Fangy-toothed butterflies

If you ask a kid if they can sing, they say yes. They can dance. They can draw. They can be a fire engine. It’s only when they get a little older that they begin to doubt themselves.

Stage fright and lack of self-confidence are learned behaviours. There’s a great book called A Soprano on Her Head that goes into this with reference to music performance, but what it says applies to pretty much any situation. We’re programmed to be scared. The message of why we can’t do things sneaks into our brains in a million horrible ways. Our job as functional adults is to slam the door on those lies and reclaim our creative expression.

Which of course sounds easier than it really is. Reprogramming instinctual responses takes time.

I recently took a course on public presentations—the type where you have to get up and speak with or without preparation or a topic of your choice. While I hated doing it, I’ve had enough practice to know that I won’t actually die if I get up on stage. Yes, I’m suddenly exposed and vulnerable, but the fight/flight response is entirely unwarranted. The problem is getting my brain to convince my body that I’m NOT about to be eaten by tigers.

That bit has taken years. The only thing that’s helped me get over stage fright is practice. Lots and lots of it. Eventually those butterflies become part of the preparatory process, but if I stop practicing the terror seeps back and those butterflies grow fangs.

You’d think writing would be easier because you’re not on stage. In some ways that’s true, but really the same gut “uh-oh!” reaction happens at critique groups, when you’re talking to your agent or editor, when you have to go do a reading, or when you click “read review” on a web site. There’s that sudden jab of nerves that says you’re prepped for attack. And if that’s not bad enough, there’s that darned blinking cursor every day telling you to be a genius in the next five minutes or your entire career is over, over, overoverover, baby. No pressure.

But the cure is the same: practice. Type that blinking cursor into submission. I’m not brilliant nine times out of ten, but I’m confident that I can cover paper like crazy, and if I write enough I can keep the good bits and throw out the dumb parts.

I think that’s what’s behind the old saw, “Write Every Day.” You get over the shock of what you’re allowing yourself to do. The sense of risk fades into the background. Like any performance, once you can relax into it, you get a whole lot better.

And maybe even have some fun. Now there’s a thought.

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