Something changed around high school. It was the beginning of ninth grade, and I got up in front of the class to share a clay sculpture I'd made illustrating one of our summer reading assignments. But my hands would not stop shaking. As I tried to explain the piece, I found myself stuttering my words. My heart raced. My palms grew sweaty. My throat seemed to be filled with sand.
Suddenly, my shyness had turned into full-blown anxiety. It happened again and again: the panic attack during band class, the day I hyperventilated during work. I'd once wanted to be an actor or a musician—now that was out of the question. I stayed away from the spotlight, sure that if I stepped into it, I'd turn into a shaking, stammering mess.
Writing was easier though; it was solitary and quiet. I could express myself without, you know, having to speak. And I did well distinguishing myself through my words. I formed intense creative friendships and enjoyed great relationships with teachers. Eventually I went away to college and entered an honors writing program. I knew I'd be happy there, but I didn't realize that I would be challenged.
But then I met James, another student who loved writing poetry. We shared poems over the quad and edited in our dorm rooms together late at night. One day, during my third semester at school, he asked me if I wanted to take part in a reading he was doing. He didn't know me as anything but fearless about my writing. He didn't know the truth.
I'm not sure what made me risk it. I didn't want to disappoint my new friend, I guess. So that Friday afternoon in the Student Center, I got up on stage with my scribbled-on journal in hand. I felt the familiar fear mounting. I felt my pulse start to race as I surveyed the audience—James, and my boyfriend, and my friends, and some teachers, too.
And then I looked down at my words. They were my words, written by my own hand. I knew how they were supposed to sound. I knew, deeply and truly, what they meant. As I began to read, something amazing happened. My fear started to drain away. What did I have to be afraid of? I knew my words were good; I'd written them, after all!
That's not to say that I didn't get nervous after that. But that first poetry reading during my sophomore year changed me. By the time I was a senior, I was reading my thesis to a room full of parents under glaringly bright stage lights. Because I never doubted my own writing, I never doubted I'd make it out alive at the end of a performance. And this confidence helped me normalize my fear of public speaking. By graduate school, I was able to get up and teach a class full of college freshmen.
It's funny how writing can do that. When you take pride in your work, it can force you to face your fears and demons without even realizing it. Whether you're afraid of rejection, or speaking in front of a room full of people, so long as you're confident about what you write, you've already won half the battle.