Alas, something shifted: I entered new territory, and I am now a full-blown easily provoked crier. It’s embarrassing and maddening all at the same time. I was plenty in touch with my emotions before: I did not need someone to tear down the dam that held propriety in check. But here I am.
A few months ago, I was asked to talk at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) about how my experience publishing my first book. I planned to open my talk with a poem, which I always do, but this time I chose a poem that has layers and layers of special meaning to me: “The Writer” by Richard Wilbur, a poem whose last stanza forms the epigraph in my memoir. I had practiced reciting the poem, all the while knowing I would probably get choked up when reciting it anyway. (I won’t cry when practicing, but get me in front of people and here come the waterworks.) Fine. I could manage that somehow.
The really sad part about this new normal for me is that I absolutely love public speaking. It’s why I once took a job in university admissions which had me frequently talking in front of audiences of up to 150 people. It’s why I loved going on television to represent a nonprofit organization I worked for. It's why I still like it when people ask me to talk at conferences and book clubs. But I digress.
The day of the AWW talk arrived, and I’m usually excited but not nervous before giving a talk, but this time I was very nervous for a solid two hours before my talk. Maybe it was because I had participated in this workshop for years and I wanted to do a top-notch job for the people I knew, especially those I consider part of my writing community.
I exited the building a half-hour before my allotted time and walked around the campus, doing all sorts of breathing exercises that involve exhaling longer than inhaling. I went back into the building. I went into the auditorium. I took my seat to wait.
Then my friend — the VP of the AWW board — stood at the podium to introduce me, and as soon as she started talking, I could feel my throat closing. I was already getting choked up, and I hadn’t even stepped onstage.
You don’t need to be a genius to know this is a very, very bad sign.
Sure enough, I walked up to the podium, set my papers down, smiled and started thanking — yep, the choking up started then. I hadn’t even gotten to Richard Wilbur and his poem with layers of special meaning to me. I was still at I’m Shuly and I wrote a book and I want to thank some people, and my ability to hold it together was going south. Fast.
I paused whenever I got verklempt, which was every few sentences during the first five minutes. The audience waited. Someone brought me a tissue, though I never actually cried. Still, I felt like I was having a public therapy session.
Finally, I got myself (mostly) together as my nerves calmed down. Yes, I got choked up midway through my talk when recounting the story of my husband suggesting I realize my dream of getting an MFA, but that at least felt somewhat appropriate.
In the end, I overcame my nerves, and I delivered (I hope) the content that AWW wanted me to. I talked about my journey as a writer and how I found the press that published my book. I talked about pitfalls I had encountered. I doled out advice to writers seeking a publisher. And I managed, somehow, to get the audience to laugh at least once — maybe more, but that part is all a blur.
When it was over, a few audience members walked up to me and thanked me. They did so either from a place of honesty, or pity. I’m definitely not asking which.
Shuly Cawood lives in Johnson City and is the author of “The Going and Goodbye: a memoir and 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17.”