Tonight I’m booked to do a reading here in town, and for once the prospect doesn’t terrify me. See, it’s a monthly open-mic set-up called The Bardroom, and that means that I’m not going to be the center of attention. Although they’ve mentioned me on the bill that’s been emailed around, they’ve also mentioned some other locals, and have invited any and all to just get out of their seats, climb onstage, and do their bit.

But the real question is: Why am I terrified of readings? In high school I did the drama bit, doing Shakespeare and Thornton Wilder, but those involved mouthing someone else’s words. And no, I was never particularly good at that either.

It helps to be published, of course. But I remember my first terrified reading back in grad school, where I read a couple poems I’d published in the Emerson literary magazine. My face was beet red as I sweated through the few lines of those short pieces, reading (I was later told) at manic speed, so that unless you had the poems in front of you, you’d have no idea what I’d said.

Years passed, and I foolishly didn’t read again until my first book was published. And that was a poorly arranged thing, set up by friends, in my wonderful local Budapest watering hole. We took over a corner and I read some passage, frightened out of my mind, even though all 9 spectators (with the exception of two girls who’d come because of the notice in the paper) were good friends. It ended up being a bit silly, because the rest of the bar was filled with drinkers making lots of noise, and my listeners could hardly hear a thing. The drinks did help me, but only a little.

Cut to reading #3. Again set up by friends, this time in a Budapest bookstore. It was quiet, and again it was mostly my friends there. So I relaxed some, and did all right. It wasn’t until 2004’s reading #4, at Partners & Crime in NYC, that the fear returned. The staff was great, as were my publishers who came along, and the—I think—one person who’d wandered in and wasn’t contractually obliged to listen. But I was still nervous as hell, and then embarrassed when I asked one of the staffers how to improve my future readings: “Shorter. You went on kind of a long time.”For a couple years I was Gail Mazur’s assistant at the Cambridge, MA, Blacksmith House Poetry Series, a brilliant creation that brought major voices of poetry into a small, intimate room where you could listen up close. The poets were wonderful, reading with sophistication and confidence I could only dream of. But at the same time, I realized that I much preferred the poems on the page. With poetry, if I like a line, I think about it, turn it over in my head, and by the time I’ve returned the poet is five lines on, and I’ve missed the thread.

So I can’t say I’ve ever been really behind the idea of standing in front of a crowd, reading my words to people. Writing is all about sitting in a room with yourself. Literature, for me, has never been a spectator sport.

Like I said, tonight’s not a problem. It’s not about me, and if I read poorly, the memory will be washed away by the far more talented performers slated to read.

But I wonder: Do other writers out there have this crushing fear of reading their stuff in public? Do you read shyly or with confidence? And for those who’ve been in the game much longer than myself: Does the fear ever go away?