“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor Roosevelt
The other night I had a chance to attend a “Story Exchange” at a local theatre. One of my friends was the host of the evening. A couple of weeks before that, he asked me if I wanted to come and maybe even tell a story.
“What, you mean to a room full of people?” I asked.
“Well, yeah. If it was just to me, we would call that a conversation.”
Right. Got it.
The stories will eventually be broadcast on a local university radio station, and converted to a podcast too, which was kind of cool. Jesse Thorn, I’m comin’ for ya!
I sort of forgot about it until a couple of days before the event and my friend was posting on Facebook about it.
“Oh right. I said I’d do something for that, maybe.” And I clicked on the website for more info. The evening was going to have two parts. A section of pre-selected “curated” stories, and a section for randos off the street. I missed the deadline for the curated section, so if I was going to read a story, it would have to be by the luck of the draw.
I had to then decide what story to read. This was intended to be a monthly event, with different themes each time. Since this was the first one, the theme was “New Beginnings”. I thought I could maybe go back and adapt one of my Mountains Beyond Mountains blog posts into something that could be read aloud. My wife thought I could do the one about taking our daughter to the pediatrician. The “first time” element was there, but I wasn’t sure if some of the jokes would go over. I talked about hanukkah and menorahs in that one, and although I didn’t mean any offense by it, it’s one thing to write those things, but quite another to read them aloud to a room of strangers.
I could have read my very first blog post, as a “new beginning” but it was quite short and just talked about one fine morning when everything went well, so who wants to hear about that? I could already imagine the audience’s response. “Well, I’m glad you had a nice morning THREE FUCKING YEARS AGO, loser. BORING.” Then I thought I could write something new about the reasons behind starting a blog and how this damn thing has touched my life in so many unexpected ways. That actually might have been an interesting story, looking back on it, but I didn’t have the time to sit down, so I did what anyone might do in my position: I chose one at random.
Not entirely at random, but random enough. I did the blog equivalent of opening a book somewhere in the middle and just started reading until something caught my eye. I chose the story of the time a couple of summers ago when the power went out and our 93-year-old neighbour Alvena unexpectedly came over and spent the night. It had enough of a story that I thought it might be interesting to read out loud, and it would give me a chance to do my “Alvena” voice. I printed out the blog post word for word, and just sat down with it and crossed stuff out, rearranged things, fixed spelling and grammatical errors (embarrassing, and actually I only corrected them on the print out, so the errors remain on the blog), and added stuff that I thought would play well verbally. I wanted to avoid holding a piece of paper in front of my face, but I didn’t have enough time to memorize it either, so I thought maybe I could read it, but also ad lib it as I went or something. I don’t know.
The night arrived and I showed up at the theatre early. As you went in, you had the option of filling in a slip of paper with your name and the approximate length of your story, which I did. You were supposed to stick your slip in a glass cookie jar, which I did, and there was only one other slip in there. If they really were going to draw up to 6 entries off the street, then it was looking pretty good for me. I found my friend and we hung out in the lobby for a bit. He introduced me to some of the other “curated” story-tellers, and there was a feeling of nervous camaraderie among us. My friend kept telling them I’d be reading in “the second half” even though my name hadn’t been drawn yet. I suddenly wished I was in this first group. This “curated” group, where I knew where I stood. I didn’t like the idea of having to wait for the second half anyway, and I also didn’t like the idea of not knowing if I was doing it at all, but what choice did I have? I was a rando.
At least no one I knew aside from the host would hear it if it went bad. My wife had to work that night.
It wasn’t long before the event started. My friend kicked things off with a story about getting lost in India, and how that feeling of total freedom was a new beginning for him. It was a great, funny, short story that set the tone for the rest of the evening. An evening about new beginnings.
New beginnings? Oh shit. In all the bother of trying to choose a suitable story to read, I forgot it had to conform to a theme. How did my story of a power outage have anything to do with a new beginning? What could I say?
I was wracking my brain for some inspiration when I felt someone brush by me in the theatre. It was my wife! She decided to drop by after work after all, and she came in during the first story of the night. The stories of the first half were really well done, and there was a nice mix. A story about some embarrassing happenings in jr high gave way to a historical tale about one of our city’s first public servants (it was way more interesting that it sounds). This was followed by a “slam poet” and someone reading an original short story. They were all well done in the their own way.
At the intermission, my wife told me that she thought I was going to be picked. She said that when she arrived, they asked her if she was submitting a story idea, and when she said that she was just coming to hear her husband tell a story, they asked her husband’s name. She said, “Trevor” and they said, “Oh yeah, he’s in.” or something like that.
It was confirmed a couple of minutes later when my friend, the host, came over and said, “you’re on the list” and I wondered how much of that had to do with the fact that my friend was the host, but I didn’t pursue it.
