Sunday, September 20, 2009

Keep Your Awesome To Yourself

I really enjoy attending readings. Sure, sometimes it can be painful - some (maybe even the majority) of authors are simply not good public speakers. Their lack of a powerful oratory presence is probably one of the reasons they've chosen to be writers in the first place. This is not a finger-pointing criticism; I've given a couple readings before, and believe me - it's hard.

But the reason I really enjoy attending readings is that I always learn something. I might discover the work of an author I wouldn't otherwise have found, or some interesting use of language might catch my attention, or I might just learn how to become a better public reader myself.

Earlier this week, I attended a reading given by four local authors. On this occasion, I learned something from an author who, strangely enough, didn't read anything at all.

(Note: I'll refer to this particular author as "he/him," although this may or may not reflect the actual gender of the author in question.)

The author in question was the evening's feature author, the last of the four local authors to read. His next book (the newest edition of a somewhat popular historical fiction series that I hadn't heard of before) was coming out soon, and he began by explaining that he was so tired of his own words that, in lieu of reading, he would give a brief talk about how he became a working writer.

I was slightly put off by this introduction. After all, all the authors that evening were probably more or less tired of their words, but they read them anyway. Furthermore, his complaint of being exhausted over his own soon-to-be-published novel in the presence of a literary-minded crowd - many of whom were no doubt fledgling writers themselves - made him look more than a little out-of-touch. (The words "let them eat cake" kept echoing in my mind as he spoke.)

But I decided I was being petty: the setting at this particular reading was informal and intimate, so certainly he was not receiving any monetary compensation for appearing, and therefore he retained the right to read or not read whatever he wanted. Also, at any reading, there are a collection of wannabe writers (such as myself) who want to learn more about the publishing industry. Maybe, I thought, he could teach me something I didn't know.

Unfortunately, his story contained few surprises. He began with the all-too familiar you-can-do-it motivational speech for writers: For years, he talked about becoming a writer. He talked and talked and talked about it, told everyone who asked him about his work and interests. Then one day his three-year-old asked him why he always lied to people about being a writer. So that lit a fire under his ass and he wrote and wrote and wrote. The story ended with an oh-shucks-my-first-query-letter-hit success tale. Now, he writes for a living. He achieved the holy grail: living as a gainfully employed, full-time writer.

At its core, I found no particular fault in this little speech. He put in the work and became successful, good for him. I would have been fine with everything if this writer had been reading alone, or if he had read with other writers at the same or greater level of success than his own. But what pushed the whole ordeal into the realm of bad taste was the fact that this writer was reading with people who had been published at small presses, who still worked regular full-time jobs, and at least one writer who had self-published her book. Again, the utter lack of situational awareness certainly didn't win her any new fans that evening.

During the Q&A, one person asked the author who self-published whether or not she'd do it again. Her response began: "Well, I didn't have the magic fairy dust that so-and-so had...." The comment was made in jest, and a good-natured chuckle spread through the room, but I sensed just a bit of uneasiness in the successful writer's smile, as if he finally understood the mistake he had made.

The lesson to be learned: If you're asked to read your work, just read it. Even if you're genuinely impressed with your own success, it's faulty to believe that anyone else will want to hear about it.

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