If we’re all just here because we think we are (an opening sentence which I am efficiently assuming to sweep together in a vague, potent soup all current notions of reality as mere [/grand] manifestation of thought, quantum theory, and quarks which really only bother to flit about in well-behaved places because we watch them doing so [double-slit experiment ‘n’ stuff; outers being reflections of inners]). There’s a lot to be said for the quote which adorned various noticeboards throughout my teenage years, sometimes reincarnated and rebirthed through penned scrawls on scraps of paper, and pinned or bluetacked to my various local spaces, and still reigning high on one of the galleries of my modelling website:
‘We make ourselves up as we go’.
It’s an interesting experiment to treat life as an experiment.
For the last year or more (or a bit forever, actually, but for the purposes of this missive, let’s say relatively recently), I’ve been playing with the idea of performance.
Several months ago, I was diagnosed as needing to sort out my throat and heart chakras (I’ll say no more on that; probably losing 50% of any readership as I type), and heavily googled ways to unblock creative energy which may have become dithersome, panicked and clogged. This (along with some other small-to-large breakthroughs) has resulted in some massive changes, quite frankly, though perhaps not noticeable to those around me.
For as long as I can remember, I have been described by those around me as being calm, gentle, sweet and other similar buzzwords. Being someone who considers myself quite feisty and moody, this is obviously deeply frustrating, but, I concede, it has sometimes worked in my favour – especially in the realm of performance.
For example, when I was a teenager, I was in a fashion show that involved dance choreography (quite sexy; 60s music, plus milkshakes bringing all the boys to the yard involving hair flicks, body rolls and hip thrusts) as well as the usual strutting. I was in tons of dance shows, growing up, but this fashion show was a school thing, and so I was extra nervous (not sure why, just was). Anyway, you know when you get all jittery before a performance of any kind, and shaky, and fluttery, and your face screws itself into montages of worry and dread, and you are absolutely sure your stomach is going to collapse, and then explode? I felt that.
Fast forward to after the fashion show, and everyone is telling me I didn’t look nervous at any stage. This is a bizarre reality.
Slightly more recently, I improvised a bellydance solo in a show, and was told I looked totally fine with the idea throughout, despite being a manic observer of the universe throughout the whole thing (I couldn’t remember a single thing I did, though there is video evidence, in which I appear to be having the time of my life). More recently still, I did a poetry reading at a literary festival, and five minutes beforehand (when grinning insanely at the other poets, jittering, quietly freaking out, and mentioning in passing to the nearest person that I was probably going to shake, and wondering how noticeable that would be), I was informed by someone that they ‘couldn’t imagine’ me being nervous.
It’s weird, and I’m grateful for it if it’s true, but my nerves seem to be permanently invisible to other people. I think I have a ‘calm’ resting face, or something; I admit there are worst things to have.
Even so, public speaking and public singing in particular have, for a very long time, terrified me. A friend was curious about this, the other day, and began to quiz me: ‘but you pose nude for a living, don’t you? How is getting up and reading a poem more scary than that? People have actual nightmares about what you do.’
It’s true, standing naked in front of complete strangers for my job doesn’t worry me in the slightest. Travelling around the world alone mostly doesn’t make me bat an eyelid. Other things other people find scary are normal, everyday occurrences. But getting up to read my poetry to a crowd – those moments of being called up, everyone turning their heads to consider you, having to greet a mass of other people from the newly-elevated position of being on your feet (the crowd sitting down, legs and ankles crossed, hands in laps), and not be odd, and then say what you came to say, or sing or read – is really very alarming.
Still, I tend to think of myself as my own personal guinea pig, and I like to push myself. I’m quite ambitious for myself, and endlessly curious about what I can do. I devoured ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ back when I was a teenager.
Clearly adoring the manifestation of my own discomfort, I agreed, a few weeks ago, to be part of a poetry reading, and would bring forth into the centre of a perfectly innocent bookshop a poem which involves certain lines being sung (sung!) in Hindi. What a weirdo I was, to be doing this to myself, but I was going to do it anyway.
‘It will sort of free me,’ I told my friend before the event, trying to convince myself. ‘It’ll be such a surprise – people don’t usually sing in poems – I’ll bust so completely out of boundaries of judgment it won’t even be a thing anymore. I can just get up, and be weird, and confusing, and sit down again, and they’ll just have to like it or lump it. And then, at the end, I’ll go home.’
