The Living Room of a Writer’s Apartment
I’ve been writing and publishing stories and essays since 1990. In the beginning I never read my work at all. When people were looking for writers to read at events, I’d refuse; when pushed, I’d be noncommittal. When I did promise to read, I would leave my work at home. I’d shrug my shoulders and say, I can’t recite a whole story from heart. Besides, reading a short story isn’t like reading a poem. Who wants to sit down and listen for that long? I’m not a performer anyway, I’d say. You know them, the performers. There are more of them in poetry than in fiction, yet often I was asked to read in poetry environments and I felt, I just can’t compete.
I had good reason to avoid the stage, too. My presentation of my work was less than accessible. My head stayed down and I just tried to get through it. Sped over the words at a mind-numbing speed, so that the applause at the end of my readings was simply a congratulatory clap for me getting through the reading, not necessarily appreciation for the writing. In 1997, I participated in my first round of book promotions, Men We Cherish: African-American Women Offer Praise and Appreciation for African-American Men. We had a book party and a book signing, we did bookstore appearances and finally we ended up on the radio, WBAI.
At this point, I had had a few successful readings. Before every reading I had to psyche myself up: read slow, read slow, read slow, I’d tell myself. By the time we got to WBAI, I thought I had it under control. Three other contributors were on the radio with me. We talked about writing and our particular essays (mine is about learning to love and appreciate my brothers). Then it was time to read. I don’t remember the actual experience of reading, I just remember getting a tape from the show. When I listened to it, I was shocked to hear myself. I skimmed over my words with a mumbling quickness. I thought I had that problem licked. Then I got angry, it was a recording after all, not a live radio show, why didn’t somebody tell me? Why didn’t they stop me and tell me to start over again?
Obviously these types of embarrassing experiences didn’t feed my eagerness to read my work in public. I kept doing it though, if someone DIRECTLY asked ME. If abstract invitations were hanging in the air, I ignored them. But if a friend asked ME, I’d do it and suffer through. I began to discover, however, that every time I did a reading, it would be surrounded by a flurry of writing. Either before the reading or after the reading I’d revisit some story or start a new one. Participating in readings made me feel like a writer during a time when my participation in the writing life was sporadic. Even with all my reluctance to reading, I got immense value from the acknowledgement (somebody has to think you’re a writer to ask you to read) and the participation (no matter how much or little you write, if you’re on stage reading your work to an audience, the audience thinks you’re a full-on writer).
Eventually, I found my reading rhythm and reading comfort within a circle of writers. Writing is a very solitary event, but there is so much development and inspiration to be gained from interacting with a community of writers. Near the time of the radio fiasco, I started a writing group with a friend of mine. One of the requirements was whenever we presented our work to the workshop we had to read it aloud. Even amongst a small circle of friends, I would be nervous—hands shaking, quaky-voiced, speeding over my words, barely pausing to let the events sink into the listener’s ear. But, by the time that reading group dissolved, I was able to read slowly and clearly and be understood. [I still failed, like the time I was asked to read at a restaurant in Harlem, but the restaurant had double booked. We went to a house to hold the reading and suddenly a public event was a small intimate event. The audience was gathered around closely and I was shaken. My head never came up for eye-contact with the listeners and I didn’t set up the excerpt, so no one really understood the bizarre world I was reading about.]
From that point, I promised myself that EVERY time someone asked me to read, I would. I would do it to force myself to interact with my work and the public on a whole new level. I found that reading my work out loud forces me to pay attention to what I was doing with the words. You hear the play of the word-rhythm in a way you don’t hear when you’re reading it silently. If I really immerse myself into the world I’ve created, I find myself emotionally influenced by my own work. Isn’t that a trip? I get emotionally involved because—in order to really communicate the words, the story, the world I created—I have to release my criticisms of my craft. My mind can’t wander off to other events and moments, I have to be fully present and fully focused on each word at the time it’s coming out of my mouth. It’s like getting to know my work from the inside out.
Another element of resisting representing my writing was the thought: this is my work, I don’t want to force anyone to partake in it. Of course, I like it, but well, does anybody care? A large turning point for me in that regard was being invited to read at an erotic event last Valentine’s Day. I said yes before investigating the event because the organizer was a friend of my sister’s. She insisted that I make something to sell because she wanted everyone there to be able to gain something from the event. I made little pillowbooks of an erotic short story, something I never would have done without the event organizer’s prodding. I sold a few books that evening, but it was wonderful to have those books on me at other readings and to watch them wander off in the hands of an appreciative listener. They had a life of their own!
