When I was young, I was relatively fearless—I loved climbing trees and diving off high diving boards.
After college, I sold my car and went to Europe to travel for several months and when I returned, I moved 3,000 miles away from my family to Los Angeles to pursue a career in show business. I moved with a boyfriend, but quickly broke up with him when I realized I was only 23 years-old and had no desire to get married right away.
I had an interesting dating life, slow at first, but the highlight was my boyfriend, Doug, whom I adored and who happened to be the stepson of Art Carney. We hung around with Art, Doug’s mom, and people like Robert Altman, Lily Tomlin and Lucille Ball.
If I was intimidated to be in the presence of some of the greats who came to parties, you wouldn’t have known it. I admit to being too shy to play charades with Lucy. She often jumped up after someone finished their turn and said, “Wait! This is how you should have done it!” —and then proceeded to act it out her way, which quite honestly was always better.
One Father’s Day we were at Chasen’s and a parade of celebrities joined our table, including Frank Sinatra, Jack Haley (the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz”), David Janssen, and Liza Minnelli. I appreciated those incredible opportunities to meet people whose work I admired so much while my own fledgling career was beginning to take off. For my birthday one year, Art wrote me a poem. This was the first stanza:
Here’s to our dear Robin Amos,
who at this point is not quite so famous.
But she’s sure a fine gal and much more than a pal,
and I’m sure that in time she will tame us.
I became a television writer at 27 (“The Young and the Restless”) and then a couple of years later, I started making the rounds at studios to pitch movie ideas—and that was when my confidence started to wane.
There weren’t many women screenwriters in those days. Nora Ephron wasn’t well known yet and the adage, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it” felt true for me. I soon got married, retreated to New York (telling myself that there were many great screenwriters in New York) and became a mother. Though I kept writing, I still struggled with confidence and watched enviously as my photographer husband travelled around the world for work and I kept plugging away at writing.
I had readings of screenplays and plays and started writing for a website, Club Mom. Ten years ago, my own mother got really sick and for the last 7 years of her life, I found myself becoming a caregiver. It was one of the accomplishments of my life I’m most proud of and yet the endless doctor’s visits, hospital stays, hospice care (twice), late night phone calls, racing out to emergency rooms… all made me put my writing on a back burner. I began to feel lost—and when it was all over, when my mother finally died—everything fell away. My marriage ended, my daughter (now grown) moved 3,000 miles away and in my 50’s, I had to totally recreate my life.
Talk about fear.
There’s a phrase I’ve heard: “catastrophe is what often re-orders our lives.” It felt like a catastrophe when I didn’t quite know what to do with myself after a 23 year marriage and all the care-giving I had done. All I had left was two dogs and myself.
And…two big phobias. One was flying. I had always loved flying, but on a trip when my daughter was four and we were on a flight from Cancun back to New York, we flew through a Nor’easter, hugging the east coast. The flight attendants barely stood up. Fortunately, my daughter slept through the entire flight. If she had woken up, she would have seen me clutching the armrests or holding the hand of the stranger sitting next to me. After that, flying became something that I avoided—and if I had to fly, I would do so with a bottle of Valium or Xanax, ready to take the entire bottle, if I needed to.
My other fear was speaking in public. I was one of those kids in school who often raised her hand (except in math) and had always been comfortable speaking up, but after so many years as a writer, I was used to living a more solitary life and had no need to speak in front of groups of people.
At one point, I went to career coach and when he asked me to tell him the story of my life I had him laughing so much that he announced, “You must write and speak! You are a performer!” I said, “Yes! I love that!” and walked out of his office and told everyone I was going to be a writer and speaker—then never once had the nerve to try it. Everything I wrote I gave to others to perform, even though a part of me thought, “I would like to try that…” But fear stopped me cold.
Three years after my husband and I separated, I found myself in a public speaking class called OWN THE ROOM. I was terrified.
Privately, I said to the coach, Bill Hoogterp, “What if I’m the only person you’ve ever taught who could never get it?” Bill laughed and told me to tell everyone in the classroom what I said. They all laughed—they all felt the same way. I found my voice in that class and around the same time I performed a solo show about being a caregiver to my mother called “Not My Mother.” The first time I performed it I discovered what “cotton mouth” means—you literally cannot speak, your mouth is so dry. It was embarrassing, but I learned to always have a bottle of water nearby, just in case.
Now, exactly one year later, my life has taken a 360 degree turn. I coach others with OWN THE ROOM, something unimaginable to me before, and I love it. Our soon to be new mayor, Bill DeBlasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, shared about her own fear of speaking in public in a recent article in the Daily News. [ http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/chirchirlane-mccray-fear-public-speaking-article-1.1541131#ixzz2oKwTrEgU] Addressing a room full of people, she froze. “Inwardly, not outwardly, I was shaking,” McCray said. “I just stopped.”
McCray also came to OWN THE ROOM to overcome her fear and has become a great speaker. As she says now about public speaking, “It’s not that there’s any magic to it. It’s like a muscle. You just do it, and do it, and do it again.”
Life and fear seem to walk hand in hand, but I see when I step through the fear, life gets bigger. And more scary. And more fulfilling. The bottom line is that when I coach others and help them be more effective speakers by sharing their stories, I find the strength I need to tell my own stories.
Breathing helps—and knowing that if you have a message, taking it out into the world requires courage and a big bottle of Xan…no, never mind.
Courage. It requires courage.