At Wells Middle School, in Mr. Piper’s English class, we had to give two book reports a month – one written, one through an oral presentation.
Written book reports – I always earned A’s. Oral reports – not so much.
All those eyes on me. I felt naked and absurd up there in front of the room. Nowhere to hide. No way to melt into the blackboard behind me, no matter how much I willed it.
I would practice at home in front of my full-length mirror. The words were good. Written down, the report would earn an A. In practice, I read each sentence slowly and carefully, pausing at each period. Looking thoughtfully at the audience from time to time.
In reality, I would have stomach cramps waiting for Mr. Piper to call my name. I dragged my feet as I walked to the front of the class. Maybe my friends and classmates had sympathy for me. Maybe they laughed at me. I couldn’t hear or notice over the rush of blood to my head, which would turn my pale freckled face into the shade of a ripe tomato.
My carefully practiced 8-minute book report would be delivered in one long sentence – Thebookwasverygooditwasaboutagirlandahorsewhodidsomethingandthisiswhatitmeant – and clock in at about 3 minutes. I would rush back to my seat, sweaty and red-faced, and crumble into the chair in defeat.
To this day, I still speak quickly in front of groups of people. And I still turn tomato red. But for the most part – in my professional, nonprofit life – I’ve learned to control the tempo and explain it away as ‘passion’ for the topic.
Reading my own writing aloud? Still a nightmare.
I am in the midst of organizing book readings for “Welcome, Anybody” – a completely thrilling honor. Until I realize I will actually be up in front of people, both friends and strangers, reading words that I wrote. An infinitely more frightening prospect than reporting on another writer’s work.
The irony of it all: most writers are introverts, able to spend many hours alone, many uncomfortable with too many other people – forced to promote their intimate work, get up in front of strangers and read their own works – usually crafted in the safety of a writer’s cocoon.
When I think about the joy (and agony) of writing, it is me and paper and a pen; or me and the keyboard and sun shining through the window; or watching someone on a bus reading my book.
It is never me standing up in front of a crowd reading my words aloud.