I worried about it all week.
My reading at the Spalding MFA residency was scheduled for 4 PM on Friday, as part of the alumni homecoming weekend. Six alums who had recently published books would read and afterward, sell and sign books.
And I was nervous.
Nervous because I’d spent the week immersed in the glory of talking about writing and literature 24/7. Every day in workshop, where I assisted the award-winning short-story writer (and my former mentor) Mary Clyde, we went over the finer points of writing literature. That would be Literature, with a capital L.
One day in class, somebody mentioned Stephen King.
“I don’t read popular fiction,” Mary Clyde said, not in an unkind way, just an authoritative way.
Because, in my heart of hearts, I consider Emma Jean to be popular fiction. I wanted my novel to be literary, really I did, but what came out on the page was, well, maybe a bit quirkier than that. And here I was, in the heart of the world of literature, ready to read the first four pages of the book, in which our heroine declares her hatred of babies and realizes for the first time that her personality is a bit on the snarky side.
Friday afternoon came and as part of my duties as an assistant, I handed out drink tickets for the after-party, which helped soothed my nerves. (So did the arrival of Leisa Hammett, my student and dear friend, who happened to be in Louisville that weekend. It also helped that my beloved friend Candace was there to check out the MFA program.) And then it was time to read.
We were in a meeting room on the first floor of the Brown Hotel, where the walls were painted a deep mustard and decorated with curlicued flourishes. I made my way to the podium and began to read, where I promptly decided as I read that I was bombing, with a capital B, because I couldn’t hear much laughter. (And the novel is, for better or worse, supposed to be funny.) I told myself that my worst fears had come true. And I chalked it up to reading a popular fiction piece in a literary environment.
But when it was over, I was greeted with enthusiastic applause and people rushed up to me to tell me how funny I was, and how great the reading had gone. It turned out that the acoustics in the room were a bit odd and everyone was laughing a lot, I just couldn’t hear them. I sat behind a table which held a placard with my name on it, clutching a glass of wine Candace had brought me, and waited for people to bring me books to sign.
Which, to my surprise, they did. Like, lots of them did. And it was the most wonderful thing because the comments they made elated me. How they heard the first paragraph and knew they had to buy the book. How my bio in the program inspired them. (Um, that would be the bio that I cringed when I read because it combined my two worlds in a way I thought was a bit un-literary.) How they loved my reading and laughed all the way through it.
And I realized I had done it, done the thing I worry about it more than anything else: been myself. Because I’d had no other choice, I’d presented myself as the person I am, a writer of popular fiction with a literary background and one who teeters between the poles of these genres a bit uncertainly at times all the time.
I hadn’t bombed. Quite the contrary–I ended up selling more books than any other reader there, which I mention not to brag about, but to prove my point, one that we’ve heard over and over again, that being authentic is the path to freedom.
Lesson learned. Phew. Now I’ll probably have to learn it all over again sometime again soon.
PS. Mary Clyde loved the reading, and she bought my book.
What about you? Do you struggle to express your true self?