The other day I wrote a small screed on Twitter about the difficulties of choosing a passage from a novel to read at an event. It’s hard because novels are big, complicated things which can’t really be represented by a ten-minute reading (and heaven help you if you go on for much longer than that.) If one accepts the somewhat gloomy premise that the endeavor is doomed from the outset, what’s the best bet? My approach has always been to keep things simple, to wit:
- Choose something near the start of the book, so you don’t have to explain what’s already happened;
- Keep it short, for God’s sake; and
- If it can be funny, that usually helps.
These rules I have held to be self-evident. At least, until last Saturday.
I was invited to give a talk/reading at our local Barnes & Noble, which was celebrating its 15th anniversary last weekend. (I know that writers are not supposed to be especially keen on the large retail behemoths, but most local authors – and we have a ton in Columbia, MO – love this store, because we love Lisa Loporto, the Community Relations Manager there. Lisa works tirelessly in the community to promote books and reading and local authors, and her efforts makes the Columbia store feel more like an indie bookstore than part of a chain. In fact all the staff are fantastic.) I was one of a crowd of writers who gave talks over the course of the weekend, and I used the opportunity to do a reading from my new book.
I’ve given one other reading from SETTING FREE THE KITES. It was also at Barnes & Noble, during a fundraiser for the Unbound Book Festival earlier this year. (Somewhat inauspiciously, about 15 seconds after I had begun to read, a 24-piece tuba band began performing in the food court right outside the store, and I really had to yell to make myself heard over the clanging, brassy tones of The Yellow Rose of Texas, or whatever the hell they were playing.) The best way of working out which excerpts work and which don’t is to try out a variety stuff, of course, and so I decided to do something different this time. I thought hard about what to read, and finally opted for a piece that met rules 1 and 2, but fell totally foul of rule 3.
I mean, totally.
Of all the things I could have chosen, I opted to read an excerpt about Muscular Dystrophy.
I’ve been interested in MD ever since I read a stunning piece by Penny Wolfson in one of the annual the Best American Essays collections – I think it was back in 2003, or thereabouts. It’s a cruel, devastating disease. Wolfson’s brilliant essay would not leave me; it lingered, like the best work does, until I realized that I would have to write about MD myself. One of the characters in SETTING FREE THE KITES suffers from the illness, and the piece that I read is desperately sad. And here’s the thing. I had read those words hundreds of times over the course of countless rewrites and edits. Imagine, then, my astonishment (and mortification) when I discovered my throat closing up in grief when I tried to read the piece in public. It was incredibly difficult to do. At one point I actually had to stop as I could not speak the words on the page in front of me.
I got through it in the end, and people were very kind. I asked the audience if they would have preferred something funnier, and was told unequivocally no. They loved it. But the experience left me wondering about what had happened. Why had I been so affected by this story that I already knew so well?
Conflicting thoughts and emotions come to bear here. Sometimes I tell myself that my reaction just meant that I wrote something genuine, from the heart. (And it’s true that when you spend years living with your fictional characters, you end up caring about them passionately, so perhaps it’s not surprising that you get upset when bad stuff happens to them – even if that bad stuff is all your fault.) But, if I’m being honest, there is a less charitable part of me that is vaguely put out by all this. I can’t help worrying that it’s a bit self-indulgent, a little too self-regarding, to be that deeply moved by something that I wrote myself.
But mostly I’m OK with it. After all, when people tell me that they cried while they read A GOOD AMERICAN, I always perform a small invisible fist-pump of authorial satisfaction. We write in the hope that our stories will move people and elicit emotions; so perhaps it would be strange if they didn’t move us, too.
I haven’t decided what approach to take next time. If I can be confident that I can get through the sad stuff without embarrassing myself, I’m tempted to try it again. But I’m interested to know what others think. When you attend a reading, do you prefer to hear something funny, or something moving?