Nobody told me I’d be speaking!
I was standing on a dais at Chicago’s Union League Club, picking up the “Silver Feather Award” from the Illinois Woman’s Press Association for kicking butt in the group’s annual communications contest. I’d won this same award a few years before, in 2008, which is when I first joined the organization. I expected the routine would be the same–a handshake and a hug, the trophy changes hands, somebody snaps a picture, and I would walk away without saying a word. When I came to the awards lunch the first time, in fact, I’d prepared a few remarks “just in case”…and never had to use them.
This time, I got steered to the microphone at the podium with no warning. And it was absolutely fine. I would not have said that ten years ago, or fifteen, or twenty. Or at any other time in my life farther back than maybe five years.
I had two very good friends with me at the lunch as my “posse.” Judy and I go way back to the seventies, when we were both undergraduates, and Judy knows where all of the bones are buried. Patti and I go back to law school twenty years later, and I’m sure she’s got other tales to tell. But where she comes in here is that she is able to retell FROM MEMORY just how terrified I was of public speaking a dozen years ago. And what an unbelievable turnaround she’d seen. “Terror” is a pretty good word for that fear, which had plagued me most of my life. I’ve joked for years that I’d first become a writer because I was more comfortable hiding behind a computer screen than I was articulating anything by voice or face to face.
Patti and I teamed up in law school for an “appellate advocacy” class, which culminated not only in writing a long brief together but in an oral competition spanning several days of standing up in a mock courtroom and arguing a hypothetical case in front of a panel of real life judges. I remember going out and spending $300 on a silk suit at Ann Taylor just to prop me up for that first appearance, on the theory that I needed every psychological advantage I could trick myself with to live through the ordeal.
The suit still didn’t stop the hammering heartbeat, or the tightness in my chest, or the dry mouth, or the gasping for air, or the feeling of panic, or the inability to breathe. Patti recalls that one of our professors took us aside after class and asked if I was going to be able to continue. I don’t remember that, pretty much since the entire memory just seems like a white hot fire scar. At any rate, it gives you an idea of where I was coming from back then.
The fear didn’t go away easily or quickly. I had to fight it first while I was in law school, raising my hand over and over until answering out loud became more routine. Then I had to deal with it in circuit court as a prosecutor, and even more frightening, in front of the state supreme court five times. THAT experience can still make my heart beat a little faster when I think of it. I remember that I changed my fashion outlook when I was approaching that first supreme court argument, though.
Instead of going shopping for something stylish, or expensive, or fresh–an exoskeleton of sorts to hold me together–I pulled out my starkest, plainest black blazer and black skirt, the duo that I call my “undertaker outfit.” I didn’t want to spend a second’s worth of energy on worrying whether I looked okay or stylish. Rather, I told myself, whatever I was arguing here in real life had different, incredibly serious stakes, and had to come just from the inside. It worked. I was still scared, and I still remember the hammering in my heart and the quickness of my breath at a couple of early points in the argument. But I got through it. With a unanimous decision, in fact.
As the writing has taken hold, I’ve had even more opportunities to get up in front of groups of other writers to read, and explain some of the journeys I’ve been on. And at some point, I guess, there must have been a tipping point. I sure can’t point to it. Patti just has to laugh, since she can provide the continuum with incredible comic timing now that “appellate advocacy” is far behind us.
As for me, I’m just so glad that I SEEM to have reached a place where, at least for the moment, someone can hand me a microphone with absolutely no notice, and I can say, with a smile and a shrug…OKAY!