Friday Speak Out!: Learning To Breathe As A Writer

Friday, January 22, 2016
by Jeanine DeHoney

There are things that take my breath away. Not in a good way like a beautiful golden sunset, but in a injurious way, one that is crippling emotionally and physically.

It happened when I was one of the finalists of the 2013 Brooklyn Film and Arts and Festival Brooklyn Nonfiction Essay Contest and was invited to read my work. I accepted the invitation before the thought of giving a public reading had sunk in.

I’d entered the contest on a whim, never thinking I’d come close to being a finalist since I never had writer’s luck when it came to contests before. I told myself when I got the rejection e-mail it wouldn’t upset me because anything that forced me to write and hone my skills was a positive takeaway.

Although my stories had landed on blogs, in anthologies and in the glossy pages of magazines, I had always been timid when it came to reading my work in front of an audience of strangers and gaging their reactions or non-reactions to my words. I never had to know if there were any intersecting pieces between them and I, or worse see them yawn or text or voice disapproval of my words, as I shared the intimate details of my life. It always felt easier to absorb a readers comments in the next issue of a magazine or in the comments section of a blog in which I had the option of not reading.

The thought of reading publically literally took my breath away as the date drew near. I thought of excuses why I shouldn’t go but the night before a phone call from my sister, who vowed she’d never forgive me if I didn’t go, pushed me out the door the next day.

That evening as I sat in the audience with my daughter, son, son-in-law, and then four year old granddaughter, I wanted to sprint from the room. My breaths were rapid and shallow. Could I do this, or would I embarrass myself because of my breathlessness.

When my name was called I left my seat with my essay, all seven pages, quivering in my hand. I wanted to do this essay justice because it was about my late father. I closed my eyes.

“You can do this.”

The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Even my granddaughter had stopped fidgeting. My breaths became regular, serene. When I finished reading, applause echoed through the auditorium. I didn’t win but my words touched so many. An older man took my hand and pressed it to his heart. I exhaled a breath of gratitude.

As writers, our breaths have the ability to impede us or pulse our minds and bodies with the audacity to do what we fear the most, whether it’s a public reading or sending a manuscript to a publisher. Sometimes, we need to relearn how to breathe so we can take a breath of faith. The next year I entered again and won.

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Jeanine DeHoney, wife, mom and grandmother "extraordinaire" has had her writing published in several anthologies, magazines and blogs including "Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul," The Mom Egg, Literary Mama, Mused Bella online, Writing For Dollars, True Stories Well Told, Underwater New York, Mutha Magazine, Metro Fiction, My Brown Baby and She was a 2013 finalist in the Brooklyn Art and Film Festivals Nonfiction Contest and the winner of that contest in 2014. 
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...


Congratulations on making it as a finalist. Congratulations on taking the risk and reading it out loud. Congratulations on taking the risk again--the next year--knowing what it might entail,. Congratulations on winning.

Probably no one on in the audience (other than your family) knew you were nervous. I suggest you find some open-mic nights (if you haven't already) and share your work more often with a live audience. It sounds like you have stories and messages people would appreciate hearing... in your own voice.

Barbara Barth said...

I am terrified to speak in public. A few weeks ago I read a chapter from my widow memoir (published 2010 so you can see it took me some time to build courage) and thought I would faint. The audience was a writers group of only 20 or so people. The chapter was funny and the first chuckle eased me into the rest. My guess is you were fantastic and only you were aware how nervous you were. Plus, I cheated and viewed your YouTube winning video - you were lovely.

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