Eighteen months ago I chaired an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with a novelist I know well, someone whose work I admire and whom I like very much as a person. Halfway through the event, in front of an audience of about six hundred people, I began to ask a question and lost my thread.
My mind went blank and I broke into a cold sweat. I mumbled something to buy time and after what seemed like an agonisingly long moment another question popped into my head and I was able to continue. In fact the whole episode lasted only a few seconds; but the novelist noticed it, he told me afterwards when I mentioned it, and I’m sure the audience did too.
It happened to be the last event I chaired that year. It left me feeling shaken and wondering whether perhaps I was starting to lose my touch. It called to mind a moment in Akira Kurosawa’s beautiful film Dersu Uzala, when the character of the title, an ageing hunter in the Siberian forest, misses an easy shot for the first time, and we know from the look on his face that this is the start of his decline.
A year later I felt anxious when I came to chair the first of my events in the 2017 programme. In fact it went off without a hitch and I left thinking that my recollection of the old hunter had been over-dramatic. Nevertheless, I thought about it again when I listened last week to a radio programme about three artists who take great risks in their work in order to create it live and in the moment.
Pianist Mark Springer described giving performances in which he composes in real time as he plays; no one knows what they are going to hear at his concerts, including him. Actress Juliet Stevenson spoke of confronting a growing crisis of confidence by taking on the lead in Samuel Beckett’s play, Happy Days, an exceptionally challenging role. Singer Laura Mvula talked about going almost overnight from bedsit songwriter to international sensation despite crippling stage fright. As I listened to them I was reminded of this poem by Christopher Logue:
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Each of the three artists seemed to have a drive to ‘fly’, in their cases perform, that was greater than their fear of falling. For them it was that drive that was the ‘he’, the pusher, in the poem; some kind of innate confidence in their own ability and experience that got them off the cliff the first time, and from then on ensured that the exhilaration of the performance would continue to trump the risk of failing.
Juliet Stevenson explained how remaining aloft is only possible for her by being so completely ‘in the zone’, so absorbed in her performance, that it commands her entire consciousness and becomes her universe. But it can be a fragile universe, she admitted, in which a stray thought or sudden distraction can undo the whole thing.
I don’t know what distracted me in that moment in Edinburgh, and I would never presume to equate the experience of chairing an event at a book festival to that of delivering what amounts to a 90-minute monologue on the West End stage. But I do know that we all face clifftops, of varying heights and degrees of terror, at various moments in our lives, and it is only by letting ourselves be pushed by whatever internal or external force comes to hand at those moments, that we discover if we can indeed fly.
Usually, in my experience, as in Christopher Logue’s, we can.
If you feel like flexing your wings, come and join us at our next The Stories We Tell weekend, 25/26 November. More details here.
I love this. That poem reminds me of this one, given to me by a friend, and I’ve since read and re-read at many times in my life (including before going to Spain with Dark Angels!!). I’ve since found out the background which is that it was written by Dorothy Miles, who was deaf. She was raised orally, and she had learned ASL later. She loved writing poetry, but she wondered how she could portray her poetry in ASL. Later, she began to put English and ASL together to speaking and signing at the same time in her poem. Before she wrote the poem, she was involved with National Theatre of the Deaf, and that was where she discovered the relationship between speaking and signing. Later, she had a job opportunity in CSUN, so she left National Theatre of the Deaf and moved to California. At that moment, she felt uncertainty of what will happen next, so it felt like she just jumped in. That’s what her poem meant, hoping she could jump and continue to fly. [copy taken from a video of the poem in ASL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TTaGBkQlRU
The Hang Glider
Here are my wings;
And there, at the edge of nothing,
wait the winds
to bear my weight.
so huge and strong,
built with my life in mind …
I have made other wings before,
cast aside – –
I searched, and asked, and saw,
and built again …
and here I stand.
Take up my courage
with my pack,
and forward go – –
NO TURNING BACK!
(The wings won’t turn).
** ** ** **
The cliff is high,
and far way down
I’d hate to drown!
But they are watching me.
I have seen others do it – –
Step off and fly – –
so why can’t I?
suppose the winds might die,
Step off and dive
and dive …
** ** ** **
The winds won’t die!
Experience tells me that
and faith in my experience,
that’s all I need.
Here are my wings …
Here are my wings!
I love that poem Anita! I’ve heard it before (maybe from you?) but I didn’t know its provenance. That makes it even more powerful. Thanks for sharing it.
This reminds me of when I used to act. I’d performed happily for quite a long time with barely a hitch (well, apart from missing an entrance in Edinburgh once). But then, out of nowhere, I started ‘drying’. At some random point in a scene, I’d look at the other actors’ faces and not have a clue what to say. It was a horrible, horrible feeling of the kind you get in bad dreams. Except these were real incidents. And our company didn’t have prompts to dig you out. To make it worse, I’d get a tingling down my arms which sometimes got so bad it stopped me moving my fingers.
A while after the last episode, I was offered the lead part in a play called Humble Boy. On stage virtually the whole time. Lots of lines to learn. Long speeches, dialogue. Luckily, there were a few weeks between casting and rehearsals. So in that time I got the lines more or less learned, something that normally only happened well into rehearsal. That helped a lot. But on the first night, it still felt a lot like what you’ve described – pushing myself off the clifftop. The run went well. I was so prepared, I think, that lightning was unlikely to strike in that particular way again. I guess I got a lot of confidence from slaying the demon. But I don’t think acting (if I ever go back to it) could ever be the same uncomplicated thing it was before the drying started. Maybe it would be something to appreciate more, or differently, for the new knowledge of what it takes to the edge.
…or, indeed, what it takes *to go* to the edge.
Thanks Jan – I didn’t know you had a thespian past! Preparation is a big prop, I agree. I wasn’t unprepared when I dried, but I made sure I was extra-prepared before the next event and that gave me a lot of comfort.
In the early 1990s, I attended a conference at which former U.S. President Ronald Reagan spoke. He forgot his place a couple of times and even repeated an anecdote. But each time, he returned to his remarks with a pleasant quip about his gaffe and carried on. He didn’t seem to be worried by the slips and so neither were we. It was an excellent talk and he kept all 1000 of us fully engaged. The only better presentation at that same event was Steve Jobs demonstrating his new NEXT computer, which promptly crashed. He made a prepared and witty comment about the likelihood of malfunctions rising along with the size of the audience and we laughed as he pulled the covers off a second system that was already on the stage. He finished the demo and we gave him, too, a standing ovation. I can certainly understand your consternation about your blank moment. I am of an age where forgetfulness is assumed to be evidence of diminished capacity, but when I was young it was considered to be lack of preparation. Who knows? In any event, I suspect that your audience was not nearly as distracted as you were.