As a promise to myself, I’ve avoided writing about public speaking lately because, really, what more can I say? You can be invited to the best group of well-meaning listeners, and there will always be someone who forgets to turn off their phone or can’t stop texting or pays more attention to video than they realizes – as if he needed proof – that to everything you say.
Yet a few things happened recently that were so difficult (more than a room full of masked faces), that after thinking it’s almost impossible to surprise me, I realize that some things can, while I pretend calmly and silently that they do not. .
For example, when that audience member – and there usually is – rolls his eyes disdainfully, shrugs his shoulders one too many times, or interrupts my speech to add his opinion before the Q&A session, I keep my composure. But it’s women like this who have completely shattered the illusion that all women are supportive sisters. They are not. I should note, however, that some profanity made me stronger since no one would speak in front of strangers if they didn’t want strong bones in their body, maybe a whole skeletal system.
One author told me to remember that how people treat the guest speaker says a lot about how they feel about themselves. I need to remind myself sometimes.
“It’s crazy work,” she says.
“I love madness.” I said.
And I clung to that belief for as long as I could.
Until my next read where I shared an article about what it was like to have COVID in a third world country, Thailand, in January 2020, and a woman interrupted me to say that the Thailand is not a third world country, but a developing one.
Like the pause that occurs when you slash your finger with a kitchen knife before blood flows, the room was perfectly still, waiting for my response. I found it strangely emboldening.
“Well,” I said, “you should have seen my bathroom. I was afraid to slip into the Mekong through the open toilets dug into the ground.
A second silence followed – the kind where you can hear everyone’s curiosity humming as they try to figure out if you’re humorous or sorry or neither. Or both. I imagined myself giving this woman a good old-fashioned slap on the head. Although it’s politically incorrect to even say the word ‘slap’, especially on this coast.
My uncle Victor would have laughed. He knew exactly how to slap us cousins, light enough not to cry, firm enough to let us know we were overstepping the mark, so shaddaaap.
Ok, here are some awkward moments that I’m still dealing with in hopes that one day they’ll make me remember what it’s like to think so fast on my feet: a woman in the front row doesn’t just sneak out, she gets up and announces that she has to pee. Someone else’s phone rings and she answers the call. Another spills a glass of water, gets up to clean it, moves the chairs, finds a mop. It took me a while to realize that she wasn’t going to stop cleaning unless I said something. I thought to myself, is it a lost art, listening? All these weeks later, this woman is still the embodiment of how I feel about this issue.
I have a lot of these stories because I spend a lot of time promoting my books this way, but after writing this I want to put aside the worst and remember some of the best times because, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of them too: readings that go so well, when the audience is all with me, generous at the book table, no one asks if they can buy my book on Amazon, and the programmer invites me back with a hug, and that hug lifts every part of me with its sincerity. Readings that fill the room with such a lively energy, which I fear I have sometimes overshadowed by the virtual experience.
No, it fills the room with something I feared I would lose.
These people who love books seem to sit more upright, they stop talking, the focus of the room seems to be on the idea of books and reading – in short, they behave well.
Now, that might seem a bit self-indulgent to write about speaking. But here’s what happened this morning: I had to choose between writing about Seattle’s drug addiction crisis so relentless that on my walk downtown yesterday, I encountered several lost souls who rushed to the sidewalk; or the horrors of the war in Ukraine; or the last shooting in Texas that gives me nightmares (Uvalde buries 19 CM1 students!); or the abortion debate that also wakes me up in the middle of the night as I think of all the frantic women crossing state lines to get abortions they can’t afford so this year 2022, it looks like she is determined to revoke the 21st century; or, or… how we just endured the coldest and wettest spring since 1948 that I decided to write about, if only for the reason that there are only so many sadness that each of us can bear.
And this choice, this rescue of myself, is also part of the writing. It’s the part that holds me together, what’s best in me, what’s left in me – a way of falling into the world after being pushed by something.
Mary Lou Sanelli’s latest book, “Every Little Thing,” has been nominated for a 2022 Washington State Book Award. She will sign copies from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., July 23 at the Magnolia Bookstore, 3206 W. McGraw St. at Magnolia Village.