by Caroline Wilkinson
Standing up in front of a room full of people is daunting for most, so my fear of public speaking would seem rational in this circumstance. Not only would there be a hundred odd faces staring at me, but I would be reading them something I had written. In my head, the two scenarios of the audience’s response boiled down to either having my work torn apart or considered. It was an act of smashing down the barriers of my comfort zone.
The members of my Creative Writing group were taking part in the Headingley Literature Festival 2014, sharing our work at the Heart Centre, where we meet for class.
The theme for the event was Survival, in keeping with the Centenary of the First World War, although it didn’t have to be directly related. I opted for an interpretation and wrote a poem about two brothers who had lost their Mother to AIDS, based in Africa. The narrator of the piece was the eldest of two brothers who was now placed in both a paternal and maternal role, having to take sole responsibility of his young brother, when he was still growing up himself.
I hoped the words I chose would convey their pain in bereavement. Partly I wanted to understand, but also, I realized I wanted to create another voice for something that is so common in Africa and universal in losing one’s parents. Surviving such a tragic impact as this should be recognized.
During the Literature Festival our writing group from Heart would be sharing the stage with the talented writers from the Osmondthorpe Resource Centre. A few of our group worked with them for the day on the lead up to the event, sharing our ideas and inspiring each other in the process. I worked with a woman called Jane, who coincidentally wanted to write a poem about a young impoverished girl who had lost her parents.
On the morning of the event I was inevitably nervous, although something was different this year. I had read at the previous Literature Festival, but that was my first time and I had just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Whereas this year, I wanted people to hear it. I wanted them to understand the message, or if they didn’t understand, then gain something, a feeling, a triggered memory, even just the simplest image; I wanted to conjure something in their minds. I know how easy it can to switch off or have your mind drift.
I was due to read half way down the programme, so plenty of opportunities for my anxiety to run wild. My heart was trying to escape through my chest and the mandatory sweaty palms and armpits, defying my normal body temperature, kicked in. As my tutor Alison introduced me I felt the strength of my legs drain into the floor. Standing and walking to the front of the room suddenly seemed quite difficult.
Despite their protest, my legs brought me to the spot where all of the chairs were facing. People merged into two blocks’ of left and right. Of course I identified encouraging and familiar faces, but they felt lost and merged into their clusters.
I breathed deep enough that it felt as though I was drawing air from my whole body and my lungs were a central powerhouse, regulating the rest of the activity. I slowed my pace and minded my pronunciation, so that it would be clear and a rhythm of syllables emerged. I knew the crowd was watching me but it didn’t matter anymore; their potential expectations, disappointment or criticisms weren’t important in this space of time. I was enjoying myself.
When I had finished my body felt as though it had had a workout. I retook my seat, shaking and a little breathless, but overcome with a rare sense of pride and achievement.
My Mum and sister congratulated me and I could see in their eyes they meant it. Afterwards, my sister said something she has never said to me before: “You looked like a woman.” This is one of those comments I will store away for the rest of my life.
I don’t think age defines people, they emanate whatever characteristics they feel or want; I believe it is quite a personal relationship we have with age. I am a 26 year old woman, and aside from fulfilling expectations of society in representing one, I can pinpoint times in my life where I have felt like a woman, and then, juxtapose them with recent times I have felt vulnerable and like a child again.
Feeling like a woman is arbitrary, but when I read my poem at the Literature Festival, and disregarded my insecurities, I felt as though I was both being and becoming more myself, and in turn, taking the confidence to accept it. For me I feel more like a woman when I am achieving this.
Having my family there introduced another element; of course I wanted them to make them proud, but in showing them something they know is valuable to me, they also took me seriously. This sometimes isn’t easy being the youngest in the family and unintentionally being sheltered in a number of ways.
In that moment, family, friends and strangers saw me, and I felt like who I want to be.