04 August, 2011

The Best Medicine

So, here I am, working feverishly on my novel.  Sadly, if any of you are/have known a writer and/or poet, this usually means staring blankly out the window while your screen saver dances uninterrupted across the computer screen.

I am trying to get everything all wrapped up by the end of the month to submit my novel to agents in September.  I won;t make too much mention of this here, other than the idea of this makes my stomach go all buterrfly-ish.  To facilitate this submitting process, I've petitioned some members of my local writers' group to read my draft.

I was kind of half excited/half terrified about it.  I want people to read it, but I have this uncontrollable, irrational fear that they'll be like: this sucks!  I hate it!  I know this is just part of being a normal human being and being creative.  But it was still a wrench to force my finger to click 'send.'  It didn't want to.  It wanted to keep my brainchild safely ensconced on my laptop.

As you may have guessed, I received a return email from one of my readers the other day.  I've been pouring over it again and again, reading the sections they pointed out, considering their suggestions.

And as you may have guessed, too: as a writer as well, they found all the flaws in my prose.  All the bits that I was ignoring, either willfully because I didn't want to face some arduous character development.  Or willfully ignoring because I simply had no idea how solve the plot problem.

I had braced myself for my own disappointment in my skill as a writer.  I was ready to accept it and push past it, with a dash of stiff upper lip and a pinch of masochism.

However, as should have been obvious, and probably was to everyone but me, my reader was/is incredibly supportive and encouraging.  I lurv them.

Even more strangely (feel free to roll your eyes here, I won't mind), I feel fantastic.  Energized.  Ready to tackle the remaining problems with the plot and characters.  I have a bazillion ideas.  I sketched out some scenes while reading the email for the hundredth time.  I know exactly how my too weak main character is going to come into her own and prove her metal toughness, the change I've been hinting at for nearly the whole book.

You'd think I would understand this concept.  That feedback is nearly always good, criticism is essential to artistic growth and working in a vacuum rarely allows personal development.  I'm a professional classical musician, for heaven's sake.  I live and breathe performance art.  It thrills me to my toes when I walk out on stage and people clap for me and cheer and smile.  I love playing solos, I love being center stage, I love flaunting my hard earned skill, hours and hours of practice condensed into one moment of the best music I can make.

And it did take hours and hours of practice; thousands of hours, years of practice and study to get to that point of confidence in my own playing.  But now, I can rip off sonatas, solos, concertos, ballades, duets, and symphonies without a qualm, only pleasure at playing my favourite pieces and sharing them with others, bringing music to life for my listeners.

But, I can still remember the very first time I performed a solo.  It was the very absolute first time I stood up alone in front of a crowd and played by myself.  I don't remember the piece.  Something painfully simple and basic, maybe with five different notes that stretched my pitiful range, uncomplicated rhythms that distorted the music into something only vaguely resembling the original song.

It was a Christmas Recital, I know that much.  My private teacher, who taught piano, flute, trumpet, everything, had arranged a recital at a local retirement home.

It was dark out, raining, I think, but cold.  My feet were cold in my fancy shoes, patent leather and shining in the Christmas lights strung all around the room.  The room itself was cold, but I think that was just me, shivering with terror.  I know there was a fire going, an electric one behind a glass front.

I remember admiring how the lights sparkled off my flute.  It was a clunkly, barely playable student model, but to me it was beautiful.  I don't have it anymore, but I've seen a hundred like it.  Dull nickel finish, the pads under the keys fuzzy and pale, when they should have been smooth and firm, nothing next to the professional flute I own now.  No wonder my tone was so unfocused.

We, the performers, lined up along one wall, ready to walk to the front when it was our turn.  There was an electric keyboard set up, a music stand and a table with a vase of poinsettias.  I found my parents sitting towards the back.  They smiled and waved; I don't remember a camera.  At least, they never dredged up the footage to embarrass me with at family parties.

The boy in front of me finished his piece.  It was my turn.

I was sick.  I could barely walk, my legs were so rubbery.  A phenomenon I had read about but never experienced: my knees were knocking, shaking and barely holding me upright.

I gripped my music and flute and went forward as my teacher waved me to the stand, grinning.  She was very supportive.  Too many teachers, music and otherwise, are all negative, scaring children away from the subject.  I know my confidence in my playing now was due in part to her unwavering push and encouragement, even when I was terrible.

I bowed, staring at the carpet for a count of three, then straightening.

My lip plate was slick with sweat.  My fingers were icy cold and stiff.  I couldn't breathe, my tongue was leaden.  The music wavered before me.

I played.  I know I did.  But for the life of me I cannot remember what the piece was.  I think it was "What child is this?"  Maybe "Up on the housetop."  I can remember just about every other solo I've ever done.  I can't remember that one.

I bowed again.  I gathered up my book and went back to my seat and put my flute away.  My parents gave me hugs and it was over.

Some people grow accustomed to stage fright.  I'm not terrified anymore.  As I mentioned, I love going out to applause, standing at the end of concert from my place in the woodwinds and bowing once more in recognition of my solo in the tone poem or scherzo we just finished.  It doesn't scare me anymore.

But, every time I stand alone on stage, no matter if it's a piece I've performed a hundred times, a piece I have memorized, a piece that is so easy I sight-read it that morning to fill in for some one who came down with a cold at the last moment, every time my knees shake, go wobbly and unresponsive.

I know it is just the adrenaline.  Just my body getting ramped up, ready to push a large amount of air through a thin metal tube, ready to control that air to make it screaming loud or whispering soft.  About thirty seconds into my piece, it hits me.  I have to brace myself against sagging, keep my firm posture, the support in my abdomen.

I finish, usually with a few minor flubs and usually in places where I've never made a mistake before.  Such is life.  I bow and grin at the audience, even if they're not paying me any attention, eating or talking or whatever.  Then I go back stage and take deep breaths and pace to work out my nervous energy, the sharp click of my heels tapping along the floor in the green room.

I don't think there's really anything I can do to prevent this.  Beta-blockers have been suggested, but I'm stubborn and don't like taking any form of medication.  I think all that could cure it is time. Time on stage, under the blinding lights, smearing the audience into a dark, faceless mob, feeling the sweat bead on my lips.  Maybe when I'm fifty, I'll be immune to it.

Until then, I will wear skirts that cover my knees, so no one can see them shaking.



Optimistic Mom said... Reply to comment

I love that you are putting yourself out there to write a novel and submit it for publication. I have writing a book (or pamphlet, lol) on my bucket list.....we will see what happens. You give me some inspiration. I think stage fright is something we all encounter at one point in our life even if it really isn't on a stage. Glad you survived. I really like that you mentioned receiving critiques, this is something that makes me nervous. However, I do agree it is essential to our success and moving forward.

Deborah said... Reply to comment

You are so honest about who you are and the struggles you are going through as a writer. It shows in your work and is a testament to the abilities you posess as a great writer.