Thursday, July 17, 2008

Can't Hear You!

First-time authors are like the unpopular kids in high school, eager to accept any invitation that comes their way. Sometimes, the event turns out spectacular, like my May 2006 book launch of The Division Street Princess at Women and Children First bookstore.

On that occasion, just as I had dreamed, my family joined me on stage to take turns reading excerpts from my memoir. The 100 or so people who attended – old friends, and new ones drawn from long-ago Division Street, Humboldt Park, and other old neighborhoods -- stuffed the store from front to back.

There were other stellar readings where I shared the stage with more prominent authors: Jill Soloway (Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants) and Hillary Carlip (Queen of the Oddballs) at Women and Children First (pictured), Amy Guth (Three Fallen Women) and Rick Karlin (Show Biz Kids) at the Book Cellar, Charles Blackstone (The Week You Weren't Here) and Rick Karlin (Show Biz Kids) at the Fixx Bar, and Billy Lombardo (The Logic of a Rose) and Frank Joseph (To Love Mercy) at Newberry Library.

But other occasions, (although I remain grateful for the invitations) turned out, well, not so great. Topping my list is the event held at a Polish banquet hall where my hosts had to share the dining room with another party. At that reading, I stood on a box to reach the microphone, used one hand to hold my open book, and tried to ignore the piercing chatter on the other side of a three-paneled screen. As I raised my voice to send the words to my audience -- who were returning to their seats after circling the buffet table -- the group behind the screen increased their decibels, too, as if outbidding me for a signed first edition.

I soldiered on for a few pages, while my hosts sought remedy from the catering manager, who raised her shoulders and opened her hands in a “What can I do? gesture. Once seated with their full lunch plates, my audience offered me their own suggestions: “Louder!” they yelled. “Can’t hear you!” they confirmed.

Sensing defeat, I closed my book – its pages carefully marked by Post-it flags and highlighter -- took a seat, and dug into the kielbasa plate someone had thoughtfully fetched for me.

There were other inappropriate sites and distracted audiences, like the field house gymnasium and career day at a Chicago high school. But rather than further spotlighting my follies, I’ve asked Charles Blackstone to share his own best and worst book appearances.

Charles Blackstone

When I began a book tour, in Chicago, for "The Week You Weren’t Here," the first reading was jammed with attentive fans (okay, friends and friends of friends), and I kept things moving and had enough vodka before (and during) to keep jittery panic from causing me to read too quickly, or self-edit, or stumble too much because I was nervously self-editing.

Other cities I visited would have fewer “fans” in the seats, or maybe the fans were there for the opening reader, who was often known in the town. There was no way to control this; I could only make sure my passage Post-it flags were secure, and try to give the best performance up there that I could. The highs and lows were numerous, but being open to an outcome falling into either category always kept things interesting:

My favorite reading was in a record shop in Cedar City, Utah, where they put my name on a giant marquee outside, and the story I read, after my obligatory bit about the novel, about a young woman whose ex-boyfriend just wouldn’t let her go, despite having abandoned her for a couple of years, made some girls in the audience cry.

The power in that room made up for previous years of latte ordering and brewing and toddler cawing and angry confrontation by a fan (after a reading in a Lafayette, Colorado coffee house, a guy chased me out to excoriate me: I’d gone on for too long and abbreviated the open mic that was to follow me; he didn’t seem to agree that my being invited as featured reader should somehow afford me a little temporal leeway).

I still accept every reading invitation, no matter near or far, no matter if I think the audience promised will get me or what I write or if they won’t (if anything, I usually have the crowd wrong; the least likely in my mind tend to be the most appreciative, the most giving, once I’m there).

To my mind, after all of these experiences, it’s almost as important as a writer (def.: one isn’t satisfied to simply write away in a journal in a vacuum) to perform, as it is to generate content. And performing isn’t just mumbling your way through a draft you find momentarily acceptable on the page. If you want to be a writer, or if you are an evolving writer, you need to consider this an ineluctable component of the game (to say nothing of performing on the radio, which I also do), and write and revise accordingly.

I like readings and book tours because I want to engage with readers, and in order not to lose them at hello, I need to never stop honing my performance skills, with any luck, without compromising the writing itself. I must always try to determine what an audience wants and needs and how I can make my prose-on-the-page live up to those expectations, if not fully, at least half way.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Writing Away From Home

I had laptop envy. It percolated whenever I entered a Starbucks and saw customers at an eensy table, paper cup in midair, a laptop dimming as its owner leaned back in her chair contemplating a next word.

