It was a warm September night, and I was pacing under the white glow of towering street lamps trying to retain my liquid anxiety. I needed to pee. My heart was in my throat. I felt physically weak. I was about to do my very first open mic performance, and I was terrified.
I had spent an entire week rehearsing my poem, Close Knit, in my room, in my bathroom, in public restrooms, and outside wherever the least people were. I had no audience but the strangers passing by with curious glances and amused smiles as they continued on their way. Close Knit is about the isolation, loneliness, and painful self-awareness I felt at family events.
It all started a week prior when I’d gone to observe and see what the scene was like before going up myself. Even then, I felt nervous as I thought about going up and “facing my fears.” No microphone? And as quiet as I am? And my proneness to my voice betraying me? Shaking all over? I just wanted to see if I could do it. I remained glued to my seat in fear, deciding to wait until the next week.
I spent the whole week practicing, looking out meaningfully over my imagined crowd, taking a few steps this way and that, raising my voice for emphasis and lowering it, and pausing for effect. Calming myself with the assurance these people wouldn’t even remember me, that I’d be forgotten as soon as the night was over, I would be fine with fading back in with the crowd.
Then came the fated night. I met up with a few friends at a pizza place beforehand, hoping it would calm me down. Quietly, while tearing apart a napkin, I told them my fears and growing anxiety about the open mic. I’d never performed my poetry before, I told them, and may never again depending on the reaction.
I told them I like a challenge, and this most definitely would be one for me. My friends were as understanding as possible and offered me their own experiences in similar situations. I did calm down a bit. They reminded me I didn’t have to make myself uncomfortable on purpose. But when I decide I’m going to do something, I do it, even if it makes me uncomfortable.
An hour later, I practiced one last time under the glowing street lamps before entering the room. I couldn’t hold it any longer, so I rushed to the restroom. I tried to appear unbothered and calm as I sat back down and waited painfully for the minutes to go by. A few minutes passed before I had to rush to the restroom, again, and collect myself. I breathed and gave myself a pep talk as I shakily reapplied lip gloss.
I returned with the mindset that no one would be looking at me, and if they were looking at me, they wouldn’t be listening, and in the end everything would be fine. I asked the girl sitting next to me if she could record me when I go up so I could share it online, and she did! Now I absolutely had to go up there and not bomb.
Fast forward, after waiting in a long-ass line, I stepped on stage. I was introduced as a new act and, swaying, smiled shyly at the crowd. Then I went on to tell what my poem was about. In the vaguest way possible. Basically, everyone thought I said it was about myself feeling/being ugly. I would never say such a thing because I am the entire meal.
Anyways, I took a breath to calm myself and glanced toward the girl recording me. I couldn’t mess this up. It would be so much easier with an actual mic, too, but there was none. After all my practicing, I still relied on my tiny screen to save me from looking at all those faces, in their silence, staring back at me.
I was shaking the entire time, moving just enough to make my trembling legs and hands slightly less obvious. My voice, though? Not so much. Focusing on the silence made me even more nervous. Even though the whole room was quiet, I still worried if they could hear me.
What if my “loud voice” still wasn’t loud enough, and can they hear the shaking in my voice? And oh damn, how long was this poem again? Would it be wrong if I performed the rest with my back turned? Or maybe I could skip to the end just to get it over with?
I pushed through until I finished. When I was done, I briefly looked up at the sea of faces, some sad, some happy, some impressed, followed by snapping and “awws”. I walked off the stage awkwardly.
I rushed back to where my now occupied seat was, and was instantly given praise and encouragement from the other performers and people in the audience. It was a huge relief – even if they didn’t fully know what Close Knit was really about – to get so much support from these same people I was so terrified of.
Turns out they did see me. They did hear me. That night left me inspired. Inspired to write and share more poems as well as improve my stage presence. It was, after all, better than being invisible.
My anxiety still rises every time I do open mic, but it’s not nearly as bad as that first time. I’m no longer terrified. In my case, I think it was a challenge worth taking.