A little celebration of moving through fear

Sage CohenProductive writing15 Comments

I recently insisted that you celebrate all things good as you wrap up 2010 to help make space for and invite in all the successes that are waiting to claim you in 2010. Now I’d like to share a little celebration of my own. But first, a bit of back story.

I first spoke my poetry in front of a live audience in my mid-20’s. I was so paralyzed with fear that my central nervous system seemed to shut down, my throat closed, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to make it to the podium to speak without collapsing. I don’t know how it happened, but I wobbled up there and got those words out and was miraculously still alive when it was all over.

Since that time, I have made it a point to speak publicly and to read my poetry in front of an audience at every possible opportunity. Not because I felt in the slightest bit comfortable or gifted at this skill — but specifically because I didn’t.

I knew I needed all the practice I could get at staring (and reading) down this terror of public speaking. So I read and taught and lectured and presented and read some more for the next 15 or so years. Each and every time, there was a moment of no return where some part of me wanted to collapse or quit, but I simply wouldn’t let it. I knew I’d do as well as I could do, and learn whatever needed improving for the next time. There was nothing more I could do but my limited best. And so I did. Slowly, my confidence and my performance improved.

Which brings me to last weekend: a spectacular wedding of a dear friend on a beach in Sayulita, Mexico. My job was to read a poem at the ceremony. I chose “Touch Me” by Stanley Kunitz, perhaps my favorite love poem– one I had learned by heart. There were maybe six readings and mine was next to last. When it was my turn, all of those years of loving poems and demanding evolution-when-speaking came through me. I stood tall and relaxed, projected easily and confidently–loud enough to be heard over the crashing waves behind me–and  spoke each line of that poem with all the feeling that it moved in me. I looked into listeners’ eyes. I took my time. I let the pauses resonate. I was gentle enough with myself to embody the poem and let it come through as I understood it. And I felt like a natural. For probably the first time in my life.

For the rest of the weekend, people I didn’t know approached me to thank me for and compliment me on my reading. The general consensus was that they felt and received the poem clearly because I felt it and transmitted it effectively. This may be the most meaningful praise I have ever received, because it celebrates a skill I have devoted myself to honing in spite and because of my fear.

Today I’m feeling grateful for those hundreds and hundreds of risks I’ve taken to sound foolish, unimpressive, unpolished, (You name the negative adjective, I’ve said it to myself) and just do it anyway. The truth is, I’ve flubbed up plenty along the way. So what? That’s what growth entails. All of that brought me to the beach where I trusted the poem to come through me, and I was the well-honed instrument to deliver it. From fear to courage to the unmediated joy of sharing a poem I love.

Chances are good there’s something you’re so afraid of trying in your writing life that you keep postponing it. Or you try every now and then, are not satisfied at your performance, and don’t investigate this any further. Here’s the thing. It’s not about perfection. It’s about practice. A surgeon doesn’t wake up one day and know how to replace a heart. S/he trains for years, often decades to cultivate the fluency of mind-hand-scalpel genius. The writing life is no different.

I invite you to make 2011 the year that you start giving fear a friendly nod, without investing too much in the nasty stories it is telling you, then take the risks you know you are meant to take anyway. I’m not saying it will be easy. It likely won’t. But as you learn that you can trust yourself to do what’s hard again and again, and as see the sure signs of improvement–no matter how slow–as you go, you will learn to count on yourself to do what is necessary. You’ll become a writer you admire. I promise you will.

If you need some extra support with this, I’ll be offering a free telecourse on navigating fear on January 6. There’s also an entire chapter on embracing fear in The Productive Writer. Plus, have no fear, dear writer, I intend to continue to blog about fear right here throughout the year. You’ll find those posts in the “productive writing” category.

It can help to speak your commitment to a listener. If you’d like to tell us here in the comments which fear you intend to tackle this year, I will hold your intention closely!

15 Comments on “A little celebration of moving through fear”

  1. Thank you. I should post this on a mirror. I am definitely taking your telecourse. I can’t wait.


  2. Read at least 3 poems a week.

    Write at least 1 poem a week.

    Send out at least 4 poems a month.

  3. Sage reading “Summer is late, my heart…” Pefectly lovely.

    I am so proud of you, Sage!
    And what an awesome setting.

    Thank you so much for your encouragement.

  4. Sage: I so appreciate your honesty. The fear(s) I want to overcome in 2011 are to take myself seriously as a writer and to establish a consistent writing rhythm. I love your new path of possibility!!! Thank you.

  5. Sage, thanks for the very helpful story. I joined Toastmasters in my late 20’s and spent almost 15 yrs learning how to speak, think on my feet and communicate more clearly. It was an invaluable aid to my career. Now, I love to be in front of a group. I’ve done readings just like you described including a poem I wrote for my daughter’s wedding and read to the group. I recommend Toastmasters to everyone!

  6. Thanks for the Toastmasters recommendation, Mike. How wonderful that you’ve created such freedom (and authority) for yourself while speaking in front of an audience. I appreciate you telling us about it here.

  7. Pingback: how good it feels | Voice Alpha

  8. Very useful advice and general reflections, Sage.

    Weddings (and, of course, funerals) are at one and the same time the most testing of occasions for the read poem. On the one hand you’re addressing an audience that is expecting to listen to people speaking publicly, which renders them more or less benign rather than largely indifferent.

    But equally you are a.) broadcasting for the duration of the reading on the predominant emotional wavelength of the occasion, and b.) you are transmitting to an audience the majority of whom will be unfamiliar with, and maybe marginally hostile to poetry out loud.

    A hefty responsibility, which, if successfully discharged (as described above) may well constitute all the baptism of fire you’ll ever need!

  9. Dick,

    That sums it up beautifully! Relating to an audience that didn’t come to hear poetry and doesn’t necessarily even appreciate poetry, the task becomes exponentially more interesting! : )

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