‘Yes,’ said my friend, always keen to encourage the breaking of social rules.
‘Conventions won’t even apply anymore,’ I carried on (one symptom of my nervousness is a circular sort of wittering that demands copious patience from those around me); ‘I won’t even be a real person, so it won’t possibly matter.’
And this is crux of it: performance (of the singing/speaking variety) for me is frequently an out of body experience.
‘But don’t you find it sort of thrilling?’ my friend queried. ‘Or why would you do it at all?’
‘I suppose maybe possibly I might,’ I said, revolutionised by the realisation that I was volunteering, after all, all along. ‘It’s quite a kind of thrill.’ (Grammar, too, goes with nerves.)
Anyway, to recap, over the last few months, I’ve painstakingly unblocked the shiz out of my throat chakra (a process triggered by a healer in Asia I suspect is an angel in disguise, who had me bawling my eyes out on her table, in a much-needed way), quite methodologically. A few of the other things I’ve done , with the deliberate maneuvering of a warmonger:
– recorded myself singing with my ukulele (another souvenir from Asia) and uploaded it to facebook (a move which I find fascinatingly and indecently vain, but which actually is simple experimentation on my part; the internet being a helpful remove against live performance, yet an undeniable method of putting myself out there in a new way)
– Uploaded videos of me playing the piano to facebook (as above)
– Shared a video on youtube of a ukulele and singing duet with a friend (yep)
– Generally begun to get a bit of a grip, when it comes to singing in public (I’m in a choir now, don’t you know)
I should point out that it’s never that I don’t think I’m good enough. It’s not even remotely about whether or not I think I have a good voice, or a good poem. Despite my lack of confidence, I actually have a reasonable amount of confidence (I realise this makes little sense). It’s the physical moment of eyes turning to look at me that makes me shudder (though again, I never mind this when modelling); the expectancy, the generous scope for going blank in the public gaze and disappearing completely, the unnaturalness of being looked at that will make me fly away and wait for the moment to pass instead of simply filling it.
It’s hard to explain.
But something a poet friend said the other day has helped. She is a theatrical sort, very cool, very unflustered (apparently how I appear to others, though not how I feel) and simply said with a shrug, about performing her work, ‘I don’t think about myself much at all, really. I just think about how best to do justice to the poem.’ She went on to describe the poem as a sort of gift you are giving the audience, and that your only concern and responsibility should be to make sure it is delivered well; that it gets to them safely. For some reason, this opened up 10,000 windows in me. It wasn’t about me at all; I was just a messenger. I’m so grateful for this exchange.
In a different conversation, another brilliant poet mentioned that he sometimes didn’t enjoy readings during which you feel you are having to ‘hold’ the reader, look after them and make them feel OK. It’s not comfortable. I thought this was really interesting, but also, later, liberating: what if comfort is a chicken-egg situation? You have to present comfort in order to instill comfort in the audience, to an extent? You have to look happy and OK; it’s the least you can do. It’s your responsibility, even if showing that you’re human can also be endearing (personally I quite like it when people shake slightly, or blush, and I have told myself this, often). All in all: the audience has come to receive something; you can jolly well give it and stop making a fuss.
Still, the day of the reading was drawing close, and I still felt fluttery and unsure. Having wittered further to my friend (a very good, patient and encouraging friend), Reading Day was come (day of self-propulsion; day of slaying all norms, though mostly only my own) and by this point, I was utterly bored with myself. My friend (now so curious as to how the reading would go that she had timed her visit – from quite far away – to be able to come [her idea; I never would have invited anyone], and now stood with me in my kitchen; excellent in discussing the protocol of what to do if, instead of reading my poem, I simply vomit) agreed with my new-found rule for myself: I wasn’t allowed to speak about being nervous any longer. Instead, every time I made jittery noises, I was required, instead, to speak these words, and only these words: ‘I’m really looking forward to it.’ (Alternative: ‘I can’t wait for this evening.’)
It worked. I informed her several times that day that I couldn’t wait for the evening.
In the end, I don’t particularly remember how my reading went (I wasn’t really there; being emphatically there is the next step, I suppose and I hope will come with practice; I am a little too good at soaring around), but people were very nice about it afterwards and some came up to me especially to express their kindness. The performance was filmed, no less, and will be published online for posterity (and self scrutiny). It was only about 7 minutes long. It wasn’t even that big a deal.
Maybe even this: I might stay in my body next time. Choti si hai zindagi. (Life is too short.)