Thank You, David Rakoff (and Nick and Susan) by Mary Ellen Walsh

In preparation for this semester’s Writers Speak: student reading, I needed to select a scene from a work-in-progress novel “Till Now” that I thought would resonate best in front of a live audience.  Reading through, many scenes were too heavy in exposition and I finally settled on what I refer to as “the audition scene.”  It’s all plot.

 Nick Mangano and Susan Merrell held a rehearsal beforehand.  Halfway through the second page with a knot in my stomach, I realized – yikes—this is crap.  It was more than just that self-deprecating judgmental editor perched on my shoulder.   No, this voice I could not stuff a sock in its mouth to squelch.  This was the voice of reason.  It was the truth.  God.  This IS crap.  Audience members are going to nudge one another “How the hell did she get into this program?  Who does she know?  She can’t even write a sentence let alone read her own stuff out loud.”

 (Loud Megaphone Voice)  Fraud.   Intruder.  Impersonating a writer.   Evacuate.

 I mumbled lines and read faster trying to throw anyone within earshot off the scent.  The pain would hurt less that way.  ‘Tis better if ‘tis done quickly.

 Nick and Susan kindly said, “Don’t rush.  Take your time and give weight to certain words.”  I smiled.  Yikes, they knew something was amiss.

 Practicing at home, I realized—yes, ahem it’s a crappy first (okay 3rd) draft, but the problem also was that it was written to read privately engaging the inner voice.

 Years ago, someone said you should read your stuff out loud to hone your voice.  And, although that’s true, I disagree.   The written word intended for one-on-one reading—my inner voice to your inner voice—is completely different than written word intended for reading aloud. 

 Readings are mini-performances.  While in person, visually I’m distracted.  Like when Emma Walton Hamilton read at Writers Speak I paid close attention but noticed those darling shoes.  Lovely.  Just darling. (Which, by the way, she wore the next day on the Today Show interview.)  Then I drifted back, fully listening.  Children’s books are tight, concise with no wiggle room.  She had me at hello.

 Quietly reading alone, a reader will forgive longer sentences and some of those extra pesky adjectives.   A long, lush contemplative sentence to tease your mind around is meant for private voyeurism.   But, read aloud, in person, nah-ah honey.  The listener has an attention span of a nano second.  Get in and out.   Hit your beat and move on.

 So, I struggled with what to do.  I’m a purist (read: unplug it and play acoustically).  My reluctance: if I chopped this sucker up, then I was cheating.  How could I re-write a scene and take it to performance level?  Then I would be writing a play.   Not fair. 

 Classic case procrastination, instead of re-writing, I tooled around on YouTube looking for obscure musical performances but found David Rakoff’s “Half Empty” reading.  As he sat down to read he said the magic words I needed to hear.   “Generally when I do a public reading, I do a version of something from the book… that I’ve then shorten and made more spritely and more performative.  But I decided…to read something from the book just as it exists on the page.”    He referred to the different versions as cousins.

 And with that generosity of sharing craft, I was absolved.  My instincts were right.  There was a difference.  I decided to re-write it.

 I find myself feeling that way again and again throughout the Stony Brook Southampton MFA program, by meeting other students, teachers, professionals and readers who’ve been there and faced the same challenges.  You don’t have to do what they did, but if you’re listening, the advice is golden. 

 I re-wrote it and when I read it aloud, it felt right—that editor on my shoulder didn’t make a peep.  In fact, she smiled.

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