Hiding Behind a Keyboard: The Terror of the Unknown

The one where I started writing an essay about overcoming fears in my life and accidentally realized how to overcome one I'm currently struggling with.

8 min. read

I used to be terrified of any sort of public speaking. This terror was justified by my complete inability to speak to any group larger than 2 – 3. Before my first semester at Purdue, during orientation, we were always asked to introduce ourselves with our “Name, Hometown, Major” — something I couldn’t do without fumbling over my words and screwing something up. Generally, I couldn’t even get my name out correctly (the second N is silent).

I first performed stand up comedy a few weeks into my first semester. It wasn’t that I thought that I’d handle a stage, microphone, and crowd better than I did my orientation group, it was simply something I had to do, and sometimes necessity outweighs rationality. My first set was 15 minutes long (way too long) and I blacked out for about 15 minutes and 30 seconds of it. The math is off because I actually managed to black out _before _the emcee called my name — something I’m still proud of my brain for all these years later. I remember coming to sitting in a booth with a few of my friends who showed up to support me. “How… how did it go?” I asked, with the same wherewithal as I’d’ve had if I’d just gone head-to-head with Muhammed Ali. “You were okay,” they responded. And that was all I needed to hear. I was hooked.

Over the next year, I did stand up at least once every two weeks, and never did a set shorter than 15 minutes. Again, 15 minutes is way too long for a stand up newbie, but I didn’t know any better, and there wasn’t really a stand up “scene” at Purdue. I would perform at music open mics  (generally the only comic) where sets are much longer than at comedy open mics. I got my first paying gig six months after starting and performed my first hour within nine months, which are awesome things to happen in the first year, but the thing that sticks out for me most is none of that hogwash: it’s the first time I didn’t black out while performing.

I remember the first time I actually remembered performing my set with vivid recall. It was a day and night change from every time performing up ’til that point. Not only did I remember doing it after, but I was much more aware of my surroundings while it was happening. I could see the person in the front row who kept reaching for her drink, then laughing before she was able to take a sip, and putting it back down. She never took a sip the entire set, but attempted to a dozen times. It became a challenge: every time she raised her glass I would try to come up with a punchline that would make her laugh before she got the drink to her mouth — _her, _this one person in a crowd of 60. Before that set I wasn’t aware of any her, or even of any they. I was barely cognizant of me. I also wasn’t aware of the laughter, and oh the laughter! Making a room full of people laugh (and not being blacked out while it is happening) is a powerful experience. I could feel the laughter washing over me, coursing through me. It was like being tackle-hugged by 50 pandas at once while John Travolta punch-stabbed me with a 4-inch adrenaline needle.

I was still terrified of public speaking, but after feeling what it was like to have a true connection with a crowd I couldn’t _not _feel that again, and I’ve never blacked out while performing since. Because, well, sometimes necessity outweighs rationality.

Then I started writing

I’d been performing stand up comedy for many years, and doing my one-man show, It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, at colleges for many months, before I ever sat down at my keyboard and started writing. Don’t get me wrong: I’d written before (I knew order in the words go), but never with the intent of sharing those words with the world. Writing a paper for your professor is different from writing. And _writing _is scary. And _writing for the internet _is even scarier, because the internet is full of assholes.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my experience getting into writing was similar to my experience with stand up and public speaking.

I started out cavalierly, ignoring the fear and typing and publishing, typing and publishing, typing and publishing. While I wouldn’t black out while writing (I don’t slam scotch while writing like a “real writer” SORRY MOM), I was largely out of touch with what was happening with the things I was publishing — I was afraid to be too “in touch,” even if I didn’t realize it.

It all came crashing into saliency when I got an email from a reader stating that an article I’d written had saved his life — well, more accurately, saved him from taking his own life. Wow. That rocked me. I realized for the first time that through my writing I was connecting to people (real life human ones), not just the little numbers I saw on the analytics page go up with each new “unique visitor.” It terrified me. Up until that point, I was stuffing letters into bottles and chucking them into the ocean. Imagine someone knocking on your door, holding a wrinkled, bottle-stuff letter you never thought you’d see again, and telling you it saved their life.

For the next year, or maybe longer, I wrote with intention that I didn’t realize I was lacking before. I spent more time in the comments sections of articles I wrote, and in my inbox, discussing things with readers, learning from them, and improving my writing as a result. I slowly became more comfortable and less terrified, better prepared and more excited, in my writer skin.

Before I knew it, I found myself occupying the majority of my time writing, where before it was filled with performing, rehearsing, and working to improv my presence on stage. I became a writer! Then I wrote a book! I became an author!

How could I have ever been so scared to write? How silly is it that for the longest time I couldn’t even introduce myself to a group without fumbling over my name? How pointless to have been so overcome with fear. Never again, right? Right? Uh…

Now I’m starting a podcast and a web series

And I am petrified.

For the past year or so, people have repeatedly asked again and again and again — you know, repeatedly — when I’m going to do a podcast, or why I don’t do YouTube videos. “Because I’m a cotton-headed ninnymuggins!” I’d say, then they’d say, “Huh?” then I’d say, “Elf.” then they’d say, “Where?” then I’d say, “I’m sorry I ruined your lives and crammed eleven cookies into the VCR.”

In the past six months, I’ve tried to start a podcast or a web series many times, but it hasn’t happened. Each time I sat down to record the first episode, I came up with a bullet-proof excuse preventing me from doing so. They ranged from “need new gear” to “don’t have the time” to “I should make some hummus.”  What I realize now, with a super cool microphone sitting on my desk, looking at my calendar for November which has me in Austin for more time than I’m on the road, and having planned to record and publish my first podcast on this site today but instead I am writing this post, is that I’ve used up my final excuse: “I should write a post about why I haven’t done a podcast yet.”

I’m scared, folks. I’m scared to do a podcast and web series in the same way that I was scared to do stand up and write, back when I got started on those things. The only thing that’s different, is before I did stand up I didn’t have stand up. And before I wrote I didn’t have writing. And I needed stand up and writing, even if I didn’t know it. Now I have both of those things I need, and the terror that’s prevented me from starting a podcast and web series has been victorious because there is no necessity to outweigh rationality.

I didn’t realize it until now, as I’m writing this, that these past few months of me toeing the waters, asking my readers and friends if I should do a podcast and web series, have been me attempting to create that necessity to help myself overcome what I see as a very rational fear of this new and terrifying thing. Even right now, I’m hiding behind my keyboard, a shield that was for so long a dagger pointed in my direction itself, to prevent myself from the hypothetical blows of this new idea. So let’s solve this little “necessity” conundrum once and for all:

Tomorrow, I will record and release my first ever podcast, and on Wednesday I will record and release the first installment of my forthcoming web series. Both will be posted here, and will have a forever home in this Thought / Day project.