Tuesday 24 April 2018

I'm not afraid of spiders, just don't ask me to speak in public

Melissa Hill.
Melissa Hill.

WE'VE survived the time of year for witches, ghosts, vampires and all those other supposedly scary beings.

But when it comes to fear – real fear that is – most of us don't give a second thought to the likes of ghosts or jack o'lanterns, given that we're less likely to encounter them over a dodgy mugger or vicious attacker while walking down the streets.

And for many others, their particular fear is less of the visceral kind and more of the physical type.

My youngest sister for example, is terrified of creepy-crawlies. So terrified that she tries to get complete strangers to vacuum away spiderwebs in random places, and insists on immediately throwing out the hoover bag afterwards just in case some homeless spider decides to take up residence.

HILARIOUS

So terrified that a while back, she ran screaming from her own house and promptly refused to ever go back inside (and didn't – she moved the entire family out shortly afterwards). Why? The sudden appearance of a few innocent woodlice beneath a radiator.

I find all of this hilarious, but in truth, it's probably all my fault. When we were kids growing up, I nastily informed my innocent baby sis that the average person can unknowingly eat up to three hundred spiders a year – they crawl into our open mouths while we sleep.

She was never quite the same after that.

I tried to warp my other sister in a similar fashion, but she was having none of it – she's not someone to be trifled with.

Recently my frightened little sister tried to explain her spider phobia to me, but ever the rational type, I was having none of it.

"Harmless, innocent little spiders? I eat them for breakfast," I boasted, quickly regretting my choice of words when I heard the gagging sounds on the other end of the telephone.

"Well, maybe compare it with something you're frightened of then," she replied, trying in vain to get me to sympathise. "Then you'll know how I feel. What are you afraid of?"

"Nothing," I answered in fearless, confident, big-sister-mode, and at the time, I really meant it. I've always been a rational type, refusing to succumb to notions.

TERRIFIED

But all too soon, I was eating my words (as opposed to spiders). I am afraid of something – terrified actually – and yes, the very thought of it does make me want to run screaming from a room.

I'm afraid of public speaking.

A writer – afraid of public speaking? Who'd have thought it? Or at least that's the reaction of the majority when I try to explain that the thought of standing up and speaking to a roomful of people brings me out in a cold sweat. "But you're a writer!" they insist, as if I'm making this – as well as everything else – up.

Exactly, I'm a writer. Writers spend hours, days on end sitting alone, typing away in front of a computer screen, so it's only natural that they should be able to rise on cue and wow the crowds with dazzling displays of rhetoric, isn't it?

Although in truth, I think I might just be the exception. Most of my fellow authors are so relaxed and articulate in front of a microphone, they could give Oprah a run for her money. Me, I get so nervous that the flat Tipperary accent of my childhood goes completely into overdrive, and I end up sounding like one of the D'Unbelievables. Ye can't be doin' dat, lads ... .

Luckily, because my publishers are aware of my worries, public speaking isn't something I'm faced with very often, which is why I tend to forget how much it frightens me. But when I'm thrust into the promotion of a new book, I find myself having to face my old foe over and over again.

I only realised how truly terrible I was at it when many moons ago I tried to make a speech at my own wedding. I babbled on unintelligibly and humourlessly about meaningless stuff, before thanking everyone and anyone, except my new husband (oops!). And if you can't relax in front of family and friends, what hope have you got in front of an audience of expectant strangers?

In the hope of easing my fears (or more likely, instead of having to listen to my embarrassing, incoherent ramblings) organisers of writing events now tend to ask me to read short pieces of my writing, or arrange a question and answer session, instead of making a full-blown speech, which sounds easy, but for some reason, is just as frightening. I can't quite explain why I find it all so scary – after all I used to read at Mass when I was younger. (Then again, I used to faint at Mass when I was younger too, but that's another story.)

And at the end of the day, itsjust people I'm speaking to, isn't it? Ordinary people, who aren't going to eat me.

Then again, maybe that's the answer. In the same way they tell you to imagine your audience naked, maybe I should just try and imagine that I'm speaking to a crowd of spiders.

And like I said to my little sister, don't I eat those for breakfast?

A Gift To Remember, by Melissa Hill, is published by Simon & Schuster, priced €18.75.

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