Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Writing in Public


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. 

5 comments:

  1. Thank you, Erin, for this post. Without going into too much detail, I know what it means to be attacked for what you write. People are cruel and don't deserve nearly as much credit as we liberal-minded people tend to give them in the humaneness-toward-others department. But then again, for the truly awful pernicious attacks we do have slander and libel laws and we have the human rights tribunal.

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    1. So much to do with writing, speaking, and the female body are still risky...dangerous even...at least for the woman asserting herself or sending out a set of challenges in a public fashion. You are right about the lack of kindness, the often wanton cruelty, and abject obtuseness of certain people, or the silence from others which can do as much damage depending on the context. Do you have any tricks, Stephanie Butler, to mitigate and navigate public speaking and writing? Every time we write or speak... every time we confront or challenge problematic ideas, we may change or trouble a person's mind or at the very least, whittle an opening for more conversation or debate as the case may be... I've given up caring about perfection or mastery or what people think of me--especially if they do not know me, have never spoken to me, never attempted a personal conversation with me, or have only second hand or no information about me. If I make a mistake, I make a mistake. Certain coteries have made mistakes for decades, generations...I'd rather speak my bodymind [my spelling] and deal with any fallout as it occurs. And grow thicker skin as a life-in-progress.... How about you?

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    2. Thanks for your really thought-provoking and challenging question, radsensorium! I have definitely developed a thicker skin. I used to care so much about what other people thought about me or what they said. I felt that I had no personal power and that what other people said or thought about me could prevent me from having options in my career or personal life. I was afraid that people would close doors, poison the waters, or prevent me from having a fair chance at opportunities my work would merit. Since then I have realized that if my values, actions, or person would face censure, harassment, or shunning, from particular people or institutions then I owe it to myself to find a healthier environment instead of worrying about what might be lost to me in those contexts. Instead of forcing myself to remain to spite people who have no respect for me, I find a more appropriate environment. As for speaking out or writing, I tend to value honesty above all else--but carefully crafted honesty--because even if people do not like what I have to say at least I know that what I have stated is, as far as I know, true. If other people do not like it then that is their problem. I also tend to speak to sympathetic people who have greater power and can make better use of the information I have than I could on my own. Finding like-minded people and engaging in coalition politics is also helpful. Even if the rest of the world hates what I have to say at least I have a few like-minded supporters who understand what I'm trying to do or at least respect my freedom of speech. I also have a lawyer handy on the back-burner in case things get too out of control. . . I've tried asking that people who know me notify me that they read my blog, but I do not think that actually works. So if I get the sense that they are upset by something they have read, I have realized that the best approach is to be blunt and to clear the air. I am sure you are far more experienced at dealing with these issues than I am, so what are your tricks?

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    3. Stephanie, I really enjoyed reading your frank, specific, honest words in reply to my question. It sounds as though you have extricated yourself from a difficult situation(s)? I am sorry that you felt you lacked personal power. I often feel immersed yet dislocated when trying to navigate the intricacies of power. I agree with everything you have outlined. In my experience, com/passionate, sympathetic people (interested in coalition politics) are often difficult to find... But it only takes a few! Fear, punitive behavior, and silencing seems to occur more frequently these days due to so much economic uncertainty etc. Yes, I am all for blunt statements and clearing the air. I am also for questions, persistence, and repetitive action/voice (sometimes it is hard to break through!). As Beckett wrote, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." I think it is always important to show respect but it is equally important to say what you mean no matter how hard it might be to speak/write it--as you say, you can't win them all and someone will usually dislike what is said or done. I want (and try) to surround myself with people that have integrity and mettle: those that do not hedge or give in when challenged--those who do the necessary, hard thing, and follow through. I have a great dislike for gestures performed only when convenient or trendy or for personal social/cultural capital. I think the most difficult tricks are akin to learning to swim upstream: to read against the grain; to show and do the reverse of the work (Sinfield) in order to expose conditions. My goal is to not only read against the grain but think (be, live) against the grain whenever possible. I think "listening" or auditory-recognition helps: how can I sense-listen to another's voice and words? What can I glean? What are they showing me? what do they hear? I find this tact hard but fruitful--and I need a lot of practice. Thick skin? I grew some of mine when I lived away from Canada. And I grew some more in/with poetry. I look forward to reading your blog. Thanks for engaging and in such a forthright way, Stephanie. It is a balm, hearts ease.

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    4. Thank you, radsensorium. Your question was really needed, and your response is inspiring. :)

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