Writing is a solitary act, but reading your writing aloud is another story altogether. With large or small audiences, old or young, a writer must read so that the listener not only hears, but experiences the words. Some writers read beautifully, with intonation, pauses, and facial expressions. I think most writers read their work poorly. It is as if the two acts—writing and reading—were simply meant to be done by two different individuals. But sometimes it doesn’t matter if the reading is good or not, as long as it is genuine. I learned this by leading a drop-in reading group for memoir writers.
It started in 2002, when Kitty Axelson-Berry, founder of Modern Memoirs, launched a group for writers to read aloud their works-in-progress. It was called First Person! First Night! The genre was loosely billed as “memoirs” and the group met on the first night of every month, hence the name. What a thrill it was to gather together a group of strangers and embark on an unpredictable night of unpredictable stories read aloud by each author. True, we weren’t published authors. True, we had never read aloud our stories before. True, most of us didn’t edit our work before walking through the door. But authenticity? We had it. Passion? We had it. Curiosity? We had it. Kookiness? That was in there, too.
On every first of the month, my colleague and I would arrive at the office at 6:45 p.m., set up a bunch of mismatched chairs in a tight circle, and place an old flexible floor lamp next to the designated “reading chair,” a frayed pink upholstered thing, quite comfortable. (The chair, shown above, still sits in our office as of this writing, 2019.) We would start promptly at seven p.m. and end at nine.
It was a drop-in group, and fairly informal—we would count the number of attendees, divide 120 minutes by that number, and each person would pick a number out of a hat or basket to determine the sequence of readers. There were anywhere from three to fifteen participants dropping in, on average four to six. We would devote some time after each person’s reading for constructive or personal feedback from listeners, if desired, but critique was discouraged and actually nonexistent. After all, these were usually raw and unedited pieces, sometimes read directly from a journal, a notebook, letters, even scrap paper. The majority of us had no intention of publishing our work, much less re-reading or revising it.
I read aloud a lot of stories about the waning joys of parenting in those days. Or about my grandparents, long gone. John read about his houses, cars, and lovers. Mary read about her alcoholic parents. Emma read about her imaginary subway friends. Joe read about his toothbrushing habits. Carol read her to-do lists. Sarah read about her trip to Yucatan with a beagle. And we all peeled away our facades; we told the truth. The awful, perfect truth. To spellbound listeners with few comments.
We’d pass around the basket at the end of the night for a suggested donation ($5). We never socialized. But there naturally developed a small set of participants who seemed to have some extra dedication to the group and to one another. We gathered every month, no matter what the weather, for years. We doggedly met every January first (for me, the evening after many sleepless New Year’s eves). I think I only missed hosting three First Person! nights in thirteen years.
After all this time, it seemed fitting to put together an anthology of stories written by the die-hards of the group, so I did this on my own time last year. It’s a softcover book, around 95 pages, five contributors, called The Reader’s Chair. This book looks so tiny to me, yet it represents a mountain of work and love. It feels good to hold in my hands the humble words we shared and to relive the enthralling journeys we took together. It feels good to have something tangible in honor of the many, many evenings we writers came and spilled ourselves, our words, our voices out into the room for anyone to hear.
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