My original plan was to share something I was working on about the anxiety of giving readings, typical stuff, how your hands shake even if you’re not nervous; how weird it is when people are staring at you; how when you walk to the microphone people always glance at what you’re holding and get secretly pissed off if it’s more than a few papers because all they want is to listen to you not embarrass yourself as quickly as possible; and how readings are pretty much bullshit anyway because people are only there to see if you look like the guy they’d been picturing, which is my favorite author’s observation and certainly not one that applies to a writer no one has ever heard of.
Then I had this whole bit about how if you’re bad in a mundane way, as opposed to bad in an awe-inspiring “Holy shit that avalanche is amazing but gonna kill us” way, the people in the audience will tune you out and start thinking about all the dull things in their own lives, like if they should start going to the gym before work, until they snap back into the moment and find themselves annoyed that they’ve used their free time to attend something they weren’t forced to attend, and then sympathetic to the person who’s not quite delivering the literary experience, and then clapping because everyone else is. The other angle here is that if you’re halfway decent, the people in the audience will be so compelled by your reading that they’ll start to feel fuzzy with the ideals of art and beauty, and then they’ll zone out to the wonderful things they’re doing in their own lives, and suddenly the reading’s over and they’ve missed everything you said.
Anyway, I was going to write about all that stuff, but then I realized that I could probably summarize it in a couple of sentences and get on with the reading, which would have worked out, had I not run into a series of problems.
I’ve been writing stories since preschool, but two weeks ago, while sifting through the “Stories” folder on my laptop, I realized that most of the stories I’d written were unworthy of out-loud reading because of their inability to convey their significance when being heard as opposed to being read. For instance, let’s say that the first draft of your 450-page novel contains a number of set pieces that multiple objective readers have corroborated as, quote, “funny,” and that the material actually takes place in the neighborhood in which you’re reading, meaning that there is a better-than-not chance that your audience will be able to connect and engage with your novel in the way that corporate conference coordinators dream of their employees connecting and engaging with the spring retreat’s keynote speaker. But while on the surface your set piece would appear to be prime reading material, you know deep down that there is no way that any audience in any location would be able to digest its entertainment value if not familiar with the novel’s basic components of characters, plot, tone, and so forth.
And on top of that, let’s say that recently you’ve been studying Tolstoy and understanding his existential philosophy in a way that no one else who has ever read him has, a theory that contends that existence boils down to the moments in which we literally come face-to-face with life. If you were this person—and I’m not saying that this person is me—you would know for a fact that if you ever tried to convince yourself that audiences would respond to your novel’s set piece, the phrase “All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” would pound away in your head, reminding you that your situation is sort of like the ones in the MC Escher calendar above your desk: you can’t be happy without being different from everybody else, but if you’re different from everybody else, you’re destined to be unhappy. In other words, if you play to the Park Slope crowd with a funny Park Slope scene from a funny Park Slope novel, everyone goes home delighted, boasting to their friends what a funny Park Slope story I heard at Park Slope reading! and that’s all you are, just a funny, dumb writer.
The realization that I had already written the perfect story but could not use it was rather depressing. What I felt I had to do, then, was give in to the writers who get off on the type of stories that render a mood and show a character’s texture and illuminate the complexities of the human condition. (And the most frustrating thing about these writers, I’d like to note as an aside, is how they consistently label the greatest short-story writer of all-time a “shower,” when in reality he was most effective at convincing you that having an affair with a lady with a little dog might be problematic simply by telling you, verbatim, that having an affair with a lady with a little dog might be problematic.) But anyway, just because it has always been impossible for you to, in a 1,200-word third-person narrative featuring a sympathetic character, uncover the strong verbs and sparse language that convey the greatest amount of heartbreak and yearning and suffering in the shortest amount of space, doesn’t mean that people want to hear your pathetic whining about how all your stories are 25 pages of telling what happened, and that one of these stories is actually called “What Happened.”
Now, I embarrass easily, and I’m weirded out by people who smile too much, that’s one reason I always wished I could wear a mask, but I have no shame in contradicting myself by disclosing that my laptop’s “Story” folder was in fact filled with dozens of drafts of these stupid little stories. I used to spent a lot of afternoons like this recent one: I sat at my desk in sweatpants typing nonsense, then I abandoned the nonsense, wrote new nonsense, deleted the new nonsense, and stared out the window at kids digging dirt in a backyard until I became inspired, at which point I began to parlay the nonsense into something presentable, which is how I ended up with a story called, “Short Stories Involving Snickers Bars That Attempted to Illuminate Something About the Human Condition and Pretty Much Failed.” A day after that afternoon, having realized that this story failed in every way, I conceived the witty idea of reading the failed story about three failed stories in the context of an ironic story about a failed writer who is afraid of pretty much everything.
