Writer in Residence

Public Exhibitions of a Private Act

By Andrew Forbes

A great many things in life that I expected to go one way have instead gone another. Imagine my surprise. Maybe this has happened to you, too. As example: I thought I'd know when I became an adult; that maybe somebody would contact me to say, “You're an adult, you can now do adult things.” Instead, I just kind of had to guess, though the mortgage was a pretty big tip-off. Second case in point: I figured I could avoid having to speak to people if I sequestered myself in a room with a computer and wrote all the things I couldn't or wasn't able to say aloud. Turns out if you do that, and someone else publishes those things, then people sometimes contact you and ask you to read those things in public. This I consider to be among the cruelest ironies I have yet encountered in a world fairly bedecked in cruel ironies.

That I am apparently not awful at reading aloud in public does not really salve the sting. I was so jittery during one particular public speaking assignment – this would have been grade seven or eight – that my teacher offered to let me do my speech (on the New Orleans Saints, I believe) in a small cubby off the classroom, for him alone, during recess. I shook like a leaf in an October wind. Not much has changed. I shake less now, but I wouldn't say I enjoy it all that much more.

But butterflies notwithstanding it is necessary, I have learned, to steer into one's weaknesses, sometimes. In addition to the handful of events organized around the recent release of my book, I willingly participated in a reading this past Friday night, invited by Andrew F. Sullivan to help him launch his novel Waste here in Peterborough. It was a good evening. Most of them are. I saw friends, met more, had some drinks, sold some books, and when the appointed hour came I hauled this carcass up onto the stage, flipped open my battered reading copy, and spoke into the microphone words I had written months or years earlier. Those gathered listened, laughed a few times, applauded when I was done, and I retook my seat. Not altogether painless, but neither was it overly traumatic. I didn't stammer, I didn't trip, I needn't have worried about forgetting my lines, because they were all written down there for me.

But good experiences like that don't seem to make it any easier the next time. They don't quell the pre-event nerves. The moments immediately before I'm to read are the worst. Once I'm up there, a kind of fatalistic resignation occurs. I try to imagine it's just me and the mic, as during the years I spent hosting a community radio program. I pretend I'm in a studio, not a hall or a bar. I get through it, and then it's over, and I feel fine. Or finer, anyway.

This, I suspect, is how it will always be. It's who I am, and I won't change, not in this regard. Bill Russell was one of the greatest basketball players of all time – he was certainly among the best to ever play centre, and arguably the best ever, defensively speaking. He led the Boston Celtics to eleven NBA titles in his thirteen years in the league. Bill Russell threw up before every game. I'm no Bill Russell, and reading a few hundred words of a short story isn't quite like grabbing fifty rebounds while scoring thirty-two points, but it's good to remind myself that even someone of his stature and ability had to wrestle with this stuff, too.

Writers, or a good many of them, might prefer to think of themselves as the disembodied voice in a reader's ear. Select others, I know, thoroughly enjoy the performative aspect of readings, and excel at them. As with just about every other aspect of the discipline, one size doesn't fit all. But let it be known that anyone expecting unreserved fireworks from a reading of mine is hereby fairly warned. I'll remind them that facility on the page is not the same as comfort at the front of a room. It don't necessarily translate.

Appearances are part of the gig nowadays, I know. They are among the things we expect of writers, and that's not changing anytime soon. I'm also not incapable of a small inkling of gratitude when I'm asked to participate in a reading, or when anyone sees fit to come to one of mine. For both good and ill, writing's a brutally lonely thing to pursue. When, briefly, in the long process of publication, I'm called upon to be in the common sphere, to meet readers face to face, I'd be stupid to do anything but steady myself with a drink, say hello, and then let the words fly once the mic's switched on. I'd further do well to remind myself that the only thing worse than reading to a room full of people is reading to an empty one.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.


Andrew Forbes’s work has been nominated for the Journey Prize, and has appeared in The Feathertale Review, Found Press, PRISM International, The New Quarterly, Scrivener Creative Review, This Magazine, Hobart, The Puritan, All Lit Up, The Classical, and Vice Sports. He is the author of What You Need, a collection of fiction, and The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.