February 1, 2016

Nervous? Breathe and Speak Up

Guest blogger: Becky Jones


Susan Daniels, in her recent program on Dynamic Presentation, borrowed from her acting career to give the Straw Dog audience useful tools to enhance reading our writings to an audience. Her instruction gave us ways to appear strong and confident, even when we’re afraid. Her suggestions were simple: breathe into and from the belly, root yourself before you read, and shake out your nervousness ahead of time. She had more wonderful advice, but these are the things I keep coming back to.

Breathe in and out from the belly. “The body’s chemistry changes after only three belly breaths,” she said. In a few breaths, I indeed felt calmer and more centered. She had us yell at an “intruder” from both our bellies and our chests. Yelled from the belly, our words were steady, forceful, and effective. When we screamed “GO AWAY” from our chests, even our collective voices sounded afraid, weak, and unconvincing. I saw and felt how letting nervousness run the show reveals the very nervousness I am trying to hide, the fear that people will experience me as afraid and unconvincing.

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart – rather than slouched, one-legged, curled in on ourselves, and off balance. This helps us be tree-like. Redwoods send their roots downward about eight feet before turning them 90 degrees to intertwine with the roots of neighboring trees for stability. Each tree survives by being in a community of trees. Be like the redwoods, she urged. Send your roots downward but then let them join with the neighboring trees in front of you. They will become your partners rather than your judges. As I felt my roots move down and out, I noticed that my attention shifted away from my own nervousness and separateness from the group of people around me to their experience and our relationship.

The potential for transforming how I read my work in public feels big, but the impact feels more profound than that. Daniels gave me the opportunity to experience a sturdy inner calm and truth that have lingered with me. I find I am doing things that require my courage. I take deep breaths and then hear the timbre of my voice when I speak.

On the Thursday after the program, I learned about two artists’ residencies whose application deadlines were the very next day. Before, I had always assumed residencies were something only real writers applied for, which of course would not be me. My habit of fear would have kept me from even considering applying, and I would have been too shy to ask for references in the tight timeline given. But I noted my urge to apply and inhaled into my belly. By Friday evening I had submitted my applications, and now I am keeping my fingers crossed. Regardless of whether I am invited or not, I have made one more step toward claiming myself to be the writer that I am.

On the day after the program with Daniels, our Quaker meeting was deciding how we might support the decision of Northampton’s mayor to hang a Black Lives Matter banner at City Hall. As people were volunteering to be part of a contingent to speak with and listen to some city employees about how we might preempt the potential divisiveness of hanging the banner, a woman leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think you’re supposed to be part of this volunteer team?” I said, “No.” But then I noted the hint of fear behind my “no.” I sat with her question, sent my roots down, remembered my listening and diplomacy skills, and found myself volunteering to be a member of the team.

The next Sunday, I participated in a discussion about what it means to us that our Quaker meeting has also put a Black Lives Matter sign in our quarters. The speaker before me stood to speak, saying in a tremulous, determined voice that she was practicing standing up for racial justice. When I took a turn to speak, I too stood to practice. Scared but in a resonant voice, I told the group that it is time for me to step away from the sidelines concerning racial justice, that ignoring racial injustice is my biggest white privilege. I see more clearly the truth that if I don’t stand up for others, by the time I need others to stand up for me, there will be no one left to stand. I described the lessons of Susan Daniels’s workshop and how I think her advice can be a template for speaking up for social justice and being effective allies to people of color. Shake out fears so that we are left with its residual steady energy; stand up; send our roots down and out to intermingle with others; and speak our truths from our core.

I don’t know if these examples are coincidental accidents of momentary bravery or signs of a genuine inner transformation, but I am grateful to have taken a few more steps on a more courageous track. Daniels helped me recognize that not only do I want my voice out in the world, but I want my voice to be out there in a powerful, generous, and decisive way.

Becky Jones has had her fiction and poetry published in Peregrine, Patchwork Journal, and The Cancer Poetry Project 2. She is at work on a collection of essays about her former work as a hospital chaplain and her journeys through cancer and loss. She leads bereavement writing groups in the community and has a small counseling practice. She volunteers for Cancer Connection and Straw Dog Writers Guild and is an active member of the Northampton Friends Meeting (Quakers).


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