Sunday, June 03, 2007

Reading Aloud

Last night, I found myself sitting on a couch in my friends Susan and Misha’s living room listening to people read aloud to one another. Susan’s a regular member of my writer’s group, but for the last year and a half she’s hosted a monthly Saturday gathering of folk who get together to share items they haven’t necessarily written themselves. I’m awkward socially. It’s not that I don’t know what to do, though there were certainly times in my life when I didn’t, it’s more a matter of lacking some capacity to make small talk with people I don’t know. It’s not a lack of patience, it’s more that I’m not so good getting to that transition from chatter to the genuinely personal and more interesting.

I’ve done writing groups off and on for many years, but this was different. The nine people who came for the gathering shared dessert, then read a variety of items that had for whatever reason meant something to them. This ranged from a newspaper advice column to Thich Nath Hanh’s thoughts about incorporating Buddhism into one’s daily life, to bits of a novel that described amputating three legs from a Dachshund (Alexander McCall Smith’s very funny The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs).

One of the ironies was that one of the guests turned out to be a woman who lived two doors down from me for close to ten years. She was a very nice neighbor, but I think we spoke to one another less than half a dozen times during that stretch. I guess that’s a measure of how bad I am at small talk.

Once my friend Linda, also from my writing group, shared a touching piece she’d written based on her own father’s World War 2 diary, something she didn’t find until after his death, I took that as license to read something of my own. Over the last several years, I’ve taken to keeping my writing on my Dell Axim 50V PDA. On those occasions when I read to other people (they’re very very rare) I use it as a kind of teleprompter. I have a Stowaway Blue Tooth keyboard that’s smaller than the Axim and it also allows me to write when I have spare time some place away from my regular computer. Normal people use a pad of paper and a pen, but I used to always lose whatever I put on scraps of paper.

Anyway, I wound up sharing a story that I’d written more than twenty years ago back when I thought success with my fiction was inevitable. I’m not sure if the folk there were more curious about the PDA thing than the story itself, though they were nice enough to laugh at appropriate times. It was a very pleasant evening.

It strikes me that reading and writing need to remains social acts. Bud, Linda’s significant other, shared a long essay by Malcolm Jones from Newsweek, "Our Books Ourselves", about Baby Boomer’s and their relationship to the Paperback Book. We often forget that the “Sixties” were at least in part the product of unprecedented numbers of young Americans being expected to go to college converging with the cultural heyday of the paperback book and the vinyl long play (LP) record album. As the article points out, I still have very strong physical images of certain books whose presence in someone’s bookshelf signified certain things about that person. I remember the presence of Feminine Mystique, Catch 22, the Whole Earth Catalogue, Slaughterhouse Five often being the entrée to conversations when I was a teenager.

There are lots of teenagers today who read and write, but plays a far more central role for them socially than any words on paper. The one exception may be the Harry Potter series.

I do think it’s important to ride uphill in small but significant ways. Susan and Misha’s gathering struck me as one such attempt. The one sad thing was that there was no one there under the age of 45. Years ago, I used to help lead a “Great Books” group, a similar but more structured attempt to do something comparable. That too suffered from the fact that younger people seemed less interested and the group I was involved in quite literally died out.

A few days ago, I was part of an online conversation about why short story collections are virtually impossible for new authors to sell. Someone pointed out that if everyone who submitted short stories actually committed to buying and reading two volumes of contemporary short stories, the market would be a hell of a lot better.

A lot of us write, but I need to remember how important it is to share our own and others’ writings on a face to face basis. Next time, I'll try to read someone else's story aloud.



At 6/03/2007 04:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Probably not all those other folks have their own stories to read out loud. I vote you keep reading your stories out loud.

From my tv show, I found out that it goes about 100 words a minute read out loud. I'd keep it to excerpts that are 800 words-ish. That'll keep 'em listening 'n wantin' more.

It's hard to read too slowly. People can hear faster if you read slower.

At 6/03/2007 11:45:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

good point about hearing "faster".
I'll see how it goes if I go to future gatherings. I do think those who write have a duty to promote other people who write than ourselves.

One of the scariest things I've seen is the number of would be writers who clearly don't read other writers.

At 6/05/2007 01:09:00 AM, Blogger Elizabeth McQuern said...

Your writing group sounds really awesome. Especially the desserts part.

At 6/05/2007 09:16:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

it is.
but to be clear, there's a writing group and then there are the reading gatherings described in the post. A member of my writing group hosts them with her husband.

Dessert is a good idea.

At 6/06/2007 06:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As bella rossa suggests, dessert is always a good idea.

At 6/07/2007 02:15:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Someone brought something called "gourmet" marshmallows....I'm not even fully certain what marshmallows are made of.

someone else brought a very white cheese.

I picked up a block of white food and assumed that it was a bit of the gourmet marshmallow that someone had sliced in half.

Naturally, it was cheese. Always a bizarre sensation when you expect to taste one thing and it's something almost totally different.

At 6/09/2007 11:36:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

That sounds like a great evening out. I always find it so much more alive when you hear someone read aloud. My Grade Six teacher always took about 1/2 hour per day and read to us. We loved it and heard lots of great books that way.

Although I can't imagine starting such a group, participating in one would be a real experience I think. Of course, I'm the right age for it now. :-)

I wonder how good your poker face is for biting into a piece of cheese thinking it was marshmallow. Impossible to determine on a blog.

At 6/11/2007 07:04:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I imagine they have groups like this where you are. If they have them here, there must be dozens of them in a place like Toronto.

It was no poker face. I said something immediately like "What the heck! This is strange tasting marshmallow."

I did finish the cheese, which wasn't bad as cheese went. It didn't feel polite to spit it out into the midst of the dessert samplers.


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