Anyway, I get to this event and find out in addition to me there is a dominatrix, a masseuse and two strippers! I almost freaked out. I made the event organizer agree to let me go first. No one is going to want to hear a story after we see naked people. She agreed, but then at the last minute she decided to go with the masseuse. O.K., O.K., I said, but you must let me go next. She promised she would, and at the last minute she decided the energy was right for the strippers. The male stripper is popping his butt and picking women up in their chairs and pushing his face into their breasts. Then the female stripper comes out in red patent leather and proceeds to take it all off. The men have pulled out dollar bills and the dynamic has gone from playful to strip-club-live. For her grand finale, this naked woman laid down on the floor, opened her legs, displaying her stuff, picked up a candle and poured hot wax from her throat to (and into) her vulva. I said, that’s it, I’m going home. I can’t follow that up. No, you’ve got to stay, the event planner says, I invited you because I wanted to show a range of erotic experiences. You’re next!
I have a thing about taking my medicine. Which means when somebody says: do this. And I don’t want to simply because I’m afraid or unsure or don’t think people are going to like me, I do it anyway, because it’s my medicine. So I stood up, nervous to be representing in the same space as this sex madness, and I read my story (a little too fast) and halfway through you could have heard a pin drop in the place. It was completely silent, they were with me for every word, happily listening until the end. It was such a relief and such an instruction in what I can offer people. I’d spent so many years thinking about what my writing is to me, never considering what my writing is to others. I never thought, by me being here, I’m giving people pleasure, I’m feeding imaginations, and sharing beauty. Clearly, those people didn’t have to listen to me. They had just seen a stripper, they could have turned away. Hovered by the food table and started a side conversation. It isn’t like a crowd who comes to a reading prepared to listen to words, these people had come to get aroused and tantalized, not to listen. But they were into my words anyway.
I’ve known I wanted to be a professional writer for a long time. Never for a moment have I doubted that I would be successful as a writer, but I was a very work-centered writer. “The work will speak for itself” was my perspective. I will become a star because I write amazing things, bottom line. I don’t need to seek and pursue opportunities to read my work, I don’t have to tell people when I’m doing a reading, I don’t have to hustle to get an appearance, all I have to do is write and get my work published.
This summer at Clarion, I began shifting my beliefs regarding promotions. (I went to Clarion expecting to improve my writing, but I ended up returning with a fire in my belly. I believe workshops and other writing-intensive experiences have the power to transform your relationship to your craft in unexpected ways.) There wasn’t anything in particular at Clarion that shifted me in that direction. The folks at Clarion made a particular effort to give us information regarding writing CAREERS as well as info about the craft of writing. So I guess it was the thrust of the workshop (and my readiness) that propelled me to this point. Interaction with writers who are at different levels of their careers, some who were aggressively pursuing success; straight talk from a publicist who told us clearly that a publisher will only do so much to promote our work; and positive feedback from my Clarion reports all swirled together to make me understand that I am responsible for creating a presence for myself. The publicist gave us a myriad of examples where wonderful writers are just lost in the shuffle because there are so many books being published and pushed at the same time. If you don’t have big buck possibilities, the publisher won’t push your novel. Who is going to fill in the blanks? If I know going in that the publisher’s commitment may very well be minimal, what am I going to do to make my chances more powerful? Why am I afraid to build a presence for myself?
Perhaps it was the intense daily-ness of being at a six-week writing workshop that fed my urgency. Suddenly it is not enough for me to improve my craft, suddenly I realize, that I am responsible for letting the world know about my work. They can choose whether or not to interact with it, but if I don’t announce it, if I don’t share it, if I don’t put it out there, then no one even has a the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to read it.
I’ve been writing for 10 years, When Butterflies Kiss is the first project I participated in where I did a mass mailing advertising the events. I have realized that when I hold back and don’t tell people when I’m reading, and don’t share my insights as a writer, I am blocking my own expression and progress. People may want to support me, people may be fans and just want to share my work, and if I say nothing, I rob them of that opportunity.
When I started the KIS.list, I wasn’t quite sure of how it would develop. All I knew was that it was time for me to interact with the public. For years, I have been saying: I want a column, someone should give me a column. I’ve got great and interesting things to say. Only now, as I start the KIS.list and receive the ENORMOUS validation of people wanting to receive my words, do I realize that this is it. This is my column, and I’ve done it by myself for myself.
Writing is a call and response. What happens when a writer only calls, then runs away before she can get a response? Yes, writing is a solitary act, but it is fully realized when others read it and respond to it. Otherwise, the circle is incomplete.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI’S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O’METER==
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
==KIINI’S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O’METER==