When my first novel came out two weeks ago, I had almost all my ducks in a row. I’d arranged a book tour to places around the country where I knew the most people, and let them know I was coming. I’d written magazine articles related to my book, and planned a launch party. But there was one area in which I really wasn’t well prepared, and it was sort of an important one. I hadn’t yet broken myself in for reading my work aloud once I got there.
I’ve done public speaking over the years, and used to appear on television a good bit for my old job. I’d even interviewed authors for a fun piece on how they became comfortable reading in front of a crowd.
But read my own writing out loud? Not even in the shower, or in the car with the windows rolled up.
It was a few days before my book was to be released, and I knew this was my Achilles heel. And that I’d have to do it all the time. So I sought out the toughest training ground— the harshest critics, the most easily bored and most vocal audience I’d ever seen.
The Sisters of Charity Nursing Home.
My children played piano recitals there several times a year, and each time without fail, they’d be heckled. At Easter, while my daughter plunked out a slow ballad from Titanic, a woman in the second row became increasingly agitated, looking around for a friend to share her resentment. Finally, she just shared it with the room. “Who are these children,” she cried, “and what the hell are they doing in my kitchen??” I knew I had to read there.
It was a Friday afternoon, just after lunch but before naps or game time. The residents came into the Rec Room in singles and pairs, wheeled in by nurses. The activities director, a perky woman named Fran, told me how excited they were to hear me read from my novel. “Many of them like to read quite a bit. Or, used to.”
Fran introduced me, and I stood in front of the silent and still room. It was almost entirely filled with women who’d outlived the men in their lives, perhaps nearly everyone in their lives. Some looked up expectantly. Some were slack-jawed and inattentive, asleep or listening to their own internal monologues.
“Thank you for letting me come today,” I said, taking pains to speak very slowly, because I’m guilty of speaking far too fast. “I’m excited to be here, before my book tour begins, because my children come here often to play piano for you, and you’ve been a very gracious audience for them,” I said. “I’d like to read to you a bit from the beginning of my novel. It’s called The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, and it’s about a woman who inherits the journals of a friend. This is my first novel because I’ve written for magazines for my whole career. So this is a bit of a dream for me.”
They stared, no sign of reaction.
I read one page without incident, and rounded the bend of the second. I sensed squirming in the upper left quadrant so I read a bit louder, slower. I read about the nature of the two women’s friendship, the odd limbo of mothers who do not have much in common but the shared work of the early childhood years and companionable activities with children, day after day.
A woman in the second row jostled the shoulder of her friend and muttered something that sounded like dissatisfaction. I continued, a little rattled but holding firm. I would finish the passage, reading with as much inflection as possible. If I bombed, at least the odds were good they’d never remember who I was.
“ ‘But that’s the thing about people who don’t fit in a box’,” I finished. “ ‘When they go missing, they are missing everywhere’.”
There was agitation between the second-row jostler and her friend. One said to the other, “Who IS she and WHAT is she talking about?!” The other said, “I don’t know, don’t touch me!”
Fran stood. “Isn’t this nice? Nichole has come here to read to us from her very own book today. Do you know what her book is about?”
A woman in the front row, someone I knew was with me because of the intense eye contact she’d maintained, scrunched up her face. “NOOooo,” she said, in nearly a wail.
Fran changed course, which I’d been about to do, myself. “Maybe we can ask Nichole a few questions, like asking what it’s like to be a writer. Are there any other writers in your family, Nichole?” She had that encouraging look preschool teachers have with their students, willing them to answer a certain way and give them something to work with.
“Not exactly. There aren’t other writers, but my grandfather had a very special typewriter.”
“Did you hear that?” Fran said. “She loved her grandfather very much. And he left her his special typewriter. Some of you have grandchildren you love very much, don’t you?”
At the word grandfather, there was a perking up around the room. I went with it.
“He’d been a radio operator for the Merchant Marine in World War Two,” I continued. “He was on the last ship to be sunk after the war had technically ended, because the Germans in the U-boat didn’t know it. It happened right near here, right off the coast of Rhode Island.”
There were exclamations, noises of approval. Heads nodded that I’d thought had nodded off.
“My husband was a radio operator,” said one of the women I’d certain had been asleep in a perfectly clear voice, eyes lively. “He was on the aircraft carrier The Lexington. You should have seen the size of that ship.” A woman nearby started singing a war song softly, and the woman in the wheelchair next to her was chuckling. The room was coming alive like the swimming pool scene in the movie Coccoon.
We went on for some time this way, until Fran told me in was nearly time for the residents to head into Game Time. I finished up by explaining about the typewriter rescued from the sinking ship — that my grandfather left it to me instead of The Smithsonian, even though they wanted it, when he saw that I was heading toward becoming a writer.
As I left I walked across the front row clasping a few people’s hands and hearing their stories — anecdotes about the brother lost in the war, the inn opened on Block Island after Armistice Day. And I asked their names, and hoping they might remember mine after all.
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