Part of being a writer is reading your work in public. Performing. You’re looking at a guy who’s uncomfortable speaking in chat rooms. I’m deathly afraid of reading my work in public. But public readings are in the writer’s job description, so when I’m called to read I suck it up and read.
Tonight I’m going to tell you about my worst reading ever.
It was 1983. I was a Creative Writing student at a doomed writing school in Nelson,. We were naïve enough to think we could get the government to change its mind about closing our school. But how? Someone said, “I, know! Let’s put on a show.” So we did. In Vancouver. With 25 of Canada’s literary giants signed on to read, it was going to be huge.
I need to tell you I was a real hardcore in those days. I wore a biker jacket, Daytons, jeans and black tee shirts. I also wore attitude like armour.
Anyway, I was one of seven students selected to read and the only one from second year. I was thrilled, in a free fall sort of way. I’d been working on a new story and I had a good feeling about it. I worked the first three pages and practiced reading them. I wasn’t about to blow my five minutes of fame.
Despite rehearsing, I was devoured by panic two days before leaving. I didn’t sleep much. Before boarding the bus, I made sure my manuscript and favourite pencil were secure in my jacket’s breast pocket.
To help soothe my nerves, I bought my first mickey of JD in Castlegar. My second in Penticton. In Hope I switched to Southern Comfort. As drunk as I was, I worked my story until I passed out.
The minute we got to Vancouver, I broke away from our group and hit the bars. Hard. I met up with some buddies. We partied all night.
My buddy Markus and I spent the afternoon at his parents’ place because they had food and German beer. It poured all afternoon. We couldn’t get his Midget’s top up, so with me holding a golf umbrella over us, we sped from the top of Lonsdale all the way to Kitsilano, losing the umbrella on Lions Gate Bridge.
We were about ten minutes late. And soaked. More writers had signed on to read, so there was a chance the student readings would be cut. I felt something in between relief and disappointment. It was closer to relief, because there had to be close to 400 people in the crowd. I also felt for my story. It was gone. So was my pencil. I loved that pencil.
There was a makeshift bar set up in the foyer, selling tall boy Canadians and wine. I swilled beer, chain smoked and paced. I knew my pages well enough to paraphrase them, but paraphrasing wasn’t reading. Almost by accident I noticed a book table set up across from the “bar.” The students had put together an anthology of our writing to sell as a fundraiser at this event. I had a piece in it, a poem-thing about BC’s labour unrest.
There were plenty of copies on the table. I grabbed one and thumbed through it looking for my piece. I folded the book open and its staples popped.
I walked away with it. The book lady said I needed to pay for it.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m in it. See, this is me. I’m reading tonight and I lost my story.”
I walked away. She didn’t chase me. I’d intended to return the book after I read. Really, I did.
Markus had disappeared with a chick he’d picked up at the beer table. I studied the poem-thing, paced, drinking beer and smoking.
I’d just lit a cigarette when my name was called.
The emcee introduced me as a promising young poet. You have to know I did not think of myself as a writer, let alone a poet, at this point in my life.
Picture this: me, thundering toward the podium, all wild hair, a cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth, a tall boy Canadian in one hand, and under my arm, a broken book, shedding pages like layers of skin.
I was on a two-day drunk and right now the only thing keeping me erect was my fear of tripping and looking like an idiot in front of some 400 people.
I’d passed a number of no smoking and no alcohol beyond this point signs. Do you think I cared? No, not until I was on stage with no ashtray and no place to plant my beer. I shuffled through the book’s remaining pages, losing most of them to the stage floor, until I find mine. My cigarette’s ash had grown to about half the length of the smoke. I tapped the ash into my cupped hand and then anointed my jeans with it.
I started to read. The cherry on my smoke was dangerously close to burning my face. The filter was stuck to my lip. As smoothly as I was able, I got the smoke off my face before it did any real damage. I snuffed it out between the tips of my thumb and forefinger and continued reading.
As soon as I was done I left the building. I’d blown it. My buddy and I grabbed a pity six-pack and drank it in the Waldorf parking lot. We got busted. I got hauled off to jail on an old traffic warrant. I spent the night in city cells and almost missed the bus back to Nelson.
I suppose the moral of this story is redundant backups are sound risk management policy; or, perhaps, alcohol, although liquid, isn’t a solution.