Deciding What to Read

If you missed last week’s radio interview on 880 The Revolution, you can stream it here and start at 26:00 to hear my segment.

I’ve been having the most difficult time deciding what to read at my upcoming local book events. Before this year, I never struggled very much. I knew I could read 2-3 flash fiction pieces to start, then a short story, and be done. This was an easy way to offer audience members a sampling of my work.

But this Jan/Feb when I was at Randolph College, the decision plagued me. I was given 60 minutes to read–the longest chunk of time I’ve ever had at the podium. Author and mentor Bunny Goodjohn gave me sage advice, suggesting that I break up the time into three sections with a little talking in between. That felt perfect for Randolph, as I was there on a faculty fellowship to complete new writing–so I felt both obligated and honored to read new work to my audience. The three segments let me get comfy with polished work to start, and end with new/unrevised work I’d written while at Randolph.

With my book launch one week away, I can’t put off the decision any longer. After hemming and hawing all weekend, I finally realized what’s causing me such strife:
the audiences at these first few events will be primarily my friends. I know them…better than any audience I’ve ever known in my life. So while one story might be just perfect for the family whose children I taught, a different story entirely might be necessary for friends from an old writing group. How can I possibly please them all with a customized reading?

I can’t, and I’ve had to remind myself that public readings aren’t meant to be perfectly rendered for each audience, because the perfect rending doesn’t exist. There’s no way that I can “reach” every audience member. There’s not a chance I can read “the perfect story” for each person sitting in front of me. The group is simply too varied and diverse, and that’s probably a good thing anyway.

So I’ve got to find a balance: the timing has to be right (usually 40 minutes) and it’s important to me to represent a variety of perspectives when reading from Flashes of War, since that is so much of what the collection is about. That nails down two things to consider. The other priority is audience connection or engagement–in other words, I’ve got to offer enough of myself between stories to help audience members connect with the work.

For some stories, that means offering only silence before and after I read the piece. For others, it involves an anecdote or joke or personal touch revealed before the story begins, so that readers–who have come to see and support me, after all–feel like they’re “in on” what’s being shared. It’s this last thing I start to fumble over, feeling uncertainly exactly which of the many audience needs I want to pay allegiance to by reading one story over another.

I’ve timed my fave flash fiction pieces in the book, as well as the full length stories. Now it’s time to move the puzzle pieces around and envision a tall, confident, me standing at the podium in front of what will probably be one of the kindest audiences I’ll ever have. All those flashing lights and whistling trains in my anxious brain will have to be muffled, because I’ve got to come out swinging. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. You only get a first book launch once in your life. Here goes everything…

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