One of the things I've always noticed about movies about writers is that nobody knows what writing actually looks like. Usually the author is shown failing to write, balling up pieces of paper and throwing them in the wastebasket. I remember a movie about Lillian Hellman where she actually threw her typewriter out the window. I think language is the problem. Since our tools are the same ones most people use (language, a computer), there's a suspicion we might be doing nothing (except maybe being crazy—remember Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining), and then a book appears like a secret baby and the show is off and running. Finally, the author goes on a tour, and this is the part of writing most people see.
When people talk about book tours they generally shrug and say, "It's just marketing," and of course they're right, and in my own experience readings, at least at colleges, usually pay more than book sales. But there's also something else, a zealous purpose to public readings. I stood up at a mic in New York before I had ever published a word and immediately experienced the pleasure of reading to a live audience, of the otherness of hearing my own voice amplified. All I felt was wow. Because in some terrific way that voice I heard was no longer mine. Instead, when you present your writing orally (yes, it sounds dirty, and it is) you begin a public relationship with the sound of your work. That sound in your head that accompanied you alone all those months and years while you were writing it. A person who's finished a novel is like someone coming up for air after being buried alive with the text. You're someone who lived in your pajamas, who never went out during the day. The tour gets you out of the house and enables you to reanimate that thing you wrote, repetitively, aiming for the actual flow of it.
You might not pull it off every single night. Sometimes in a reading the text actually goes dead, and you are standing there in front of a room full of people and yet also floating over your own hapless body, hearing your own vulgar voice, even losing your place as the book sits on the podium. You might even forget how to find the next line with your eyes. Or you could be reading from your new book at a large event at a bar, but instead of celebrating you and your work, people in the audience (I'm talking to you, dickwad) are getting some drinks and talking to one another, making a hum while you are barking away at the front of the room, feeling like hell. If you pray you will certainly pray at this moment, because it is like reading in school, standing in the classroom in front of a teacher and twenty or fifty judging sets of ears and eyes. Except now on your book tour, no one will ever tell you to just sit down and then call on somebody else, though at these moments you wish they would. Nope, you are up there alone, in the sea of their attention, and if anyone can pull your attention back onto the wavering glow of the text it is going to have to be you. You are the captain of this ship, and probably this is why the people who don't do readings don't do them, because once you've had this disconnected feeling (or even anticipated it), you don't ever want to have it again.
Yet that feeling also cuts very close (in its awfulness) to the point of the tour and why writers do it. While mechanical reproduction can copy the writer's voice, and her face, and all those awkward little gestures she makes while she's reading, we actually want the opposite on the tour (which is not even a modern phenomenon). The audience members don't just want a recording, they want the body. They don't even really want the book when they come to a reading. They want the thing that wrote it. The rotten human, both the spoiler and the proof that somebody actually did it. Yet the body's always in danger of doing the wrong thing and ruining the listening experience. And all of us, audience and reader, live with that danger. That shared sense of danger is a prerequisite to what we love about public expression.
It helps if the writer likes to travel. In the '80s, when I began touring, I saw American cities going broke: Buffalo, Cleveland. Now I'm watching my friends with small businesses declaring bankruptcy. Touring makes our politics real. And even the weather. Touring brought me to Winnipeg, where the iciest air you can imagine—everyone brags about it, laughing among themselves—has produced the ripest art and reading culture I've ever encountered. I met Guy Maddin there. People come out in Winnipeg, and you get heard. And people tell you shit. Was it there I heard that Stephen Harper's wife was having an affair with her female bodyguard? Maybe it was Montreal. In Minneapolis, I went to one of the great record stores of the world, Electric Fetus, which was going under until Ringo Starr wore one of its T-shirts on TV, and the store went gold. In London I met Brian Eno and handed him my book. He probably didn't read it, but so what.
The irony, though, is that while your body is reading in Milwaukee, San Diego, or London, little luminous mouse that you are, some animated part of you is speedily running to your room. You are hiding. I don't mean in your hotel room after the reading. I mean while you read. The body carrying the voice pushes off, metronome-like. A trance state of language descends on the room, and eventually there's this collective syrup. People are drinking it up, even while supposedly publishing is dying and people aren't reading novels anymore—or poetry, nah, people are never reading poetry. Or books, yeah, no more books, on and on, whatever, all the sad, ominous predictions of where we are vis-à-vis reading (groan, sigh). Here's the important truth of such events' success: Despite the fact that everyone really, really wanted you here, what they really want now is for you to go away and take them with you. The simplicity of this agreement is the core of the thing. A reading, especially on a book tour, is this socially agreed-on magic show in which everyone gets to head off together into the invisible weave of the telling. The book vanishes in the reader's hands. This happens in bookstores, too, when a person is alone and leaning against the shelves on a Friday night, trying to decide whether to buy the book or not. If they like it, poof, off they go.
And during the reading everyone is quietly leaving their bodies as you are leaving yours, and everyone is joining the abstract space of the book. They may have read it before, and now they're hearing it again. They may have never heard of you, but now you're convincing them. You're singing the language, socially. This is an ideal situation, but sometimes it really happens.
My mother loved reading aloud when we were kids, which might be why she once said the cruelest thing just a few hours before I was going down the street to give a reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She wasn't going. We were having dinner beforehand, and the water was boiling on the stove, and she was dropping ravioli into the jumbling pot. She said, "I don't understand why they pay you to read. Anyone can do it." (This was unspeakably cruel.) "Mom, I'm the author," I told her. "Yeah, but someone else could read it." "I wrote it, Mom. That's the point. They asked me to come." She was unrelenting. "Anyone can read. I don't get it." She kept laughing and dropping the white ravioli into the water. We sat down and had our dinner. I got in my car and drove to Cambridge. I gave my reading and it went OK, and then the night was over and all those people were gone. And my mother's nearly gone now, too. But what she said was true. Anyone can do it. Even her daughter. A reading makes the distant familiar, the act of writing a book for a moment becomes local. If anyone can read a book, then anyone can write one. The willful abdication of "craft" and throwing a book open for the night is the most democratic moment we've got. It's simply everyone's. And of course we are glad when you buy it.
Eileen Myles is in the middle of a book tour for Inferno (a poet's novel), published last fall by ORBooks.com. She lives in New York.
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