What was different? Well, I arrived an hour early, thanks to some miscommunication about the arrangements. But that was fine, because it allowed time for a bite to eat with my nice hosts at the college cafeteria, with a grand view of the Pacific Ocean. Afterwards, back at the auditorium, it took a good while for people to arrive and I was worried, frankly, for a few minutes, that no one was going to show up. And attendance was indeed sparse--a couple of dozen people, by my count: I was competing, I discovered, with a college basketball tournament of some kind. There was a good deal of echoing space behind the first three or four rows. But that happens. I have spoken to small groups before, even in auditoria, like this one, that can accommodate far more.
I started off comfortably enough, with some memories of my time as Dean of the arts at Loyola Marymount University, back in the 1980s--a time when the merger between the Jesuits at Loyola University and the sisters at Marymount College seemed more a formality than a true marriage of the heart. The imbalance, in my college, between the Jesuit "Communications" department and the various "Fine Arts" brought in by the sisters could not have been more marked, and my years there were spent in good part trying to boost the latter. I was not aware, actually, that Marymount had survived as a separate, independent entity--for years as a two-year college and only recently reinstated for the full four-year degree program.
Was it the memory of those academic years that distracted me? Hardly. I often talk about them, particularly with reference to my decision to quit, cold turkey, some twenty-five years ago, to become the writer I had always known myself to be. My years in academia were rewarding in many ways, but I have never for one moment regretted the decision to leave.
No, there was something else that was distracting my mind. It was as though I was not quite present to myself. I was listening to myself talk, and in that self-conscious mode had the odd experience of losing my way quite often, consulting the cue cards that I prepare before each event, but rarely need to look at. Once that starts to happen, the familiar inhibitors creep in--the fear, self-doubt, self-criticism that set off a kind of internal panic.
I exaggerate a bit. The internal effects were less dramatic than that last sentence suggests, and from the response and questions that followed, it seemed that I may have been the only one to notice my discomfort. At its best, I have discovered, public speaking creates a bond between speaker and audience, a real pleasure for the speaker to experience--and something that is not available to the writer, for whom response is less direct, less immediate. Reflecting on this, I think perhaps last night's experience had to do with the fact that I was less aware than usual just who was in the audience--artists? writers? students? aculty? visitors? Most likely a mix of all these elements.
My friend Valerie, a member of our artists' group here at home, was kind enough to come to hear me speak and had a useful suggestion in an email this morning: when in doubt about who's out there, to ask. And perhaps to ask also what brought them to the lecture. The group was small enough to have been able to do that comfortably, and to establish something of a bond that way before setting out. Something to remember for the future.