I come from a family full of stage folk.
I’m pretty sure that somewhere on my birth certificate it states that I wasn’t born in a hospital but rather on the jutting apron of a stage.
I was raised flossing my teeth on the grimy ropes of the house curtains. I learned to crawl up on some poorly constructed way over-budget theater catwalk. And I probably believed for years that whomever was hired as the followspot operator for the sun should be readily fired, as he was doing an abominable job whenever I was outside and in need of illumination.
There was the stage, and then there was … well, I heard there was other stuff, but I wasn’t sure what it all was or looked like.
Whether drawing a bow across an instrument shaped like a violin but surely in truth a tortured cat, skipping across eighty-eight keys with the hope and a prayer that some of them will be the right ones, and a few in the right order, or clutching a microphone and praying it can cover the intense alarm on my face as I gaze out over a crowd of hundreds, it didn’t matter that I left my lunch in a bucket backstage before stepping into that lonely pool of light. What mattered was that minutes later I realized that I’d left my heart out on that dais and that I was going to have to go back there to get it.
Because I wanted to do it all over again.
I’m not sure if the real thrill came from the adrenaline rush of standing in front of showgoers and hearing them applaud at the end of the number or the stress release of realizing that I made it through to the end, had not fainted in the middle of my performance, and no one had to rush up on stage and drag my limp body off into the wings.
It was always, always a possibility.
And the thing that created the most mammoth amount of nerve jangling? Going blank.
I’m going to guess that most folks have had this happen to them at least once in their lives. You forget someone’s name, all the facts you’d just crammed into your head the night before for the big test have suddenly vanished, maybe you arrive in a room and think, I’ve walked down into this cobwebbed, basement utility room for … what again?
And the consequences for these blunders can range from annoying to GPA torpedoing.
My vocation blunders were usually on the end of the spectrum marked “cringe-worthy.” That just went with the territory.
But thankfully, there were a boatload of tricks I’d learned over the years, ready to be shelled out at a moment’s notice, if my brain suddenly blew a fuse and all went dark.
Lose the thread in the middle of your fiddle solo? Just “accidentally” knock a peg and lose a string. Then give a nod to one of the guys in the band. They then take over while you just start clapping along and wait for a stage hand to slide you your spare Stradivarius.
Blow the choreography? Quick do the splits. Audiences love the splits. It’s both riveting and unsettling. And throw in some Travolta disco fever hand gestures. Pretty soon one of the other dancers is going to improvisationally pick you up and help pirouette you off the stage and out of the fray.
Forget the lyrics to your song? Point the mic to the audience and scream, “Sing along! Y’all know the words!”
Or step on the microphone’s cord and unplug it—or if it’s cordless, switch it off, and bang it on your hand like the battery’s gone dead. Send up looks of frustration to the sound booth at the back of the theater and shrug apologetically at the crowd.
There’s always something one can do to hide a misstep or mistake, and the more you do it, the more adroitly you grow at gracefully sliding around it.
But … what if the mistake is not you but your audience?
Yeah, sure, that’s a bit meta. But let me explain.
These days I no longer shuffle or sing or fiddle my way across a platform, I simply speak atop of it. I visit schools and libraries as an author determined to inspire middle school and high school kids to leap off the great precipice of possibility, wade through the wretched whirlpool of failure, and trudge down the precarious path of the Hero’s Journey just like their favorite characters.
I also encourage them to erect statues of all their school librarians.
But occasionally you get thrown a curveball you’ve never been thrown before—like arriving to give a talk to a bunch of people who were half the people you thought they’d be—not as in size, rather stature. As in, some of them were still busy forming eyelids and fingernails. One or two of them were definitely going to struggle with my talk mostly because talking was an incredibly fresh activity for them.
How could I deliver a message which was tailored to kids who were already prepping for their SATs when the true audience was still working on their ABCs?
I panicked. And it wasn’t pretty.
There was no mic to sabotage, no instrument to abjectly point to with regret—there wasn’t even a back door. And a back door is crucial if your excuse for not showing up when your name is called is that you heard cries for help out in the alley and rushed to aid the distressed and then rode along in the ambulance to make sure the paramedic had enough blood on hand because you happen to be O negative and the universal blood type.
I stood in front of these tiny preschool and elementary kids as they whirled in circles on their swivel chairs. Extra added bonus? The swivel chairs also had wheels.
My brain raced and squealed in a high-pitched hysteria: How do I rework and reword my ten minute tale of resilience about strong-willed and single-minded NASA scientists who had worked for fifteen years on one Mars rover project only to see a fat chunk of their life’s work come to a hugely crushing end because of some unforeseeable and miniscule error in math calculations?
So … there are these people who built a thing that went up—up to where the stars are, right? And this one thing—which took them a bazillion years to build—just went … boom? Right? Then these people gasped, hit the floor with their knees, ate a lot of ice cream, and then got up and said, “Let’s give her another go, Stanley!” Does that make sense? Cuz that’s what I’m telling you to do too.
Imagine this scenario—just with different subjects—on repeat somewhere about four or five times. Yeah, that was my talk.
I really thought I’d blown it. It was the wrong talk, to the wrong audience, with the right stuff, but the wrong time.
I made a tiny bow of my head and mumbled the end to a smattering of applause from the befuddled librarian and a few parents.
As I was packing up my things to slink out to my car, thinking I could wallow quietly in a pool of my lead balloon bomb, a mother and her small daughter came up to me. “We’d like to buy your book.”
I pulled back. “Really?”
“Yup,” the girl replied. “I’m going to read it … once I learn to read.”
I looked at the mother. “The main character is twice her age.”
“Not for long,” the little girl said.
I thought about my talk’s message of dealing with downfalls. You get in over your head, you make a mistake, you face failure in the eye. It happens. So get up, get going, start again. You go from can’t to can, couldn’t but want to, didn’t but will.
Life is not a stage, life is a series of stages.
This little girl got it. Shined a spotlight on it too. I started applauding, but that came across as a little weird.
So I just did the splits.
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