I woke from a nightmare, the nightmare, my one recurring nightmare in which I am standing in front of a classroom trying to teach and suddenly realize I have failed to plan and have absolutely no idea how to fill the hour.
But this was the worst version of that nightmare I’ve ever had. It wasn’t a class with thirty high school students, for one thing. It was a writing workshop with a couple of hundred attendees at least.
Normally that wouldn’t scare me. I love public speaking and am darn good at it. But I was teaching alongside a group of authors (and an agent) I both love and respect and have learned from many times. This was my first time on the podium side for this group, and I really wanted to do well.
I was third speaker in a day-long seminar, though, and right after the last snack break in the afternoon. The power hitters had gone in the morning, and the attendees were tired. Even worse, they’d seen me earlier setting up the snack and making coffee, etc., (with a small staff, one pitches in), so I was clearly not “the talent.”
When I stepped up to speak, I realized ninety percent of the group hadn’t bothered to return after the snack break.
That was the high point.
I gamely leaped into my plan (yes, I had planned a workshop for them). I grabbed the mike and began my intro. Before I’d finished my first sentence though, one of the attendees saw my stack of handouts sitting on the podium, so he got up, grabbed a handout, and left.
It started a flood. Most of the group stood up and began gathering their things.
I’m afraid I went into a bit of a tirade, telling them what a great workshop I had planned, and that it wasn’t all in the handout. I also told them how incredibly disrespectful it was, especially after I’d put so much work into my lesson.
Most of them sat back down, so I tried to go on. But I kept getting interrupted. At one point, the hotel employees came in and started rearranging those movable walls for the next group (though I still had most of an hour!). I ended up on the wrong side of the wall from my group.
I went into the hall and down to another door where I found my students. I no longer had a microphone (it was in the first room, the part that had been the front of a bigger room), but I have a big voice. So I went on.
Stuff happened. People came in and out. Eventually so many people were milling about that I was no longer sure which ones were my class, but by then, I was determined to finish the damn talk whether or not anyone was listening.
So I jumped up on the condiments table and kept shouting into the room, a room increasingly crowded and bustling.
A man on a cell phone wandered up to the table and began fixing a cup of coffee, shouting into his phone the whole time (to his credit, it was pretty loud by then; he needed to shout to be heard).
I leaned down and said, “Sir, would you mind keeping it down? I’m trying to give a workshop here.”
He just gave me an irritated look and continued with both his coffee preparations and his overloud conversation.
So I picked up a squeeze bottle of yellow mustard, and squirted it right onto the shiny, round hairless circle of the top of his scalp. It slid down his cheek and splattered onto his suit and the white collar of his dress shirt.
Everyone laughed. I had their attention. So I have a quick final pep talk about using the tools at hand (even if the tool at hand is yellow mustard) and soldiering on.
Then I called it good enough. The room quickly returned to its pre-mustard bellow.
Before I could even climb off the table though, I heard an awful din, louder than the room noise even. It took me several seconds to figure out the noise was my alarm.
I woke in a full-blown panic attack. Breathing too fast and too shallow. Flinching at every noise. Shoulders hunched over. Braced for impact. When I went to the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror, and my eyes were wide with fear.
Flee, fight, or freeze?
I chose to make coffee.
It’s interesting to note that there were several changes to the dream this time. Significant ones, I believe.
First, I had planned the workshop, and it was fantastic. Meaty but simple to understand, giving them great tools that would help them write more effectively. What went wrong had nothing to do with my lack of preparation or skills.
Second, I didn’t freeze or flee. I fought to give the darned lecture. I kept trying, even after I realized I’d lost the audience. I did it for me.
In fact, I owned the experience. I took control of it with the tools at hand.
In this case, a bottle of yellow mustard.