One of the perks of enrolling in an MFA program is that you become clued in to the literary goings-on in your area. I grew up in Chicago, home to one of the most vibrant writing scenes in the country, but until I started at Columbia, I’d never been to an event. I guess I had some notion of a “reading” as an exclusive club of intellectuals where I would be unwelcome; a quiet coffee shop where dour types in black turtlenecks stroked their beards self-importantly and shushed each other.
How stupid and judgmental of me. Once I started going to events, I soon discovered that the good ones are pulsing with creative [and sometimes drunken] energy. They’re parties. They’re fun.
In my first post, I wrote that half the battle of your first semester is finding the nerve to share your work with others. After two years into my MFA, I’d become comfortable with hearing my work read in class. But then, this past summer, I was asked to participate in Come Home Chicago, an event founded by actor-writer Matt Martin and Don De Grazia, a Columbia professor and author of American Skin. I’d been to CHC before, so I knew what it entailed: great music, great stories, great atmosphere, and free shots of Malort, a hard liquor found only in Chicago which tastes like paint thinner and leaves a mossy coating on the tongue, but which, by sheer power of its profound disgustingness, enjoys a loyal cult following across the city.
So I had to say yes, but as soon as I did, I immediately reverted back to my hypercritical, nail-chomping first-semester self. Luckily, I have a wonderful support system of family and friends. On the big day, they told me as kindly as possible to get over myself, and showed up in large numbers to support me. When it was my turn to read—an essay I’d written about my fear of male strippers—I tried to follow Don’s advice: read slowly, and give each word its full weight. I tried to find the reassuring eyes of my brother and sister and friends, but when I looked out from the stage, I was overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and snapped my eyes back to my words, terrified. But I got through it, and when I finished, I felt something akin to a runner’s high. I celebrated with a shot of Malort, and I was so jacked up from the experience that the stuff actually tasted palatable.
We all love those writing moments when our characters do something that surprises us. But let’s not forget the moments in real life, when we surprise ourselves. That night, I read my work out loud to a crowded bar. Not too long ago, I wouldn’t have even read it out loud to my dog. What a difference two years makes.
This Sunday, the fourth installment of CHC begins at 6:00 at Underground Wonderbar in Chicago. There’s a great line-up in store—stop by if you’re in town!
What’s a great local literary event you can recommend? Have you ever participated in a reading? How do you feel about sharing your work with a crowd?