Would I be a good public speaker? Even at my advanced age, I don’t know. I’ve never sought the opportunity, which might be a way of saying I’ve avoided it. And if I have avoided it, I’ve probably done so for the usual reasons: fear of failure, fear of making a fool of myself, fear of embarrassment. And if these are the reasons, they must have their origin somewhere in my youth, in my school days. I enjoyed acting. I was good at memorizing lines. It was easy to imagine myself as the character I was playing. I was the character. In fact, I was so good at it that I fell into acting full-time. I was an actor in my daily life, playing the star role in a drama I wrote myself as the play wore on. But ironically — if that’s the correct use of the term — the play never included public speaking. There was a book report here and there, and a sixth grade PTA program during which I recounted a small portion of my adventures at a week-long science-and-conservation camp. It might mean something that I remember this so clearly, how nervous I was, how I tugged at the bottom of my shirt the whole time, and how my vision blurred as I spun out my over-rehearsed three-minute spiel. Had I attended a science-and-conversation camp, it might have been different. Or a séance-and-consternation camp. But the life of a schoolboy is what it is. And I’d be tempted to say that the life of an adult is what it is, were it not all too often that the life of an adult is what it isn’t. All too often — in a self-undermining extended rhyme sort of way — it’s an espionage-and-constipation camp. All of this said, though, there remains the simple truth that it’s not in order for a person to be good at everything; and it is in order to gradually go into the work he or she is best suited for. In my own case, that work is writing. And when the words are flowing, writing is a form of public speaking. But if I were to give a talk now, I think I would go about it differently. I don’t think I would plan it at all. And when the time came, and the lights were upon me, I would probably keep quiet, and let the leaves fall where they may.
With so many of us talking at once,
I wonder how there can be silence at all.
Or is silence the sum total of sound,
An infinite roar, a vessel rimmed with stars?
Songs and Letters, January 27, 2008