Last night I did a solo reading on campus — really, my first Broken Glass Waltzes-related reading. Publicity took the form of e-mails and posters, along with at least one professor bribing her kids with extra credit (I didn’t do that; it just wouldn’t have felt right to do that for myself. Likewise, I wouldn’t assign something I wrote to the kids without putting it online or in the library.)
All the same, when I got to the recital hall at Mondoville’s music building, I was 45 minutes early, and other than a few music students who would have been there anyway, I was alone. As I sat on a sofa in the lobby, and as the clock moved to a half-hour before the starting time, I traded jokes with a few of the music students. At the same time, however, I sat with my box of books, and still didn’t see anyone else connected with the event. I started to panic. I checked the e-mail on my phone to make sure I was in the right place. I was. Still nobody.
Then I thought, “What if this is all some kind of cruel joke? What if nobody shows up — not even my colleagues?” All my middle school dance rejection memories came flooding back. Fortunately, the a/v guy showed up with the P.A. rig at that point. I gave him some warm-up music to play, and a copy of the song that inspired the book to begin with. (Indeed, I think one of the high points of the whole event was the chance to blast Slayer and the Misfits in the refined setting of the recital hall. I felt very punk rock, very Revenge of the Nerds.)
My colleagues showed up with the programs and attendance slips for “cultural event” credit — we require Mondoville kids to attend a certain number of these events in order to graduate. And then the kids started coming.
Two of the Mondoville Deans (both friends of mine) saw that the crowd was going to be sufficient and split. As I stood outside, I heard a voice over the PA: “Come on, folks — fill up those single seats!” And the line was still there. Fortunately, Mrs. M had already found an aisle seat — interestingly, not far from where I sit at faculty meetings. Like minds and such.
A few minutes later, my colleague and friend John Carenen (whose fine book Signs of Struggle is worth your time) stuck his head out the door: “Standing room only!” Slayer kept blasting from the sound system. A minute or two after that, another colleague said, “Do you mind if we seat some people on the edge of the stage?”
I laughed. “Go for it. Hell, let’s have a mosh pit.”
Finally, I was introduced. I made my way onto the stage, and a thought struck me. I’ve played drums since I was a grade schooler, and spent a little time trying to do stand-up when I was older. I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’ve ever played to a packed house. I couldn’t resist. After I thanked “my people in the pit”, I gave the Dio salute.
Then I started reading. The book essentially opens with a sex scene, and I don’t know that all the kids were ready for that. But even if they were uncomfortable, they listened. And after the opening, I told them the story of where the book came from — from driving through Lexington listening to the Misfits to hurrying home and typing out the scene that starts chapter 10.
And so I read that scene, and they listened. And I talked about stealing time on the job to write, and not knowing how I was going to get from one scene to another. And I talked about agents and publishers, and how small presses like Snubnose were the publishing equivalent of the DIY and indie labels like SubPop. And again, I felt punk rock. And even then, they listened. I told them that a lot of the game was just refusing to quit; that just playing the next play could eventually lead to success.
I took some questions. What about writer’s block. I said that for me, writer’s block was less about blank pages than it was about writing badly. “Write anything,” I said. “The chance of it being good might be small, but the chance of it being good if you don’t write is zero.”
Finally, there was nothing left to say to that crowd, and I told them about the fears I had before the people started to come in. “Thanks,” I said, “for making me feel loved.”
And I left the stage and wanted to write.