I am sitting at the back of my six-year-old son’s elementary school cafeteria-turned-theater, trying to be as invisible as possible while a few feet away he waits for his turn at the mic. It’s the all-school talent show dress rehearsal, and up until a few moments ago my son was in full meltdown, the victim of a sudden and startling case of stage fright. He didn’t want to do the show anymore. He wouldn’t do the show. There was no way we could make him do the show. “Fine,” I said, keeping my voice calm, “but you’re still going.” I ushered him to the car, told him to get buckled, and then listened to him cry all the way to school.
Let me back up a bit and clarify that we—my husband and I—are not the heartless tiger parents those last sentences make us out to be. We have no interest in baby pageants or child stardom. In fact, up until my son said he wanted to do this, school talent shows were right up there with Disneyland and Sunday soccer games on our personal list of parenting hells. Doing the talent show was entirely our son’s idea from the start.
When the boy first came home with the flier advertising auditions I suggested that, as he is a kindergartener this year, maybe he’d want to just experience one talent show from the audience before signing on to participate; he could always audition next year, or the year after that. But he was determined. He wanted to do it. He had to do it. “Okay,” I finally said after several days of pestering. I didn’t want to be the one to squelch his ambitions.
Once we’d agreed that he could audition, he needed to find an act. “Which of your talents do you want to demonstrate?” I asked. He suggested playing an instrument, but, of course, he doesn’t actually play an instrument, so that idea was no good. He suggested doing some kind of martial art… if only he had ever studied any of the martial arts. He suggested singing. “Which song?” I asked. Maybe he’d write one, he told me. This went on for a while. His desire, it became clear, was not really to demonstrate any particular talent, but just to be on stage. He wanted to have the whole room mesmerized for his three-minute allotment. He wanted to put something out into the world and have it reflected back to him in the form of other people’s applause. “Okay,” I said, because I understand that desire, and together we concocted a performance, he memorized it, auditioned, and got in. He was ecstatic, his joy visible in his body. He bounced out of the classroom where the audition had been held, skipped to the parking lot. He was nearly buzzing with the adrenaline of performance, the high of public success.
Again, I get that. I think that buzz is part of why I write. Although writing, unlike performing, is primarily a private act, the intent is always that someday, if all goes well, there will be a reader. And while I’ve learned not to get too far ahead of myself in the process—not to dwell on the audience while the page is still all angles and rough edges—I’d be lying if I said that I don’t in a small way have the reader in mind all along. I want the reader’s praise. (Don’t we all?) I want the validation of a submission acceptance or a good review, the applause after a reading or the congratulation that comes with a new book’s birth. I don’t write in order to win these things—that would be a quick road to self-ruin (and also, most likely, bad writing)—but I do desire them, because (and here’s where I have to push myself to be truly honest) public success not only validates the creative process (the time spent and sacrifices made to create something), but also the creator. A big pat on the back—whether it comes in the form of a five-star Amazon rating or a roomful of classmates cheering you on—drains of their power those secret, niggling fears you have about yourself (that you’re talentless and tiresome, dull and unoriginal, that—at bottom—you have nothing of value to offer the world). Or at least it drains them for a little while. And that’s a great feeling. That’s a feeling that can make even a thirty-four-year-old woman feel dizzy with adrenaline and confidence.
As I stood in the schoolyard the afternoon of my son’s audition watching him bound ahead of me toward our car, I knew what he felt and I felt it for him too. It was pride, and the rush of reassurance. And I suppose I also felt relief. To be honest, my son has had a rough kindergarten year. He’s a smart, fidgety kid, who spends all of his spare time at home reading to himself and drawing pictures of his “inventions”. School, it turns out, is just as unsuited to kids like him now as it was when we grown-ups were students, and so he often comes home from his school day frustrated or sad. When I witnessed his moment of post-audition pride, a hopeful, naïve part of me thought, This is it! He feels like part of the school community now. He’s finally found a way to show his classmates his strengths, and to retrieve some of the self-confidence that has been slowly dissolving into self-doubt all year long.
But the high of external validation never lasts long, and I should have known that. I should have been expecting the crash we saw in today’s dress rehearsal meltdown. Yet when he told me this afternoon that he didn’t want to do the show, I was surprised. Was this the same boy I’d watched nail his routine in front of a room of kids five and six years older than him during the audition? The same boy who’d come to me demanding that I let him do the talent show in the first place?
“I thought you were so excited,” I said.
“I was. But now I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll mess up.”
“So what if you mess up?” I said. “Who cares?” Even as I said it, I knew it was a worthless thing to say.
