About a month ago, I was contacted by GuyWriters, a gay writing group in the San Francisco Bay Area, to participate in a reading for the National Queer Arts Festival. Although I have a phobia about reading in public, I very much wanted to join GuyWriters and participate in their organization, as a way to integrated into the gay-writing community where I live, so I reluctantly agreed.
I submitted two excerpts from my novel, Island Song, and they chose one and told me I had seven minutes to perform it. I thought, seven minutes? I can handle that, right?
So I took the piece and a stopwatch to my backyard, and timed the reading. It was a good excerpt for reading aloud because it had little dialog and lots of action. The problem was it took fifteen minutes for me to read. I needed to slash more than half of it way in order to comply with the seven minutes they were allotting me. So I went to work.
A week later I had it honed down to bare bones, and I consistently read it at just under seven minutes. I was all set. I continued to practice reading it three time per day for the next three weeks.
The night of the performance was also Herman and my one-year anniversary for getting legally married in California. So we drove into the city early and enjoyed a superb seafood dinner at a favorite hole-in-the-wall, and at dinner, I had a beer to help calm my nerves that already had my stomach doing jumping jacks. When we got to the auditorium, I found that there would be ten other presenters, and I was roughly scheduled to read in the middle of the pack. At least I won’t made to wait until last, I thought, only somewhat relieved.
All eleven writers were seated in a semicircle facing an audience of about forty people. By this time my knees were knocking together. Anthony Williams, our Master of Ceremonies, welcomed the audience, then proceeded to read his monologue, which was fabulous. He was born to perform, and his material was really well written. You could tell he really enjoyed the limelight, and the audience responded. There is no way I can compete with this, I thought. On my best day, I would look like a dunce by comparison. I could only hope that the others were not as good.
But each presenter that stood at the podium and read was just as accomplished as Anthony. My fear mushroomed, as did my depression. I knew, beyond a doubt I would seem like and amateur alongside these writers. The thought crossed my mind to simply stand and walk out. There were only two people there who knew me. But I really couldn’t make myself do that. I had agreed to read, and come hell or high water, I would honor my commitment.
Finally my time came. Anthony gave me a charming welcome, people clapped, and I took my place at the podium. My hands shook, I looked down at my paper, and I began to read, slowly and with feeling. A moment later, I began to relax because the words were coming out smoothly, not me stumbling over them like all the previous times. I began to enjoy it, my voice became stronger, more confident. I began to look up, make eye contact with the audience. Yes, I was really reading in front of forty people and actually enjoying it!
What seemed a moment later, I was done and the room filled with applause. It was a personal triumph. I sat, enjoying the moment. Other readers came after me but I could hardly pay any attention to them, I was still basking in the wonder of it. Then, the next to the last speaker began to read. He was a notable novelist, and his prose was beautiful, but he stumbled and stuttered and read exactly the way I had thought I would. I felt so sorry for him, and so happy that I have finally overcome that fear.