Thursday, August 28, 2014

How to Do a Good Reading, How to Survive the Audience Experience

Zestful Blog Post #68

One of the most uncomfortable hours of my life was in 1994 during a meeting of Borders store managers. At that time I was regional director for the West Coast, and was looking forward to seeing all my managers there, as well as my friends in the regional ranks.

The very first night after everybody got in there was a cocktail reception, during which an author reading was scheduled. The author was Gita Mehta, noted media producer and bestselling author (also the wife of Sonny Mehta, head of Knopf), and she was to read from her new book of stories, A River Sutra. It was thought that an intellectual author would appeal to the managers, most of whom had come up through the ranks of booksellers and were hence serious readers.

Horrendous idea. In spite of their interest in Gita and her book, the managers immediately started meeting and greeting and drinking and hanging out, being in no mood to stand quietly and listen to anybody. However, Gita took the podium and, with admirable poise, plowed through the excerpt she had prepared. I gravitated toward one of my buddies from home offices and stood listening in silent solidarity, trying to form at least a pocket of politeness amidst the din. An author more animated than Gita might have been able to hold their own, but for her it was hopeless.

Takeaway 1: Readings are not cabaret performances.

Takeaway 2: Maybe they should be.

Simply standing and reading for tens of minutes on end is, almost without exception, deadly. What you want to do is:

1) Welcome your audience with a warm anecdote or two, something about what drove you to write your book.

2) Give them a taste of your book, like 10-15 minutes of reading some lively passage, or passages.

3) Tell another anecdote or two and then take questions. Funny is good. Good anecdote material might come from how you researched your book, or how you got it published, etc.

4) If nobody asks a question, provide your own, and / or start asking questions of them. Like, "Apart from me, who's your favorite author and why?" You might learn a lot.

If you're in the audience, of course you'll be polite and pay attention. But everybody will love you if you come up with an interesting question or two. Off-the-wall is fine. Ask about the author's childhood, or if they've ever been arrested, or what their favorite fast food is and why. Anything. If you're a budding author, ask the questions you'd really like to know, like, "How did you hone your craft? How did you get an agent? What do you wish you'd known at the beginning of your career?", stuff like that.

See a demonstration of this at the Wordier Than Thou open mic tonight in Sarasota. I'll read chapter 1 of Left Field, my next Lillian Byrd novel-in-progress. The other headliner will be Lynn Waddell, author of Fringe Florida: Travels Among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles. I've not met Lynn, but with a title like that, she's got to be fun.

Details here:

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tip for Unleashing Your Voice

Zestful Blog Post #67

For a long time I thought that an original voice is as important to an artist as skill, but now I know it's more important. Tons of painters can render a lifelike head, but there was only one Picasso, who tore heads apart and rebuilt them. Scores of symphonic trumpeters can play the solo at the opening of Mahler's 5th Symphony perfectly (or damn near), but there's only one Wynton Marsalis, who interprets Tin Pan Alley tunes with the soul of a gentle genie. (Plus he can kick booty as a symphonic soloist too.)

In writing it's the same, only moreso. Any English major can put together a sentence, and some write books that get terrific reviews, but there's only one Virginia Woolf / William Shakespeare / Alice Walker / David Sedaris / Flannery O'Connor / Gabriel Garcia Marquez / Laura Ingalls Wilder / Frank McCourt. And so on.

Recently I opened my Model-T Kindle and read aloud a passage from a book to a group of writers eager to learn the combination to great prose. The passage was a harrowing account by an African-American man, recounting boyhood beatings and other humiliations at the hands of adults who should have loved him. A mini excerpt:

I struggled under you and couldn't breathe. The blood running down the valleys and grooves carved into my skin smelled like one hundred wet pennies.

The students were riveted by the passionately, savagely told story. I asked the students to guess who the author was; some guessed award-winning famous names, but nobody got it right. It was a trick question to make a point. The author, Leonard Scovins, is an uneducated convicted double-murderer who's serving a life term in a Florida penitentiary.

