My first gig was in a bar. A little magazine, which died thereafter, thought that an early story of mine would entertain the patrons. So I climbed onto a chair, and, unseen in the smoke and inaudible in the din, declaimed to an audience who heard nothing except the crack as one leg of the chair collapsed and the thud as I was projected onto the chest of a very fat man. One guy did clap — he thought it was part of the act.
My career as Literary Figure proceeded through the decades from unattended readings at bookstores, poorly attended ones at libraries, better attended ones at writing conferences, and one overflow crowd at a literary festival. At that event I preceded the headliner, David Sedaris. There was excitement, I discovered, in speaking to a hushed house in a darkened theater — even if the the listeners were merely tolerating me, the forgettable opener.
These days, reading to respectable crowds, I have become confident, though a single cough can raise the fear that the assembly, stricken en masse with bronchitis, will glide out one by one until I am left reading to the first cougher.
But my own voice is strong, my trousered stride steady, and I’m in moderate demand.
You can call this a kind of success. Brave and sober, I make Public Appearances. Never mind that Public is one of the most fearsome words in the language, and Appearances is another. Public reminds us of our worst nightmare — not the venerable one of being on stage with nothing on, but a new one of being on stage with nothing to say. Appearances is what our mothers told us to keep up. The two words linked are toxic. To accept an invitation to Appear in Public is the acme of masochism. Yet I do it — we do it, we writers. We say that it is a way to sell our latest book, or to meet our readers, or to keep our name alive (that name which, we predict, will soon require a morphine drip). But except for some poets among us, we are not performers by preference; we write not to give a crowd something to listen to in an auditorium but to give an individual something to read in his easy chair.
Nevertheless, we Publicly Appear. We are willy nilly part of the oral tradition, which can be likened to a chain letter whose first link was forged by Homer. Heaven forbid that we be the ones to break the chain. When we meet each other at parties or airports, we exchange the usual meaningless kiss and complain about fatigue, muscle spasms in our smiling lips, hotel air conditioners that can be turned up but not down or off; and the fear that somewhere bedbugs are preparing for a little cuddle.
But there is something else within that keeps us going. That something is called, not to put too fine a point on it, ham.
Recently my agent received an invitation for me from a professor in a college in —
The problem was: I didn’t want to go there, or anywhere. I wanted to remain fondling the keys of an old Hermes typewriter that sits on a desk in a small apartment looking out on a city park. I wanted to work on a story and read other people’s stories and listen, if it’s the right day, to the cheers or groans of the fans at nearby Fenway Park. Alone.
Oh, don’t be so elusive, said my inner voice. Admit that you love praise and applause, the fulsome introduction and the stream of compliments, even the threat of amorous bedbugs.
Homer may have been the first ham, but it was Dickens who raised hamminess to high-priced heights. On his reading tours he vigorously acted out specially adapted passages from his own works. His readings drew large audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and probably contributed to his premature death from a stroke.
Huge popular acclaim — how cravenly I crave it in my unguarded moments, when the reclusiveness in me unites with the show-off, creating a mutant creature, the Hermit Ham. And so I ask my agent to accept the invitation to . . . wherever. I go to my closet, wondering what to wear.
For Appearance is the other part of this ambivalent experience. When I gave my first reading in that bar I was a winsome 25-year-old in a flippy little skirt (well, that’s how I remember her). I am now a woman of a certain age, gray haired, bespectacled, with a few extra pounds draped around her hips, panting up the midlist hill, sure of never reaching the top no matter what her blurbs maintain.
This diagonal journey upwards can be seen as one slant of an X, the X’s center being, say, a moment 20 years ago, when I was a blooming 55, gaining literary popularity, losing physical grace. And there at the bottom of her diagonal stands a girl looking up hopefully [sic., dear grammarians] to an imagined elegant celebrity she yearns to become. The inelegant and mildly celebrated author, clutching a podium, drops a glance down at the promising young writer, who has yet to learn, say, that when a verb seems to require an adverb that verb has revealed its weakness and must be discarded. It may take her a day to find a stronger verb; and countless more to invent plots, create imaginary characters and camouflage real ones, and settle on a surprising yet inevitable conclusion. As she squints at her still unsatisfactory manuscript she will develop wrinkles, stop working out, forget to replenish her wardrobe even though on the old one safety pins have replaced buttons.
This is what it’s all about, yells dame to damsel; you will spend most of your working life perfecting your always imperfect prose. You will spend the other part of it reading that prose to an audience, wearing bifocals and those safety pins, wondering why you’re doing this, hating it, loving it to pieces. Latest in the family that descends from a blind Greek poet through a manic British genius, you will, if you’re lucky, feel that your days are well spent. But you may not be lucky, darling. Is your mother still urging you to go to law school? Think about it.
As for me, I suspect that during the twilight of my career I will slide downward on my slant of the X, waving to the valiants ascending. I will give my final Public Appearance in a bar, refusing the offer of a chair but instead standing on my own two feet, addressing a handful of drinkers who’ll clap with enthusiasm and then line up so I can autograph their coasters. In my end is my beginning, as the fellow more or less said.
Edith Pearlman’s recent collection, “Binocular Vision,” received the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction earlier this year. She can be reached at email@example.com.