Writing as performance art: my first reading

stage-fright

Silk’s Post #121 — And now, we interrupt my mini-series of posts on how to overcome obstacles to writing with this eyewitness report from the literary front …

Sunday, March 1, 10:00 am — Weeks ago, I was invited by my friend, Miriam, to do a reading at an annual Literary Salon she attends in Victoria, BC. Cool, I thought. Sit around with a small group of friends, kind of like a book club. All nice and casual. Get some feedback. Easy peasy.

Then I was contacted by the hostess, Kathleen. Actually, there would be at least 20 people attending (not the small handful I had imagined), and two other writers – published writers – would also be reading. I could bring copies of my books to sell if I liked. I fought down a rising panic. Holy shit. I was already committed. Did she know I’m unpublished, without even a final draft to my name?

Then she told me that she invents a new martini for each salon, and I’d get to slurp one up before the reading. This salon’s martini would be called the Pussy Riot. This soothed me immensely. A Pussy Riot would be bound to loosen me up. Even if I experienced that on-stage death – the kind that stand-up comics suffer through when no one laughs at their jokes – maybe I wouldn’t remember it. I made a note to self: try to snatch a second Pussy Riot off the tray.

So, I relaxed. It was all good.

Until last night. Salon Eve.

The panic returned. What would I say? What would I read? How would I fill 20 minutes of time with 20 pairs of eyes watching, and 20 pairs of ears listening?

It wasn’t like I couldn’t pick out a few pages of the many, many thousands of (un-re-written) words I’ve put on paper in the past 4 years. And I’ve got more than enough material to talk about the “writer’s journey” from my 120 blog posts on 5writers.

What my panic was really about is the fact that, as a writer, I’ve been feeling like a fraud lately. Why do you think so many of my recent blog posts are about overcoming writer’s block? Yes. I confess. I haven’t been writing in a while. Or not much, anyway.

But the show must go on. And the show is today. I’m on the 30 minute countdown to leaving the safe shelter of my writer’s desk and venturing out into the real world.

I will finish this post when I return home tonight. By then, the Pussy Riots will have worn off, and I’ll either be floating on a cloud of adulation and optimism, or trying to reconstruct my shattered ego.


LITERARY SALON INTERLUDE (sounds of conversation and martini slurping)


Sunday, March 1, 8:00 pm — Whew. I survived. Ego intact. Writing ambition renewed. Confidence, for the moment (since, like the weather, it is subject to change every day), restored.

Thank you to the Salon’s delightful hostess in the stylish hat, Kathleen Martin, to the many-hatted, book loving guests, and to the the talented writers who presented. It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend the afternoon with you.

pussy-riot-bar

Kathleen’s Pussy Riot martini bar

Yes, it turned out to be a hat party. A hat party with Pussy Riot martinis. Pussy Riot martinis served in a collection of dainty, bone china tea cups, with saucers. And tiny sandwiches and petit fours. The perfect combination of impeccably civilized hospitality, served with a dash of wild-girl rebellion.

I counted cloche hats, demure hand-crafted headdresses of tulle and feathers, picture hats, felted flapper chapeaux, rhinestone headbands, Sunday-go-to-meeting pillboxes with veils, flowery crowns, miniature devil horns. By happy chance I had worn my raspberry beret, which perfectly matched the martinis in colour and flavour, so I immediately felt like part of the Salon Society. In my opinion, there should be more hat parties, especially on Sunday afternoons.

But the reading part, you say … what was it like to stand up and read to roomful of people you don’t know for the very first time? Did you have stage fright? Did they throw rotten tomatoes? Did they give you a standing ovation?

Well, that’s why I had to set the stage. Picture it: 20 hatted ladies, most of a certain age, comfortably crowded in the smallish front sitting room of a lovely heritage Craftsman home, aglow with Pussy Riots and sated with tiny, delicious savouries and sweets. Does this sound like a tough audience? Perhaps not. But the literary bar was about to be set high. Very high.

