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 finest group of well-intentioned listeners, and there is still going to be someone who forgets to turn off their phone or can’t stop texting or pays more attention to the video they are making — as if they need proof — than to anything you say.
Still, a few things happened recently that were so challenging (more so than a room full of masked faces), that after thinking that it’s nearly impossible to surprise me, I realize some things can, as I calmly, silently pretend that they do not. For instance, when that one audience member — and there is usually one — rolls her eyes dismissively, shrugs one too many times or interrupts my talk to add her opinion before the question-and-answer session, I maintain my composure. But it’s women like this who have completely quashed the illusion that all women are supportive sisters. They are not. I should note, however, that certain instances of rudeness have made me stronger since no one would speak in front of strangers if they didn’t want strong bones in their body, possibly an entire 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 of this sometimes.
“It’s crazy work,” she said.
“I like crazy.” I said.
And I held onto this belief for as long as I could. Right up until my next reading where I shared a piece about what it was like to have COVID in a third-world country — Thailand — in January 2020, and a woman interrupted to say that Thailand is not a third-world country, but a developing one. Like the pause that happens when you nick your finger with a kitchen knife before the blood trickles out, the room sat perfectly still, waiting for my response. I found it strangely emboldening.
“Well,” I said, “you should have seen my bathroom. I was afraid I’d slip into the Mekong River through the open toilet cut into the floor.”
A second hush followed — the kind where you can hear everyone’s curiosity humming as they try to figure out if you are being humorous or apologetic or neither. Or both. I imagined myself giving this woman a good, old-fashioned smack upside the head. Even if it’s politically incorrect to even say the word “smack,” especially on this coast.
My Uncle Victor would have laughed at this thou-shall-not-ness. He knew just how to slap us, the cousins, light enough so we wouldn’t cry, firm enough to let us know we were way out of line so shaddaaap. OK, here are a few awkward moments I’m still processing in hope that someday they will make me remember how it felt to think so fast on my feet: One woman in the front row doesn’t just sneak out, she stands and announces that she has to pee. Another’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 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 epitome of how I feel about this question.
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 finest moments because, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of these, as well: readings that go so right, when the audience is fully 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 energy so alive, which I fear has been overshadowed by the virtual experience, at times.
No, it fills the room with something I have feared is lost. These book-loving people seem to sit up straighter, they stop talking, the focus of the room seems to center around the idea of books and reading — in short, they behave.
Now, it may seem a little self-indulgent to write about speaking at all. But here’s what happened this morning: I had to choose between writing about Seattle’s addiction crisis so unrelenting that on my walk downtown yesterday I faced several lost souls shooting up on the sidewalk; or the horrors of war in Ukraine; or the latest shooting in Texas that is giving me nightmares (Uvalde buries 19 fourth-graders!); or the abortion debate that also wakes me in the middle of the night as I think of all the frantic women driving across state lines to get abortions they can’t afford, so that this year, 2022, feels as if it’s determined to revoke the 21st century; or, or … how we just endured the coldest, wettest, spring since 1948 that I decided to write about speaking, if for no other reason than there is only so much bleakness any one of us can stand. And this choice, this saving myself, is part of writing, too. It’s the part that holds me together, what’s best in me, what’s left in me — a way of stumbling into the world after being pushed by something. More like, everything.
— Mary Lou Sanelli’s latest book, Every Little Thing, was nominated for a 2022 Washington State Book Award. She’ll be signing copies at the Italian Festival in September. For more information, go to www.marylousanelli.com.