10 (Second Take) On the Couch: On a ready or hesitant delivery

So much of Montaigne‘s essays are akin to psychoanalysis, with the writer free associating and the reader picking out parts that apply to his or her own life. This essay, which is ostensibly about public speaking, seems to me to be more accurately described as an account of self reflection.

Montaigne gives away the trick in the final paragraph by shifting the focus from styles of public speaking to writing these essays:

Where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgement. Suppose something subtle springs up as I write – I mean, of course, something which would be blunt in others but is acute in me. (Enough of these courtesies! When we say such things we all mean them to be taken in proportion to our abilities.) Later, I miss the point so completely that I do not know what I meant to say (some outsider has often rediscovered the meaning before I do). If every time that happened I were to start scraping out words with my eraser I would efface the whole of my Essays. Yet, subsequently, chance may make what I wrote clearer than the noon-day sun: it will be my former hesitations which then astonish me.

I draw this connection to psychotherapy only because I started a session with my therapist today with nearly the identical statement as Montaigne (and without being aware that I’d later revisit this topic.) I mentioned that going to a session every week always makes me anxious because I feel the need to have material ready on hand, to have topics ready for discussion.

This is probably because of my training as a public speaker and the fact that I drill into speakers heads their need to prepare, to never get on stage cold. This then cycles back to the start of Montaigne’s essay:

We can see that in the case of the gift of speaking well: some have such a prompt facility and (as we say) such ease in ‘getting it out’, that they are always ready anywhere: others, more hesitant, never speak without thinking and working it all out beforehand. Just as the rule given to ladies is to take up sports and exercises which show off their charms, so too, if I had to give similar advice where these two qualities are concerned, it seems to me that nowadays, when eloquence is mainly professed by preachers and barristers, the hesitant man had better be a preacher and the other man a barrister.

Perhaps I should have taken up Montaigne’s advice and pursued one of those careers — I might not need therapy in that case.  Nonetheless, I’m a good extemporaneous speaker and would much rather speak that way than from a prepared text.  But good extemporaneous speaking requires just as much preparation as scripted remarks.  In my case, I like to have the script walking around in my head for a day or so before I get on stage.  I need to let the thoughts stew and liquify.

The good thing about having readers, or a competent therapist, is for the unexpected connections that Montaigne mentions. I will probably overprepare for every moment where I know that I will speak or perform purely out of habit. Oddly enough, I never prepare when writing.  I hate outlines and try to put as little analysis into the work as possible.

That’s probably why writing is one of the few activities that creates no anxiety for me.

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