Last night I did a reading at The Depot in Mill Valley, CA. Five minutes before the reading was scheduled to begin, there were only three people in the room, all of whom I knew. Then a gentleman wandered in, very tall and broad, dressed in a motorcycle jacket. Because readings always breed in me a certain brand of desperation, I walked up to him and said, “Are you here for the reading?” He looked confused for a moment, then told me he wasn’t, at which point I sort of jokingly begged him to stay. One wants to fill the seats, of course, even at the price of one’s own dignity.
By the time we began we were up to ten or eleven. Much to my surprise, the stranger in the motorcycle jacket was among them. Because of the small group I decided to forgo the formality of the podium and sound system and do the reading sitting down. It happened that the motorcycle man was sitting very close to me, and I quickly realized how awkward it is to read to another grown-up face to face, so close one’s knees could almost touch. It’s very intimate, uncomfortably so, more like a date than a reading. In this case it felt like a first date, the kind where you’re hoping you don’t say the wrong thing, and I could feel myself blushing as I read the scene in which the narrator encounters someone in a café in a foreign place and realizes that she knows him, or has known him, although she can’t place the context: “The thought crossed my mind that I might have slept with him. There had been a period following my sister’s death when I slept with many men.”
I worried for the gentleman in the motorcycle jacket, whom I had accosted, and to whom now I felt I had exposed myself completely. After all, there is always some element of truth in the fiction. I wanted to tell him that he should feel free to leave at any moment. Because, along with desperation, readings always make me feel apologetic. Baptist guilt and all that, you know…there are so many other things the audience could be doing, I feel I ought to offer them something more than a story (and at times I have, which falls along the lines of “things I’ve done at the price of one’s own dignity,” which I shan’t go into here.)
The small coterie grew in numbers, the reading came to an end, I took some questions, signed some books. And then, after everyone was gone, I noticed that the man in the motorcycle jacket was still standing there. He’d been waiting around the corner. He approached me shyly with a copy of my book. “I wish I hadn’t told you I wasn’t here for the reading,” he said. “I didn’t even know this was a bookstore, I just wandered in, but it was so nice to have someone tell me a story.”
He recounted details of the excerpt I had read, confessed that he doesn’t read much, and said that he’d be back to The Depot to hear another reading—it was a nice change of pace, he said. For a moment the awkwardness fell away, and for once I didn’t feel apologetic. I was relieved to realize that it had been a fair exchange—the stranger made the room a little less empty, I made his evening a little more interesting. It wasn’t about the book—it was about the act of gathering around a story—and allowing the intimacy to happen, despite all our best efforts to avoid it.
I’ll be reading tonight at Rakestraw Books in Danville, CA. Stop on by if you’re in the area,