I’ve been thinking a lot about Spalding Gray recently.
I was lucky enough to have seen him perform in the early 90s, long before I ever committed to being a writer. It was a period when my love of reading—which really didn’t develop until my late teens—drew me to spoken word performances by artists like Gray, Henry Rollins, Jim Carroll, Eric Bogosian, James McLure and Jello Biafra. These days, my love for spoken word is more about storytelling podcasts like The Moth, Radiolab, The Truth, Word Crimes, This American Life and Snap Judgement.
And I still go see writers and storytellers perform live whenever possible. Holy cow, have you checked out Shane Koyczan? I saw him read to a room full of public radio listeners who laughed and cried at his insanely poetic storytelling. And while you’re at it, check out Kate Schatz too. Two nights ago I went to see her read from her book “Rad American Women A-Z” to a room of cross-legged children, and it was just as inspiring.
That same night I read Oliver Sacks’ piece about Spalding Gray for the New Yorker entitled “The Catastrophe.” The column describes, in heartbreaking detail, how the genius monologist, writer and actor descended into a suicidal spiral after a tragic car accident in Ireland. I read the article a few months after watching Steven Soderbergh’s touching 2010 documentary about Gray’s life, “And Everything Is Going Fine.”
Back in the 90s I was blown away by the balls it took to stand on stage alone for an hour or two and bare your soul. It never even occurred to me that I might one day have to stand up in front of a much smaller group of peers during a five-minute reading of my own. Not even after I published my first short stories last year and started trying to convince agents and publishers that I’m a good horse to bet on (Note: So far I’m better at reading than convincing agents and publishers).
And then Eric Beetner asked me to read at Noir at the Bar in L.A., a series of multi-city events featuring readings by new and established mystery and crime authors. I had never done a reading before and I was incredibly nervous, so I did the logical thing—I asked Beetner to let me interview him. Naturally, a couple of questions were about author readings. Here’s an excerpt from my Eric Beetner interview:
More writers need to learn how to read. I mean that in all seriousness. Public readings are a part of being published.
Be personable and confident. Nobody likes a weak reading by someone who is too self-deprecating.
Biggest of all – rehearse. You don’t have to memorize it, but you should have read the section through – out loud – at least a half dozen times before you’re ready to present it to an audience. And don’t be afraid to add some emotion into it. Do character voices. If someone in the book is shouting, then you shout.
In that interview, Beetner mentions crime author Johnny Shaw as an example of a great writer who is also a great reader. I had seen Shaw read at Bouchercon last year and personally witnessed him slaying a crowd with one of his over-the-top short stories. Here’s in excerpt from my later interview with Johnny Shaw (AUDIO):
I don’t know if it’s necessary for a writer to be a good reader, but if they’re going to read they should be a good reader…If I can entertain—if I can make people laugh—I have a good chance of making them interested in the work I do.
Thanks to great advice like that, I chose a short story called “Dead Beats” for my first reading because I could do funny stoner voices. And I got through it without puking blood or soiling my Levis. Good enough, I guess, that I got asked back by Beetner for an event he’s planning in June. And then Joe Clifford invited me to participate in a Lip Service West reading in San Francisco this October.
So, I have Spalding Gray on the brain. Mostly because I know I’ll never be that good, but fuck it—I’m still going to try.
Oh, and here are a few books you should definitely read:
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Akashic Books, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His novella, CROSSWISE, and his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in 2015 and 2016.