by Erika Hoffman
My late dad used to say: “The best gift you can be given is the ability to see yourself as others see you.” I’m not so sure.
A writers’ organization asked me to speak at their annual conference on penning the personal essay. For ten years, I’ve composed non-fiction narratives with inspirational messages, usually intended for magazines – secular and religious – and for anthologies, especially the well-known Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
Although gingerly hesitant at first, I eventually consented to give my dog & pony show, which would include a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, something I’d never created. Before this moment, I’d spoken to a few book clubs, small writers’ groups, a Rotary gathering (with polite applause), and a sorority meeting for teachers, where many didn’t seem overly interested. I’d been a high school teacher, an instructor for OLLI’s continuing education, and a lecturer at a Rescue Mission, but I’d not performed on stage in front of a crowd of more than 100 real writers, who had paid money to hear me pontificate on the scribbler’s art.
I was nervous. When asked if I’d mind being filmed for YouTube, I declared, “Yes, I do mind.”
No videotaping! It will make me too anxious, I told them. I figured I’d stare at the camera, instead of maintaining eye contact with the audience. I’d fidget and lose my place. I’d obsess over my weight rather than concentrate on smiling, pausing, and joking. I imagined twisting my ankle and toppling off the stage, or losing the mic’s amplification, or not figuring out the clicker to my PowerPoint, or not installing the thumb drive correctly (upside down or something). Sneezing, sniffling, jitterily twirling my necklace or hair, like Meghan Markle, worried me. I ruminated over my undergarments riding up or my make-up melting down or something flying into my eye – or a question posed I couldn’t answer.
And all of it would be on tape for everyone in the universe to gawk at for all eternity. No thanks. I didn’t want my fifteen minutes or fifty minutes of fame and shame.
In the weeks counting down to the big day, I practiced my spiel. Often, I’d refer to Chicken Soup for the Soul in my talk, which I performed before my two miniature dachshunds who paced with me, eagerly anticipating my next word or gesture. Every time I pronounced the word “chicken”, they’d look yearningly toward their bowls in the kitchen. I think they thought I was saying “Chicken for their Stomachs.”
Anyway, the day before the big day, I got my brows waxed, my nails manicured, and my hair styled. (I spent my honorarium on grooming.)
The judgment day arrived. And I arrived at the center a few presenters before I was due up to bat. So I listened to these other writers talk. What did I notice? Some misspoke, got their words tangled up, got the slides on the PowerPoint out of order, repeated themselves, but didn’t lose the beat when they dropped their notes from the lectern or forgot to speak loudly into the mic. Nor did they lose focus if people traipsed in and out of the auditorium. And all the time the camera was on. The videotaping of their mortality was happening. They seemed unperturbed. One journalist’s continual repetition of the words “you know” and “OK” had me counting them. Yet no one else in the audience seemed bothered by a less-than-perfect performance.
Me, my lips dried up in the first five minutes of my talk, but I avoided sipping water for fear I’d slurp or spill it. I delivered my much-rehearsed speech. My jokes evoked laughter. My audience’s attention didn’t waver. I filled up fifty minutes easily. Everyone clapped loudly. A few scurried up to the lectern at the end of my gig to tell me how much they enjoyed my talk. One compared me to Erma Bombeck. I daresay I was a success.
Now let me clarify that; in my mind I was a success, unequivocally. Would it have been nice for my presentation to have been recorded so I could validate what a hit I was? Then, I could re-watch over and over, marveling at my aplomb. Or, had it been taped, would I have merely focused on any slip of the tongue, any unnecessary “um,” any unintended pregnant pause? Would I have judged myself critically?
Tonight, I watched the YouTube Highlights of the Conference. The title said, “11of 12 sessions taped.” I realized then I was the only one who declined to be videotaped – the sole coward of the bunch. On reflection, do I regret this decision? No. I’m not sorry about my decision not to be recorded because in my mind’s eye, I did a super job. I won the Oscar. And there is no taped evidence to prove my opinion of my time in the spotlight wrong.
Having the P. T. Barnum gene is great for businessmen, show men, and politicians, but some of us writers have inherited the Emily Dickinson gene, where we work alone, quietly, unobtrusively plying our trade, and hope we are known, not by the sound of our voice, or by our facial expressions, or our exuberant gestures, but by the use of twenty-six letters in various combinations. Our recognition doesn’t come in the form of applause but from seeing a title of a piece written by us and, in the byline, our name. That’s our reward – a quiet one.
Nonetheless, I’m glad I tried to walk in another gal’s moccasins and accepted the challenge to overcome my glossophobia – the social anxiety seventy-five percent of folks feel when having to speak in front of a large group. There’s something to that old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I have more confidence in my speaking abilities now, and next time I’m asked to present, I’ll say “Yes” without a pause and hopefully, I’ll at least waver a little bit and think for a moment about the possibility of being filmed before declaring, “Absolutely no videotaping for YouTube!”
For the past ten years, Erika Hoffman has written essays, stories, travel articles, and fiction with the goal of publication. In March 2019, her murder mystery Why Mama was published by Library Partners Press of Wake Forest University. Collections of humorous stories are compiled in her book, My Sassy Life, and her essays on the craft of writing appear in her book, Erika’s Take on Writing.