Once a month, here in town, we have a sort of open mic for local writers. I generally go. Sometimes I read something.
I went tonight with an agenda. The woman who runs the festivities had announced that in honor of Hemingway’s birthday, tonight would be Hemingway night. I was one of only two people who paid any attention to that. I have a recent story that was written in a style vaguely (though intentionally) reminiscent of Hemingway. Unfortunately, the story was too long. Each person who reads is allotted ten minutes, and it’s a solid 20-minute story.
So I read the first half, and when I finished, I said, “If anybody wants to hear the second half, I can stay and read it at the end of the evening.”
About eight of the 20 attendees stayed to hear the second half. This was gratifying. They seemed to like the piece, which is very downbeat but ends with a bang. It’s certainly pleasant to get some face-to-face support.
On the downside, I had to sit through a couple of hours of reading by unpublished local authors in order to get my shot. Of the dozen pieces read tonight, there were three or four that exhibited some nice, well-controlled writing. (If you were there, please feel free to assume that your piece was one of the three. I’m not going to name names.) But none of those dozen writers managed to chip the ball up out of the sand trap of triviality. Without exception, their work was teeth-grittingly dull.
I’d feel a whole lot better about getting strokes from listeners if I respected their literary acumen.
This business of writing something that other people will actually want to sit through is not quite as easy as it may seem. It took me a long time to learn how to do it with even reasonable assurance. For starters, you have to have something to say — something that total strangers will (or can) care about. Then, while choosing sentences, you have to constantly be considering how this sentence contributes to the thing you’re saying.
Edgar Allan Poe said something about how everything in a short story should contribute to a single effect. That’s what a short story is. There’s no room for anything that doesn’t contribute.
I won’t say that tonight’s writers weren’t aiming at specific effects, because several of them obviously were. They failed by aiming at effects that were trivial.
I’m particularly disturbed by the prevalence of memoir writing among a certain class of older Americans. The memoir is, perhaps, a genuine art form, but only in the hands of someone whose prose is of the highest caliber and who is capable of drawing neat lines between the personal and the universal. Those who lack those twin gifts would be better advised to share their memoirs only with members of their immediate families.
I promise never to write a memoir. For the most part, my life has been quite dull. The parts that weren’t dull are mostly of the sort I’d just as soon forget, and those that I remember fondly are none of your business.