He turned his eyes on me. “Then everyone will know I’m no good at this. All of my friends will know.”
I tried to hug him, but he pushed me away, and I could see on his face the fear I know to be the flip-side of that desire for success. I remembered sitting in a hotel room by myself a few years ago, about to give a reading to an auditorium of professors and young writers. Like my son, I’d been eager to do the reading beforehand, but once it was time to get up on stage, I was overwhelmed by fear. I lay on the hotel bed trying to control my sudden breathless nausea, my heartbeat an uneven wobble in my chest. How could I speak in front of a room full of people like this? I wanted nothing more than to disappear, and wished I’d never agreed to speak in the first place. For a moment I considered what the consequences would be if I simply called the university and told them I’d fallen ill, wouldn’t be able to make it after all. I knew what the consequences would be if I did follow through on the reading: I’d mess it up. The story I’d picked wouldn’t be good enough, and—the real fear—I’d be revealed as the failure the worst part of me believed I was.
That night was not the first time I’d experienced that kind of panic. Panic and I are old friends. When I was a kid, before I understood anxiety, I called it “Weirdness Disease”—that surge of adrenaline that could render me sleepless and jittery, too nauseated to think straight. Weirdness Disease struck most often at bedtime, but I also remember closing myself into a bathroom before a ballet recital when I was not much older than my son is now. I remember locking the bathroom door and lying on the bathmat, my face against the cool tiles, my breath coming so fast it felt trapped in my throat. I wish I could say that it has become easier to manage my anxiety as I’ve aged, but I still struggle with it at times. For me, panic is always set off by thoughts of failure. My deepest fear is not of some external source of pain or conflict, but of my own shortcomings. And although I can’t stop myself from being afraid, I have learned to give the fear less leash. I can wade through my anxiety, can carry on, and in the carrying on the panic will be diminished bit by bit, and the fear will eventually (temporarily) recede.
Watching my son’s meltdown I thought of this. “You have to do the show,” I told him. I stood and went to get my own coat. “You have to do it, or you’ll feel worse than you do right now. You’ll feel regret. You committed to this, and you need to follow through on the commitment, even though you’re scared.”
I felt shaky saying this to him. It was either a great moment in parenting, or the worst; I wasn’t sure. Nevertheless, I got him to the car, to the school, and to this cafeteria, where he is now sitting in the front row, his script folded between his hands, his freckled face grimly focused on the boy currently playing the piano on stage. This other boy finishes the last notes of his solo, stands, and bows. Everyone in the room claps while the piano is wheeled away. There is a pause, and then, in the hollow voice of the microphone, the teacher directing things calls my son’s name. I have been standing in the far back of the room, against the wall, but now I move to the door, so I can slip out if I need to. It’s chicken of me, but I’m not sure I can watch my son fail, if that’s what’s about to happen. I’m not sure I can watch if what he’s planning to do is get up and announce his decision to quit the show. It’s not that I really care about an elementary school talent show—again, I don’t—but I do care about him, and I want for him the joy—all the joy and reassurance and self-confidence of life—and none of the fear and doubt. And it’s clearer than ever to me as I watch him climb the steps up to the stage that I cannot control that for him. I cannot carry him through his fear as I carry myself through my own; he must do it for himself.
“Hi,” my son says into the microphone, which squawks at him. He looks out at the audience of other kids.
“Go ahead, buddy,” says the teacher.
My son grips the mic. “I’m going to tell you a few jokes,” he says. “Are you ready to laugh?”
And then he tells his jokes, just like he practiced them, and when he’s finished, he bows and everyone claps, and then he bows again and walks off the stage, successful, a conqueror.
I’ve heard that bit of advice about not being a writer (an artist, a musician, an actor, a comedian, etc.) because it’s a hard life, and if you can do anything else, you should. But I’ve never bought it. Sure, there is the doubt and fear, dark and ruinous sometimes, always surprising in their depth and ferocity when they appear; but there is also this—this look on my son’s face right now as he is walking across the cafeteria-theater toward me—a look like someone has opened the window and he’s managed to crawl through and land on his feet. This is not exactly joy, but it is, I think, something richer than joy. A happiness freighted with all the fear that preceded it. The beautiful tangle of accomplishment.
“I’m so proud of you,” I say to my son when he reaches me, and I pull him into a hug.
“Me too,” he says.
“Are you relieved to be done?”
He pulls away and looks at me like I am crazy. “No,” he says, as if this is the only possible answer to my question. “I can’t wait to do it again.”
Ah, I think. And so it goes.