TC is Nervous
My oldest daughter had her first dance lesson. I was beside myself. If you saw a grown man skipping through Davis Family YMCA last week, that was me tripping over myself and running through all security to see her in the leotard and shoes that took several months to find. A few weeks ago she knew Mom was coming home with those shoes. She kept asking, What time is it, when’s Mom coming home? At three o’clock she was sitting in a chair waiting – but Mom gets home after five. I shared her excitement.
But when the class finally arrived, it was obvious at first glance she was too excited for the lesson. She kept looking at us, ignoring the teacher. Afterwards, she was noticeably uncomfortable. She didn’t want to talk about it. She pouted and crossed her arms whenever I brought it up.
What happened? Even as a baby we knew she was a thespian. She makes impersonations, performs for us in the living room. She’s happiest with coloring books. Dancing seems a logical extension of her creativity, something she’s exhibited around the house. But given the real life stage, even before an audience of one, everything changed. She was indoctrinated into most every artist’s paradox: The inner world of creativity, so free of inhibition, gives way to a paralyzing outer world. The curtain falls. The artist, frozen.
Late the same day I was reading about guitar legend Eddie Van Halen, age 57 and on tour for the first time sober. As a musical prodigy, he had unbearable bouts of stage fright. So his father, also a musician, gave the 12-year old a cigarette and a shot of vodka. And Eddie never played sober again – until now, after so many publicly documented crises and trips to rehab.
For so many artists – Van Halen, my daughter, me – the sensitivity that gives birth to our art during the private ecstasy of creation is the same force that grounds us in public. We are sensitive, enough that we absorb the world around us and reflect it with a creation of our own. We are sensitive, enough that we shrivel on stage.
Most of us have been surprised to meet one of our favorite writers, so full of power and life on the page – an outspoken commander of words and thoughts – but soft-spoken, painfully shy, stuttering, sweating through a public reading. David Foster Wallace, he of the thousand-page novel and hundred- page magazine article, never at loss for words, was known for shyness and perspiring when speaking publically.
Closer to home, consider the way of our writing prompt groups: People who live for the art – people who spend untold hours pouring out the universe within onto the page – whimper and flat out pass on the chance to read their work after writing together. No matter how much I practice or how many times my work is lauded, no matter the best motivational speech, I get the chance to read something I am proud about, and every time, I’m nervous. It comes through in my delivery. And even if I get it out, and read all the way through, when I close my mouth there’s the abyss of silence, the nano second or two of awkwardness before someone says something about my work or the group just goes onto the next reader. And the best comfort I have is when that next reader gets done with her reading and so clearly falls into the same abyss that greeted me moments earlier. Comfort is knowing we all share this same sensitivity.
And so I encourage my daughter. You’re an artist. You don’t choose this. It chooses you. Your sensory tentacles absorbing everything around you, this sensitivity giving birth to the art is the same stuff that makes you so uneasy. I think I’ll pass on giving her a cigarette and a shot of vodka, and just hope in the end she’s not as nervous as me.
And now, the abyss.