Last night, I had the privilege of performing a reading as part of the venerable Writers with Drinks spoken word/variety show. The event is put on by fellow Gawker-er Charlie Jane Anders (io9), and takes place monthly at the Makeout Room in the Mission. WWD has been going on for more than a decade, and I, because I am a huge loser, have never been. After last night, I’ll probably never miss another one as long as live in San Francisco. It was a BLAST.
The setup is more or less this: Each month, four or five writers go up to the mic and read their stuff for about 10-15 minutes each. It can be a chapter from a book, or a few poems, or some spoken word thing, or a comedy routine, or an essay or article. When Charlie Jane asked me to participate early last week, my first thought was, “Okay!” My second thought was, “What the fuck am I going to read?”
For a while I considered throwing together some new thing, something about teaching, or music, or life in the city… the hidden message behind those ideas being, Christ, anything but video games. Then, my daily schedule being what it is, it became clear that I wasn’t going to have time to write 10 or 15 minutes’ worth of new material by Saturday in addition to writing for work. So, video games it was.
I wound up adapting a couple of older things I’d written: First was an essay about Pac-Man, lines, the Japanese visual art suibokuga, and jazz called “Onward, Pac-Man!” I also did a rendition of “Fisher-Fest 2010”, which is a breakdown of the ridiculous dialogue in Splinter Cell: Conviction. I asked my friend Dan to come up to read the dialogue from Fisher-Fest with me, to shake things up. How would this go? Would we tank? Would anyone care? God only knew.
Okay, so: I get to the Makeout Room and it’s packed. There are like 80 people there, and they’re all Here To Listen To People Read Things. Um. So I’m going to get in front of this huge group of people and read an essay about Pac-Man. Right. Then, it turns out that the person who was supposed to kick us off hasn’t shown up, so I’m going to go FIRST. Good lord.
I’ve actually performed at the Makeout Room before, but every time I’ve done it, it’s been with my band. I’ve had a guitar or a saxophone to hide behind, and a whole band to back me up. There’s something so naked about getting up on stage with a sheaf of papers and just sort of… reading.
So I go up there to read, and about thirty seconds in it becomes clear–praise be–that this crowd totally gets it. They are on board. They want to hear about Pac-Man and jazz. They’re laughing at Fisher-Fest. (Money line from Dan: “You’ll die on your knees, like a SCIENTIST!”) And the whole time I’m on stage, vaguely thinking, “Here I am, reading an essay about Pac-Man and making jokes about Splinter Cell, and this audience is super into it? What the fuck planet am I on?”
Anyway, it was grand. I now fully understand why readings are A Thing. Other readers included Jan Richman doing a chapter from her book Thrill-Bent, Ramez Naam sharing a hilarious sci-fi sexual misadventure from his book Nexus, Wired‘s Erin Biba reading this article about the history and future of prenatal genetic testing, and another writer (who wasn’t on the bill and so whose name I’m tracking down) who filled in for an empty slot with a riveting story of a woman traveling on a bus to an extramarital tryst, only to have one of the passengers go missing.
During all of the readings, particularly that last one, I was struck by how the very vulnerability I was so nervous about going in–No instruments! No band! Just words and a mic!–actually became a strength. Because there wasn’t any loud music playing, people were quiet. Because there was only one thing to pay attention to, the audience was focused. We hung on every word, laughed at every joke. It was remarkable.
I was also surprised at how helpful it was for me to rework my writing into something that’d work for a live audience. It’s always useful to read your work out loud, but I’d never really taken an article or essay of mine and asked of it, “Could I read this out loud to a bar full of people? Would they get it? Would it work?”
The changes I made to both essays helped them flow, and removed assumed knowledge and jargon without in any way changing their gist or substance. The Pac-Man essay still articulates a concept I remain enamored of even a couple of years after I wrote the piece, but my actual writing in it feels clunky and effortful now. It’s overly purple, like I was trying to impress everyone. (Guess what: I was.) I say too little with too many words, and in the lede I assume that readers know both Splinter Cell and Minecraft. In making the article work for last night’s performance, I didn’t just make it more accessible, I also made it better.
So, there’s a cool exercise in there. Next time you’re writing something, ask of it: “Could I read this out loud? To a club full of ordinary people? Would they get it?” Granted, the approach won’t do much for, say, a review of a new graphics card, but if you’re going for broad appeal with whatever you’re writing, it’s a helpful measuring stick.
Anyway. Writers With Drinks was a lot of fun. If you live in SF, you should come out to the next one. I’ll be there!