58: No Room for Fear on the Stage

58: No Room for Fear on the Stage

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

No Room for Fear on the Stage

He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I knew the content of the e-mail before I opened it. The subject line had given it away: “CONGRATULATIONS!” And the sender’s name was one I recognized from the essay contest I had entered. I did a little happy dance in my chair, and with my heart racing, I clicked on the button to reveal the details.

My hands tingled as I read the salutation: “Dear Winner.” Then I got to the part about reading at a literary festival, and my mouth fell open and the tingling stopped. I blinked at the screen as if that would change what I was seeing, but the words remained the same.

Certain there was a mistake, I toggled over to the contest website. I knew I never would have entered anything that required public speaking; it was something I’d avoided my entire life. Yet there it was — the disregarded detail — midway down the page. I slumped in my chair, switched back to the e-mail, and watched as the word “winner” became “loser” in my head.

With trembling hands, I called my husband, Roger. After sixteen years of marriage, he knew my shortcomings and the importance of agreeing with one’s spouse. Surely, he would be my enabler. But the conversation didn’t go as I had expected. Once we got past all the gushing, Roger said, “Don’t be silly. Of course, you’re going. What an honor!”

Honor? He didn’t get it. Honor stood no chance in the ring when fear was its contender.

“How long is the essay?” he asked.

“Five-hundred words,” I said, barely audible, knowing how ridiculous it sounded.

“Over in three minutes. No problem,” he said.

No problem for Roger — the amazing speaker — who sought out opportunities like this. And with that comment, he was dismissed, and I hung up the phone.

Next, I called my best friend, Lisa. Despite being a music teacher, she had similar fears; she wouldn’t lack compassion. But all thirty years of friendship got me was two minutes of comforting words, followed by a kick in the pants. I ended the conversation as soon as I saw it switching gears.

It was time to tackle this problem on my own, I decided. Maybe all I needed to do was reply to the e-mail and point out the three obvious, yet overlooked factors:

1. Writers and public speakers have drastically different skill sets.

2. My personal essay was quite personal.

3. I was a newbie to the writing scene, thus not smart enough to be speaking in front of a literary crowd.

I don’t remember the exact wording of the draft, only that I sent it to Lisa to pre-read, and a text came through from her seconds later.

DO NOT SEND THAT E-MAIL! You sound like a woman hiding in a closet with her ten cats, afraid of the world!

I let out a sigh. It wasn’t the image I was going for, although kudos to me for capturing exactly how I felt. The world did scare me from a stage. I did want to hide. But I hit the “Delete” button instead and started over.

Fiction would be the base of my next attempted reply. I said I had a previously scheduled engagement that might not be changeable, leaving my response ambiguous. I was hoping this way I could test out the water — see what the consequences would be if I chose to be a coward — before committing to the course.

An immediate response followed; it was the kind of answer my mother-in-law would give to a question about showing up for a family dinner.

“Attendance not required but HIGHLY recommended.”

I spent the following days weighing the pros and cons. It was hard to look at myself in the mirror without recoiling. I felt pathetic. And worse, I was a fraud — a mother who had coached her middle-schooler through his public-speaking fears, but couldn’t coach herself through her own.

With self-loathing fueling my fingertips, I composed a new and final e-mail that included the words “honored to attend.” I bit my lip, closed my eyes, and clicked “Send.”

Now it was time to open that closet door — and, of course, get rid of those cats.

The next day, I thought about the advice I always gave to my son about practicing and not worrying about those people in the room he deemed to be smarter. Then I got started by reading my essay out loud to my empty living room. The first time, I felt nauseous immediately. And dismissing the negative thoughts that popped up in my head became as exhausting as playing a game of Whac-A-Mole at the county fair. But I knew one thing: I wanted to conquer my fear more than I wanted to be comfortable.

I read the essay every day until my voice was hoarse and I could recite every word in my sleep. I continued to whack those moles every time they reared their negative little heads. And then it was time. The dreaded day had arrived.

Roger sat next to me that evening as I arranged and rearranged myself on my chair. It was standing room only in the hotel ballroom, and the festival was about to get underway. The sponsors thought an element of surprise would be “fun” for the finalists, so the order in which we were reading hadn’t been disclosed. All we knew was that the emcee would start with honorable mention and work her way up to first place. There were two age groups, two categories and sixteen readers in all.

We were thirteen readers in when the waiting started to feel unbearable, and the nudging from my husband began. I turned my eyes in his direction and mouthed sternly, “Stop it!” Then the emcee called the third-place winner, and Roger nudged me again. He could hardly contain himself by the time he heard the words “first-place winner,” followed by my name.

I made my way to the stage feeling dizzy. Standing at the podium with a pasted-on smile, I confronted the silence of the crowd. Then I adjusted the microphone, cleared my throat, and started. I was on autopilot when I heard the first gasp and realized someone was listening. Occasionally, as I looked up, I noticed people in the audience nodding their heads in agreement as if what I was saying made sense. And then the three minutes were over, and I was back in my chair reveling in what I had just learned: When we speak the truth and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, courage shows up, leaving no room for fear on the stage. It wasn’t about being smart; it was about being human. I only needed to be someone who wanted to share an experience, hoping to help others overcome similar obstacles of their own.

I didn’t tell many people that I had won prior to going, but that night I saw how courage could build confidence and words could inspire. So the next day, I posted a picture of the certificate on Facebook with a status update: “This is what getting out of your comfort zone looks like!”

And I’d do it all over again.

~Amy Mermelstein

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