Thursday, April 7, 2011

Performance

I think I've posted about this before, but it's on my mind this week, for several reasons.  Writers have a strange relationship to their, you know, physical existence.  Like anyone whose satisfaction comes mostly from time spent in their own head, writers often find the actual world rather vexing to navigate, and have mixed feelings about presenting themselves to others.  Even though, in theory, nothing could be more simple than giving a reading--you don't even have to memorize anything, you just stand there and read stuff off of a piece of paper--many of us find such events incredibly stressful.  We are not accustomed to being in front of our readers--it's not in the contract.  We're supposed to be able to be our worst selves on the page, without fear of embarrassment or misunderstanding.  All we are is a pile of paper, a book, a digital file.  We aren't supposed to have a five o'clock shadow, pit sweat, or PMS.  It just isn't natural for a writer to perform.

Some people, though are so good at it.  Margaret Atwood was here last week, and R. and I got to spend some quality time with her.  Her reading was great, but her performance lasted the duration of her stay in Ithaca.  She was on all day long, keeping up a hilarious and fascinating line of patter on her favorite subjects--genetics, the environment, the culture of writers and literature.  (Sadly, no hockey.)

I'm giving a reading tonight, and I gave a reading last week, and I must admit I love giving readings.  But my hands shake as I do it, sometimes visibly.  The version of myself I'm willing to be while writing is not the version of myself I would naturally present to others in person.  This creates a certain dissonance while teaching, too--as writers, we talk about sex, death, self-disgust, self-doubt.  As teachers, we are supposed to be experts, flawlessly confident and assured, and keep a personal distance between ourselves and our students, even as we encourage them to reveal themselves in ways we might be reluctant to suggest even to our own spouses.  The result is this bizarre stew of emotions, of concealment and revalation, of intimacy and detachment.  I think this is one of the reasons creative writing classes are so popular, even with students for whom writing itself is not a great passion: they are a forum for deep personal expression, but with built-in limits and controls.  They are an oblique form of self-analysis, for people who might otherwise be afraid to examine themselves too closely.

We went to see The Mountain Goats the other night, in Ithaca, and I was struck by the facility with which Darnielle and company presented the deeply intimate, even disturbing, material the band is known for.  Sometimes I wish I could read or teach with Jon Wurster drumming behind me, and a guitar and amp to give my words something to ride on.  Then again, the typical literary audience is a bit better groomed and doesn't shout requests.  I'll take it.

10 comments:

lisa dot richards said...

The Mountain Goats and Margaret Atwood in the same week?! You're a lucky man.

David-Glen Smith said...

Your third paragraph reminded me of a time when I gave a poetry reading before a room of maybe twelve people and my hands started trembling, the papers started shaking violently—and I couldn't figure out why. The nervous energy makes its presence known whenever it feels like it I guess.

Russell said...

Yeah: always better to publish posthumously. One's sang-froid is thereby virtually guaranteed.

Sung said...

At every reading I've ever given, there's a point when I say to myself, "What the hell is this that I'm doing?" It's unnerving, a point at which I literally feel the artficiality of the moment. Thankfully, it passes, and the reading goes as planned, but it's still just sort of weird.

5 Red Pandas said...

My first experience with giving and going to readings was in my college writing program but I very often felt like my classmates had manipulated me and taken me as an emotional hostage with their confessional poems and stories. I guess that's why I made an unconscious decision to read humorous writing at readings. I figured it was what people could stomach and they could read the darker stuff on their own (except people always told me the stuff I thought was funny was really sad.)

Teaching will definitely help you shake stage fright. After I started teaching in NYC public schools my ego was taken outside behind the school and given a severe beating. On an especially hot day toward the end of the year a student shouted at me- "yo Ms! Your pits is crying!" because he could see my pit stains. Thanks. My personal vanity has never recovered, but I can take most criticism without tears these days. (Actually I am sure at least 1/2, if not more, of the staff at any of the schools I've worked at are on some kind of anti-depressants bc the job is a serious mindfuck.)

I think readings make me more nervous than playing rock shows because at a show I'm just playing drums and you can't see the audience very well. Plus, a drum part isn't revealing anything emotional, unlike writing.

Having seen you read about 3 times now, I have to say, you don't seem nervous.

Z Cole said...

Sung--I did a reading at my college last week, I felt that same sense of artificiality before I went up. I looked around the crowd and the back of the student lounge, converted to a stage, and thought, "I am going to stand in front of this group and lean into that microphone and pretend I know how to read stories." And then the feeling passed when I begin found the groove of the story, and embraced the performance of it all. A scary thing, that pre-show questioning.

jrlennon said...

Pandas--glad I don't seem nervous! Yeah, I usually try to do at least one funny thing...it punctures the sense of self-importance these things can have...

Lisa Richards, yes, it was a hell of a week!

Sasha said...

Wait, you guys don't feel the "artificiality of the moment" every moment?

Hope said...

I must be a masochist for trying to do performance poetry because I hate it so much. I saw myself on video hosting an open mic once or twice and could NOT bear it. She's so nervous! I kept thinking, watching myself.
On the other hand, it's a way to force myself to just get over myself.

jrlennon said...

Hope, those bits where you close your eyes and read from memory are awesome. You are very natural, to my ear and eye.