Friday Night Frights: The Terror of Public Reading

Friday night, in Greenville, S.C., I’ll be doing the first public reading from The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival. So if you see me this week and I’m looking a bit green with terror and I keep running off to the bathroom, it’s not that I’m pregnant, it’s just that good old fear of public speaking.

Genius that I am, I actually have three public-speaking sort of engagements this week, the other two at Advertising Week — one of which involves me moderating a panel discussing the diversity and race issues in the industry. So, you know, no pressure there!

The reading Friday night is at the SIBA Trade Show and is open only to independent booksellers and the people who hang out with them. In other words, I don’t have to stand in front of a mix of family, friends and strangers for 20 minutes worrying that they’re getting bored. Nope. I have five minutes — FIVE MINUTES — to convince bookstore owners that they want to order my book. Again, no pressure.

Before my back problems got so bad I had to quit, I was one belt away from my black belt in karate. As one of the many parts of the black-belt test, the prospective student had to stand in front of his small class and give a little speech. The instructors made a big deal about how people fear public speaking more than they fear death.

I kept my mouth shut at the time, because I didn’t want to be disrespectful — or get a knee to the throat. But I’m with Seinfeld on that one. Public speaking is a bigger fear than death? Bullshit.

Public speaking might disturb my sleep. Worrying about it may do very bad things to my digestive system. The stress may make me want to puke and have me so nervous that when I do start speaking or reading I sound like a robot.

But public speaking does not wake me up at three in the morning. It doesn’t show up at my birthday parties with a smile on its face dropping comments such as “Another year, huh, Ken?” or “Let me get you another shot. It’s on me.” Fear of public speaking doesn’t have me wondering if this is all there is to life, freaking out that I didn’t get the private plane and the three houses and the half dozen lab puppies. I don’t think of an approaching public-speaking engagement and wonder where my sailboat is or if it’s time to start having more children.

And it’s not public speaking I’m keeping an eye out for every time I board a plane or get into a cab.

And whether I’m well prepared or ill prepared, I don’t have to wonder what’s going to happen to me after public speaking. There will always be a great sense of relief and, more often than not, I’m gonna get drunk.

Death, on the other hand? I don’t even want to go there. It scares me silly that this is it and there’s nothing afterwards. What scares me even more is that all that religion implanted in my head for 18 years is right. Because if it is, well, I guess I’ll be seeing most of you in hell!

At any rate, I’m doing a reading Friday night. Yay! And when I think about it — like right now — my stomach gets clenched up and I want to go hide under the sheets. This is an odd thing for an attention whore such as myself. Back in the day, you couldn’t keep me away from an open mic or a reading series. I had no shame. I’d be up there, “Blah blah blah blah. The end.” And I didn’t even have to have a few drinks to do it.

The older I get, though, the worse the anxiety. This happened to me with dating. Older I got, worst those first dates got. That kid from Southpark who throws up on his little girlfriend’s shoes? I empathized.

But there are a couple of things I can do to help. The first is to have a couple of drinks. Not so many as to be buzzed. Nothing so harsh as to screw up my already screwy stomach. Girlie as it may seem, I’ve found white wine does the trick.

The other thing is to practice, practice, practice. That, though, brings up another fresh level of hell when reading my own work. I start cutting things. This stinks. I can’t believe I wrote that. I used THAT word again. Christ, who thought it was smart to publish this. When I did the couple of readings for The Subway Chronicles, I probably ended up cutting a couple of hundred words from the essay. And still I almost found myself standing at the podium, hitting myself in the face with the book, saying, “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid” over and over again.

All of that said, I’m actually looking forward to the reading. The adrenaline and worrying is part of the fun.

Even better, standing up in front of a room in an entirely different state in front of people who don’t know me and aren’t related to me is great for the ego.

As long as they don’t throw things at me.

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4 thoughts on “Friday Night Frights: The Terror of Public Reading

  1. Your instructors are wrong and have mis-understood the research. The research NEVER CLAIMED that people feared public speaking more than death. It looked at what people cited as their greatest fear. More people cited public speaking as their greatest fear than cited death, that’s all.

    That DOESN’T mean that if you give people a straight-forward choice between the two they’d rather die.

    I’m sure your instructors are great Karate instructors but they should leave the public speaking stuff to the public speaking instructors! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    S

  2. That’s all? If it’s true that more people are citing public speaking than death as their greatest fear, I’d say that’s a pretty good case for Ken’s instructors’ view. I think YOU’RE misunderstanding the difference between fear and desire/avoidance. For example, given your “straight-forward choice,” most people would likely chose to speak in public. I would. That’s because I “desire” to live. But since I know that everyone is going to die eventually, including myself, I might not necessarily “fear” death. Fears can be (and often are) irrational. I don’t think your choice applies too well here.

    Besides which, you’ve clearly avoided the spirit of the point–that Ken’s instructors brought it up to put the class at ease and let them know that they share that fear with a large number of people.

    And between us, that’s probably more lines than Ken ever expected about a throwaway sentence in a blog post.

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