While in grad school, some seventeen years ago, I taught my first class and gave my first public reading. Both were nerve-wracking—I practiced for days, reading aloud from pages marked up with little arrows and accent marks. You know, slow down, look up, even take a sip. I’ve always been one for preparation.
When the time came, though, once I’d quelled the butterflies and got through it live, I discovered my inner exhibitionist. After years of being the shy girl, the quiet bookworm, guess what? I loved to talk to a room of people, loved to hear myself read my own words aloud. Over the years, I’ve stopped practicing as neurotically as I once did, though I still make tick marks in the margins of what I read.
I’ve never, however, heard someone read my work aloud.
Until tonight. Tonight, in Sacramento, at Stories on Stage, as part of a series in which professional actors read stories by (mostly) local writers, Pam Metzger will read my story “The Art of Fiction.” I’m honored to have my work chosen, and I’m eager to meet Pam and the other featured writer, Julia Halprin Jackson, and hear her story read by Benjamin Ismail. I’ve posted updates and invitations to my Facebook page, emailed writer listservs, and tweeted the event. I’ve bagged copies of my books and decided what to wear, jotted down a few words to introduce the story (an abbreviated version of what I blogged a few weeks ago.
Drive up there, smile, listen. Easy enough. It’s thrilling—and a bit nerve-wracking—to anticipate hearing someone else read my words. Will she get it? Will she know where to drop her voice, where to speak up? C’mon, Lindsey, I tell myself; she’s an actor. She was a radio announcer for twenty years. She knows what to do with words.
We know, when we publish a piece of writing, that it’s going out into the world. We know that others will read it. Some will like it, some will love it, some will hate it, some will be bored by it. I’ve had the experience, during a reading, of watching people walk out mid-story and of seeing others look almost alarmingly engaged. Our words take on a life of their own. They no longer belong only to us. And that’s a good thing.
Last night, walking home from class with my husband, I mentioned that the event showed a low number of Whose Coming names on the Facebook invite. “What if only two people show up?”
“You have to be zen about it,” he said. He is not someone who often speaks in new-age platitudes, and I bristled slightly. Where was the coddling?
“I’m just telling you I’m nervous,” I said.
Years ago, I attended a reading by a published, not-very-famous-but-respected novelist, the kind of writer referred to as “a writer’s writer.” The event was scheduled for 7 p.m.; by 6:55, only a handful of people had showed up, including the store rep and a local publicist. The novelist cast baleful looks at the store rep, who tried to maintain composure and a “let’s make lemonade out of lemons” attitude. The novelist wouldn’t have it, canceled the reading. I bought her book anyway (which wasn’t very good), and felt embarrassed on her behalf—but not just for the poor showing. Whether two people or two hundred show up, they’ve made an effort to be there and they deserve to be treated accordingly. As Alan Jones, former dean at Grace Cathedral, used to preach, Embrace a theology of abundance; reject the theology of scarcity. And he wasn’t talked about number of seats taken.
So I’ll be zen about it. After all, it’s not my event. My story will be read, yes—but so will Julia’s. And two actors will be performing. However few, or many, people show up, we’ll make a community. A community that values words and storytelling and bringing characters to life. It’d be nice to sell a book or two, but that’s not why I’m going.
As a reader or a listener, what public readings have you most enjoyed? Dreaded? Found excruciating? Walked home from on cloud nine?
*with thanks given where thanks are due
I can’t believe that author cancelled the event, right there, on the spot! It’s like looking at some of your readers in the face and saying “you’re not good enough.” What a terrible terrible thing for an author to do. That was an excellent opportunity to build a relationship with a small handful of readers. By making it personal, she might have developed some die-hard fans who would always remember the event fondly and make sure to read her new material. Instead, she offended some, probably quiet bookish people. Shame on her!
I honestly can’t think of a book reading/author event I didn’t love. The two most recent that I’ve attended were for Meg Cabot and Jennifer Weiner. Not many people showed up for Meg Cabot’s event–maybe forty–which I thought was SHOCKING since she’s such a famous/popular author; but that made it all the more special. I felt so lucky to get to sit in the front row, watch her powerpoint up close, and talk to her personally for a few minutes more than I would under normal, crowded circumstances. I don’t actually like Jennifer Weiner books that much–it’s a personally genre thing, I think she’s a good writer–and tagged along to the even with friends. But she was so funny and so personal that I’ve picked up a couple of her books this year, just because I like her, as a person, so much. Also, her blog is hilarious and I’m an avid reader of that now too.
I guess for me the best readings are readings that start out with the author just being themselves, telling their story about how they became an author or how this particular book sprouted in their head. It gives readers a chance to meet the person who writes the books and become a fan of the author, rather than just the individual books themselves.
Yes, I’ve thought back on that episode and have decided that the writer probably regretted cancelling too. I think she’d had a lousy, difficult day, and the low attendance pushed her over the edge. Still, it’s not a move to emulate… I’ve often been struck by how much I love someone’s writing only to find them so different in person from how I imagined. Joan Didion–even before husband and daughter died–was shy and frail and stammering. Every other word was “um.” And, tough-guy Richard Price, talking about his characters, reveals a big softie.