One of the recent questions I was asked on Instagram was “How do you find the courage to do spoken word performance?”.
So let’s talk about courage.
Courage: the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery; strength in the face of pain or grief.
From Latin ‘cor’ and French ‘corage’, related to the heart
We seem to often think people who do things we can’t bring ourselves to do (yet) somehow magically do not feel fear. They are resistant to terror and shrug off panic like a cardigan, We tell ourselves they simply do not have ‘the fear’ in their bones.
I feel this is an easier story to tell ourselves than the truth. The truth is everyone feels fear. Everyone is frightened. Some people are bloody petrified. But those with courage feel those emotions and … carry on.
A story where we look at someone and believe they are missing something which holds us back is an easier story to get on board with than the one where they overcome the ‘something’ which we know is holding us back. Because if they can overcome it, then maybe we could. But that’s hard work, so fuck that.
Courage is to muster up all of your faculties in the face of fear, pain, grief and terror and do The Thing. Sometimes it’s not even doing a Thing – it’s just carrying on.
Another word for the carrying-on-courage might be fortitude, which appeared in my reading recently:
“But the big courage is the cold-blooded kind, the kind that never lets go even when you’re feeling empty inside, and your blood’s thin, and there’s no kind of fun or profit to be had, and the trouble’s not over in an hour or two but lasts for months or years. One of the men here was speaking about that kind, and he called it ‘Fortitude’. I reckon fortitude’s the biggest thing a man can have – just to go on enduring when there’s no guts or heart left in you.”
From ‘Mr Standfast’ by John Buchan
The thing is – you are already courageous. You already have fortitude. In whatever measure grief or pain has been part of your life, you will have found the courage and fortitude to go on. You already have skills in it. You already have your Level One Courage And Fortitude badge, because you are still here.
From that base level of courage and fortitude comes the opportunity to gather together your resources and do things which instill in you greater fear, make it though times of greater pain, incidents of greater trauma. There are always more badges to collect in Courage and Fortitude, because there is no limit to your capacity as a human being.
Doing spoken word performance, for me, was one of these moments of greater fear. The terror was not in standing up in front of people and talking; I have enough practice in teaching and public speaking for that to feel quite natural. The true fear was in honestly and transparently showing how I felt.
Poetry, like all art forms, is a way to tell a truth. It’s a way to share a perception, a view on the world which you may or may not know. My poetry is my perception, a very raw and deep one at that. Performing it felt like exposing my soul, so of course I was fucking petrified of doing it, of being seen and heard and known and a thousand other things.
How I found the courage to do spoken word performance, and how I continue to find the courage to do so, are two different things.
I found the courage to do it in the first place, to even consider doing it in the first place, because someone I care about very deeply believed I could. It’s that simple. His friendship gave me the courage to get on stage and speak. It was like he handed me a shield and a sword so when I got up there, nothing could touch me. Except it didn’t look like a shield and a sword; it looked like an encouraging nod, or a smile, or a few words in my ear. Without his friendship, I wouldn’t have had that first injection of courage.
This is one of our gifts as Good Humans: to provide other people with courage. It’s often a lot easier than giving it to ourselves. As a tutor my role was to hand out courage to my students like martinis at a cocktail party. But we can all do it, for friends and loved ones, every day – just hand out a little bit of courage and say “I believe in you”.
So my first step into doing something that truly frightened me was aided by the love and care of another person. How I continue to find courage to do this terrifying thing involves other factors. These might be useful to use or think about if you want to do something for which you need reserves of courage and fortitude.
1. Recognise you do not have a choice.
When I started writing poetry, I realised what was coming out was written to be spoken. The work wasn’t always to be read – it was to be heard. I suddenly recognised I didn’t have a choice about whether I performed it or not; it was an urge which had to be satisfied, an insatiable desire in the work itself which needed to be fulfilled.
Particularly with creative work or a creative act, you will feel when you do not have a choice in whether you do or don’t do The Thing. Once you acknowledge “Well, this is going to happen” you loose some of the fear and start to pick up bits of courage. Inevitability is a great feeling, sometimes.
2. Call to mind those who believe in you.
Whenever I am about to get on stage, I call to mind my friend and his strength of belief in me, in the courage he gave me. Sometimes he’s there in person – sometimes he’s not. But I concentrate on that feeling of someone truly believing in what I’m doing, allow it to fill me, and use it to take those last couple of steps in front of the microphone. Call to mind those Good Humans who support your creative life, unequivocally, and your own courage will begin to kick in.
You can show people your practice, or you can show people the outcome, or you can show them all of it. But practice is what you need to do to keep on having courage. And I mean you need to practice your creative work, your activity, your courage, your belief – everything. Every fucking day get up and practice. You are not trying to do it ‘right’; you are just trying to do it.
For creative practitioners that might mean writing or drawing or singing every day. For those of you doing creative acts – travelling, migrating, raising a family – it might mean doing it in a new way, or working out a small change, or committing to a tiny thing.
For all of us, we can practice courage and fortitude by saying: “I can do this. I am doing this. Look how far I’ve come. I believe.” Just. Keep. Practising.
Especially when you’ve done The Thing, it’s easy to get swept away in an exciting rush of madness and self-congratulatory rhetoric. And you should – you bloody did it! But reflecting on why and how and if helps gather together your courage for next time.
The first time I performed in public I got off the stage and immediately burst into tears. My adrenaline crashed and I found it difficult to talk to anyone. Bleurgh. Next time, I gave myself ten minutes alone to have a drink and a fag and not talk to anyone, and I enjoyed myself so much more. Reflecting on how you got to doing The Thing, and particularly the quality of doing The Thing, is essential to continue to find fortitude and courage. And you know, like, grow as a person and shit.
There comes a point when you need to J.F.D.I.: just fucking do it. Your friends and loved ones will recognise that point way earlier than you, and will most likely tell you about it. Loudly. Repeatedly. And you will ignore them because maybe you haven’t got to (1) recognise you don’t have a choice yet, or you haven’t done enough of (3) practice.
But eventually, you need to Just Fucking Do It. You will not be ready. You will feel sick. You will get the screaming ab-dabs and possibly the heebie-jeebies. But it’s like ripping off a plaster or taking a shot of tequila or kissing your date or doing your taxes: just. fucking. do. it.
Humans have evolved to the bizarre and bonkers stage we’re currently in because of our courage and fortitude (and, frankly, luck). We are constantly doing things which are frightening. Every day we get up and we love someone, we face loss, we try new things, we eat foods we’ve never eaten before, we think our way through puzzles- we have earned our Level One badge in Courage and Fortitude.
You are not here to be safe. You are here to be an adventurer. You are here to be courageous.
“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
John A. Shedd