Every June another group of my memoir students takes to the podium for our end-of-year reading. It always amazes me how much progress they’ve made in their time in the Memoir certificate program through the UW’s Professional & Continuing Education department, and last night was no different. In each of the writer’s readings, you could hear how they’d moved into their own voices. Funny what happens when you work at your writing consistently for nine months.
A few years ago I began a tradition of posting here one of their readings the day after our big event, usually one that addresses the issues writers face (See Deirdre Timmons’ “A Call to Arms” and Star Roberts’ “Late Bloomer”). This year I wanted to share with you Holly Mullen’s piece on insecurity, a writer’s topic to be sure. I only wish I could convey here the power and drama of her reading voice and presence, but I think her words will speak for themselves.
by Holly Mullen
I walk toward the stage and am handed a microphone from the brave soul who went before me. I position myself so that I can see both the audience and the TV projecting the lyrics, as if I don’t know them by heart. As the first few notes of Aretha Franklin’s Respect pours out of the speaker, I give the audience a sly smile before I begin to sing. I belt this icon’s time-tested anthem until the saxophone bellows and the lyrics disappear from the screen. Instrumental breaks are normally awkward, but I take this opportunity, not for any logical reason but because it’s what feels right in that moment, to do a handstand. I can hold it just long enough for the audience to go crazy. I right myself to resume the lyrics in perfect timing before I push my hand out to the side, bow my head slightly, and with just the right amount of growl, sing Aretha’s signature seven letters: R E S P E C T followed by her demand “Find out what it means to me.”
What does this performance mean to me? A lot, it turns out, because this performance is not reality. This is one of my favorite fantasies.
The reality is, when I am at Karaoke with friends, I usually sit, sipping a drink, and keep rhythm with my feet. I clap along and encourage whoever is on stage. At the most, I’ll join a bigger group of girls for the innocuous Beyonce song. My refrain from Karaoke is not for a lack of musical passion, it’s not the keen awareness that I’m mostly tone deaf; it’s neither distaste for the art of pretending you’re a rock star nor a lack of drinking like one. It’s insecurity, and it’s in my way.
An emotionally damaging childhood, severe teasing, bullying, tenuous relationships and repeated physical and emotional losses have merged to land me in a fog of insecurity. It’s the kind of insecurity that results in the near opposite of fantasy: fear. Many of my friends proclaim that karaoke in a private room with people they know is much preferable to karaoke on a stage in front of strangers. But I tend to disagree. Strangers do bring a level of unfamiliarity, but with friends, I have something to lose: them.
Sitting there watching my friends sing their hearts out, I worry my performance will fall flat and I’ll be a terrible disappointment. Useless is the joy I feel when my friends sing because even though I have nothing but appreciation and admiration for their contribution to our night out, I struggle to trust that they would reciprocate. This insecurity dilutes the intellectual knowledge that my friends would never abandon me on account of any karaoke-related event, and instead keeps me on emotional high alert – always ready for the past to repeat itself.
It would be nice, and probably have a scientific name, if this insecurity only surfaced at Karaoke bars. It would also be much easier to avoid. Alas, this insecurity is with me everywhere I go. It’s there when I walk down the isle of the bus, when I ask a question in a meeting, and when I spot a cute guy on the street. Sometimes it’s a low, clanking din, like the slow hour at a small fine dining restaurant. Other times it’s a loud, demanding roar, like a small town’s only sports bar at full capacity. Regardless, it causes me to constantly analyze why people like me, why people like each other, what keeps people around, and what pushes them away. How can I earn my keep? How can I earn their admiration? What have I done right? And what will I eventually do wrong?
This insecurity, simply put, makes me wonder, “Am I worthy?”
What a vulnerable place to be, pondering one’s own worthiness. As vulnerable as wanting just one more moon dance. You see, I do have one clear, real memory of choosing a Karaoke song of my own volition. Likely a few more whiskeys in than typical, I punched in the song Moondance, first sung by Van Morrison, but brought to my attention by Michael Buble. No one immediately vetoed it: Validation number one. A friend enthusiastically wanted to join in: Validation number two. Our singing garnered a sincere compliment from a member of our group: Validation number three. But the most significant outcome of this moment was how I felt when I was singing; for a brief time I lost sight of myself, all of sudden I was out of my seat, hand to my chest for emphasis. I sang like I really wanted one more Moondance and I was going to get it. This was a rare moment of self-validation, where my sense of self was enough and I managed to see through, if only briefly, the insecure haze that pollutes so much of my life.
As significant as it was, it must not have been enough, and like a saturated piece of driftwood coming in with the tide, this moment was fleeting enough to confess its lack of sturdiness before it swept back out to the sea. I wait for the next piece of driftwood, hoping one day for one sturdy enough to hold my entire weight. Until then, I will continue to keep a lookout.