Sunday, July 1, 2018

Public Readings: An Introvert's Perspective

Quick story from the first day of my first fiction-writing class in college. As if I wasn't already a sorry bundle of self-doubting, identity crisis-worn nerves (e.g., What am I doing here? I haven't written fiction since I was ten", "I'm no good at this", "Am I insane?", etc.), the professor decided to preface the course material with some hardcore advice on the tasks that come with being a writer—aside from, of course, the writing part. It was all good and well-meaning—if tough-loving—and I'm sure he had no intention of instantly incinerating whatever confidence I still had at the moment. But as soon as he brought up self-promotion, I felt doomed:

"Remember," he said (rather cheerfully, I think). "Just because you're a writer doesn't mean you can get away with being a hermit all the time. If you're going to make it as a writer and sell your work, you have to promote yourself in public. Give readings. Go to writers' workshops. Network with other authors and publishers..."

In other words, public speaking. That rocked me to my introverted core. As the class continued, I immediately started pondering if it was too late to drop out and find a major that didn't require conversation skills.

Thankfully, I didn't drop out. And thankfully, as I've gained more confidence and friendships in the writing field, the idea of networking doesn't terrify me as much as it did in undergrad. But public speaking—specifically, readings—that's still complicated for me. I've only done a handful of them (and I'm sure the lack of practice doesn't help), and each time I dread it. It's true that, over the years, I've become better at conversing with strangers (working receptionist-esque jobs does wonders for that); even presentations in classroom settings are comfortable now, thanks to nine years of higher education. Yet the idea of a public reading or speech—of being in the spotlight—doesn't sit well with me. It goes against my introverted instincts of being the observer, the absorber, the quiet support in the background. Being the center of attention is not exactly my idea of fun.

At first glance, it seems counterintuitive that that kind of public interaction unsettles me, when other kinds don't. My day job, as I mentioned, requires me to talk to strangers—a lot—everyday, and while I'm not perfect at it, it doesn't phase me anymore. As a musician who's been singing in choruses since I was eleven, being on a literal stage doesn't bother me, either. But there are some subtle distinctions between these encounters and public speaking that feel significant for a natural introvert. In a customer-oriented job, I'm in a role where I'm not the initiator or focus of an interaction, but a point of reference and assistance—someone people come to with a question or need (plus, the encounter is usually one-on-one). As a chorus member on stage, I'm not isolated as the center of attention; I blend into a warm, protective wall of co-performers. A public reading is a whole different animal. In that setting, I am, for a brief time, the solitary center of everyone's attention. What's more, I'm putting my writing, my heart's work, on display, so the social focus and potential judgement feels far more personal. The sense of exchange is also different. In most cases, instead of presenting to a group of peers or a customer, I'd be performing for an audience of strangers. It's much easier to imagine a crowd of strangers as unforgiving than a cohort of colleagues.

Despite all of this, I do love readings—attending them, anyway. I also recognize their importance, necessity even, in the writing world. They put a face to a literary work, bringing in a human element, a personal element, that's sometimes missed on the written page (powerful as it is). That's not to say the writer's soul (to use a bold term) can't be found privately in the written format; if it couldn't, that person wouldn't be a writer. But I think witnessing an author share their own work aloud, in their own voice (writing is, after all, rooted in spoken language), renews the appreciation of that writing as something organic, something that stirs from within. In some ways, it's like the difference in listening to a recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and seeing a live orchestra perform it: both are beautiful, both can impact us deeply, but nothing reminds us of the miracle of music like a seeing a group of finite, flawed human beings bring it to life. I suspect that's why so much of the history of storytelling is rooted in oral tradition, and why audiobooks are gaining popularity in the 21st century. We like enactment; we like stories that are personally, viscerally shared. When I had the privilege of seeing Chika Unigwe read from On Black Sister Street, it pierced through the fact that her novel isn't just fiction, but the devastating reality of millions of trafficked women, and of women she met face-to-face. We still need the private, quiet, reflective sharing of solitary reading, of course—much more, I'd argue, especially in this loud and busy world. But, along with their marketable strategies of self-promotion, public readings are also good reminders of the communal life of stories.

