Scatology not eschatology for these troubled times

by Maria on September 2, 2019

I was at a bookish festival this weekend. (Thank you, lovely Primadonna. I hope you happen again next year.) Pretty frazzed between work trips (Austria last week. Kuwait tomorrow! Yay?), I ditched the festival schedule and largely let Milo’s nose decide which sessions we attended. Serendipity. Also; no pressure. These were my watchwords. We went from tent to barn to tent, not lingering too long. I had a sitdown in a tent with a sign-up for what I thought was ‘read the first paragraph of your work in progress’. Great! I signed up, popped out with Milo to get some water for him, then came back. Turned out it was not a ‘haltingly read your tender first lines’ session but … stand-up.

No pressure.

I was 12 out of 13 performers so I had time to decide a) fk it, why not, and b) I’ll tell that story about Milo and the party-lights, using him as a prop / comfort blanket. Happy ever after. It all went great. I remixed the story with, I suppose, some poignant context about Milo’s status as our child-substitute and just why E and I were (are!) so committed to daily status updates on our dog’s digestive performance. Lovely supportive audience, lots of nice generous laughs for my not exactly killer one-liners. Scatology the last refuge of the inexperienced comedian. Ultimate shaggy dog story.

And, oh boy, I’d just finished a draft of a near-future science fiction short story for a client the day before, and something had clicked in me about weaving different lines through a story and their sudden availability and depth of meaning to deliver an unexpected pay-off. (Actually, I’m to finally write my PhD dissertation this academic year, and a good portion of it will be about explaining why the images and metaphors you drop into the beginning of something – say, a chapter – just because they sound nice or are superficially useful, turn out when you are winding it all up to have been just the perfect symbol or visual to express where you end and to hint at what it all means. Meaning, wow, the unconscious is really quite canny and really should be taking the dog for a walk far more often than it actually does. Or seems to.)

So the story told more than it originally had. Truths revealed over time plus new ways to weave things in and out of it now suddenly available to me. I felt pleased about how the storytelling virus is still burrowing and reproducing in unexpected places and ways.

But what was really pleasing and exciting was that I’ve been working a lot this year on my public speaking, as I now make a growing part of my living from it. But the speeches I do are quite serious – how to make the dystopian tech future less dystopic, in a nutshell – and the new method I’ve developed to prep for them has been all about frontloading the intellectual content, and just using the emotional content of them to deliver them better, rather than generate them on the fly, which is more like what I used to do. I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep the spontaneity of the performance – that rare but powerful feeling you sometimes get when there’s a third entity in the room, the thing created when your connection with the audience becomes palpable and generative – but also deliver my arguments and anchor-lines in a reasonably dependable way. I’ve been trying to move from a ‘usually good, sometimes bombs, occasionally excellent’ speaker to being a ‘consistently very good, occasionally excellent’ one, and focusing more on the cognitive prep rather than the creative in the moment stuff.

And it has a not-great physical effect on me, because when I travel or prep for these speeches, I feel the work is all going on in the front of my head, and that’s where not-sleep and migraines happen. So then I have elaborate regimes for managing all this, mostly involving yoga and denial, when what each speech really demands of my M.E. / CFS is a week recovering in bed. And also, the speech coming from the ‘front of the head’, not the whole of it or even the belly, seems thinner and sharper, more brittle and less nuanced, less about creating on the fly than rather fearfully re-creating what I came up with before. This is hard to articulate. Maybe it’s that giving a speech from just the ‘front-brain’ is like lifting just with your arms, and not your core and your legs. You can lift less and you probably get an injury.

This stand-up experience was really freeing. It was just five minutes and one story, but it felt like it came from the same all-of-me place that my favourite fiction-writing does, and this was both deeper and less burdensome. I was happy that people laughed and clapped, but I didn’t need to carefully monitor audience reaction and follow-up to see if I’d succeeded. These conditions aren’t easily recreated – the lack of preptime and low expectations, as well as not having to convince anyone of anything. I just needed to keep people interested enough to listen to the story. But the playfulness and whole-of-human involvement was really, really nice, and I’m thinking of learning a bit more about how to do comedy to make my speeches better for the audience / client, and less onerous on me.

Also, it turns out Milo’s really great at camping. No panting and snuffling round the tent at night. But a fairly crumby sleeping companion. It was Baltic but he refused to snuggle or sleep across my feet. As we make him live in a house with underfloor heating, he must have reckoned this was his-time.

Also, what with the other kinds of writing I do also now for a living being in different ways onerous, I realised I had way, way too high a bar on what kind of writing I do here on CT, so I’m going to try and just do actual blogging, like we did back in the days, musing and just noting stuff down, not ‘writing’ writing.



Sumana Harihareswara 09.02.19 at 12:18 pm

Maria: congrats on your stand-up comedy success! And thanks for pointing to your Milo story, which I had unaccountably missed when you first posted it — what fun!

I did quite a bit of stand-up comedy in my early twenties and the practice definitely helped me structure and deliver my professional lectures. I did a lot of open mics — one issue with those venues, in my experience, is that most of the audience is other performers, and that skews response. I also served as emcee (“compère” I believe is the term in the UK) for an evening event, and since then I’ve guested on podcasts and served as a comedy-style auctioneer for a charity auction. I think all these forms of public speaking have informed each other for me.


John Quiggin 09.02.19 at 9:06 pm

It would be great to have more posts from you, even if they are not all the polished gems you have been posting at rare intervals


ph 09.03.19 at 1:16 am

I need a cat. Get me a cat. I need a white cat! (Wag the dog paraphrase) Bringing a cute animal on stage early is an excellent way to create an emotional bond with strangers – it’s one reason why Mickey Mouse gets big bucks from Mitsubishi Bank and Nomura Securities pays to put images of “le petit prince” on the front of their offices and on products. Animals and other images are culture specific, so care must be used depending on the audience.

I really enjoyed this post and wish you the best of luck. Live performances normally require much more preparation than normal, and a lot can be learned from hucksters and other performers who earn all their money from capturing and winning over an audience.

You have a great deal to share and too few academics put anywhere near enough care into considering the feelings and reactions of their audiences. You’ve clearly a talent for it. Best of luck!


Theophylact 09.03.19 at 12:21 pm

ph: There’s a fairly high rate of deafness among white cats. Check your kitty, or be prepared; a deaf cat kinda clumps around the house, because it doesn’t know it’s not slinking.


EWI 09.06.19 at 4:37 pm

Also speaking on tech issues at Worldcon in Dublin, which might be worthy of a report?

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