It’s Storyweek at Columbia, a weeklong festival that celebrates writing and the literary life in various venues across the city. There are readings by authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Aleksandar Hemon, Gerard Woodward, and Jennifer Egan, panel discussions, and parties. It’s basically a reminder and a celebration of the fact that no matter how many other media crowd their way in, and no matter how many other distractions that are introduced to us, the humble old book, still the greatest medium of communication, will never die.
Last night was a grad student reading at Sheffield’s, a bar in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood (cue my dad: that is not the real name for that neighborhood! It’s just what the yuppies call it!). I got to see my old cohort friends that I rarely get to hang out with anymore because we’re all at different points in the program, and my new friends who are just beginning their MFA. The bar was jam-packed, there was free guacamole, and everyone got the chance to read two pages.
Doing a reading is always sort of an out-of-body experience. Unless you’re truly bombing, you have no idea whether you’re holding your audience’s attention. Most people don’t become writers because they love the limelight, and this fact was made even more difficult by the fact that the mike was broken and no one could fix it (I guess writers are also not known for the technical skills either). The result was that I found myself trying to get through a fairly emotional piece of creative nonfiction to a crowded room at an artificial shout.
Because it was nerve-wracking, and because I’ve tried to give up drinking for Lent and was sober, I used one of my tried and tested techniques for getting through a reading. Do you remember when you were little and you were doing some school pageant, dressed up as a star or a reindeer or Peter Pan, and you had to look out into the audience to Mom and Dad for comfort before you could take a deep breath and begin your lines? That’s sort of what I’m talking about. A few of my favorite professors happened to be standing at the front of the bar near the podium, and I just concentrated my attention on them as I read, pretending like they were the only people there. Eventually, their presence calmed me (they have to be nice to me, right? They’re my teachers!). I settled into my voice and became less intimidated, and was able to finish reading the two pages without keeling over.
Public readings do get easier, but I don’t know if I will ever be entirely comfortable with doing them. We’re not actors or singers. But we are artists, and art is meant to be shared, with or without a microphone.