Musing #18 | Open Mics [8 min read]
The big *GULP* of all gulps
You are standing in a dimly lit hall, with a perforated piece of metal staring you in the eyes. It is about to broadcast what comes out of your mouth, and blast these words through gigantic boxes built to amplify sound, to a number of human ears and their accompanying judgements, fears and desires.
Just because it is consensual, doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt.
This is known to be the most terrifying thing a human can experience. Since this blog is about what amplifies the human spirit to do scary things, this one Musing needs to be written, not just so that you can read it, but also to get me through my fear of the mic. My fear of using my voice. My fear of anyone - especially me- listening to my own words. The fear that keeps me dreaming big and acting small with this blog In Search of Gumption.
We all know that feeling, when there is a lag on the phone, or we hear a recording we made, and we’re like: Who is that person? Why do we sound so bizarre to ourselves? What is it about our voices that we do not want to hear?
The takeaway of this musing personal story below is this: Leaning into experiences that have caused us Trauma in the past, is the best and most direct way to heal that Trauma.
The predicament we face is the hardened shell that we build in response, and that is how we become ‘our own worst enemies’ as we hear in the movies.
We create fierce protectors that are very effective in shielding us from pain, but they also shield us from the very experiences that can heal us. Yep, tricky.
What the movies don’t tell us is how to heal these Traumas. If you’re interested in exploring that, I recommend a book called No Bad Parts, and Episode 7: The Shadow and Episode 8: Face The Dragon of the Gumpcast.
Never miss the Sunday gumption. Ever.
Musing # 19 : Open Mics
I have been on a journey with my fear of public speaking and my conquest of it. My first memory is a shameful one. The story started with a Charity event that my dad was a part of and that I was dragged along into.
My First Choke Had No Voice
Picture adults in suits, gowns, and bling bling in a hotel ballroom full of whose who’s , a fancy buffet, red carpets, chandeliers and all the awkward teenagers that these people have given birth to.
I must have been 15 or so. Us teens were part of a smaller charity effort that ran alongside our parents’. I had attended one and a half meetings with that group. Didn’t really know what was going on. I walked in with my dad, he went into the main ballroom, and I bumped into the President of our little teenagers-of-rich-people-doing-great-for-the-world group. She was in tears.
“What is wrong?” I said.
“They want me to speak about our work and it is terrifying.” she said.
“Ohhh…” was all I could say back.
“I think you should do it. They will like you.” said she.
“But, what, I, don’t, have, no idea, what, but…” said I.
“Just smile. You’ll be great." she said.
She was finished. It felt like she handed me her baby, and asked me to go do a baptism. What? I’m not even Christian.
“Alright, sure.” I had not learned the power of saying NO back then.
I appease and aim to please. Twenty minutes later, I am on the main ballroom stage. I have our projects about senile housing and orphan toy donation all written down in bullet points.
I speak, but my voice does not come out.
I try again. There are thoughts in my head, but there is nothing coming out of my voice. I choke. Then I realize I am choking, and I laugh. Laughing still works for my voice. I laugh, and try to trick my brain to speak my bullet points with the laughter voice. This results in 5 minutes of anxious, awkward, staccato-laughing, with non-sensible words in between.
Those 5 minutes have lasted a lifetime. Literally. That is the point of this musing post.
All I remember are my dad’s eyes looking down, and wishing the Earth had swallowed him alive in that moment. I was gracefully saved by the host in minute 11 and was given a pat on the back as the suits and dresses of old people stared at my failure to speak.
My Second Choke Had No Punchline
I am 25 years old, and I had just landed in San Francisco to reinvent myself beyond my life as a doctor in Egypt. I was attracted to the hackathon circuits, and met a guy who quickly became a friend. He was an incredible speaker. He pitched his solution with such elegance, that he was a very consistent hackathon winner. His charm alone and the way he captivated you - the audience- made you want him to win.
I asked him how he got so good, and he took me to an Open Mic comedy show. This is where I practice he said, motioning with his hand to the half coffeeshop and half-laundromat establishment that we were in. Welcome to Brainwash: Half the people are washing their clothes, and the other half are here for the coffee and the weekly open mic standup.
He did a stand up bit. He wasn't bad. I chickened out. One week later, I went back to Brainwash. This time on my own. Away from his ears and judgements. I did not want him to have that same look my dad had in the hotel ballroom.
So I am back at the coffee-laundromat-comedy-shop and I had written down a few jokes one night. I had a few drinks, I jotted down some things down that I thought were funny. I went up to the mic and recited them out loud.
