About twelve or thirteen or fourteen years ago, I started to cry.
Wait, that sounds like I never used to cry. I did, but like a normal person: if something really sad happened, I cried. End of story. I didn’t cry when reading a beautiful poem. I didn’t cry when telling a story about someone else. And I certainly did not cry over a trailer from a movie the likes of A Dog’s Purpose. I saved those tears for the actual movie!
Alas, something shifted: I entered new territory, and I am now a full-blown easily provoked crier. It’s embarrassing and maddening all at the same time. I was plenty in touch with my emotions before: I did not need someone to tear down the dam that held propriety in check.
But here I am. Welcome.
Recently, I was asked to talk at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) about how my first book came to exist and about my experience finding a publisher. I planned to open my talk with a poem, which I always do, but this time I chose a poem that has layers and layers of special meaning to me (“The Writer” by Richard Wilbur, which I talked about in a post last year, a poem whose last stanza forms the epigraph in my memoir). I had practiced reciting the poem over and over, all the while knowing I would probably get choked up when reciting it anyway. (I won’t cry when practicing, but get me in front of people and here come the waterworks.) Fine. I could manage that somehow.
(The really sad part about this new normal for me is that I absolutely love public speaking. I always have, and I still do. It’s why I once took a job in university admissions which had me standing up and talking in front of audiences of up to 150 people a few times a week. It’s why I loved going on television talk shows to represent a non-profit organization I worked for. It's why I still like it when people ask me to give talks at conferences and book clubs. But I digress.)
The day of the actual AWW talk arrived, and I’m usually excited but not nervous before giving a talk, but this time I was very nervous for a solid two hours before my talk. Geez. Maybe it was because I had participated in this workshop for years and I wanted to do a top-notch job for the people I knew, especially those I consider part of my writing community, the ones who had asked me to give this talk in the first place.
I exited the building a half-hour before my allotted hour and took a walk around the campus, doing all sorts of breathing exercises that involve counting and exhaling longer than inhaling.
I went back into the building. I went into the auditorium. I took my seat to wait.
Then my friend Kate Geiselman—VP of the AWW board—stood at the podium to introduce me, and as soon as she started talking, I could feel my throat closing. I was already getting choked up, and I hadn’t even stepped onstage.
You don’t need to be a genius to know this is a very, very, very bad sign.
Sure enough, I walked up to the podium, set my papers down, smiled and started thanking—yep, the choking up started then. I hadn’t even gotten to Richard Wilbur and his poem with layers and layers of special meaning to me. I was still at the I’m Shuly and I wrote a book and I want to thank some people, and my ability to hold it together was going south. Fast. Goodness.
I paused whenever I got verklempt, which was every few sentences during the first five minutes. The audience waited. Someone brought me a tissue (thank you, Rebecca), though I never actually cried. Still, I felt like I was having a public therapy session.
Finally, FINALLY, I got myself (mostly) together as my nerves calmed down. Yes, I got choked up midway through my talk when recounting the story of my husband suggesting I realize my dream of getting an MFA, but that at least felt a little appropriate.
In the end, I overcame my nerves and choking up, and I delivered (I hope) the content that AWW wanted me to deliver. I talked about my journey as a writer. I talked about all the steps it took to find the press that published my book. I talked about pitfalls I had encountered, and I doled out advice to writers looking for their own publisher. And I managed, somehow, to get the audience to laugh at least once—maybe more, but that part is all a blur.
When it was over, a few audience members walked up to me and thanked me, and they did so either from a place of honesty, or a place of pity.
I’m definitely not asking which.
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