If a psychic had predicted five years ago that I would one day stand up – on my own – at a very elegant literary lunch and speak for almost an hour in front of seventy-five actual, human people, I’d have said polish your crystal ball a bit more vigorously, love. Never. Going. To. Happen.
And yet it is the very and exact thing I did yesterday. Without alcohol. Without my notes, which were abandoned after a few minutes. Without any visual aids. Without passing out from my heart feeling like it had been squashed between two bricks.
I can’t lie and say it was easy. I can’t lie and say I want to rush out and do it again any time soon. But I can say that when I got home afterwards I was rather proud.
People do often say to me, ‘But you’re such a chatterbox. How can you be shy? How can you be afraid of speaking in public?’
Afraid is an understatement. Until recently I would have rather gone into a cage of hungry lions while coated in antelope blood and with a sign around my neck saying EAT ME. And even now the lions sound like the slightly better option…
We often assume that the smiley, chatty people are the confident ones. That they couldn’t possibly be shy. Or insecure. Or introverted sometimes. But I think they are the very people who need to be so friendly to put everyone at ease, to mask their nerves, and to try and make the world a more pleasant place so they can cope with that shyness. I don’t want anyone to feel as anxious as I do sometimes, so I go in full smile.
It’s easy talking in the company of those you know. Speaking in front of an audience is an entirely different thing. I knew I’d have to do it at some point when I got my book deal three years ago. The thought of it woke me at night in a cold, dread-filled sweat.
I thought that even if I could manage to do it – fuelled by alcohol or drugs of some sort – the audience would just think I was an idiot. Boring. Incompetent. Stupid. Gormless. Tiresome. You pick the word, I’ve thought it.
No one with half a brain would want to listen to me yacking on.
I grew up in a house that didn’t listen. My parents were both absent for varying lengths of time/reasons, and when they were around things were chaotic. When I started writing stories aged nine I now know it was a way to speak, ever so quietly and privately, so I could cope with having come home from school to a social worker who took my siblings and I away to live with my grandma, for a full year, no explanation. I found out when I was fifteen that my mother had attempted suicide and been in a mental hospital for that time.
Everyone shushed me as a kid. My mother. My father. My mother’s boyfriend.
Me (aged fourteen): I think I might be depressed. It’s worse than being just sad.
My mother: Don’t ever come and say the word depressed to me again. Ever. You have no idea what the word even means. No idea at all.
When I was shushed up, I wrote instead. The page listened to me.
I found my voice a bit when I was in my final years of school. I spent half of my time sitting outside the classroom on the stairs for talking too much. I got expelled from sixth form for messing around.
A year later I started three A levels at college: English Language, English Literature, and Theatre Studies. In the first Theatre Studies lesson we had to stand up and talk for two minutes. I couldn’t do it. I sat down, mortified, blushing, and totally embarrassed. Stupidly, I’d thought the course would just involve studying plays, not actually having to perform in any way. I dropped that A level the very next day.
I got pregnant at college so thank God I didn’t have to attempt to stammer my way through any sort of university experience.
Then I didn’t have to think about any sort of public speaking for a long, long time.
Thirty-three years after I first started writing, the dream came true. My first novel was published in 2015. And this meant book launches and festival panels and interviews. Book launches are sort of okay because you’re usually chatting with someone, not alone on some stage, and there’s always alcohol. Panels are also sort of okay because you’re with other, possibly equally nervous, writers.
Being a part of Women of Words in Hull – a monthly open mic event – has helped me find my speaking voice in ways I’ll never forget. At a workshop we had to stand alone on a stage and look at the line on the paper and then look up and say it. Not read it. Say it. Looking directly at the audience. Slowly. We were told not to be afraid of pauses. That a connected audience will wait for that duration.
I suppose it was the pauses I was afraid of. That silence. That moment when the eyes in front of me cloud over with boredom. When someone gets up to leave. Laughs at me. Frowns.
When I think to myself – shhhhhh.
I did a short talk at Hull University last year for International Women’s Day, about a woman who had inspired me: Marilyn Monroe. I tried to use what I had learned at the workshop. It helped that it was a small room. That this was a topic I thought might interest people. A person I myself felt passionate about.
Still, I dreaded someone saying shhhhhh.
Then a few months ago I was asked to go and talk at a literary lunch in my area. I was so anxious I literally typed the email saying no. I came very very close to sending it. But my lovely husband told me off. He said they must be interested or they wouldn’t have asked me. Plus there was a free lunch. He always knows the right thing to say.
When I left the house last Friday I hadn’t slept a wink. I dreamt that Deirdre Barlow and I were sharing the stage at some pub, and she kept force-feeding me sausages so I would choke.
Lots of kind people on social media had told me to be myself, to which I’d joked that that would mean going in my dressing gown, with huge hair, and saying ‘for fuck’s sake’ every other minute. But I had seriously thought that being myself was the very thing that would put them off. Yet who the frig else could I be? Deirdre Barlow? It wasn’t an entirely bad idea…
When I arrived at the venue, there was a large, beautiful room off the bar, all set up for a wedding. I commented on it, and the barman said it was for the lunch that was happening. I thought I would pass out. I had anticipated one large table with maybe fifteen people sitting around it. This was set up for about eighty. Maybe they wouldn’t all come…
Oh, they did. Seventy-five of them.
When I got up and stood all on my absolute own in front of them, seventy-five pairs of eyes looked expectantly my way. I don’t have words to describe how terrifying it was. The advice is to picture them naked. Didn’t help. The advice is use positive visualisation. All I could see was Deirdre Barlow. The advice is to be yourself.
So I started out by saying exactly that. That people had suggested I be myself, but that if I’d done that I’d have been standing here in my red dressing gown with hair like Billy Idol. They laughed. Everything in the room changed. They seemed to relax. So I did. I had written some bullet points but I didn’t even look at them. I simply talked about the writing journey, from being nine and my mum disappearing for a year, to being a young single mum, to my book deal. At times it was emotional. Because it came from a real place.
So I did it.
I did it.
And no one said shhhhhh.