I was the third of three authors to read. The first two were amazing.

Lisa Abram, a writer who brings a marketing background and a wide range of interests to her non-fiction stories, broke the ice reading her hilarious memoir (published this month in Reader’s Digest More of Our Canada) about her childhood crush on Toronto Maple Leaf captain, Darryl Sittler, and her lifetime quest to secure a selfie with the hockey legend. That really got the room rocking.

It was a tough act to follow, especially for a poet, but Wendy Donawa – an accomplished scholar, writer, teacher, artist, cultural researcher, and former museum curator – totally captured the audience when she started reading in a quiet voice. Her evocative and atmospheric poems set in Victoria, the Canadian prairies and Barbados cast a reflective spell. Wendy is also the co-author of an anthology of essays by contemporary Canadian YA writers, Reading Canada: Teaching Canadian Fiction in Secondary Schools.

I was up next, just as my second Pussy Riot kicked in with full force. As Kathleen introduced me, my mouth went dry and I felt on the verge of a flop sweat, remembering at the last moment that my reading glasses were in my handbag in the other room.

This turned out to be a blessing, as it gave me an excuse to flee. I picked my way through the room to my distant handbag, trying not to step on the rows of feet in my path, then grabbed my specs, tore off my jacket and beret, and took a few cool, deep breaths. Okay. Ready.

I’m not sure what happened after that. Oh, I know I talked about my huge learning curve making the late-in-life career transition from an agency owner/creative director who wrote ads and slogans, to a wannabe novelist. And I know I read the first 10 pages of the book I’m working on right now (the only pages I’ve written so far, as it happens).

And I know I got a couple of nice rounds of applause.

But I couldn’t tell you more about it than that. As many times as I have pitched, presented, lectured, spoken to groups, or been “on stage” in any capacity (and I’ve actually done a lot of it), the minute it’s over I always have total amnesia about what I said, how long I spoke, or how people reacted. Maybe this is the irrational flip side of stage fright. I always have to ask someone else who was there how it went, because I’ve blocked it all out through some primitive kind of survival mechanism.

Judging from the congenial “farewell” phase of the event, I’d say it went pretty well. Everybody hugged (as ladies in hats often do), I got many thank yous and encouraging comments, and our thoughtful hostess presented each writer with a thank-you envelope (a gift certificate to one of the best book stores in the world, Munro’s in Victoria).

Do all readings go like this, I wonder? Anyone out there have an experience to share?

kathleens-salon-divas

Literary Salon divas (left to right): Silk, Kathleen, Wendy and Lisa.

PS — Upon reflection, I’ve had an unexpected, perhaps masochistic, reaction to the experience of sharing my unpublished work at this very pleasant Literary Salon.

It made me pine for the long, torturous critique sessions we 5writers used to have in our early days, when we’d mix lavish praise for each other’s work with savage, mostly well-founded barbs of criticism. Okay, maybe “lavish” and “savage” are exaggerations. But when you’ve spilled your guts and bared your soul to your literary peers, offering yourself up for sacrifice, it can feel that way.

Yes, sometimes it shook my confidence. But it always raised the bar, fired me up, and made me a better writer.

6 thoughts on “Writing as performance art: my first reading

    • Hah! The hat thing made me feel right at home. And the martinis in the teacups? Only in Victoria, eh? Thanks for the comment Val.

  1. Thanks for sharing your first 10 pages so courageously with a friendly group of hat wearing, sandwich-eating ladies! Glad it went well, and I’m waiting for your submission to the 5Writers now!

  2. Silk, I am sure the hatted ladies were quite mesmerized with those first 10 pages. I remember that I was, if they are the same that you shared with our group. So here’s to many more pages! That novel has legs. Cheers!

    • Best reaction I had at the reading was one lady who told me she was eager to find out what happened next … the salon equivalent to turning the page. Now I just need more pages!

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