But I also did not want to hit SEND. If my proposal were accepted, I’d have to do a ton of research on top of the research I already do. If accepted, I’d have to burn videos and pictures to a DVD, and did I remember how to do that? What if I had an equipment failure once I started the presentation and had to illustrate my talk without my slides—could I draw a map of 18th century London freehand on a white board? If I got a green light to do the talk, I’d have to add hours of practice into my daily routine, because the best talks (like the best performances) seem effortless only because they are based on hours and hours of rehearsal. And what if, after all my prep, I froze in front of the crowd anyway? That’s happened to many a seasoned performer.
Yet performers keep putting themselves in front of audiences even though “what if?” becomes an obsession for some, like the guy who can’t keep his tongue from poking at a cavity or the kid who won’t stop picking at a scab on his knee. “What if” goes like this: What if the special effect that explains the whole plot doesn’t go off? What if somebody on stage with me enters too late or too early or forgets his lines? What if I forget my words? Barbra Streisand famously forgot some lyrics in 1967 in Central Park and stopped performing for three decades because of it. Her problem: a late-career case of stage fright.
Streisand is not alone. Actors Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier, Hayden Panettiere, and Meryl Streep, along with singers Adele, Cher, and Renee Fleming, also have experienced stage fright. Singer Carly Simon’s stage fright was so bad, according to the New Yorker, that she once resorted to getting her band members to spank her before a performance to snap her out of it.
According to Backstage, a publication for performers, stage fright is common among working actors. Dr. Gordon Goodman, who sings, acts, lectures, writes, and works as media and entertainment psychologist, says fear of the future occurs in the same part of the brain where imagination lives, which can be debilitating for work that relies on imagination.
But it’s a little different for writers, right? Writers don’t have to worry about performing in front of an audience. We can write the same sentence over and over for an entire day and nobody will care, unless we’re on deadline and our editors are drumming their fingers watching their screens for an email with an attachment. Still, unlike performers, writers don’t have to worry about memorizing lines or learning lyrics or reading music or Teleprompters. We just have to face a big, empty stretch of paper or a blank computer screen every day. We have to put Something on that Nothing, and whatever Something we place on that Nothing has to be interesting and true and meaningful and funny and dramatic and marketable. We take daubs of clay and make them into people. We build houses of paper and make them into homes or torture chambers. Piece of cake.
Right. Unlike a stage performer, though, we have no Little Helpers unless you count the dictionary. All we have is whatever is in our heads.
This can be daunting. Some writers grapple with writer’s block, which according to Mark McGuinness is similar to stage fright because both require the sufferer to break through a barrier that is more mental than physical. In both cases, McGuinness says, the artist should use his or her imagination to break through the mental block. “Remember what it was like the last time you broke through the mental barriers and found yourself in creative flow,” he says. “Take a few moments to remember the sense of ease and pleasure, and notice the kind of images the memory conjures up in your mind.”
Basically, fight fire with fire. Use the power of your mind to vanquish the power of your mind. Game yourself.
Sound crazy? Perhaps, but being a creative artist of any flavor forces a person to wrap his head around contradictory states. She needs to perform but dreads it; he exudes confidence one day and curls up into a ball of “I don’ wannanahnah!” the next; she wants to sing her latest and greatest from the housetops early in the day, but by afternoon, she’s looking for a bonfire to toss it onto so she’s got enough ashes to dump on her head.
Did God have stage fright or writer’s block? Knowing what Creation would evolve into—road rage, pollution, war, murder, library fines—did God rear back and think, “Why bother?”
Obviously not. God took a risk. God knew that in addition to the bad things, there would be love, songbirds, monarch butterflies, and homemade apple pie.
Stage fright is what you feel when you take a risk. Sending out your stories for others to read is a risk. Getting past your fear long enough to take that risk not knowing where you’ll end up or how it will turn out is a kind of courage, according to Brené Brown, whose fantastic TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” may change your life. Access it here, and then, please, tell me what you think.
What I remind myself when I experience stage fright is this: the times I take a risk, the times I don’t know what I’m heading into, the times I’ve prepped as best I can but have to apply my skills to a new situation—those are the times I grow the most.
Hope to see myself—and you--in Denver next June.