Reading Mending in Albuquerque, New Mexico: getting ready, doing the reading, and drawing some conclusions.
Preparing to read from my new collection, Mending: New and Selected Stories at the Alamosa Bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico, goes beyond wondering who will be there, which is always impossible to predict: five? Ten? Thirty? Writing Students from the University of New Mexico’s MFA Program? Friends? All, some or none of the above may show up at 2 pm on Saturday.
First, I’ll choose which story by reading a couple out loud. I prefer to try my newest work—the first stories in the collection although not the title story, “Mending”, which I wrote in the 1970’s and had forgotten until I noticed an old anthology moldering away on a shelf in my garage.
“Heaven” is short enough, but it is only my first go at the complex problem of faith.
“Anywhere You Send Me,” my Haiti story, is my current favorite, but it’s too long; I’ve found after twenty or twenty-five minutes, I’m sick of the sound of my own voice and eager for the questions that will reveal to me who my listeners are. I often learn more from them than I imagine they learn from me.
That leaves “Seagull”—too New York, I think, for this audience, and “Found” (oddly, I originally called it “Lost”) and “Selling The Farm,” which I’ll save for Kentucky where its setting and theme will have greater effect.
So, “Found.” At sixteen pages, it’s almost too long, and I never cut material when I’m reading since in the heat of the moment, coherence and design may be lost.
“Found” has the advantage, for listeners, of being told from a single, and singular, point of view, that of a twelve year-old girl launched without any previous information or any knowledge of French on the city of Paris in those shadowy years of privation after the Second World War.
It ends with her triumphantly “finding” herself in those mysterious streets, without guidance except from people she can’t understand.
Good. That does it.
In my hard-backed reading copy, which I’ll carry to all these events, I’ll write down the date of the reading, the place, and later some comments on how it went, including whether this story was a good choice.
Now comes the other vital question: what will I wear?
In the beginning of my career as a writer, I tried to disappear into my words; that was the result of a long battle with shyness, since overcome.
Later, in the early, flamboyant years of the women’s movement, I dressed, as they say “to kill”—as did many of us as we emerged phoenix-like from obscurity.
Since then, I’ve learned the perils of this kind of flashiness. Readers have great difficulty separating the writer from the work of her imagination, especially in the case of a writer who is a woman; they often seem to yearn for another form of connection that would be more like a friendly chat over tea: hobbies, children, travel and so forth.
That need for a different kind of connection may cause some of my listeners to focus on the way I look, not in itself a bad thing, but distressing in that it dilutes their attention to the short story I’m reading; which is not at all about my personal life.
Especially in the case of a listener who is struggling to understand my story, the hints she receives from the way I look may seem to be a way in. We all learned as infants to look, touch, hear and smell as our first, pre-verbal way to understand the people around us, and while touch and smell are seldom seen as permissible—especially during a reading! Looking and hearing are potent, if unreliable, signals. In my case, my southern accent is another misleading detail; the associations most people make with my voice distort my fiction.
Dun-colored and ordinary way be the best way to go in the hope that the readers’ attention will find little to feed on, and so my short story will become, almost at once, more interesting than the tan jacket, flat hairdo, and bland middle-aged face.
But I’m not sure.