Have you ever looked at your life – really stopped everything and took a good look around – and thought, “how did I get here?” It can be disorienting in some ways, if you think back on where you thought you’d be when you were 8 years old or 15 or even two weeks ago when I was only 31 and do a real evaluation.
This thought passes through my mind nearly every time I give a talk. A talk. Me. Where I stand up in front of people and speak about history (usually) for 45 minutes. Into a microphone. The lights down low. With people staring at me. And I actually like it.
Growing up, I did everything I could to avoid public speaking. And when I did have to give talks, I gripped the podium (if there was one) until my knuckles turned white and my fingers ached from the strain, my knees shaking, my face buried in my notes, and my words tumbling out on par with that guy from the Micromachine commercials. I hated it. I hated being on display even if really, no one was really listening or frankly, cared all that much in school. I just needed to get out of school, get through this class, and then I would never have to give a speech again. Never!
But then I became a professional writer.
And I learned the cold, hard truth about the writing life: there’s speaking involved. You can’t just sit in your garret all day, turning out pages of prose for the world to lap up in eager anticipation. Readers want to see you. Or more accurately, readers learn they want to be your readersby seeing you and hearing you speak. And so you speak. And hopefully with time, you get better at it and maybe even start to enjoy it.
Five years on of fairly steady speaking engagements, I’ve discovered something earth-shattering: I like to speak publicly. The realization came slowly, so slowly that at first I didn’t recognize it. One day, in the middle of a talk, I found myself walking up and down the aisle with a microphone in hand. Who was I, Phil Donahue?! I felt suddenly disembodied, like I was watching someone who looked a lot like me but couldn’t possibly be me because I hate public speaking, talking, laughing, smiling, having a great time. But it was me and it is me.
I never thought I’d be up there, much less by choice. Wasn’t the great promise of adulthood as a child the freedom to do what you wanted?
I’m still surprised every time I stand up to give a talk. Surprised at who I’ve become but pleased to know that I could do it all along.