Diane Ackerman reading at The Universe in Verse (Academy of American Poets)

Of course, my love of readings doesn't make it any easier to participate in one. I've been in two in the last few months: my MFA program's Thesis Reading, and a poetry open mic at my local library. The first I prepared for months, reciting in my living room, even taking voice lessons and some coaching in public speaking. I imagined, maybe, that some minimal training in voice projection would result in a magical, Hollywood-like breakthrough of empowered speaking, à la "The King's Speech." And did it? Nope. When I got in front of my family and peers to read an excerpt of my novel, my voice was still shaky, and my attempts at dramatic reading (voice acting, anyone?) were still awkward. The open mic event I prepared for with the opposite approach—that is, no preparation whatsoever. I didn't even decide which poem to read until five minutes before going up to the podium. (Billy Collins's "Snow Day," by the way—ironic for a scorching June afternoon.) Again: shaky voice, awkward phrasing, and not even a group of familiar faces to reassure me. In short, I'm not emerging as a great orator any time soon.

But here's the thing: even though I suck, and even though all my fears about how those readings would go came true, I don't regret participating. I loved doing them. I had fun doing them. In the moment, I had no qualms about leaping outside my comfort zone or making an idiot of myself in front of dozens of people, because I was too busy enjoying the material, and enjoying the act of sharing it. And that's just plain bizarre, coming from a self-conscious introvert—the girl who, just a few years ago, would have literally rather died than embarrass herself in public. Some of that contrast is from personal growth: it's the result of a long, hard road to embrace my flawed self and not care so much about what others think, even in public situations. (I mean, I still get easily embarrassed, but my self-worth is no longer tied to making a good impression.) But think it also has to do with what I'm presenting during a reading: literature, poetry, stories. Things I love and am passionate about. In her introvert manifesto Quiet, my hero Susan Cain explains why this distinction makes all the difference:

"It's easier to take risks in the service of something or someone you really care about. Professor Brian Little speaks of our 'core personal projects' — the projects and people we place at the center of our lives. What and who are these for you? Once you've identified them, don't even think in terms of risk or not-risk. Just think in terms of how do you accomplish your goals."

Post-Thesis Reading photo with fellow graduates, professors, and MFA colleagues.

I'm not perfect. But I can deal with the awkwardness, even the failure of public readings, because my passion for what I'm reading aloud—be it a story I've worked hard on, or my favorite poem—exceeds my social anxiety about reading it well. It makes a reading feel less about me, and more about this beautiful, soul-stirring art form. Reading, then, becomes an act of sharing, not displaying. And believe it or not, people notice that authenticity. I had not only peers, but complete strangers come up to me after my thesis reading to thank me for sharing such an important and difficult subject matter as mental illness. After the open mic experience, one woman leaned over and asked to hear again Collins's opening line: Today we woke up to a revolution of snow. I think she could hear how much I adored that line, which sent her adoring it, too. It reminded me that readings are conversations—a dialogue over a mutual passion. Reading well or professionally is secondary to reading with love.

I have a long way to go as an orator. But for something as wonderful as writing, I'm willing to undergo the stumbling blocks, and the dozens or hundreds more less-than-stellar readings. So long as I get to share literature with people who cherish it as much as I do.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Post-Thesis Post

It's absurdly fitting that, as I'm writing this, it's a perfect afternoon. It's sunny and 78-degrees. I have a porch with shade and a view of my favorite trees (yes, I've picked them all out by now). It's Saturday, and I have tea -- Pure Leaf's Black with Vanilla, if you're curious. In the house there are James Dickey poems and "The Nature Lover's Quotation Book" for when I need a quick break in writing. And nothing feels rushed today. It's a good feeling.