This time, my voice came out. What a relief. I actually said the things, but I also bombed so bad. Not one laugh. I may have gotten some sympathy chuckles, but that was it. At one point the MC interrupted me, to explain that I needed a punchline in order for this to be funny.
Shivers about thinking of this moment. It was so bad. Thank god no one I knew was there.
Something unexpected happened in the weeks after. I noticed a new and bigger relief grow deep within me. All of a sudden I felt a brimming confidence in my regular school/work/hackathon presentations. It also exuded in my conversations with people.
I realized that because I let myself be so bad at comedy, I felt really good about almost anything else that came out through my voice. There was a lightness of being, and I started training and speaking more. While comedy is definitely not my cup of tea to perform, it unlocked my voice for something else. Something I am only starting to realize these days as I write this musing.
9 years later…I’m choking poems out into an open mic
Over the years I got coached in public speaking and have given a lot of talks about digital health and healthcare data and physician burnout, yada yada, and so forth, but when it comes to my craft and expressing things that I deeply feel or care about through my writing, the memory of that stand up comedy night still haunts me.
It was particularly present two weeks ago, when I decided to take some of my poems out into the wild and a friend tipped me on an open mic that was happening. I took my mic and my portable typewriter and got to the spot. I was there with 5 other people.
The MC took the mic, welcomed everyone and announced that the stage is ready for any performer. I look around and no one is into it. No one is on the sign up sheet. No one is even looking around, like I am, for who will perform. I raise my hand, the MC asks for my name and announces it to the mic.
I stand there, in front of a crowd of four, plus the MC and the deep abyss that lies in the stare of an open mic. I stare back into it, then check the crowd. One person is reading something, another is either asleep or in a stupor, and the remaining two in the back clap their hands to cheer me and my guts to do this.
I open my poems, and I read. My voice flows, but my performance, hand gestures and guttural feelings aren’t as strong as when I practiced reading them on my own. I notice this time that I have a deeper sense of ground, because of the confidence I have in my words.
Unlike the drunken, no-punchline, jokes that I wrote down for that comedy open mic night, my poems come from a part of me that is so deeply rooted in my experience and they are who I am/was and what I feel/felt.
I read, and every time I finish a poem, there is silence. I say “Thank You”, and the two people in the back and the MC applaud. I read another one, and another one. I ask if anyone else wants to share something and there is silence. I ask them if I should read another one, the two guys in the back clap yes. I let them choose my tempo, and we start playing together: Happier poems or sadder poems? Faster poems or long-winded rants? Uplifting poems or depressing poems? They choose, I pick and recite.
I got more and more comfortable the more I read, but still judged myself for my performance and for the lack of engagement where I expected some. In my mind, there was an Oooohhhhhh here and a Lol there. In reality, people reacted differently and I was still wrapped up in this self-judgement.
I enjoyed myself though, and my voice worked this time. That is what counts, I left the stage feeling a sense of comfort in that I just did something huge for myself, and I comforted the part that was disappointed by telling it that I will get the audience more engaged, next time.
I get off the stage, the MC gives me a healing pat on the back and a “Good Job”. It felt like he was un-doing the pain that the open comedy MC had given me 9 years ago.
and then I am approached by one of the guys that were at the back.
Dude was in tears.
He held me with both hands,
“I really feel you man,
and you’re really talented,
and I really hope that you
listen to your own words
as you digest
Tears continued flowing down his face, as he held both of my arms, and gave me a firm shake, followed by a hug. A part of me is still frozen in awe of that moment and how flooding its beauty was.
The thriller that is my relationship with open mic performances continues. There will always be more to learn and embody with performing something in front of an audience. If expressing through written words is healing, expressing these words through my physical throat and with my whole body is an exorcism.
The biggest and most significant difference between me on stage today and me on stage when I was 15 in that hotel ballroom where I choked, is that today I firmly believe in my content, and feel firmly rooted in my craft.
I have spent a lot of time with my words, and I can depend on them. I know that they will show up to heal me and others when I need them to. Performing them and sharing them with you is important, but even more so, being on the battlefield between myself and an empty page, every single day.
See you next Sunday,
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So happy for you Omar. Overcoming fear of public speaking is a huge achievement, you are tremendously brave! I would have fainted if I had to address a tough crowd like that at 15 years old!! I wish I could have heard you read the poems, it must have been powerful! Just show how bad I am at public speaking, I was trying to say few words at my brother’s 50th birthday (about 40 ppl present) but could only say few words, started crying and couldn’t continue….I was 53!!!