Tuesday 25th March was a big day (or rather evening) for me. I gave a talk at Oxfam Bookshop (as part of the Headingley Literature Festival) about my experiences in High Royds Hospital, as told in my memoir ‘The Dark Threads’. Of course, remembering how things had gone well on other similar occasions helped a lot, but I did still did have some pre-event nerves. Throughout the day my mind kept going into collywobble mode and throwing up a lot of scary ‘What ifs..?’
What if I lose my vision in the middle of it? This wasn’t as daft as it sounds. Every now and then I get ophthalmic migraines which come on without warning and they severely affect my eyesight for a while. Sometimes I go a long time without having them, but once I get one they often come in clusters a couple of days apart and I’d had one two days earlier. Other ‘What ifs?’ were What if in the middle of my talk I urgently need the loo? feel sick? go dizzy? lose track of what I’m trying to say mid-sentence and dry up? What if the audience gets bored and start leaving? What if nobody turns up and I’m staring out at empty seats? Or what if too many people come and there’s not enough room for them? What if..? What if…? What if…?
Fortunately my ‘What ifs?’ proved unfounded, except for one. Over forty people turned up. This meant some of the audience had to stand, and a few had to stand round a corner barely within earshot of me, but it was manageable. In fact, I’ll be bold enough to say it was more than just manageable. The evening was a success.
I spoke for about fifty minutes, followed by a question and answer session. The evening was then rounded off with coffee and biscuits. I’d tried to plan a ‘balanced’ talk – a mixture of grim parts and humour. Most of the extracts I read from ‘The Dark Threads’ were fairly light-hearted, though some with an undertone of black humour. I didn’t want to downplay the horrors of the mental institution experiences for myself or anyone else but neither did I want to make everyone feel depressed rather than inspired. I wanted to get across what I feel are important things to say about psychiatry, relating both to the past and now, but at the same time I didn’t want to be ‘preachy’. After all, this was part of a literature festival and I wasn’t speaking to a roomful of psychiatrists!
The second part of my talk was about the writing process and getting published. It included topics such as how writing for therapy and writing for publication are two different things (though there can be some overlap), the importance of truth in memoir but having to accept the fallibility of memory and the need to protect peoples’ privacy by changing names and perhaps physical descriptions of people, how I got published and how I became confident enough (ahem) to give talks. Actually, as has happened often before, I did feel confident enough to enjoy doing the talk once I began. The audience seemed wonderfully attentive and asked me lots of questions afterwards.
During the coffee and biscuit time, I sold lots of books, and chatted to many interesting people. I do hope that everyone else enjoyed the evening as much as I did. It does seem so, because feedback has been wonderful. When I get my next pre-event nerves I’ll remember this and reassure myself that, yes, I can do this. Despite all the problems I’ve had in the past with shyness/social anxiety, I CAN talk.
Perhaps we all can do more than we think we can if only we believe this is so.