Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Last night's reading at Community College (a/k/a what I learned from the Neil Gaiman reading)

Ha ha - thanks to one of my partners in crime, author Ellen Meister who took pity on my lack of the photogenic gene and turned the below photo Julie snapped of me on Tuesday into these cool head shots. By the way, click on Ellen's link. This time rather than link you to her blog (which she doesn't update daily because, ahem, she's working on her second hard cover book for Morrow/Avon and she's got a deadline), I'm sending you directly to her Publishers Marketplace page...and you can say you met her here first because trust me, after this summer when her debut novel hits the stores, she's going to be a superstar.

So. All day yesterday prior to the reading at Community College, I was a wreck. I have no idea why this was; I've done a ton of readings to usually very nice receptions, but there is one that comes back to haunt me from time to time that I try and put out of my mind but for some reason, it made an appearance yesterday bigtime and I literally started to shake even though I knew for sure the same thing couldn't possibly happen twice...because I'd never make the mistake I made there again. More on that in a minute...

Up until around a week ago, I was going to read Chapter One from Three Days in New York City. But to be honest, because I was reading at a college and not a bar I started thinking it was inappropriate as the first chapter contains phrases like "nipple clamps" and "this whip looks like a limp...(fill in the blank)". So then I thought, okay, I'll read a couple flashes I've written recently...they're short and I won't lose the crowd's attention. But then I remembered I'm reading with Randall Brown, who, along with my pal Joe Young is like Grandmaster Flash of the Universe, and I figured anything I read would pale in comparison. Yeah, yeah, take a Dale Carnegie course or something, Rob.

Suddenly, I realized I had the perfect story already written -- well, almost already written -- and even better, I could kill two birds with one stone. Because after torturing myself for days, I figured the one way I could get over the shame of the Neil Gaiman signing incident and redeem myself would be to turn it into a short story. Okay, a memoir, but right now, thank you very much James Frey, I am afraid to even use that word. Ha! (Though I still think he was lynched on Oprah, which I do not normally watch but my son wanted to see it so I stuck around for five minutes and I cringed so much for this poor schmuck I had to walk out of the room. Trust me, I'm not defending fact, if you want to see exactly how I feel and put much more eloquently...please go visit my friend Susan Henderson's website.)

So I took my Gaiman blog post of last week and put a little backstory in, tightened it up considerably, and ended up with what I hoped would be a fairly entertaining read.

Okay, first shock is: I walked into Community College and not only was the room fairly large -- it was a lecture room -- it was packed with teachers and students and other writers and even people from my neighborhood! Arghhh! (I live less than a mile away from the school). Not only did they have a podium with two microphones, there was a video camera set up and when you're at that podium, that camera is right on you and oh my god, I am so glad I did not know that in advance.

I of course wore a black Bob Dylan t-shirt and jeans. Oh alright, video camera or not, I would have worn it anyway, so who am I kidding.

Anyway, there was a host of introductions, Carla and Christine came up and talked about Philadelphia Stories, and they were totally cool -- even announced how I was a long time member of their editorial board and that Randall Brown had now come aboard as editor thereby making me want to come off of sabbatical and give them a hand editing again because Randall is so much fun and such an awesome writer.

And speaking of Randall, he read first and oh boy did I make a wise decision not to read my flashes because Randall read from what will be his flash collection - he even held up a color copy of its cover -- and he was awesome. Especially terrific was a story he wrote about a father torturing his mother-in-law via his young son.

David Floyd read next -- he's a brilliant poet with a new book coming out later this year but I found this poem of his online which I wish, wish, wish he had read last night because I like it so much and is so on target with how I feel most of the time I should just have it made into a (black) t-shirt:

Pensee of the Shameless

If there were such a place as a shame place,
he'd owe so much rent in shame
he'd eventually be evicted,
so he made up his mind
not to go there
to this place that he didn't want to exist,
and because his mind was so made up
he found every kiss that follows
a first kiss isn't as good as a first kiss,
but he was willing to try to prove himself
wrong with any willing woman,
and when the weather within him
was grainy and almost soundless
like some pornography of sky,
he found his own stratification
for his climate,
even though it meant being a southpaw
to the right-minded with perfect reasons,
even though it meant they'd drop salt
on his name-he wanted to be a bird
without the weight of feathers.

Whew. How good was that?

Okay, anyway, then they introduce me. One thing I learned at Neil Gaiman's reading last week was how he engaged the crowd. I watched him closely, he smiled at us, he paused at all the right places...he made us feel like he was reading to each of us personally. And he also had a pitcher of water and freely took sips while he read.

So I'm all prepared; I've not only brought along a bottle of Poland Spring water, I've brought a plastic cup from home because when I drink straight from the bottle, I get the hiccups, and that's just another fun fact about me I'm sure you're better off not knowing. (Hey, it's better I tell you about that than about my aversion to people touching my feet. Oh hell, I just did, didn't I. Well, it's not that I am foot paranoid; it's just that I'm extremely ticklish, and if you touch my feet, well, for some reason that has a direct connection to my bladder...and....oy, never mind).

