So, a few things in conclusion.
First: Thanks to Powell's for enabling this intrusion into the lives of whoever has read any of it. I've been to Powell's a couple of times. Apart from being an enjoyable place to visit and, you know, buy books, it's also the kind of institution I admire: Independent, standing for all the right things.
Also, speaking of cool Portland things: Please check out Myshkin's Ruby Warblers. There's an essay in Letters from New Orleans about a bar called Yvonne's, and it deals more than a little with Myshkin's song "Yvonne's Bar." I was bummed when Myshkin left N.O. for Portland, but these things happen (and after all, we left a year later or so). I remain a fan.
Finally, yes, as promised in the first entry: failure and humiliation.
I've done a handful of public readings, a somewhat larger number of "talks" (loosely related to the Consumed column, not to Letters from New Orleans), and for the most part these have gone just fine. I'm not a great performer, but usually I can get one or two laughs and avoid making a total fool of myself.
I'm definitely still learning, though. Several weeks ago I did a kind of reading/lecture for Letters from New Orleans, in a small city that I wasn't all that familiar with. There's a good-sized college there, and Garrett County Press managed to work something out that allowed me to pose as a "visiting artist," or something like that, and thus give my reading under the university's auspices, and in one of their buildings. In the days leading up to this, I felt like such a hotshot. I was interviewed by the local paper, I was on a local morning TV show ? I started to believe in this vision of myself as some kind of... well, some kind of visiting artist.
So the night of the event arrived. We showed up at the venue pretty early, because I had some slides I planned to show, and we had to make sure tech setup was going to work out. The hall was pretty huge, like 5,000 square feet, I'm guessing. Waaaaaaay away from the entrance, which was basically unmarked, was a stage, with about 70 chairs clumped in front of it. Between those two points ? the entrance, and the chair clump ? was a vast expanse of empty concrete floor, under a 20-foot ceiling.
Don't get me wrong, it was a really nice space. And I wasn't seeing any problems, not yet anyway. The tech stuff worked, and so did the clip-on microphone. So, we were ready to go. Precisely at 7 p.m., I was introduced, and stepped up to the podium. I planned to read the opening section of the book, and as I delivered the very first line ? "Random bullets are a problem in New Orleans..." ? there was an ear-splitting squaaaaaaaaaaaaawk explosion of microphone feedback.
From there, everything went like a dream.
The kind of dream in which you suddenly realize that you're not wearing pants.
The feedback thing was fixed immediately, of course. I think it probably made everyone in the room flinch, but for me the effect was worse. It was like a bomb had gone off. The only way I can carry off the process of standing in front of a group of people and reading or lecturing to them is to mesmerize myself into some sort of surreal zone of personal denial about what's happening. This was impossible to maintain, post-squaaaaaaaaaaaaawk. The spell was broken, and all the problems I should have spotted earlier became apparent, at the same time. The room was too big. Too many chairs were empty. The stage was too high. I was under a spotlight, with a booming microphone ? as if I were Bob Dylan or something ? in what now felt like a dark and empty airplane hanger, unable to see or even sense the handful of people in front of me, all of whom could have heard me just fine if I had addressed them in a normal, speaking voice, rather than the loudly amplified one. The dominant quality of the transaction was: Dissonance.
That's not good. And it's why I was completely unglued for the next 30 minutes or whatever (it felt like hours). Every time I peered out into the darkness, it seemed that somehow there were even fewer chairs, even fewer people in them, even more empty space containing nothing but my own echo. My voice sounded, to me, both louder and yet more vacant with every syllable. At least I was wearing pants. (I checked.)
Eventually I stopped, and ? as I remember it, anyway ? most of the attendees bolted like freed convicts. A few came up to me to chat in the immediate aftermath, and I know I tried to greet them with my friendliest persona, but I had a lot of trouble concentrating. I was thinking to myself, "Well, hotshot, there's failure and humiliation for you."
E says it wasn't really that bad. Maybe she has to say that, but she didn't have to do this: Somehow she'd gotten into a conversation with a young guy in the audience named Ross. He was actually from New Orleans ? had grown up there ? and was traveling around looking for work, like any number of post-Katrina New Orleanians who had once assumed they'd never have to leave the city they loved. E knew that my instinct would be to go straight home and brood. She headed this off. She suggested instead that we should go get a beer, and Ross should join us.
It's not the decision I would have made ? but it was the right one. Ross was great, smart, funny, wise, and sweet, all in the special ways of New Orleans. He reminded us of so much that we loved about living in that city. Which reminded me of the reasons I actually wrote the essays in Letters from New Orleans in the first place. Those had nothing to do with trying to pass myself off as a hotshot.
In fact, if I hadn't gotten so caught up in my (self-)promotional persona, I probably would have recognized straightaway that there was no need for dramatic lighting and a loud mic; I would have dispensed with the persona and been myself. And I would have felt grateful, not like a flop.
It's so easy to get caught up in the process of trying to get attention, of trying to seem like you have something to say. It's so easy to forget that the point is not to see how many people you can get to listen; the point is to say something.
So now I've had my say. And I'm grateful.
Pardon the interruption.