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Screwing Courage to the Sticking Place

(30 October 2010)

Sometimes, when the timing feels right, I like to pose little challenges to myself to prove that I’m not scared of things I’m actually really scared of. This does not include riding bicycles in big, busy, traffic-heavy cities—no, I don’t know when I’ll be up for that challenge, but as my wrists still crack painfully when I lift heavy objects even 10 years after an accident that a bicycle (not me, of course not me!) was responsible for, the answer to that might be never. The kind of challenges I prefer are ones that I can actually envision ending positively, and not with my insides being squished all over a sidewalk beneath the tires of some rogue taxicab. More like: moving jobless across the country to sleep on a friend’s spare mattress, just to see what happens; or, trying not to cry while climbing a sheer cliff-face in the Grand Canyon with a bunch of hard-core hikers who have brought 6-packs of Bud for hydration, just to save face; or, taking a job as a nanny with the most heinous of Upper East Side families, just to see if I can manage keep my ethical wits about me (barely!). Or…standing in a room packed full of strangers in one of the most internationally recognized bookshops in the world just to see if I’m capable of reading a not-very-good poem I wrote three years ago without throwing up. 

The latter took place last night in the expatriate literary Mecca of Shakespeare & Company, an English-language bookshop located on Paris’s left bank, directly across the Seine from Notre Dame. This is a bookshop I know well: I spent many afternoons here during my two years at AUP flipping through books and trying to soak in the prestige of a place so old and wordy. I had known since the beginning of October that I would be coming to Paris to visit Friend Sasha and Friend Diogo during the Toussaint school vacation. I did not know that I would be subjecting myself to public speaking. Jenny, a fellow Teaching Assistant based in Avignon, had shared with me via Facebook that she would be in Paris at the same time and that she was planning to read something at an Open Mic at Shakespeare & Co. At first I received the information neutrally. Cool, I thought, I’ll go see Jenny read and cheer her on. And then the little challenge bug in my brain started crawling around and hissing, You should read something too…

Barring a few critically-acclaimed moments of childhood fame (an ugly stepsister in Cinderella in 5th grade; the Baroness von Schrader in Briscoe Middle School’s 2001 production of The Sound of Music), I’m not a huge fan of public performance/speaking. The handful of presentations I had to give in college always left me breathless and shaky; my first few days working register at Think Coffee in New York and Trader Joe’s in Seattle felt like theater auditions. But I think that standing in rooms full of 15 and 16 year-olds the past few weeks has upped my nerve count, and I was excited at the idea of joining the great tradition of readers and writers at a bookshop I loved so much. I wrote Jenny back and asked her for details about the reading, then e-mailed someone named Adam to sign up.

Friday night rolled around, and after a few days of wandering aimlessly through Paris eating falafel and crêpes, I found that I wasn’t actually as up for the challenge as I’d hoped. Sure, I’d spent the morning hunting down the apartment of a friend-of-a-friend in the Latin Quarter in order to cadge his printer and print the poem, but walking with Jenny to Shakespeare & Co. at 7:30 on Friday night, I fought the urge to rip up the poem and throw it in a trash can.

We stopped for a beer.

We went inside. The upstairs room was packed, literally nowhere to sit, barely room to stand. We signed in, chatted with a few other readers, then listened to Adam gather the attention of the crowd.  There are two judges tonight, he told us. They will choose a winner based on the best performance, he said. The performers are here to entertain you! he exclaimed. You have the right to heckle them only if they exceed their five minutes! he grinned.

Uh… Performer? I definitely wasn’t about to perform anything for anybody. I was about to read some emo wordplay that didn’t actually come off too well in speech and was really meant to be read on paper.

I might have walked out if it wouldn’t have caused such a scene. I waited for my name to be called. Three very strong performers—a musician and two poets—went on. I was fourth. I stumbled over to the mic, stuck my eyes to the paper, moved my lips, and didn’t look up until it was over 50 seconds later. Sure, people clapped at the end, but all I could do was run from the room and try to breath and wait for my heart to stop pounding.

The soaring, powerful, self-assured feeling I had anticipated in committing to the Open Mic never arrived. I definitely didn’t win Best Performer. But I didn’t throw up, and if that’s where the success lies for now, I’ll take it.

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