OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Confessions of a no-talker

I've been talking a lot lately.

I don't mind it too much. I can stand up in front of a classroom or in front of my colleagues in a conference room. I can be on the radio or on TV. It's in my skill set. If I had a current resumé, perhaps I'd list it as a secondary ability: "Types 30 words a minute and can talk a bit."

Still, there are moments when I become preternaturally aware of the sound of my own voice, going on and on about whatever it is I'm going on about and I just want to stop, apologize and shut up. It all feels, to use a fancy and fashionable word, "performative." Which is to say "phony."

Phony in that it doesn't feel true to my nature. I'm not a natural raconteur. There have been times when I felt my natural shyness was debilitating.

There's nothing special about this. Public speaking is a popular phobia. Most people probably don't relish getting up in front of a crowd and telling everyone what's on their mind. And we ought to be suspicious of those who do relish this sort of attention. Not every loquacious rascal is a con artist, but a lot of con artists are loquacious rascals. Televangelists and politicians and infomercial hosts are almost invariably loquacious rascals.

We might be excused for believing that the sort of modesty that finds its expression in shyness-- a reluctance to climb up on a soapbox and spout off--is a sign of good character.

Not that my shyness is a sign of anything other than inherent unease around other human beings, probably something as simple (and silly) as a fear of being judged.

My father was a quiet man; he wasn't given to lectures or lengthy explanations. His models were strong and silent, the Gary Coopers of his youth. Most of the adult men I remember from my childhood were that way; most of them were military men or police officers who raised their children to say "ma'am" and "sir" and answer the telephone with a terse but cordial "[family name]'s residence."

My mother strikes me as gregarious now, but back then she was a country girl who'd ridden a mule then got caught up in some nuclear age adventure. My parents were young and rural and found themselves entangled in events that seemed large and grave--a missile crisis, a mysterious war fought halfway around the world. She was a kid then, and often alone when my father left on missions he couldn't tell her much about.

I cannot imagine her coming out of Tobacco Row with unshaken confidence--she was in upstate New York, away from home for the first time, with her untempered, floral-scented Georgia accent, so musical and strange. And her people were deferential farmers who'd come of age in the Depression, the sort of people Walker Evans and Eudora Welty photographed -- even when I knew them they seemed creased and lined with want and worry. It was only later my mother evolved into a lioness.

School was not hard. Teachers appreciate quiet and well-mannered children, but I have a very clear memory of an awful week when I was in seventh grade. That year we had to take a speech class, and at some point I had to make a speech on a topic of my choosing. We were given our assignments well ahead of time, and this was no kindness.

The week before my speech was given over to anxiety; I chose to talk about UFOs and spent hours in the library studying the subject, scribbling down talking points on three-by-five-inch index cards, a nice little half-inch stack of them. I had a thesis statement, my evidence racked and ready, and practiced in the mirror. (I don't remember whether I was pro- or anti-UFOs but I remember I had it all worked out.)

I didn't sleep much the night before. When my turn came, I looked down at my note cards and decided they were all stupid. So instead I gave a speech about something else entirely about Willie Mays and why he, and not Babe Ruth, is the greatest baseball player of all time

I do not know whether that speech was actually good, but I do know that when I launched into it some dam broke in me. Everything flowed out. I was animated, I was moving from point to point with something like a ferocious confidence. I felt like I had stepped outside my body and was watching my performance. The speech may not have been so hot, but I delivered it--performed it--well.

I got applause. I got an A. No one was more surprised than me.

That giddy experience was not a breakthrough. In high school and college I was one of the quiet kids in the back of the class. More than once I was taken for a burned-out stoner. I don't think I ever volunteered an answer in law school, and dreaded being called on. (I remember a long, heartfelt talk with a civil procedure professor who worried I was not "verbally demonstrative" enough to fare well in a courtroom. He may well have been right, I did not look forward to moot court.)

My chief virtue as a reporter is the ability to inhabit a space without calling much attention to myself. I could sit in a detectives' bullpen for hours, drinking coffee and overhearing things. I was not convivial, just observant and patient and able to read upside down documents.

I still have a lot of social anxiety with people I don't know well. Karen naturally interviews people when she meets them; I naturally nod my head and smile. Riffing on a "Seinfeld" joke, she has been known to refer to me as a "no-talker."

But somehow, I can do this other thing--this phony me can talk.

It helps that I'm not trying to sell anything that I don't believe in or trying to get people to give me money or their vote.

I genuinely believe that there is something to be gained by closely reading season one of HBO's "The White Lotus." That we ought not allow the historical Elvis Presley to be completely subsumed by myth and irony. That newspapers always go wrong when they attempt to pander to people who don't care to read. That striving for excellence is the only honorable way to do any job.

I genuinely believe Willie Mays was a better player than Babe Ruth.

I've been talking a lot lately. I feel I should apologize.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected].

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