A former drug addict, Leonard found his voice in prison, thanks in part to the mother and grandmother of his victims, a woman named Agnes Furey. After the trial of the man who murdered her daughter and grandson, she decided the only way she could live a worthwhile life would be to forgive Leonard. Meanwhile in prison he got clean from drugs and found Jesus. She reached out to him, and they began to build a friendship. In time they wrote a book together and self-published it. It's called Wildflowers in the Median. Not exactly a grabbing title, but then how would one represent that story in a few words?

Agnes entered the book in a Writer's Digest magazine contest, and it won the 'inspiration' category. She also entered it in the 'life stories' category, which is where I came across it as a first-round judge. In spite of the fact that Agnes's voice is a bit stilted compared with Leonard's, I was tremendously impressed, and chose it as the winner in my flight of books. It didn't win the final round, but that's all right.

Currently I'm reading Keith Richards's autobiography, Life, and enjoying every word. A one-sentence excerpt:

These armies of feral, body-snatching girls began to emerge in big numbers about halfway through our first UK tour, in the fall of 1963.

Hilarious and informative. My point is that you don't need great technique to wow an audience. You need basic technique and an original, unfettered voice.

The problem for many authors is how to find and let out that voice. My best tip for today is to read autobiographies, good ones, the best ones. See how the writers break the rules. See how they express something originally. Absorb their kaleidoscopic language. See how they cut to the chase.

And take that spirit with you when you sit down to write.

Got any autobiographies to recommend? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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[flowers in the median photo by ES]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Queer World

Zestful Blog Post #66

Last week I taught, along with the fabulous Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Randall Kenan, and Eduardo C. Corral, at the Lambda Literary Foundation Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices. Each of us faculty had our own small group of students, or Fellows, for the whole week. My nine were writers of genre fiction. They were a brilliant bunch, full of sharp insight, talent, honesty, and generosity, and it was a pleasure to work with them. Our home was the campus of the American Jewish University, an oddly isolated place among the dry hills on Mulholland Drive.

[The view from my seminar room.]

So many things arose for me that week, both externally and internally, that I want to explore a little bit here.

I tend to be an assimilationist when it comes to being queer, so am usually not all that comfortable in a situation where identity politics is the coalescing factor. Because I'm like, hey, what's the big deal about being different?

OK, I know it's a big deal, and the level of big varies for all of us, at different times in our lives, but I've long felt, "Well, deal with it and get over it, and figure out the combination to the dominant culture."

Only last week did I realize that that attitude almost certainly comes from being the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants who, as soon as they dragged their bundles off the boat, set about learning English, getting jobs, and figuring out how to become American.

One of my uncles as a teenager in the Depression scraped together money to take elocution lessons, to lessen his Polish accent, believing that talking less 'European' would help him get ahead. It did. My parents Anglicized our last name so their children wouldn't get called 'Polack' in school. We didn't. (I was grateful for this many times, as when my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lockman, told Polack jokes in class. I sat there trying to understand what was funny.) I only recently learned that my father's first name got adapted at Ellis Island, to Frank from Franz.

So it would be natural for me to feel out of it in a group that exists because of differentness. I felt some of that awkward, what's-the-point-ness at the start of the Lambda retreat, but far less than I usually do, and after a couple of days it was gone altogether. I think it might have been because the students had to compete to get in there, which takes courage. Too, when you're serious enough about your art to send your work into a screening process, you tend to be mature, which I guess is to say not stuck within yourself and your pain.

I found a terrific, healthy team spirit at this retreat. Yes, there was some militancy, but even that was tempered by love.

It would be easy to end this post by saying, "Hey, in a way we're all immigrants, right?" But that's not so. And it's OK.

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Climbing With Quality

Zestful Blog Post #65

I once knew a wise old 25-year-old, from whom I learned wilderness skills when I was 24.
One day he posed the question, "Is it more important to reach the top of the mountain, or to climb with quality, even if it be only 10 feet?"

So much of our current culture is about reaching the top at all costs: costs to integrity, costs to others. But mostly it's at a cost of integrity. Why? Because integrity can't be bought and sold, so it's easy to forget how priceless it is.

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[mountains photo by ES]