Here’s a confession: speaking in public makes me nervous.
When I am lecturing for classes I usually give myself a few extra minutes to walk to class with my headphones in and the music loud. Other times, I dance in my office by myself. True story. The nerves don’t quit when I am giving conference papers. Never mind that I have given dozens in the last few years. I still get a racing heart, sweaty palms, and tunnel vision. It’s the best I can do to keep the shake out of my voice.
I’m lucky. I’ve been told that my performance anxiety doesn’t show. That’s a relief, in a way, because I’ve certainly been taught not to show my weak points. (Or to reveal them in a strategically self-effacing way as a means of making a point. Cough cough.)
But the place that makes me the most nervous to speak in public isn’t necessarily about speaking at all. No. It is writing in public that gives me the most anxiety, and I think there is good reason for this—or at least reason that extends beyond my personal foibles.
Writing in public is risky. It is more risky that speaking in public in some ways. Sure, when your body is there before an audience there is the possibility of physical affronts. There is the fact of your body, the way that it reacts to stress and strain. You might sweat a bit, you might stutter. You might cry. Or laugh. I have done all of these things in public—usually in front of a class—and I have lived to tell the tale. It isn’t always pleasant, but it is almost always a pedagogically useful moment, if only in hindsight. There is also the more dangerous fact of your body as a body in front of others. I have certainly felt threatened when speaking in public or as a result of it, and I have very good friends and acquaintances—almost all women—who have similar experiences or worse. So yes, placing one’s own body in front of the bodies of others while speaking is risky. Why, then, do I feel it is alright to suggest that writing in public is the most anxiety-producing mode of public “speaking” for me and for many others I know?
Again, the body: in the place of my own body is my body of writing. It can’t defend itself, reiterate, or retort on its own. It requires my intervention, my reiteration, my retort. My writing—any public writing—can be taken up and out of context, deliberately or accidentally misinterpreted, and it can become fodder for more pernicious kinds of aggressive engagements.
Some years ago Sina Queyras wrote a post on Lemon Hound wondering where the women bloggers were. Her query was rhetorical. “Look to the margins,” she said. “Look to the gaps, the fissures, the silences.”
Writing in public is risky business, even when it looks innocuous. Today, I want to thank all of the positive risk-takers and public-writing women I know. Thank you, you make me feel a bit braver, and you make me recognize my own responsibility to speak.