This weekend I completed a particular rite of passage for writers, a rite – like a hip replacement or coronary bypass – that can be performed many times in your literary life. A reading. A bookstore reading. As I’ve been threatening for weeks, I showed up at Vroman’s in Pasadena, a grand old bastion of book nooking, to share the air with two fellow contributors and the irrepressible editor of the new anthology, The Maternal is Political. Bookstore readings are, ahem, interesting. No less an authority than my own publisher has told me that readings are an ineffective technique for selling books. Of course, most techniques for selling books are ineffective, and publishers can be quite expert at them. But absent any other technique, we do them. We surrender to readings the way we surrender solid ground and common sense to the Boeing 737, acting perfectly normal, sipping cranberry juice through a straw, as though a measly seat belt and lumpy head rest could keep us intact and aloft in an ocean of violently unpredictable air.
Writing, like most art, is fascinating for its insistence that we not only suffer in solitary silence, but that we suffer again in public silence. We bleed onto the page and then, still scarred, we bleed into the open air. And you know, it can be gruesome but it really does heal better that way.
Okay, spoiler alert. The evening was wondrous, and not entirely for the reasons you might guess.
Readings can go one of two ways, north or south, but usually they go south. People don’t come to readings, or at least not as many as you pray for. This can happen with really good writers, too, not only with we lesser gods. The talented and illustriously best-selling novelist Darin Strauss has been blogging about his own book turbulence lately, and I was delighted to see that just a couple nights before us, he had only four people show up to hear him in the very space we filled quite nicely, thank you. I was delighted, I tell you, because I can sympathize with a giant like Strauss when he has four people show up, but not when he has 104, or 204, which is probably the size of the audience he’s been reading to since.
We had more than four. They were not the four people who made a point of telling me they were coming. They were not the 40 or so who received my plea and made an even more conspicuous point of not telling me they were coming. My daughter’s piano teacher came, which tells you everything about why my daughter loves piano. My folk from the neighborhood book club came. Readers and near-readers and next-door readers came. They were the perfect audience of friends and family and even passersby who heard the call and caught the drift and saw the light and surrounded us in the polite stillness, the geometric kindness, of simple listening.
They heard the passion and purpose of Shari MacDonald Strong. They witnessed the delicate bloom of the brazenly tender Gayle Brandeis. They saw through the open eye of world-witness Mona Gable. They heard the irreverent rant of some very un-zenlike Zen. And by mere receipt of this, by their generously open ears and patient gaze, our audience completed the most magical feat, made the most intimate exchange: they heard the words, they shared the air, and made it, for one hour, a sanctuary.
Then, a bunch of us girls went out for Mexican food and we laughed and laughed and laughed.
Good lord, I’m about to do it again.