I can now happily tell you that, as of last week, I have successfully completed my MFA thesis project and defense -- and, consequently, my MFA degree. I'm sure every MFA graduate has felt this way, but right up until the moment I submitted my novel to my advisors, I thought I'd never see the end of this process. In the throes of a big, personal project like this -- especially one with a deadline -- it's easy to focus only on the unpleasant parts of the experience. For the last several months, there were plenty of despairing moments and embarrassing crying sessions: over writer's block; over deadlines; over the work-writing-sleep-health balance; over the guilt-ridden fear that I'd butchered the story in my head, and that what I'd written didn't do the conflict, the themes, or the characters justice. (Funny how even flat characters can become real like that, deserving of dignity.) It was only once I crossed over to the other, calmer side of that process -- the end of it -- that I could fully appreciate the experience. I can even be proud of what I've done.

Was my self-criticism about my work unwarranted? Definitely not. As a reader, a writer, and a literary scholar of sorts, I know perfectly well that my novel in its current form isn't brilliant or publishable by any means. Its characters are weak and its plot is skeletal. The themes I address -- mental illness, genius, the nature of evil, sibling relationships -- are treated much more simply, more black-and-white, than I'd hoped. I can just hear the mental health advocates criticizing my "stigma-reinforcing" treatment of mentally ill characters. (And as someone who's had brushes with mental illness personally, that was certainly not my intention, but it was what ended up on the drafting pages.) I can't be proud of this thesis as a finished product.

What I can do is give myself credit for the hard task that I accomplished: I wrote a novel. To boot, I did it in one year, and without having ever written a novel before. I did it without the encouraging workshop community of fellow MFA writers. I did it coordinating everything with my advisors long-distance, via Skype and e-mail and phone-calls (HUGE shout-out to the MFA faculty at SCSU for their amazing accommodations). I did it while adjusting to a new life and a new job. The results weren't perfect, and weren't anywhere near what I'd set out to do. But looking back, I realize that they were better, if utterly different, than what I had expected from myself under those circumstances. I set the groundwork for what I, and my advisors, consider a good story. I delved into darker territory than I ever have before, and didn't burn and crash in the process. Despite deadlines and a new area of writing, I managed to keep up my careful, perfectionist attention to the prose.

I didn't produce a complete, publishable novel, but I did complete the first, important step: a strong draft. And that's worth celebrating. (Which I did, by the way, with ahi tuna and B. Nektar cider and poems and an anime binge-watching session. Ahhh.)

Maybe I sound like I'm bragging a little at this point. Trust me, this comes after a process that was 99% self-loathing, so I'm not that full of myself! But in all seriousness, I think it's important for us writers to celebrate our accomplishments. There were many times during the drafting stages that I hated my novel, and planned on abandoning it once the degree was done. But the relief of finishing my manuscript, the little distance I've obtained from it since submitting, and the good feedback I got from my advisors during my defense, were all helpful in revitalizing my love for the story, and making me see the potential in it. And that's vital. Validation is vital. Some writers, more mature ones perhaps, can live and write without validation; I'm not one of them. For me, those moments of celebrating milestones (or stepping stones, maybe) are fuel for future writing: necessary reminders my goals are achievable and worth the effort. We have to like our work, even as we keep a critical eye on it -- or what's the point of it all? I don't have to lie to myself that I'm a genius, but I do have to acknowledge when I've produced something good.

This is all a long, garrulous way of saying: be good to yourself, fellow writer. Yes, set high expectations for yourself, don't call bad writing good writing, and keep a critical eye for self-improvement. But don't forget to celebrate your hard work, either. Cheer yourself on. Be happy.

Congratulations to my fellow MFA students who are also finishing their theses this Spring. I look forward to sharing our work together at the MFA Thesis Reading next month. (More on that when it happens!)

Happy spring, and grace and peace to you.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The New Year's Post (Including a Publication Alert for River River)

Mysterious teaser photo, for ending announcement.
Morning, all. And happy 2018.

