Anxiety and Public Reading
August 4, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Katrina Otuonye
I took part in a reading with The Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville last week, and I read for about 10 minutes from a collection of nonfiction I’m working on. I think it went well, even though I was a little nervous, though a bit less than usual. Practice does actually make perfect. But the first couple paragraphs, getting over the dry mouth, mentally smoothing over the shakiness in my voice, my little animal brain kicked in, the one that always says, “What are you doing?”
The voice comes from a little preppy version of me, in a pleated skirt and my hair up, in a bow. She sits cross-legged on my shoulder, filing her nails. I’ve been meditating and going to therapy to help with my anxiety and latent feelings of not-good-enough-ness that have followed me around for nearly 20 years now (thanks, middle school). Before, that voice was usually buried deep, deep down and now she’s emerged. This is bad, because she’s a bitch. This is also very good because now she’s shown herself, so I can crush her.
All of this is happening while I’m reading my work, which I’m rather proud of. I’m proud of my ridiculous memory and that I get to write about my experiences. I’m proud that I’m a damn good writer, that I got to read my work. I plan to keep sending out my writing and publish my book.
But in that present moment, licking my lips, reading my work, little preppy me speaks up. She says, “You’re too nervous. You’re never going to finish. This isn’t going to work. You should stop right now and walk out the door.” I actually pictured myself gathering my papers and dashing out. I didn’t speak to the voice, I know that in some twisted way, this voice is attempting to protect me. It’s just that we all so easily have these little spoken or unspoken worries circling all day every day, whether or not they’re fully acknowledged.
I keep saying little because that’s what these worries are—they’re diminutive, but powerful. They can’t take over unless you let them. I keep saying you, but really I mean I. I mean me. They are the imagined voices of the people that don’t care all that much about me, but still sort of exist in my orbit. I care way too much about those people. I’m working on it.
In 2014, Lupita Nyong’o gave a speech at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood event, about representation and her hopes and dreams when she was younger, not of being a great actress, but of having lighter skin. Even as she started to accept herself, started to become more comfortable with who she is, she said, the hardest part was allowing herself that acceptance because, “I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.” Sometimes it seems easier to think, “woe is me” and give yourself permission to stop trying. It can feel better to place yourself in the hole first, at the very bottom, where you believe everyone else will put you anyway.
In relationships, or the confusing situations I keep finding myself in, it’s the voice that says, “Well of course he ghosted you, why did you think he would text you back, what about you made you think that he would show up?” It is a sad and dangerous hole, and I can tell you your life will be 1000 times easier—my life is easier—when I stopped trying to analyze and police the motives of others in an attempt to apply the unknowable and uninteresting to my sense of self-worth. It has no bearing. This feeling that we’re not quite good enough, that I am not enough, it keeps us in the dark. It keeps us from loving fully and honestly. It keeps us from being vulnerable, from being ourselves, from honoring our values, feelings and instincts. Listen to your better angels. They’ll always steer you in the right direction.
So while I was still reading, I had a little smile on my face as I thought, screw that, I’m not leaving. I just started. And the little me went away, because I moved forward. Because often the people who don’t have my back (real people, not my damaged subconscious) are playing small and trying to bring me down because they don’t like the sight of me striving, writing, editing, revising. At the reading, I was too focused on telling my story to pay her any mind. I was still nervous, I still tripped over a word or two and changed a couple phrases on the fly, but it was me and it was my work. I did it, and it was good, and I knew exactly what I was doing.
Katrina Otuonye is a writer and editor from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She holds a BA from the University of Tennessee and an MFA from Chatham University. Katrina’s work has appeared in publications such as Tarpaulin Sky Press, Litro Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, and The Toast, among others. She’s currently retweeting to her heart’s content @katrinaotuonye, and writing a memoir and a collection of creative nonfiction. You can find more of her work at katrinaotuonye.com.