Doing Readings

September 26th, 2009

I used to get really nervous during the hours before I had to do a reading, and when I actually got up there behind the lectern (if there was a lectern, and I always hoped there’d be something to hide behind), I would get even more nervous. I would shake and sweat, my voice would break, my hand would quiver as I tried to turn a page of my way too long script. “Bear with me,” I would sometimes say, as I watched myself watching myself, the pitiful spectacle of a man trying to turn a page with palsied fingers. I always wrote out an introduction to whatever I was going to read; the last thing I wanted to do was to try to talk off the top of my head. There was no top of my head to talk off the top of, anyway.

I dreaded the Q. & A. that followed the reading from the book. I would sometimes draw a blank when I got the simplest of all standard book reading questions: Who are your favorite writers? I would stutter and stumble when somebody asked me (another inevitable question) how much of my book was autobiographical. I had perfectly good answers to this question and others–I’d written answers down, after all, knew the questions were coming–but hardly anything that could be parsed and even less that was intelligent came out of my mouth.

“Fear of performance,” a friend, meaning to be helpful, said.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m afraid of appearing to be a fraud. Or the opposite of a self-possessed writer who knows his brief.”

My friend gave me a little bottle of something homeopathic and I drank it before a reading and it didn’t keep me from shaking and it didn’t help me remember the answers I’d written down to those questions. Somebody else suggested I smoke some weed prior to a reading, but I’d pretty much given weed up by then, and when I had smoked it, back in my salad days, it had only intensified my self-consciousness.

When I asked my friend Tom Boyle how he, the Dickens of our generation, stood up there and dazzled audiences, he said something self-deprecating. He also said, trying to be encouraging, “You’re a writer, not a carny barker.”

So I went home and wrote.

And I got a little better at readings. But not a whole lot better. When somebody would ask me when, during the day, I did my writing, I would say, authoritatively, “In the morning.” That should have been a sufficient answer, but then I would feel the need, in the wake of the silence that followed my answer, to fill the vacuum with something like, “You know, my brain goes dead around noon–I mean, the creative side of my brain, such as it is, checks out. And when I say that I do my writing in the morning, what I actually mean is that I sometimes do it in between making pots of coffee or doing a load of laundry or going outside to pull weeds. Pulling weeds is good therapy, as well as an avoidance technique. There’s a great Theodore Roethke poem about pulling weeds. The last lines go something like ‘Me down in that fetor of weeds,/ Crawling on all fours,/ Alive, in a slippery grave.’” [I'm sure I would have misquoted these lines; I have set them down here as Roethke wrote them.] “So, yeah, I guess I kind of do my writing in the morning, assuming I’ve had enough coffee and don’t have a migraine and don’t have too many weeds to pull. Or, if it’s winter, too much snow to shovel. I am probably the only person in Wisconsin who doesn’t own a snowblower.”

Three or four times when I went to do a reading at a bookstore–or, in one case at a Senior Citizen Center–it soon became obvious that those five or six rows of empty chairs lined up before the lectern were going to remain empty. Well, I thought, at least I won’t be falling on my face, at least I won’t be pitting out my new button-down shirt. Though the prideful writer in me was a little hurt that nobody had come to see me fall on my face or soil my shirt. (The rational human being in me realized that there were all sorts of reasons that nobody had come to my reading, some of which–the weather, for instance–had nothing to do with me.)

Of course, there were people at the bookstores who were paid to be there for these readings, and in order that they not feel too bad about the situation (presuming that they did), I would propose (ten or fifteen or twenty minutes after the Events person had said, “Let’s wait a few minutes more, in case people are running late”) that we go have a drink. My treat. At a strip mall bookstore in Memphis, Tennessee, after an audience failed to materialize, I said to the two people in charge of the reading, “Maybe I could read to you?” And so the three of us huddled together around a table not far from the cash register, and I read a story from THE GREEN SUIT, the shortest one in the book. For a moment, this almost felt like Story Time at the library, with me, the gray-haired guy in the chinos and button-down shirt, reading to people young enough to be my children. The two booksellers listened politely–I won’t say raptly–even though I read quickly, as if I couldn’t wait to go find a dive to hide in.

