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Anxiety & performance writing: when a performance falls flat

All writers have a pet project, a creation they’re most proud of. Mine is Sunshine Nova, a short story about my granddad’s car — a 1974 Chevy Nova with a banana yellow paint job and a ridiculous ahooga horn.

In my own words, “finest, most magical car ever made.”

Emotional significance aside, I feel this is the best story I’ve ever written. It’s my Mona Lisa, my Kubla Khan.

So, naturally, I couldn’t wait to share at an event for ModWords, the local performance art scene, this past Friday.

By my standards, I totally bombed it.

I’ve performed my work many times, and I only improve each time.

But last night, anxiety got the best of me.

This post was supposed to be titled (something along the lines of), “Tips for Performing Your Work,” because I’d expected this to be my best performance.

Instead, it was one of, if not the worst — and, rather than save face and give you some BS tips for performing on stage, I want to talk through it. Let’s learn from my mistakes together, shall we?

Trying new things sucks sometimes!

Sunshine Nova opens with the main character — well, me — singing along with the radio while she’s driving the Nova. I decided to sing that line acapella, just to shake things up and make the performance more authentic.

(Besides, all my Irish friends love my Southern accent, and it’s a country song, so I knew they’d eat it up.)

What should’ve been a strong opening fell flat — almost literally.

I sang the first line in a slightly higher key than I’d practiced, and my voice faltered a little. While I don’t *think* I made anyone’s ears bleed, it wasn’t what I wanted — it didn’t do my Kubla Khan justice.

Granted, I haven’t sung in public in 11 years, which is why I wanted to challenge myself.

Thankfully, the other two sing-along lines went fine, and people said I had a lovely voice, but I didn’t wow them like I wanted to — like I know I could have if anxiety hadn’t shown up.

“No, wait, y’all, I’m not finished!”

Having to sing was one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the night: my stage fright was through the roof. Once I got past that, though, it was just reading — and I could handle reading.

But then, right at the end of the story, I forgot the next line. Cue phone fumbling and mumbled apologies and shouted reassurances.

I’m frantically scrolling and I finally pick back up, but I think I may have paused too long — because people started clapping. I assumed this meant they thought I was finished.

I wasn’t.

(You can probably imagine how I felt.)

“I’m not in the right headspace for this…”

Once I finally did finish — to thankfully enthusiastic and supportive applause — I did what most people would do: I ran into Anna Jordan’s arms for a moment before grabbing my drink and running out the door.

Yep. I ran right out of the cafe.

The lights, the noise, the people, the anxiety — it was too much. I needed air. I needed space.

But out here, away from all the people, anxiety’s voice was much louder.

“How are you going to perform a play here, on the big stage, in just three weeks if you can’t even read a short story?”

“Well, you screwed up the singing, now you can never ever sing in public again.”

“Why did you run away? Now everyone’s gonna think you’re crazy.”

And on and on and on it went.

By this point, I was a sobbing mess.

My husband and one of my friends came out to check on me, and they managed to calm me down. We slipped back inside, unnoticed, and I sat a little numb and maybe even a little embarrassed at the fact that I’d let myself down.

So, class, what have we learned?

Sunshine Nova wasn’t ready, and neither was I. Whether that was due to mere stage fright, the fact that I had half a brownie for dinner, an overall bad mental health day, or a combination of all three, I’m not sure.

But it doesn’t matter, because the audience didn’t mind. They get it. They’ve been there. And I’m blessed to say they support and believe in me no matter what. Everyone reassured me that I did a great job, but I still have some work to do to meet my own standards.

Things didn’t go the way I wanted, but now I know what I have to do: practice, refine, maybe take some classes on performing. The important thing is that I stepped outside my comfort zone, which is something I’m trying to do more of.

The night ended on a good note, though, quite literally — we jaunted down the pub and had a little singalong in the smoking area. And I sang loud and proud, anxiety be damned.

That’s what the ModWords community is all about: singing and shouting poetry and stories and everything in between, all in good company. And that’s what creative communities should be. To quote a brilliant improv artist from last night, “What if ModWords came to my town?”

tips for performing on stage, anxiety and performance writing pinterest

Every writer who ever lived has screwed up a performance, so I don’t have any hard feelings. The morning after, I’m still licking my wounds, but I’m learning from it and moving on.

Sorry I couldn’t give you any get-charisma-quick tips for performing on stage like I’d planned, but hey, I never claimed to be an expert. We’re on this journey together, my friend.

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