I get a lot of questions.

Sometimes dealing with my height, race and age. Others focusing on what I plan to do with my life, job, do you want kids and what genre do you write in? All these questions are overwhelming, especially when there is a deluge of them. My mind starts swimming, my eyes bouncing from one person to the next. Or, I tune out the one person sitting across the table from me, trying to pry into my life so much so that their words just fade into the background.

I’m normally snapped out of my alternate reality when their hand slams against the table and they ask “Are you listening?”

Um….no.I’ve said Um a lot of times in my life. In public speaking, points were deducted from our grade if we uttered the word “um” or paused because it undermined how much we knew about our topic. In British Literature where I read a small part of the story and read the summary because yikes British Literature. I mean, I can’t sit there and read a story that I can barely understand because of the writing style, half the words I need to be translated, when I’m already a slow reader. Shakespearean courses went the same way though somehow I managed to answer one question about the Merchant of Venice which impressed my teacher enough that he moved on to his next victim.

But the look every teacher gets when a student mutters the word “um” is one of disdain, disappointment and sometimes, outright hatred. I had one teacher who asked a student a simple enough question:

“Why don’t you have your assignment?”

“Um….”

I was sitting next to said student and felt my body temperature rising, like my teacher suddenly received the gift of heat vision! The red veins converged to my teachers pupil and that crazy vein began pulsing in his forehead trying to burst out of his skin.

Then there is the let down “um” which I used yesterday. The “um” you say before you admit that you really don’t want to do what the other person is asking you. The “Um….no…..” as in “sorry, I’d rather not.”

My favorite “um” happens in workshop where you ask a writer about a scene to see if they meant to portray it the way you read it. For example: I read a scene where I thought the character clearly committed suicide and a bucket fell off a bridge. Another student, reading the same scene, thought that the character tied a rope to the bridge and fell off the bridge as they were trying to string the bucket to the rope. This incident happened at the end of the story and the character’s life was not going well so both of these interpretations could work.

The author’s response?

“Um….”

Turns out we were both wrong, character wasn’t even on a bridge. It was more of a shocked “um” as in “how could these people not see my vision?” or “why are these people so morbid?”

Sometimes “um” can be a life saver for further embarrassment. For those who don’t know, I’m an introvert and run into several social situations where I no longer function as a human being (see my blog post entitled (A)wkward for details). In short, someone I admired tried to talk to me and I squealed at him and died a little inside. That was one of the many moments I wish the word “um” found its way into my vocal chords.

But when do I use “um” the most? When I finally gain the courage to talk to a future mentor. In the time it takes for me to memorize what I’m going to say to this future mentor and for them to turn around and acknowledge my presence the only word left in my mind is “um.” Not “hello, I’ve heard great things about you and was wondering if you could talk to me about your critiquing process?”

No, because that would be too easy.

Normally, when this happens, they smile, nod and turn back to the person they were talking to and I sulk away in shame. Other times, the mentor is equally awkward so we both just stand there waiting for the other to speak. Of course, we don’t make eye contact but eventually one of us talks. Sometimes, someone will tap me on the shoulder, making the first move and I become flustered in how unprepared I am for this moment that I slowly back away. Yes, I back away from people who talk to me ESPECIALLY if I don’t know them. I can’t handle the pressure and your words are bouncing off my face because my shields are up.

Then there are those moments when I’m able to have a conversation, the mentor or student being just the right amount of extrovert to satisfy my introverted needs. It helps if they end each SHORT comment or observation with a question and they don’t run away with the conversation.

Because I will zone out and then they get frustrated and interrupt my daydream and all I can say is “um.”

Then we stare at one another, wondering where to go from here.

It’s a slow process but “um” is slowly disappearing from the conversations I am able to actively participate in. The squeal…not so much.

This post is in response to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

  

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