quit being Catholic sooner. Maybe I would be less Catholic now.
*I tried doing this on a Youtube video when my friend G asked me to share my birth story with her Bradley Method class. After reading and recording both posts, I watched about thirty seconds and thought, “Well, this is terrible.” So I recorded myself talking through my story instead, and that turned out to be much better.