When you look back at your life, there are always one or more wounding events. Things that internally made you feel ashamed, mortified or embarrassed.
One of mine came when I was 13, in a second year French class. My French teacher that year was Mrs A. Mrs A was five foot tall, with a huge fearsome voice.
French lessons would always start with us reading passages from the textbook. My seat was at the back of the class, directly under her gaze. Three times out of five, she’d ask me to start reading first.
“Roberrrrr,” she would begin in French. “Please read from the top of page fifty four…”
I opened up page fifty four, with butterflies in my stomach. The first sentence began ‘Ce matin…’. I went to start reading, and couldn’t talk.
“Ce-ce-ce-ce, Mmmmmmm,” I stuttered.
A few boys laughed and looked round at me.
“Ce-ce, Mmmmm,” I stopped.
Inside, my belly filled with hot burning shame. I glanced forward at Mrs A, whose face had dropped slightly. Eventually, she asked somebody else to read. As I listened to the other boys effortlessly reading the passage, I stared vacantly at the words in front of me. What had just happened?
Straight after that lesson we had a break, or recess. A classmate came up to me. “That was pretty good,” he said, “pretending to stammer so you didn’t have to read…”
“Uhhh, yeah,” was all I managed to respond.
The thought of another five lessons that day with the same people felt daunting. I didn’t want to see anyone from class. And I definitely didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to push the whole thing under a rug… but I couldn’t.
In one moment I had gone from a reasonably confident speaker, to someone irrationally terrified at the thought of speaking to a group.
What did I do?
I did was any self-respecting 13-year old would do. I hid it.
I stopped raising my hand in class. I avoided making eye contact with the teacher. On the inside I felt constantly anxious. What if it happened again?
About a year later I was nominated to participate in a school elocution competition. I must have slipped up at some stage, and said something that sounded good. A few boys congratulated me on the nomination. In my head I was like, shit. Shit shit SHIT.
How did I get on at the competition? Simple – I didn’t show up. I hid out on the yard instead. I still maintain that not taking part was the right thing to do, but I went about it all wrong. I should’ve told someone I needed help.
After all, my sister stammered for years. My Grandad stammers. I’ve since found out my Mum and Uncle both stammered at school. I was surrounded by empathetic people who would have understood, and been able to help.
Instead, I kept it to myself. I learned to deal with it by avoiding certain sounds I wasn’t confident saying.
When an emotional wound like this happens, the effects can be very long lasting. Effectively the wound leads to a false belief, or lie.
The big irony is I’m actually very eloquent, when I want to be. I’m apparently incapable of giving any interviews under 45 minutes. I’ve been on local radio (MP3 is here). I now actively seek out crowds of people to speak to.
From the date of the incident in French class, I’d say it took me about 13 years to fully correct that false belief. The turning point only came when I realised I actually liked how I sounded in audio. I finally learned to respect the sound of my own voice again.
When you’re planning your core series, you have to decide whether you’re ready to write about an emotional wound. Not all of your stories are ready to be shared, and that’s fine. But the more willing you are to share them, the more empathy you’ll build with your audience.