Taking Leaps with Old Friends and New Strangers
I did something on Tuesday that I hadn’t done since college. (Hmmm. Maybe I should pause for a beat and draw out the intrigue?) I read a piece of writing out loud to a group of strangers. The setting was vastly different—a bar called Hungry Brain in Chicago (a.k.a. Chiberia) instead of a small classroom in the soggy town of Olympia—but the gut feeling was generally the same. You know, that mild terror that comes from stripping down to your innermost thoughts and asking a bunch of people to scrutinize and judge.
After John, the organizer of Two Cookie Minimum, invited me to read, I had over a month to fire up the worry machine and imagine the worst. Microphones issuing ear-splitting feedback as I introduced myself. Tripping and falling on my way to the stage. Boring everyone. Watching a previously hidden box of rotten tomatoes emerge midway through my piece as audience members wind up for pitch after pitch.
Somehow I managed to shove the fretting down enough to pick my piece and start practicing. It wasn’t a tough choice. I’ll be published in the Running, Eating, Thinking anthology from Lantern Books in the spring, and I figured if those words from me happened to be good enough for a book, then they would probably hold up at a public reading.
But you can’t just take a chapter from a book, stand in front of people, and recite the words verbatim. Live lit is an art—too little emotion and you’re setting your listeners up for 10 minutes of tedium; too much and they’ll file you under pretentious boob. In his talk at the Chicago Writers Conference in September, Ian Belknap, local authority on live lit, emphasized that your great words on the page do not necessarily translate immediately to great words when you read them out loud. And each second you have the audience’s attention can feel like a minute, for you, sure, but also for the people watching and listening. You have to grab and hold their gaze, their ears, with each syllable.
No pressure, right? I think I did OK. My main worries, besides the possibility of rotten tomatoes, were that I would read too quickly and that no one would care about my particular take on being a vegan runner. I had some great support in my corner of the audience, including my number 1 fan and life partner in crime, who did her best when I oozed worry and panic in the excruciating 30 minutes before I got on stage, and a dear friend from my college days, who is in town with her acrobatics company—a show on my agenda tonight. I think it’s safe to say we’re all taking leaps this winter.by