It's Good Just to Show Up: One Writer's First (Terrifying) Public Reading
By Amy Miller
Oh, readings. When we’re young, unpublished writers, we dream about the readings we’ll do, all spotlights and podiums and New York agents in the audience. And then we finally get to do one—and let’s just say we have to revise our dreams.
My first foray into the world of readings was back in 2001, when I was fairly new to the writing business. I’d just had three poems accepted by a good literary journal based in Texas, and then I got more good news: The journal’s editor e-mailed, asking if I’d like to read at their issue-release party in Austin. This was a huge deal, since I lived near San Francisco, 1,700 miles away. Whoa, I thought, this good journal is actually inviting me, a barely published poet, all the way to Austin to read. This could be my big break!
Now, dear reader, what I didn’t realize—and what I will clue you in to now, so you can experience the full ridiculousness of this story—was that the editor had sent this invitation not just to me, but to all the poets published in the new issue, roughly 50 people. Experienced writers know this drill: The editor wanted a good crowd at the launch party and was casting out a net, hoping a few writers within driving distance would show up to read.
I did not know this drill.
What I did know was that I really, really wanted to do this reading. Flying to Texas! To read poetry! It seemed sort of nutty, but I had a good-paying job and vacation time coming, so I quickly replied to the editor and accepted the invitation. She answered back with a masterful mix of graciousness and incredulity: “Oh . . . how nice that you’re willing to come so far. I’m afraid we can’t help you with travel expenses.” OK, I thought, this is one of those poetry gigs that doesn’t pay. Maybe they’re all like that.
No matter; I booked my flight and arranged for lodging in Austin, with a side trip to my grandmother’s hometown of nearby Shiner. And the editor had said to bring books to sell at the book table, so I hastily got to work assembling and hand-stapling 20 copies of a chapbook, my first ever, which I packed carefully into my suitcase. Do not forget the chapbooks!
About a week before I was scheduled to fly out, my manager at work called me into his office. He had news of a different sort: I was fired. The company that had employed me for 14 years, that had often told me I was so special that they could never replace me, was laying me off. It was two months after the 9/11 attacks, and whole industries in the San Francisco area, including mine—magazine publishing—were convulsing and laying off thousands of workers. So many people were out of work that vastly overqualified PhDs were applying for entry-level jobs like editorial assistants and receptionists. Clearly there wouldn’t be enough jobs for all of us, not for a long time. I had no idea how I was going to pay the rent.
And there I was, sitting on plane tickets and hotel reservations for a crazy trip to Texas—hundreds of dollars about to drain out of my now-critical bank account. And from the e-mails flying around about the reading, I was starting to realize that the invitation wasn’t, in fact, an honor individually aimed at me. Other poets would be reading there as well, all from the Austin area—pretty much anyone who could drive there on a Saturday night. So this was another way in which I was not as special as I’d thought.
But the tickets were bought, the rooms were reserved. And in the crapstorm that had become my life, I felt like I needed something good, something fun and impractical that didn’t involve moping around the house, eating Pop-Tarts, and circling listings for menial jobs. I wanted something that made me feel like a writer, not a loser. So I decided to go to Texas.
Out with the in crowd
By the time I flew out on a Friday morning, I’d come down with a painful head cold—a sign, I felt, of a really mean universe—and had to pop aspirin and cold medicine all the way to Houston. There I picked up a rental car and meandered west across central Texas, drifting through towns like Sublime and Yoakum. I spent a nostalgic day in Shiner, eating fried chicken with white gravy and hot peppers, gulping down cough syrup, and marveling at the grand old houses that my great-grandfather, a German carpenter, probably helped build. By the time I arrived in Austin for the reading, I was nervous as hell, my hands actually shaking as I walked in the door of the little bookstore. To my astonishment, the place was packed—all seats taken, people standing three-deep at the back and sitting in the aisles on whatever patch of floor they could find. I quickly counted heads; there were about 100 people crammed in there. Whoa, I thought, stepping over legs and backpacks on my way to the podium, this is a thing.
