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public speaking May 31, 2020

The Day Of The Performance

Many years ago now, I found myself in a speaking situation where I was almost wholly unprepared.  For this event, I had to have the text memorized - and as it was poetry, “improvising” wasn’t really a legitimate option (I could have treated it as slam, but this was already billed as an interpretation of a very famous Romantic-era poem).

It was an interpretation, all right.

I had - unsurprisingly - worked into the wee hours, trying to commit to memory something I’d had eons to master.  “I’ll work on it tomorrow” became my mantra, and before long, “tomorrow” was this particular day.  The day of the performance.

As I took the stage, looking for all the world the confident speaker that I was generally known as, only to experience crickets.  My own.

Blank Space

There was literally a blank space in my mind where the text had previously been.  I remember the feeling vividly: part of my mind was rather nonchalantly gazing at the audience, while the other part rifled through reams of data - none of which was relevant to what I was requiring at just that moment.

And I’m not talking about “sketchy” memory, or little bits of text, or even garden-variety nervousness cum “forgetting lines”.  


This was a complete memory wipe.

And I remember being very interested at that moment - despite the spectacular crashing-and-burning I was enjoying.  It was as if I’d taken an academic, observational perch in my own life - watching myself from the wings as I stood silently, facing my audience.

They stared at me.  I stared at them.  It was very “stand off at high noon”-ish.  

I Have Nothing

Finally, I said: “I’m sorry, but I have nothing.”  And walked off the stage.

Thank god it was a free event.

I could lie and tell you that I “learned my lesson”.  I hadn’t, not in an “and I never, ever left something til the last minute again.  The End.” sort of way.

It was more a “wow, so that’s what being speechless feels like”.  I’d never, not ever, experienced this.  If there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s the omnipresence of words issuing from my mouth.  I didn’t panic.  I didn’t berate myself.  I don’t even think I blushed.  It was more of a shrug moment.  After all, it was somewhat ludicrous to expect much else, really.

What I did learn is that having to rely on the “perfect” (meaning “right” words) was not all that jam-packed and fun-filled.  Because I’d married myself to a specific pattern (and, frankly, historical expectation) of these words (“Ode to the West Wind”, by PB Shelley, if you really want to know), I’d left myself with no real recourse: I had to deliver those words, in that order, as a matter of interpretation.  Invention was out of the question.

And that was the real learning for me (beyond real-life experience in speechlessness): I’d taken away my own agency as a speaker, because I was committed to saying “the right thing”.  So despite the many relevant and interesting things going through my mind at that particular moment, I’d hamstrung myself.  Yes, it was due to the nature of the text, the event, the expectations, and - most importantly - my lack of diligent preparation.  

Many people who come to me do so, initially, because they are frightened of “saying the wrong thing” - and so revert to silence.  I get that: you don’t want to be misunderstood, say something illegal or libellous, say something factually incorrect, or say something offensive.   In my instance, I wasn’t going to get sued, per se, but if you don’t think a bunch of Romantic poetry aficionados can’t lay waste to your confidence - and reputation -,  should a word be misplaced, you are seriously deluding yourself.

So I bring this perspective to my work, now: an appreciation of the duty to honour words that are not your own, but also the freedom that comes from being able to speak your own truth.

It was far better for my interpretation to one of silence.  

Fitting as an “Ode to the West Wind” in a kind of metaphorical way….right?