I was late to Chuck Palahniuk’s May 23 story reading session in Portland. After arriving from Seattle earlier that day, I felt like a fish out of water. Yes, I felt like a tired idiom in search of a story. How to get to the pub Chuck mentioned in his online Plot Spoiler group? After witnessing a homeless man stick a needle in his own arm on the street, and a woman get in a fight with herself on the bus, I decided I needed a car. But the Lyft ap wasn’t working. Finally got an Uber but where is the darn car? Consequently I was a nervous wreck by the time I arrived at the pub where we were supposed to read out loud. I planned to read part of the novel I started since the pandemic began. My first novel at an age when I should be at the end of a career, not the beginning. A novel about war, death and the atomic bomb, when my life experiences consisted of raising three kids and teaching at Front Range Community College. Chapter One was what needed feedback. Hundreds of pages written and rewritten but Chapter One is the one that kept eluding me. I wanted readers to understand why this monster of a novel haunted me. Three generations of a Japanese immigrant family before, during and after WWII. Why should the reader care?
Months earlier, I stumbled across a writing book titled “Consider This” and liked it, although I didn’t know the author with the unpronounceable last name. I’m more of an Amy Tan fan. When I learned he wrote the novel which the Fight Club movie was based on, I was curious. I normally didn’t read that kind of stuff but my first novel was forcing me to write about things I didn’t know and didn’t want to know. Violence and gore. I even had to write a fight scene set in the American concentration camp Manzanar. Chuck’s comment that his book “Fight Club” was the young male equivalent of Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” intrigued me. I can learn something from this guy. So that was how I ended up signing up to read in front of Chuck.
In the Uber drive to the reading session, I checked my bag. Damn. Of course I forgot the story back in my room. No time to go back and get it. As I tried to sneak into the pub, I thought God. The place is packed – maybe a hundred people the same age as my kids. They’ve already listened to some readers. Good. It’s too late to put my name in the hat. But I didn’t come all the way down here from Seattle to just listen.
Sure enough, Chuck had me write my name and add it to a hat. A few minutes later it was called out. I gulped, stood up, faced the crowd of shining, expectant faces. Most likely as judgemental as my two millennial sons and millennial daughter. I said, I forgot to bring my story. The audience gasped. The rest is a blur.
My subconscious did a wonderful job. By giving me no time to panic and no paper to read, my naked soul was thrust out into the world. There’s a difference between reading a carefully crafted piece of work, and telling a story from the gut. The paper couldn’t shield me. The scaffolding of words couldn’t support me. I couldn’t go on auto pilot. The story had to stand on its own wobbly little legs. I forced myself to look people in the eye. I am telling you what I know.
I blurted out what I remembered of Chapter One, then sat down in a daze. People clapped. Thank God there was a reaction. Crickets chirping would have the worst possible reaction. Even hissing and booing is better than that. Then Chuck said something to the effect of – we’re not just listening to stories, we are being called to witness. Witness? Really? They believed me! They understood what I was trying to say!
Reading my written words out loud from a piece of paper (or an I-phone) would have been a different experience. I don’t know if I could have pulled it off. For better or worse, I ended up doing an impromptu speech. But I did come away with some thoughts for my next reading. (Dee Goto asked me to read one of my short stories for the next Stories at the Panama Hotel.)
- Use a story written in first person. (I’m going to have to rewrite that short story for the Panama Hotel.)
- Look people in the eye. For me, that means I have to memorize and practice what I’m going to say.
- Let the story go. Dee had read ten of my stories for the Omoide group, and when I asked her which one she thought I should read out loud for the Stories at the Panama, she chose the scatological one. The most embarrassing one. Cringe. But if that’s the one that resonated with her, that’s the one that’ll go. My self dignity won’t stand in the way.
The night before the reading in Portland, I read the discussion thread in Chuck’s Plot Spoiler. A guy named Roy wrote: I first heard the phrase “kill the people” (meaning ‘good luck and slay the audience’) from Thelma Ritter in “All About Eve.”
Isn’t that what we all hope to do? To reach into the soul of another person and devastate them in some way? To destroy some cherished illusion they had about the world? I want to write stories I love but they have to mean something to the readers, too. Writing and reading are solitary pursuits. Great pandemic pastimes. Consequently, it’s pretty safe. But at some point, the story (and I) have to be tested out in the cold, cruel virus-ridden world. Standing up in front of people to tell a story is the quickest way to kill or be killed.