Naturally, when they called my name to come up and read, my first act was to leave the bottle of water and cup under my seat and as soon as I stood at the podium and realized what I'd done, instead of being a normal human being and fetching it, I stood there for a brief moment convinced I had drymouth and was going to start coughing uncontrollably. And then I looked straight into that television camera...and yep, it was in fact a television camera and if you have Comcast cable or any other local cable carrier in Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs, you'll be able to watch this on the Philadelphia Community College cable channel, which I believe is Channel 53, in the very near future and I will post a link as soon as I get the word when.

I started out by holding up a copy of Three Days in New York and talking about it and why I would not be reading it from tonight (can you say nipple clamps?) and that made the crowd laugh which instantly relaxed me. So then I started winging it.

"Do you guys know who Neil Gaiman is?"

And of course most everyone in the room shouted out YEAH!

"Okay," I said. "Is there anyone in this room who doesn't know who Neil Gaiman is?"

And one (fellow)dork raised his hand and said "No" so I said "Well, you're going to find out who he is in this story I'm about to read, but as a brief background, he's a very famous writer who I met last week...and I made such an idiot of myself that I really had no choice but to write about it...(crowd laughed bigtime which was very cool)...and so, without further ado, "The Night I Met Neil Gaiman and Confirmed I am a Dork". (And then everyone REALLY laughed).

So that set up the story nicely and had me almost Zen-like calm and forgetting about no water, etc. Taking a cue from Gaiman, I really tried to engage the audience. When I got to parts like "He's using my pen! He's using my pen!" I actually acted them out and grabbed onto the podium like it was Eric's arm. So I had the audience eating out of my sweaty neurotic little palm and I still don't believe it.

If I've ever written a more crowd pleasing piece, I'm not aware of it. Well, I did get a great response to Three Days when I read at KGB in New York, but that's because everyone was drunk. Ha.

Which reminds me of the incident I mentioned above -- the one reading I wish I could forget but never will. It was held at TIXE in New York in 2003 at a very cutting edge art gallery. The reading was scheduled for a Saturday evening, so Julie and I decided to make a weekend of it and we stayed at a beautiful hotel Friday and Saturday nights, with our plan being to do Christmas shopping during the day Saturday, eat a gourmet meal somewhere, and then head off to the reading.

What the hell was I thinking? You can't trudge all over New York easily during Christmas season, eat a big meal, and then go read. I didn't even practice reading out loud beforehand! And get this -- while we're out shopping, it started to snow like crazy, and we were all the way at like 5th Avenue and 57th Street and our hotel was over by the U.N. Building miles away. Okay, not miles, but in a snowstorm, it felt like miles, and naturally, there were no cabs and Julie hadn't yet mastered New York's subway system. (She now has, Julie being Julie, and too cheap for cabs though not too cheap to have Mom take her to Le Bec Fin for lunch...see post of January 30)

Anyway, we were freezing and exhausted when we showed up at TIXE, and this you won't believe altogether. It was so trendy chic in there that they only had one single light bulb hanging above this dark, dark stage in the back of the gallery. And for some ungodly reason, I'd printed out my story in like number 10 font. Since I am no longer twenty years old but still hadn't caved and bought those dreaded bifocals, I couldn't see a thing. I mean, really. I held my pages in front of me on that stage, with my daughter in the audience for the very first time, and was totally and completely helpless. And here's this hip, New York crowd sitting on the floor, drinking jug wine, and I just knew they were mocking me. (They weren't...that was just me being me). But I felt like Bambi when he got the news his mommy had died.

I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't see. I read a few lines, stumbled, then asked for more light only to be told "there is no more light!" and I definitely heard someone say "she should get herself some glasses" combine that with how tired I was and how devastated I was that Julie had to witness my shame, that I simply walked off the stage and said "I can't do this."

Lucky for me, there was a real live actress in the audience who was only too happy to read my work for me and she was kind and wonderful and I don't remember her name but I will be forever grateful to her even though I will also forever wallow in shame. I made up my mind that night I would never be unprepared for a reading again. I would print my work out in size 16 font, memorize the piece anyway if I could, and if I needed glasses I'd freaking get them. (As it turns out, I did not require bifocals...just some normal lighting in the room, damn it!)

Anyway, none of that happened last night. I hate to say this, but you know I am always putting myself down so if I'm saying it now, you know it has to be true. Last night I FUCKING RULED!!!!!


I just read over the last chapter of my novel in progress a few minutes ago -- a section I worked on late last night when I was all hyped up -- and let me change that statement.



Okay, obviously I am now off to edit, damn it.

P.S. By the way, Neil Gaiman has a new website which went live today with a brand new blog format. Dear god, am I going to have to look at that picture of him every day now? Okay, okay, I mean...ten times a day now? Heart be still. Though if you ask me, he should have used this one instead:

Anyway, go see Neil's new blog (ha ha - yeah, he's "Neil" now). It's right here.