Christopher Meeks's short story collection, "The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea," came out last year to great reviews in the Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly ("A collection so stunning...that I could not help but move on to the next story.')' To read about this book and another, "Who Lives," visit his website.
THE FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, "According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."
It's true. I became a fiction writer just so I wouldn't have to speak. Little did I know one day I'd be asked to read in front of people. In grad school at USC, when I had to speak standing in front of my eight classmates, though I knew them well, my knees would become weak, my voice would squeak, and I could not talk loudly enough. "Louder," they'd say. I was only a few feet away. I could chat with them easily before class, but if it were an official presentation, I'd be aquiver as if before the Great Wizard of Oz.
Then in the mid-nineties, right after the huge Los Angeles earthquake when a section of freeway fell down six blocks from my house, I volunteered to teach a creative writing class at CalArts—and my proposition was accepted. Long story short, it took two years of teaching, but I overcame the fear of public speaking.
A few weeks ago, I was scheduled to read in front of 200 people with other UCLA writing instructors at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. Yes, I had a little anxiety, but far from the old days. A little anxiety keeps you sharp. I was going to be on stage in less than an hour, and Los Angeles rush hour traffic was murder. What normally took thirty minutes was taking ninety. I was almost there when my cell phone rang. My wife, Ann, said straight away, "There's been an accident but Scruffle seems to be alright. There's a lot of blood."
"What? What happened?" Scruffle was our new dog, a one-year-old Terrier that our nine-year-old daughter Ellen had saved allowance money and did house chores for a year to earn.
"I've been hurt, too," Ann said. "Here, Jody will explain."
Jody was our neighbor. "Ann was showing Scruffle to Casey," said Jody. Casey was the big Australian Shepherd from down the street. Long story short: the shepherd, off its leash, grabbed our terrier and started shaking it like a rag doll, and Ann pulled our dog to safety, but in doing so, our little dog bit Ann in the face. "Don't worry," said Jody, "We're taking the dog to the vet, and then Ann should be checked out, too."
"I-- My god-- Should I--"
"Everyone will be fine."
"I'm supposed to read, but--"
"I have it under control. Don't worry about a thing. You go read." She made it sound like the dog and Ann were shaken more than hurt, despite the blood on Scruffle. Jody, too, has a very reassuring manner. I could see Ann and the dog would get attention quickly. Jody said they had to go.
Twenty minutes later, I arrived at the Skirball Center as a huge wave
of worry overcame me. Was everyone truly alright? Outside, I called
Ann's cell phone, which she surely had with her. I only received her
voicemail. I said, "Ann, are you and Scruffle okay?
Are you already at the vet's or doctor's office? I'll keep my phone on vibrate, so please call."
It was after seven. The event was soon starting. Before I knew it, I was called to the stage. As I walked up, I thought, should I have told the organizers I couldn't read? Should I have gone home? Which ER? Which vet? I stepped to the podium. Two hundred people were staring at me. I was frozen.
I looked at my story. I knew it was a funny one, "Dracula Slinks Into the Night," loosely based around the time Ann and I'd gone to a Halloween party, Ann dressed as the Corpse Bride, and I, Dracula. At that party, I tripped and flew over a wall into the garden, landing on a sprinkler head. Now, people wanted to hear the story. I began reading.
As I read, people laughed. Injury can be funny. The reading went well.
After I got offstage, I looked at my cell phone. It wasn't getting reception. As soon as I went outside, I had a signal again. There was a message. In a pleasant voice, Ann said everything was alright and call back when I could.
I called, but again I received her voicemail. I didn't stay for the after-reading party but drove home. The traffic was light. When I entered the house, Ann smiled, but she looked a bit like a pirate. She had five stitches in her nose and three in her lip. Scruffle looked odd, too, having been shaved on his back to look for puncture wounds. There were no punctures. The blood washed from Scruffle had been Ann's. Less than a week later, Ann's stitches came out, and, happily, there are no scars.
Even so, I now have a fear of walking our dog. When I do, vicious hounds black and big as Buicks bark behind fences, glaring at me like I'm a giant sausage holding a leash to a meat puppet. The dogs dig madly to escape and eat us. There are worse things than the fear of public speaking.