My first order of business is to give you all a long overdue publication update. Back in December, my short story "Work Day" appeared in Issue 6 of the Hudson Valley-based journal River River. (Bonus: it's perfectly paired with a moody urban scene by Sharon M. Paster.) Written during my undergrad years, "Work Day" was for many years my favorite fiction project and is probably my most-submitted work to date (or most-rejected, technically), so the fact that it's finally found a home at a place like River River means a lot to me. You only need to read the issue's introduction to see how passionate the staff is about storytelling, and their activeness in promoting local artists makes them a valuable resource for the writing community. It's an honor to be included in their publication, and I hope you'll take a look at all the great things they're doing.

You can read my story "Work Day" here.
Second order of business, a brief summary of life in the South. Besides the adjustment to the climate (actually, not a hard adjustment -- Christmas in New England was -5 degrees, so I've quickly come to embrace the relative warmth), I'm adjusting to the ups and downs of novel-writing, especially where there's a thesis deadline concerned. It's messy, it's hectic, and there are plenty of times when it sucks to the point that it's the LAST thing I'd rather do -- but it's a good learning experience, too. Since my fiction-writing before this consisted exclusively of short stories, the transition to a novel has taught me how differently the drafting process looks. It's not just extending short story drafting into a larger project -- it's an entirely different way of envisioning a story. It's working with a bigger timeline; it's building a larger network of multiple conflicts and subplots; it demands more development of and then more resolution from the characters. And all those things requires more discovery on the writer's part.

When I write a short story, the smaller format means I can usually picture the plot and the characters pretty fully in my head before I start. Yes, there's discovery involved (what comes out on paper is almost never exactly what I originally envisioned), but for the most part I know my protagonists and the basic structure well enough to feel fairly confident where they'll end up. Novel-writing (for me at least) isn't like that. The mere size of the story means there are countless more directions a plot or character could go, and the image of a protagonist that I start with turns out to be barely a skeleton for the flesh-and-bone person they need to be to remain sustainable. So, there's a lot of blindness in novel-writing. That's where the messiness comes in. Discovery happens through experimenting, and in drafting that means pages upon pages of exercises, monologues, shaky chapters, half-formed sections -- making my characters walk around, trying to see what they'll do and where they'll go.

And what happens to a lot of those pages?

They turn out to be unusable, and end up in the trash.
For a perfectionist like me, this has been the most painful part of the novel-writing process. To write anything takes an inordinate amount of time and energy for me, so to go through all those hours and all that effort to write something that I can't use -- utter agony! It felt like such a horrific waste, and in the beginning, I wondered if I was doing something wrong. But I'm fortunate to be working with an insightful advisor, and to have had enough reflective down-time during the project, to figure out that as awful as this looks, it's okay. It's necessary, even. Writers explore their writing through writing, so what looks like countless pages of wasted material is actually the necessary labor of world-building -- or, more appropriately, behind-the-scenes building. If I write a chapter I can't use, the best case scenario is that the chapter helped me understand my characters more so that I can write them better in other chapters; worst case scenario, I've crossed off one more direction my plot cannot go. Even if a lot of drafted material remains "unseen" by the end, they have hopefully served as a reference or building block for what I do want seen in the finished product. That's the beginner's optimism, anyway.

Item 3 on today's post: I kicked off the New Year by starting a new position in a public library, and I'm LOVING it with every fiber of my being. I've been attracted to the library profession for years, but while I have done internships at libraries in the past, doing "the Real Thing" is better than I could've ever dreamed. It feels amazing to be busy in an environment that I'm passionate about -- helping provide an educational, enriching, and safe space for patrons and families free of charge. (Plus, I'm surrounded by books all day, so there's that.) I feel absolutely at home in this line of work, and hope to be in it for a long time.
For those in doubt of what public libraries do, I present this brilliant meme.
More another time. Hope you all enjoyed the holidays.

Grace and peace to you.