In libraries, when I perused stacks to learn if my memoir was still shelved, and I spotted a laptop owner, eyes right, fingers poised, about to borrow from the open book at her side, I'd grow jealous.

In airport security lines, envy took off once again as I witnessed passengers removing laptops from bags, placing them on conveyor belts, then rushing to meet them on the other side of the security trellis, like lovers reunited after an ocean’s distance.

I already possessed a 17-inch iMac, but now coveted something portable, a companion to carry to coffee shops, libraries, and on my travels. So I ordered myself up a PowerBook G4 and while awaiting its arrival, purchased a variety of bags to carry the laptop and its accessories.

How was it I never noticed the loud music playing in Starbucks? What’s with all that chatter among customers? Multiple cups of coffee require frequent bathroom breaks and bring a dilemma: Leave my little Mac unattended? Ask the stranger at the other table to act as watchdog? Schlep the laptop with me to the Ladies Room?

Libraries are quiet, but coffee is verboten. Even without my caffeine, bathroom visits and stack searches pose the same security problem as noted above.

As for in-flight? One trip with my PowerBook and its plug-ins weighted me down so much, I gratefully flung it on the conveyor belt and regretted it its bulky return on the other end of the guard gate.

So, I permanently installed my laptop on a small table in my bedroom and visit her every day for writing sessions. My coffee cup is at my right, bathrooms are several feet away, and except for my dog's heavy breathing, the room is completely still.

But other scribes, with kinder in the house, or addictions to daytime soaps, or a desire for a community of writers, would do well to investigate Chicago's Uptown Writer's Space. I've asked its owners, Julie Saltzman and Susan McLaughlin Karp to describe their establishment and their own journeys with their writing, and their laptops.

Julie Saltzman (left)
It doesn’t get much better for a laptop then at the Uptown Writer’s Space. First, you get to meet all kinds of other laptops: Dells (poets and novelists), Macs (professors and grad students), IBM’s (tech writers) and even the occasional second-hand Gateway (grad students). Plus, you get access to our secure wi-fi network and free printing. No unsafe trips down the information highway from 4802 N. Broadway, Chicago.

You rest comfortably on the smooth, wooden grain of a sturdy wooden cubicle hand constructed by Chicago Furniture Designer John Lindsay. Or you can sink with your owner into the pillows of the comfy Shabby Chic sofa. Your electronic eyes will bask in the natural sunlight and enjoy the view of some iconic Chicago landmarks including the Broadway Bank Building, The Green Mill, and The Aragon Ballroom.

Your caffeinated, well-fed owner (Uptown Writer’s Space provides coffee, tea, and snacks) treats you with loving-kindness because you allow her or him to escape the clutter of home.
And you fit so smartly and look so swell in that cute messenger bag; unless of course you’re my laptop. You started out all stainless and shiny, but after five long years in the hands of a reckless blonde, your Apple sleekness has been marred with duck tape and dents. Plus, you won’t work unless I prop my “Jesus is my coach” figurine -- a ceramic replica of the savior with two cherubic hockey players, an ironic gift from fellow Jew, Josh Karp -- on top of the faulty power cord socket. (Totems, and other lucky charms, are welcome at Uptown Writer's Space.)

Susan McLaughlin Karp (right)
In 2005, I had a six-month-old baby and soon found working at home with three dogs, three small children, my husband, and a baby sitter fairly challenging. That's when my like-minded friend Julie and I decided to open a writers' space, which would be a great place for us, and others, to write outside our homes.

We rented a suite of offices in Uptown with a beautiful view, we bought handmade desks, and painted the walls and basically tricked everything out to our writerly specifications and opened the space to other writers to enjoy for a small monthly fee.

The first year was amazing, we had about three customers, and I would go every day and sit in this quiet sanctuary and drink jasmine tea and write in my room of my own. It was pure heaven for me, though it gave Julie the willies, because she likes to be busy.

Now we have about 30 writers who regularly use the space, as well as workshops and classes, a reading series, and Thursday movie nights. Happily the business is sustaining itself, if not making Julie and I rich. When I am there, the place is quietly bustling with other writer’s productivity, and the conference room finds two or three folks catching up with each other and having a chat.

This summer of 2008, with a new six-month-old baby, three dogs, four small children, and the babysitter and the husband, I write when I can, where I can. But whenever I need a change of scenery, or a serene spot to compose, I know exactly where to take my laptop. Uptown, of course.