When my first novel came out two weeks ago, I had most of my ducks in a row. I’d arranged a book tour to places where I had the most friends and family. I’d written magazine articles related to my book, and planned a launch party. I bought a few dresses. Notecards sat in neat piles, waiting to be called into duties of gratitude.
But there was one area in which I really wasn’t well prepared, and it was sort of an important one. I hadn’t read my work aloud under pressure.
Over the years I’ve done public speaking, and used to appear on television a bit for my old job. I’ve even interviewed authors for a fun piece (http://beyondthemargins NULL.com/2011/09/authors-how-i-learned-to-read-my-work-aloud/) on how they became comfortable reading in front of a crowd. But read my own fiction? Out loud? That had only ever happened in the privacy of my shower-stall auditorium.
A few days before my book was to be released, I faced up the fact that this was a pretty big Achilles heel. So I sought out the toughest training ground I could think of, the crucible in which my fortitude would be forged. The harshest audience, the most easily bored and most vocal one I’d ever seen.
The Sisters of Charity Nursing Home.
My children play piano recitals there several times a year, and each time without fail, they’re heckled. At Easter, while my daughter plunked out a slow ballad from Titanic, a woman in the second row became increasingly agitated. She looked around for a friend to share her resentment, and finally just shared it with the room. “Who are these children,” she cried, “and what the hell are they doing in my kitchen??” I knew I had to read there.
It was a Friday afternoon, just after lunch but before naps or game time. The residents came into the Rec Room in singles and pairs, wheeled in by nurses. Fran, the activities director, told me how excited they were to hear me read from my novel. “Many of them like to read quite a bit. Or, used to.”
Fran introduced me, and I stood in front of the silent and still room. It was almost entirely filled with women in wheelchairs, crumpling grand dames and matriarchs who’d outlived most of their partners and contemporaries. About half of them looked up expectantly. The rest were slack-jawed and inattentive, asleep, or listening to their own internal monologues.
“Thank you for letting me come today,” I said, taking pains to speak very slowly, because as my mother reminds me, I’m guilty of speaking far too fast. “I’m excited to be here, because my children come here often to play piano for you, and you have been a very gracious audience for them. I’ve written a novel called The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, and it’s about a woman who inherits her friend’s journals. I’d like to read to you from it a bit. This is the first book I’ve written, and I did it during nights and weekends while raising my family of five small kids. So this is a bit of a dream for me.” They stared.
I began with chapter one, a passage about a couple driving over the George Washington Bridge in which a woman is trying to conceal her bridge anxiety from her husband. I finished the first page without incident, and rounded the bend of the second. I sensed squirming in the upper left quadrant so I read a bit louder, slower. I read about a lost friend, and the nature of the two women’s friendship. I read about the odd intimacy formed among mothers who do not have much in common but the shared work of the children, day after day.
A woman in the second row jostled the shoulder of her friend and muttered dissatisfaction. I slowed it down even more, and read with more inflection. “What is she TALKING about?” I heard her say. I glanced up to see her friend shake her head. I decided I would finish the passage with the kind of animation I gave my children’s’ stories, even though it embarrassed me to read my work with the kind of gravitas of theater. If I bombed, at least the odds were good they’d never remember who I was.
“ ‘But that’s the thing about people who don’t fit in a box’,” I finished, one word at a time. “ ‘When they go missing, they are missing everywhere’.”
Further back in the room there was a bit of agitation. “Who IS she?” I heard. Someone with a walker headed for a forbidden door, and an alarm sounded. A nurse gently herded her back to the fold.
Fran stood. “Isn’t this nice? Nichole has come here to read to us from her very own book today. Do you know what her book is about?”
A woman in the front row, someone I knew was with me because of the intense eye contact she’d maintained, scrunched up her face. “NOOooo,” she said, in nearly a wail.
Fran changed course. “Maybe we can ask Nichole a few questions, like asking what it’s like to be a writer. Are there any other writers in your family, Nichole?” She had that encouraging look preschool teachers have with their students, willing them to answer a certain way and give them something to work with.
“Not exactly. There aren’t other writers, but my grandfather had a very special typewriter.”
“Did you hear that?” Fran said. “She loved her grandfather very much. And he left her his special typewriter. Some of you have grandchildren you love very much, don’t you?”
At the word grandfather there was a perking up around the room.
“My grandfather had been a radio operator for the Merchant Marine in World War Two,” I continued. “He was on the last ship to be sunk after the war had technically ended, because the Germans in the U-boat didn’t know it. It happened right near here, right off the coast of Rhode Island.”
I heard noises of approval. People I’d thought were asleep were nodding, with me, instead of nodding off. “My husband was a radio operator,” said a woman with lively eyes and legs that ended below the knee. “He was on the aircraft carrier The Lexington. You should have seen the size of that ship.” Another woman started singing a war song softly, and her neighbor joined in. The room was coming alive like the swimming pool scene in the movie Coccoon.
We went on for some time this way, until Fran told me in was nearly time for the residents to head into Game Time. I finished up by explaining about the typewriter rescued from the sinking ship — that my grandfather left it to me instead of The Smithsonian when he saw I was heading toward becoming a writer.
As I left I walked across the front row to say a personal goodbye and clasp a few of the hands of those who’d been most engaged. A few volunteered their stories — loved ones lost in the war, lives pursued afterward — and I asked their names, knowing the value of being recognized as an individual who’d accomplished things. And I repeated my own name hoping after all that they might remember mine, too.