In Milwaukee, the young bookseller assigned to my reading took me up on my drink offer. Among the things I learned about him was that he was, to use his term, an “apprentice writer” and that he would type, sentence by sentence, stories by writers he admired. He said that this exercise helped him see things about structure and technique that he might have otherwise missed if he’d simply re-read the story. I wondered if when he typed (to take an example that I don’t recall he used), “Just when I needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children,” he would have felt the excitement of what Grace Paley must have felt when she typed (or hand-wrote) that opening line of her story “Faith in a Tree.”

I had often tried to imagine what it would be like to be inside the skin of a writer working at the height of her powers, even if for only a moment or two. Thinking about this made me want to slug down my beer and go home and sit at my desk and channel Grace Paley or Eudora Welty or Anton Chekhov or Ed McClanahan (a Kentucky writer, one of the late Ken Kesey’s literary sidekicks, whom I’d recently discovered and whom I’d wished I could be as funny as). What a pleasure it would be to be someone else.

By the time my third book came out, six years after my second one, I had lost a little more of my fear of doing readings. Possibly this was due to my years in psychotherapy, and possibly it was also due in part to my sense that I was rapidly growing old and that I might as well speak my mind before I began to unravel in some of the more unsightly ways. The thought of coming off as ignorant and dull didn’t inhibit me as much as it had in the past. But before I tell you how I didn’t tremble at all at a reading I did this spring in Louisville, Kentucky–to which my mother and my son and some of my mother’s friends and my eleventh-grade English teacher and the guy who gave me golf lessons when I was nine and some of my oldest friends came–and that I actually enjoyed doing the reading, I should mention two readings from 2003 that cause me to blush when I recollect them.

At the first, a book festival in Madison, I read some pages from a work in progress rather than from the recently published JUDGE. The pages from the work in progress were crudely (not to say badly) written, but I read from them because I had fallen in love and was not in possession of my critical (or self-critical) faculties. I don’t recall that I trembled much while reading this stuff (which it took me six years to improve), but I know I felt foolish afterward, after I’d blown the opportunity to read from something that had been published and even (mostly kindly) reviewed.

I was still in love a month or so later, when I did a reading at the Kentucky Book Fair, in Frankfort. I read with a novelist and short story writer named Joe Ashby Porter. Mr. Porter–who grew up in southwestern Kentucky, whose father was a coal miner, who went to college at Harvard, who on the day of our reading was dressed in the sort of suit that someone who taught Shakespeare at Duke might wear, whose books were published by offbeat independent publishers such as New Directions and Turtle Point–went first.

I hadn’t read any of Joe Ashby Porter’s fiction, and I am sorry to say that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to what he read that afternoon in that windowless conference room in Frankfort. (I have since read several of his stories. They are sui generis, spookily beautiful and darkly comic. Try those in his 1983 collection, THE KENTUCKY STORIES.) I was nervous about what I was going to read, but I was more nervous about my girlfriend back in Wisconsin, nervous that she didn’t love me anymore or that she loved somebody else or that she didn’t know how much I loved her. I must have talked to her on my cell phone a half dozen times already that day. And then, of course, as Joe Ashby Porter was reading from his new book, my phone went off. As I searched for it–I found it, after several rings, in my satchel–and then struggled to turn the fucking thing off, I felt Mr. Porter giving me the kind of look that I could imagine him giving a Duke undergraduate who had been tin-eared enough to refer to Othello as “that Moor dude.” Had he given me an even more piercing look, he would’ve been well within his rights.

I still have the same cell phone. It looks like something that was made behind the Iron Curtain decades ago. Like a prototype, perhaps. It doesn’t take pictures or convey email or do any other up-to-date thing. My two-year-old daughter has chewed off most of the rubber On/Off button, so that the only way to switch it on or off now is to take a sharp object, such as a pen or a bobby pin, and press down on what remains of the button.

I don’t take my cell phone to readings anymore. Nor do I read from unpublished work.

I still get nervous beforehand (as, I imagine, do most writers who aren’t natural-born performers, people who, like me, had thought that writing was an escape from having to perform in the so-called real world) and I still sweat through my shirt during the reading and Q. & A., but I don’t usually tremble much. There are scarier things.

- Dwight Allen

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