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.


Anonymous said...

Great one, Elaine! I can relate.


Anonymous said...

I don't know which I love more -- that you included a pic of me on your blog, or that you included a pic of kielbasa!!



Kris Cahill said...

Wonderful story. I love Women and Children First and wish I could have been there. Congratulations on the success, both of that day and of the many to come. I also love your account of the event at the Polish banquet hall, hilarious!

Thanks also for introducing me to Charles Blackstone. I liked reading his account of book readings.

You both remind me of the many musicians I know, including my husband, who has played to tiny unappreciative audiences as well as to the opposite. And of the actors and artists who do the same, including myself. Great stories come out of those not-so-great events though, don't they?