I sat down with the five other poets up front and settled in, trying to calm my nerves while I listened to the first few readers. When my turn came, I stood up and gave a decent delivery of my handful of poems, only making one gaffe when I lost my place in the middle of a poem and had to pause for about a century while I figured out which line I was on. Afterward I sat down, enjoyed the other readers, and then the reading was over—poof—and everyone stood up and starting milling around in a sort of giant cocktail party.
And now I was in a situation way more frightening than a reading—now it was a roomful of people who all knew each other, gravitating into little clutches of conversation. I stood there alone, putting my poems back in my purse and taking a few deep breaths, trying not to think of all the times I’d stood in a room like that before, feeling awkward as hell while a crippling shyness—a phobia that had plagued me my whole life—tightened around me like a giant hand. No, no, no—I was not going to crumble with social phobia this time. I’d flown all this way! To star in this show! I needed to just loosen up and be normal, like all these other people. I found the makeshift bar and poured myself a plastic cup of wine. Sometimes booze helped.
I saw a friendly-looking group and sidled up to them. But they soon disbanded, leaving me alone again. Tried another group—same thing. I sought out the hosts and other poets, but they were deep in talk with friends. I studied the artwork on the walls. I nursed my drink. I tried to look happy and inviting. And slowly, like a hiker slipping backward down a steep trail, I could feel myself falling into a full-on panic attack. I stood there, in something approaching physical pain, for about another twenty minutes and then gave up, set down my drink, and walked out the door. I got into my rental car and sat there in the parking lot for a long time, shaking with frustration. Was I really this messed up? Had I come all this way, just to be derailed by a whopping attack of shyness? Maybe if I calmed down, I could go back in . . .
But it was too late. People were starting to stream out of the store; the party was breaking up. Half-relieved, I thought, Well, at least I’ll go back in there and get my chapbooks from the book table. But then it dawned on me: In my nervousness, I’d completely forgotten my chapbooks and had never put them on the table. In fact, I’d never even pulled them out of my suitcase. They were still in the trunk of the car. I was officially a loser.
I drove back to my hotel, the saddest sad sack in all of Texas. The next day I drove back to Houston on rural roads that seemed a lot gloomier than they had two days earlier. I caught the evening flight home. Back in my house, I left the chapbooks in the suitcase for about a month, unable to look at them.
One of those experiences
But honestly, in spite of all that, this is a happy memory. Yes, ruefully happy, but now it makes me laugh. It was one of those learning experiences your mother tells you you’ve just had, right after you’ve smacked your head on the sidewalk. This experience taught me a lot of things. First—really, don’t forget the books. And even though that was one of my all-time worst attacks of social phobia, I did survive it, and I did learn from it, if only as an example of something I never wanted to happen again.
But the main thing I learned was that it’s good to just show up. Yes, it was crazy to fly all that way to do that reading. And yes, I’ve done a few other readings since then that probably didn’t justify the travel time and hotel room. But readings are unpredictable; even at the tiniest ones, you often meet great people in the audience. Sometimes you meet other authors who hook you up with other readings or publishers or who knows what. It’s all a crapshoot, the chaotic mathematics of personal encounters. But you keep coming back to the common denominator: you, standing up in front of people and reading your work because someone invited you to do it. And maybe there’s no New York editor out there in the crowd, but you have to admit—it is, actually, a little bit of a dream. And a story you can tell your writer friends for years to come. And a notch in your resume that says, yeah, I did that crazy thing. Because I’m a writer, and that’s what we do.
Amy Miller’s writing has appeared in Nimrod, Permafrost, Rattle, Willow Springs, ZYZZYVA, The Oregonian, Fine Gardening, Asimov's Science Fiction, and The Poet's Market. She won the Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition, judged by Tony Hoagland, the Jack Grapes Poetry Prize from Cultural Weekly, and the Earl Weaver Baseball Writing Prize from Cobalt. She works as the publications project manager at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and blogs at writers-island.blogspot.com.