My friend Meg runs a monthly Lit Club gig at The Light Club Lamp Shop here in Burlington, Vermont. It’s an open mic sort of thing, where folks sign up for a chance to jump on the stage and read for five minutes. There’s usually a guest speaker, too; someone with street cred. Someone big-time enough to be allotted a whole 20 minutes.
A few months ago Meg asked me if I wanted to be the headliner sometime. I said sure, why not, so she put me on the calendar for January.
Unbeknownst to many, I am marginally afraid of public speaking. To keep my anxieties in check I try not to even think about upcoming events until they’re suddenly staring me in my face.
This reading, particularly, made me uneasy. I knew there’d be mostly young people in the audience. Or, well, younger people. Lots of college kids, who have nothing better to do on a Monday night than drink beer and listen to their pals’ deep thoughts. There was no way I was going to be hip enough to entertain them. I figured it’d be nothing like the reading I’d just come from in Florida.
That one was held in a gated community for wealthy retirees in Palm Beach County. My aunt and uncle live there and, after my uncle read RASH, my new memoir, he loaned his copy to the head of the book club there. Head Book Club Lady liked the book enough to phone me up and invite me to be the guest of honor at their meeting in January.
I showed up to the reading early enough so I could get my bearings, as well as a strong cup of coffee (decaf is as ubiquitous as water in Florida). By 10:00 the Arts and Crafts room was filled to capacity with well-heeled, chatty older women, all of them dressed as if it were autumn in New England.
When they saw that I had on nothing but a sleeveless dress, no fewer than five of them asked me, “Aren’t you freezing?”
Before I began, I asked if anyone had read the book. Everyone in the room raised their hand. “I bought a copy from Amazon and passed it around,” Head Lady said. “We all took turns reading it!”
“How nice,” I said, frowning at the pile of books I’d lugged down in my suitcase.
So, okay, I wasn’t going to make a sale, but I could at least get some practice reading in front of an audience. A very safe audience of smiling nanas, all of whom loved the book and, by the end of the hour, loved me as well.
The other night, when I read at the Light Club, there were no adoring grandmothers in the crowd. Just a whole lot of hipsters wearing dark Patagonia jackets and multi-colored ski hats.
All the writers who went up before me read from their iPhones.
They read from their iPhones.
As I sat in a corner booth, sipping a Campari and soda, I worriedly fingered my stack of printed pages. “They’re so going to think I’m just an old lady up there,” I whined to my friend Rebecca.
“Shut up,” she said smiling. “You’re an amazing writer. And you’re very cool.” Then she rubbed my back to keep me from dry-heaving.
After the fourth reader, Meg leapt up onto the stage. “I would like to introduce my friend, Lisa, someone I admire and adore,” she announced to the crowd, “because she is able to bring you into her world within seconds of meeting her. And she has an amazing way with words. You are so going to love her.”
Heart pounding, sweat pooling under my arms, I climbed the stairs and looked around at the lithe buzzed bodies strewn around couches and chairs. Perched expectantly on bar stools. Huddled by the door. The place was packed. Like, sardine packed. Standing- room only. All eyes on me.
When I leaned toward the microphone and said, “Thank you, Meg, for that most underwhelming introduction,” most everyone laughed.
I relaxed, just a little. I asked if any of the writers in the audience had ever entered a writing contest with a word limit. A dozen hands flew into the air. Okay, they could relate. I told them that a long time ago I entered a contest for Taster’s Choice Coffee: Tell us about your most romantic date in 250 words or less.
“My boyfriend at the time—his name was Jim—was the opposite of romantic,” I said, “but he was very good in bed.”
A small wave of chuckles rippled across the room. I was energized. Nervous, still, but I could feel their support, like a warm light, shining on me.
Smiles. Vicarious joy.
Then I told them about the time I won the Car Talk Contest: In 26 words or less, tell us why you want to attend our company picnic. “I work for myself,” I said, “so my company picnics tend to be a little lonely.”
“I won that contest too, and was flown to Boston to meet Tom and Ray.”
Many hands clapping.
Then I launched into a Flash Fiction piece I wrote for a contest. “I didn’t win this one,” I remarked with an exaggerated frown, “but I was a finalist.”
They loved it.
I flipped through the papers in my hand and read three poems, and while doing so, I heard snapping. I looked over my reading glasses and, sure enough, a whole lot of those beautiful young people were SNAPPING THEIR FINGERS. (Apparently, it’s the new clapping.)
Anyway, the snapping threw me for a moment, but then I got into the flow, moving on from poetry to a short section of RASH. When I was done, the room erupted in applause.
Even though I was twice their age, it didn’t matter. I know no one in that room remembered the Taster’s Choice commercials that ran in the early 90s, and I bet few of those millennials could relate to my tale about being a 46-year-old woman who ran away to Bali to save her marriage.
But a good story should be able to transcend time and generation. I get that even more so now.
In Florida I walked out of the Arts and Crafts room feeling hugged.
In Vermont I left the stage feeling psyched.
Some people kvelled. Others snapped.
That’s all that really mattered.