Some years ago I attended the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop. We got lots of great no-nonsense advice and practical tips from writers such as Isabel Huggan, Wayson Choy, John Metcalf, Antanas Sileika, Nino Ricci and Miriam Toews. Alistair MacLeod read to us and at lunch the last day we celebrated his birthday with cake. But for me the best thing to come out of the week was that I read something I’d written to a big group of people. From behind a podium. Using a microphone. For me, this was a big deal because all my life I’ve avoided speaking in front of a crowd. And to me, a crowd is more than three.
From the start of the workshop daily announcements were made about the optional student reading to take place on Wednesday night. Somebody said, “You’ll be glad you did it. You’ll never get a more supportive audience.” Someone else said, “As a writer in Canada, you’ll never get a bigger audience.”
At coffee breaks the instructors would mingle and ask, “Have you signed up yet? You don’t have to read for the entire three minutes, you can just get up and read a paragraph if you want. It’s just to get the monkey off your back.” The third day of the workshop I signed up. It would be good for me. By this time the monkey felt like an overweight gorilla.
On the morning of the reading, I woke up with a big knot in my stomach. At breakfast, when I mentioned that I felt ill, someone said, “Maybe it was something you ate.” But I recognized it for what it was – just plain fear. At dinner, all I could eat was fruit. My stomach was no longer knotted; it was doing back-flips. A woman who teaches drama had a couple of pieces of advice. Bite your tongue, it gets the adrenaline flowing” and “If you don’t breathe, your audience won’t, so you should pause and take a breath so that your audience will too.”
One of the instructors came and sat with us. “It is a big fear,” he said, “apparently it ranks higher than the fear of death for most people.” I guess he could tell from the looks on our faces that this wasn’t helpful because then he said, “Well they always say it helps to picture your audience naked.”
Another member of the class said she had some good advice too, “Don’t drool and keep your pants on.” This didn’t seem very age-appropriate somehow.
The last bit of wisdom came from my friend’s roommate, “Curl your toes. It forces you to stand up straight.”
All the way over to the Assembly Hall, I was concentrating on remembering all the advice I’d heard. Curl your toes so you won’t breathe. Picture yourself naked and drooling. There was some trick to help you stand up straight, but what was it? Make sure the audience keeps their pants on. No, no, that wasn’t it. I couldn’t recall whether I wanted the audience to breathe or not. The good thing was I was so busy trying to sort out all the advice that I almost forgot to be nervous.