Monday, November 30, 2009

What Do You Expect?

So here's my question: When you go to a book reading, what do you expect? And when you're the one giving the reading, what do you expect of yourself?

I hosted an event on Sunday for Michele Murdock and had fun helping her prepare for her first-ever reading.

Here's what she expected of herself. She wanted to:

--make everybody feel at ease, right away, by using humor--as in, don't worry folks I'm not nervous. And this event will be lively and fun for everybody and I won't go on too long.

--read excerpts that showed her style in engaging scenes.

--give an understanding of why she wrote the book.

--discuss some of what she experienced (and endured) while writing the book.

--express her enthusiasm for the subject matter (This biography is about Dorothy Stang, an American nun who worked for social justice in indigent Brazil).

--tell what she planned to do to promote the book.

--reveal how writing the book changed her.

And she did it, well.

My husband likes readings where authors don't read from their books--they just talk about writing the book. When my memoir came out, all I wanted to do was read. “You mean I have to talk about it too?” I asked him, "between excerpts?"

“Yes,” he said, “you do. You can always memorize things to say.”

I gulped, my stomach clutching at the thought of being spontaneous or caught off guard. I was a writer not a public speaker and convinced I’d freeze, like a deer in headlights, or be like his grandmother, who "opened her mouth and her brains flew out." I had to get over myself.

Sometimes readings are primarily readings. I remember one given by Joan Didion at UNC-Chapel Hill a few years back. She had recently published, The Year of Magical Thinking, about her husband’s sudden death the year before. And her daughter had just died. Didion was doing a short teaching gig--probably set up before both deaths--that included a public reading.

She came onstage--there were hundreds in attendance--looking her usual frail, gaunt self but more so. I couldn't imagine how she got her teeth brushed not to mention how she found legs to walk across that stage and address hundreds of fans.

After the introduction, she offered a very few words of thanks and began to read. She finished the first excerpt, thumbed through the book, took a sip of water, and began to read again. No comments. She finished that section, then read another. And another. At one point her voice got wavy and she had to pause.

The place was tomb-still. Her reading voice was mesmerizing.

When she finished her final excerpt she said something like, "I suppose there are a few questions." People lined up in the aisles behind mics.

One of the first comments came from an older man: I came out tonight to hear you and all you did was read from your book? I can read the book at home. What was the point of my coming here?

In an even, yet chilly voice, Didion said, "I was hired to give a reading and that's what I've done. That's what a reading is. Reading."

Couldn't he see how fragile she was? How tough this subject-matter? That she was first and foremost a human being? I wanted to clatter out of my seat and kick the guy in the head. So did everybody else. When he headed back to his seat, the crowd erupted: "Boo."

Didion answered several questions. She showed mettle, just getting through it. What she gave was enough, plenty, more than enough.

Fast forward to Natalie Goldberg reading at The Regulator Bookshop a while back. She should have stuck to her text--and kept her mouth shut on other subjects.

She greeted the crowd by professing her broad-grinned amazement that there were “actually independent bookstores in the South and that people actually came out to readings down here. Wow.”

Hurry up, woman. Read!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Morning Snapshot

My husband usually gets out of bed before I do on Sunday mornings. I hear the slam of the screen door as he walks out to the driveway to fetch The New York Times. He shuffles around in the kitchen, and says, "Okay, okay," to our two cats, who are getting underfoot and meowing at him. I snuggle deeper into the mattress. He loads up the measuring cup with dry food and dumps it into their bowls.

I call from the bedroom: "Coffee! Coffee!"

"Okay, okay," he says. He makes two pots of expresso--mine with steamed milk, his black. I move onto the living room couch (under the blue duvet you see in the photo). He reads to me from the Times--essays, book reviews, sometimes news stories. We talk about what's happening in the world and about what he has just read: does the writing work?

He reheats my now-tepid coffee. I read some more of the paper to myself.

I stumble off the couch and into the kitchen to make him a cheese omelet and me some toast.

Some days we take a walk after breakfast before getting to work. Today I'm walking alone because he's tearing his office up looking for a lost gadget.

What do you do on Sunday mornings?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Breaking Up The Old Patterns

After a workshop the other day, a woman approached me. We had made a list of 5 things we're grateful for as part of the session's closing--I like this as a send-off.

The woman told me she keeps a gratitude journal by her bed. Every night before she goes to sleep, she records 5 things she's grateful for and writes five more on waking up in the morning. She says this activity has changed her life--made her so much happier and more aware.

Another woman came up and told me she has a 27-year-old son with aspergers disorder. He lives on his own finally but can't work and has time management issues. She said she gets so tired of hearing his same stories over and over again--it's a huge stressor for her. She had written about this in the workshop. But she wanted to tell me that she and her son have started exchanging emails, writing to each other about what brings them each joy. This has helped him break out of his ritualized stories that she has heard over and over again.