I met the group of storytellers in the second half, all of us just drawn from the cookie jar at random. The group of us had to sit in the wings so that it was a quick transition from storyteller to storyteller. The first one up was a woman who told a story about, well, um, actually, I’m not entire sure what the story was about. I couldn’t really make out what she was saying. She had a pretty English accent that reminded me a bit of Emma Thompson, but if Emma Thompson had just filled her mouth with ping-pong balls. It also didn’t help that I was sitting in the wings and the sound was poor back there. And in any case, I was still trying to tie my story to some kind of new beginning.
The next guy up was a bit of trouble. When my friend interviewed us briefly at the intermission about our stories, he said, “I just made it up, right now!” which sounded a bit questionable. When pressed, he said, “it’s just stories about people I met at university”.
Now I don’t want to sound all judgey and snarky, because it takes a certain amount of guts to get up on a stage, take a microphone and tell a story, but this guy was a train wreck. He didn’t lie about the content of his story. It literally was just a grocery list of all the people he met in university and one or two little things about them. He prefaced his story by saying that he went to university for three years, and he was going to walk us through each year. It was long-winded and rambly. There didn’t seem to be any point to any of these encounters, but he kept alluding to some “bad stuff” that happened in high school and I kept thinking, “Tell us about the bad stuff from high school, man! It least it will be a story, and maybe a bit lurid and weird. That’s what we want to hear! Something interesting!” Again, I had a hard time making out every word due to my location, but I could get the gist. I sat up at one point when he said, 15 minutes in, “And finally….” but I realized he was only wrapping up “year one” and he had two more to go! He started in on his summer between first and second year and the people he met at “Red Lobster”. I’m not even joking. At this point, my friend came over to me and whispered, “What should I do? I should pull him, right?”
“He’s gotta go. Yeah, he’s bringing everyone down. Go get him. I’m going to look like David Frickin’ Sedaris after him though.”
So my friend took the stage and cut this dude off, telling him he should come back and finish his story next time, (not bloody likely), and it was finally my turn.
I walked out on stage and was struck by the fact that I couldn’t see a single person due to the lights. I had a sense that some people walked out during the Red Lobster/University Student guy’s rambles, but I couldn’t tell how many were left. Surely my wife was still out there, right? I almost started with, “Marla, you there?” but instead I think I finally had my connection to “New Beginnings”. I cleared my throat and started with, “Sometimes you don’t know your about to experience a new beginning until it’s already happened, and I hope this story will show that.”
And then I started in. You can read the original story here.
It was such a weird feeling knowing there was an audience out there listening. When I write these posts, it’s pretty much in a vacuum. I imagine that certain people reading it will find certain parts funny, or certain parts sad, or whatever, but I never really know how it will go over at the time. I love getting comments, written and verbal, after the fact so that I know how it was received, but there’s no immediacy to it. On one or two occasions, I’ve been in the same room with someone who is reading one of my stories for the first time, and it fills me with dread and anticipation. This is what’s going through my head, on the other side of the room:
They are a minute into it already, and they haven’t laughed yet. I’m pretty sure there was a little something at the start of that one that was funny. It was meant to be funny. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe they are offended but are too nice to say. Dear God, are they liking this one AT ALL? No wait, they are smiling now. No, not really smiling, it’s more like smirking. What are they smirking at? I should leave the room. I can’t stand this! No wait, they are actually laughing out loud! I can’t contain myself. I’m going to say something…
“So, are you enjoying it?”
So imagine that feeling but multiplied by a hundred. A hundred strangers (minus 2) listening to me tell this story for the first time.
I got through the first bit, and I didn’t hear any reaction at all. Dead silence. They are hating this. I’m flopping. But then I introduced Alvena and talked in her funny voice and that seemed to get some ripple of response. I could almost detect some audience reaction, which encouraged me to carry on with it. By the end, I heard a couple of really big laughs, (all Alvena related) but they seemed so far away. I veered away from the blog post at the end, telling the audience I didn’t see Alvena again after that night. That she had a heart attack a few days later and passed away. That I didn’t realize that we were about to embark on a new beginning with new neighbours and that this night represented the end of an era. A 93 year journey that ended with a sleep-over on a neighbour’s futon.
I was surprised at the applause at the end of it. I wasn’t really expecting that, and I loved it. I loved the reaction that my story got, and I wanted to read another one as an encore! (Wait! I’ve got one about a pediatrician! She’s the worst!) But of course I didn’t. I gave a little wave and took my spot in the wings to listen to the last story of the night. It turned out that Lobster Boy left the stage in disgrace half way through my story and walked out. But he was the only one, my wife said. The people who were left really liked it, and the reason it sounded so far off, I realized later, was that the people were sitting at the back of the theatre.
So yeah, it was terrifying, but it was also really fun in the end. And I wouldn’t mind reading another one down the road, if the opportunity presents itself. Maybe I’ll even submit something for the curated portion. Time will tell.