To accomplish this, the first thing I was thinking I would need to do, would be to imagine that kind of a character, since in my real life I’m not afraid of anything, and the second thing would be to write the story solely for an audience. Unfortunately, even though by then I had accepted that my audience really was probably only interested in the low-grade pleasure of me not embarrassing myself, I started wondering if even that presumption wasn’t cynical enough. What would I do if my audience would tune me out simply because it thought that I had a stupid face, or thought that my posture and clothes and voice made it obvious that I was an insincere asshole? Or—and I think this is probably the worst-case scenario—what if the audience would absorb everything I had to say, really enjoy the material, and yet still call bluff on my shtick? I was, as they say, back at square one.
I know that by now you’re probably aware of the convenience with which I’ve avoided admitting that if I were capable of writing something universally good I never would have gotten into this predicament, but just hear me out. I knew I had to change; I knew I could no longer sit at my desk and think up good writing. What I needed to do was engage with the world. That week I carried a pen and pad in the back pocket of my jeans and wrote down every interesting thing I heard or saw, and it just so happened that the day before the reading, I witnessed three such moments. In a bagel shop a guy behind me was telling his friend about another friend who quit law school, moved to LA, and started dating a porn star. On the subway I saw an innocent guy get punched in the face by a crazy person, then watched as everyone (including myself) made a face that showed how relieved they were to not be the victim. And then in the afternoon, while crossing the street with a bunch of private school kids, I overheard two guys trying to convince a girl to come over Friday night to drink vodka and talk philosophy. So there: sex, violence, and alcohol. I had my material.
Well, the fact that what you have been listening to has absolutely nothing to do with any of these situations tells you how the rest of that day played out. As I wrote into the night, I couldn’t get an old Peter and the Wolf tune out of my head, which reminded me that Prokofiev had written his story, the music and the text, in just four days.
Sometime after three in the morning I realized that I had been looking through my window for a very long time. A block away, on the elevated tracks, a train passed through the station, rattling my apartment. Dozens of people got off, and in the middle of them was a man holding a briefcase and wearing a mask. Before he filed down the stairs, he paused and faced me. Without taking my eyes off him, I shoved open my window and stepped up to the sill. Behind the station were lights, those of my city, and between me and them, and between me and the ground, and me and the sky, and me and myself, I could feel an immense space. The man did not move an inch, and neither did I, and we continued to stare at each other until a quiet voice urged me down.
Suddenly, I had purpose, and for the next three hours I wrote the easiest story: my autobiography. This effort produced many pages, and from them I’ve extracted nine sentences. These are direct quotations.
• 1. “I cannot sleep more than five hours a night.”
• 2. “The simple tasks of life that are necessary to undertake have always seemed like an encroachment on my need for complete silence.”
• 3. “The multiple loving relationships I’ve had with women have never amounted to pure happiness because of my inability to accept the fact, as they have, that we love for selfish reasons.”
• 4. “I have never taken drugs or alcohol because I am under the illusion that my mind is inherently altered.”
• 5. “I can keep a secret until the very end.”
• 6. “Regardless of what you think, I, like my good friend Franz Kafka, spend much of my day laughing.”
• 7. “The best moments in life are those where we are happy for absolutely no reason whatsoever and know it.”
• 8. “The only thing I’ve never been afraid of is looking into someone else’s eyes and speaking directly to them because of how uncomfortable it makes them.”
• 9. “I’ve started my story about six or seven times, maybe even ten—so many I can no longer decipher what it is.”
I must say, in speaking these sentences, I am reminded of my favorite musician, the Russian pianist and composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff. If you listen to the only recording he made of his Third Concerto, one of the greatest and most difficult piano pieces in existence, you will notice that he cuts some of the most beautiful melodies and ignores many of his own notations—for instance, he’ll slow down where the score says to speed up. Despite being one of the greatest piano players of the 20th Century, Rachmaninoff was a terribly insecure and nervous performer. But he was also a vengeful performer, so conscious of what he perceived as his audience’s apathy that for every cough or sneeze he heard, he would skip one passage. Can you even imagine what he would have done had there’d been cell phones going off?
I bring him up to demonstrate that if you so-to-speak read between the lines, which I know is difficult when you’re not actually reading, you’ll see that even though I was unable to write a story for tonight, I managed to fit everything I wanted into these fifteen minutes. And what do I want to convey? I think it has something to do with trying to explain how difficult it is to show that what constitutes a person is 1% everything we know about them and 99% everything we’ll never know.
Thank you for listening, and just know that whatever I’ve said, I’ve meant it sincerely.