Friday, February 1, 2008

How do we know how our reading affects others

The AWP was fantastic. I mean it. 7,000 writers, editors and booklovers all in the fabulous Hilton. Within ten minutes of milling around, I ran into the wonderful writer Jo-Ann Mapson, who told me she had run into someone who said he had seen me. (We never figured out who he was, though.) Of course I was anxious, but armed with my tips and my mantra, I went to my reading. The room held about 70 people and by the time I got up to read it was packed! People were standing up! Best of all, writers Masha Hamilton (The Camel Book Mobile) and Susan Ito (A Ghost at Heart's Edge, fiction co-editor of Literary Mama ) were there to offer support to me! Afterwards, I met with Edges's author Leora Skolkin-Smith.

I read from Traveling Angels, the novel I just finished, a passage where the weary mother of a chronically ill son has just reached her tipping point, gets in a car with a small suitcase and is about to leave for destinations mysterious. Her son, coming home early from school, sees the car (she's inside the house) and the suitcase and hides under a blanket. When he wakes, they've been on the road for hours and she discovers his presence and something terrible happens.

I read and read (you could read for 15 minutes), really getting so lost in the story I forgot the audience, but then I looked up and I felt sort of stunned because everyone was so silent. I thought, oh God, was this too intense to read? Do they hate me? Do they want me to go away or die? But I kept reading, propelled and when I finished I looked up again, and the room was dead quiet. I felt sick to my stomach at that point because usually people are talking or picking at their nails or smiling encouragingly, but this was absolute quiet and no seemed to be moving and everyone was looking at me sort of shocked. I went to my seat and listened to the other two writers who were funny and everyone was laughing and I thought, great, the story of my life, too intense for the planet once again, and I've failed here.

But when it was question time, I got a barrage of questions and people began to tell me how knocked out they were by my story and my reading and how much they had loved it! One woman afterwards (thank you, thank you, I don't remember your name) came up and grabbed my arm and told me she had never heard anything like it, and she was amazed and dazzled. I was astonished! How could I have not known that they all liked the reading?

I think the answer is, that as a writer, you never know how people are going to respond to your work. You do it alone. So your clues to what works are often from your own gut, or from readers or your agent or your editor, but they know you, and you know them, so there's already a sort of sacred covenant going on. But somehow that eerie audience silence and stillness, which I thought was the worst thing I had ever heard turned out yesterday to be the best.

I'd be really curious to know others' stories about readings. How do you take the temperature of your audience reaction? Has this ever happened to you? And has anyone ever read before an audience that didn't like your work? (You can be anonymous on this.)

1 comment:

Clea Simon said...

This sounds so wonderful! I don't know if you can ever take the temperature of a crowd, but by being so involved in your story, you clearly brought everyone along. I cannot wait to read TRAVELING ANGELS!!!

LOVED your short story in the "Best of Bellevue Literary" by the way. Sounds like it is a reworking of the passage you read, and I know it held me spellbound.