I gave the world’s worst reading from The Sparrow Sisters the other night. And I gave that reading at my local independent bookstore, the shop I frequent, the place I wander unmolested, filling my arms with books I don’t need but simply must have. This store is important to me. The reading, it was important to me, too. I am the first person to admit that I don’t properly prepare for readings mostly because I still can’t take myself seriously enough to practice. It just makes me feel as if I’m wearing my mother’s high heels and someone is about to catch me playing dress up. I’ve done pretty well at these occasions up till now, I think. But this last one? Absolute rubbish. Here’s the thing, I have read this passage at every event and am generally please with the choice. That night, as I went along, it seemed too long and I became overly aware of every shift and shuffle in the gathering. So, I started skipping a paragraph here, a sentence there. I could hear myself reading faster and faster, I could hear my voice tremble, and I–painfully–heard myself as the audience must have, stumbling around in a complete bog of discombobulation.
I was as surprised as anyone that my performance was so thoroughly amateur. Just before it began I had been talking to the other two authors joining me at the event. Lynne Griffin is one of my teachers at the writing center where I have studied. Lenore Myka is the author of a short story collection so compelling and beautifully written that I recently shoved it into the hands of a friend shrieking “READ IT NOW!” Anyway, I was sharing an amusing anecdote about hearing Anne Beattie and Raymond Carver read way back in the eighties. My mother and I were incandescent with anticipation and Ms. Beattie did not disappoint. She read in a voice that totally matched the one in our heads when we read her stories at home. Mr. Carver, on the other hand, opened his mouth and out came a slightly strangled Cary Grant impersonation. We started giggling and had to hide our faces for the rest of the evening.
Oh, the hubris!
There I was, my voice thinning, fading, the words tumbling out in no particular order. Even as I read, or more precisely mumbled, I began to plan how I would snatch success from the jaws of failure by being particularly appealing during the Q&A part of the program. This I did. I mean, there was laughter and nodding heads and I made my points pretty clear so I managed to climb out of my slough of despond before people came up to have a book signed. I even acknowledged that it hadn’t been my finest hour in the performing department. And then there was this guy. He asked if he could have a word after I signed. A perfectly respectable fellow so, sure. I stepped aside and shook his hand. His name receded into nothingness as soon as he said it, of course. At any rate he was intent on telling me something.
“You are a terrible reader,” he said.
I said, “I know, that was really sucky.”
“No, that was the worst reading, ever!”
“Gee,” I said.
“Seriously, you need to do something about that because as soon as you started talking and answering questions you were terrific but I totally dismissed you when you were reading.”
“Well, thanks?” I said.
“I understand that you are new to the game and maybe even a bit disbelieving that you’re even in the game,” he said.
“That’s true,” I said. “I really find it hard to accept that I’ve been published.”
“Well, get over it!” he said. “You owe it to your readers and potential readers to pay attention to this part of your job, too. It’s disrespectful, really.”
He was right. My lack of preparation made for a lack of confidence, which made for a lack of, well, value, in fact. (Yes, I see all those commas.) I did not give good value because, in what is a most selfish way, I continue to behave as if I am a dabbler, a dilettante, a hobbyist, an amateur, indeed. Here’s the lesson. I am not an amateur. I did not write a first novel in my ‘mature’ era because I had a few free years on my hands. I didn’t screw up the courage to take a writing class and share my work for the very first time ever because, what the hell and why not. I didn’t approach an agent because I thought she had nothing better to do with her time than read a piece of poor writing, or have that agent ask editors to read because they, too were just sitting around staring into space. No, I did this thing, this amazing, hard, terrifying thing because I actually know what I am doing. And as it turns out, I’m good at it.
Let this be an apology to the very kind group that came to hear me read from The Sparrow Sisters, to the bookstore that hosted me, and to the gentleman who put his finger on exactly what went so wrong at that reading. I am sorry that I didn’t give the same measure of worth to this part of my new job (in a room full of dedicated readers) that I give to my work when I’m in a room alone with the words. I promise I won’t do it again.