Friday, June 4, 2010

Reading Under the Influence

This past Wednesday night I attended an event called "Reading Under the Influence". It's a monthly reading series where a select group of writers read excerpts from their published stories as well as passages from famous novels. The catch is that before doing the reading they have to drink a shot. Seeing as how I rarely drink alcohol, I'm fairly certain that if I were ever to do that, I'd end up passing out or throwing up in front of the audience before I finished reading. The shots don't have to be alcoholic, but you don't want to look like a sissy and not drink.

Damn. I just realized I sounded like the "peer pressure" bully in a just-say-no video.

The writers also make up their own trivia questions, and audience members call out the answers. If they win, they get a free book.

I'd wanted to attend this event for a long time, but I'd always had too much work to do. I actually still had a lot of work waiting for me at home, but I decided to take a break and go anyway. I felt nervous about going to a bar by myself, but I knew that my friends probably wouldn't be available to go out on a Wednesday night anyway. And besides, as I mentioned before, outside the blogosphere I keep my writing life a secret.

I got to the bar a little after seven, and the back room where the reading was held was already packed. I asked the bartender for a Coke (again, I rarely drink, and I've stopped trying to pretend that I actually like the taste of alcohol). The bartender asked, "Is Pepsi okay?" I thought, NO! Pepsi NOT okay! Want Coke! Only Coke! But out loud I said, "Sure!" He handed me the drink and said, "On the house!" Good thing I didn't go off into my why-Coke-tastes-better rant.

At first I stood there awkwardly by myself, since everyone else sat on bar stools or at little tables or stood around the room in pairs and groups. At almost every Chicago bar I've ever been to, people rarely go up to perfect strangers and just talk to them. Most of the time people just stand around and drink while checking each other out in a not-so-discreet manner.

But after pretending to look occupied by sending text messages to everyone in my cell phone address book, everyone from my friends to people I hadn't seen in months (I probably would've texted my dentist too, if his office was still open), I thought that this whole standing around without talking to anyone thing was stupid.

So I went up to two girls who looked like they were close to my age. They were sharing a table that had a third bar stool that was empty, and I asked if I could take it. They were very nice. We ended up chatting and it turned out that one of the girls and I had gone to the same school but at different times. And I was glad that I hadn't just stood in a corner by myself for the whole night.

When the reading started, I realized that when I wrote down the info for the reading series, I'd failed to note the theme of the stories for that evening: Sluts.

My first reaction to hearing the theme was this: Ummmmm....

My Catholic reserve kicked in and I squirmed uncomfortably at first when people started reading excerpts from erotic fiction, but then again I might have been squirming from all the Coke I'd been drinking.

But once I loosened up (but only a little, because I am neurotic after all; I think I'm incapable of loosening up completely), I started enjoying the experience of being read to. It's something that I still miss from grade school, when my teachers would read to us after lunch. But they never read us erotic fiction, because I'm fairly certain they would've gotten arrested for that.

Anyway, after one of the readings, a woman said, "Whew! Now let's go smoke a cigarette!" My favorite reading was by a guy who read a story he'd written about a guy's casual hookup with a girl at a party. I liked it because the narrator of his story was obviously so neurotic and obsessive because he kept thinking too much about what he was experiencing. I also liked how the writer referred to the lead female character as a "sex She-Ra." It's too bad that writer is engaged; I developed a little crush on him just because his writing was so funny and honest.

Gina Frangello read from her book, which was titled Slut Lullabies. The title particularly intrigued me, especially because I often have trouble coming up with engaging titles for my own stories.

I also admired those writers for having the courage to stand up in front of a roomful of strangers and read their work, especially when some of those audience members were visibly distracted by the hockey game that was playing on the TVs. The game was muted, but a few of the audience members' reactions to it were not. I heard a few people cheer softly, "Go Blackhawks!" and one girl actually raised her arm when one of the players scored a goal, right in front of the writer who was reading. I must admit that even I got distracted at one point, not by the game but by a commercial starring Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head; at one point during the commercial Mrs. Potato Head's lips fell off her face and went rolling down a mountain. I tried not to giggle and concentrated on the reading instead.

A month ago I would have been unwilling to read any of my stuff to a roomful of people. But now that I've been blogging and sharing my writing with anyone who wants to read it online, I have a little more courage to do so.

The trivia Q&A was also interesting. One of the writers asked this question: "What was the name of the girl that Dawson of Dawson's Creek lost his virginity to?"

One of the audience members called out, "Your mom!"

Everyone laughed, and the writer said, "Well, actually it's my sister's name."

Another writer asked trivia questions about Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, and I actually knew all the answers. I tried yelling them out, but two other girls were louder than I was and they got credit for their answers. What made me mad was that at least one of them called out her answers AFTER I called out mine, and all I could think was, CHEATER! THIEF! SO UNFAIR!

A nice guy standing beside me told me, "You have to yell really loudly." He even pointed towards me when the writer asked, "Ok, who was calling out answers in the back?" But the other two girls were waving their arms and claiming credit for their answers, so one of them won the book. I kept thinking of that scene from Mean Girls, where Lindsay Lohan's character imagines tackling Rachel McAdams' character to the floor, because Rachel's character stole the guy that Lindsay's character liked. My competitive nature returned in full force, to the point that I imagined reenacting that scene right then and there while shouting, "Ok, bring it ON, CHEATER!" I was so distracted by this idea that I forgot to thank Nice Guy for trying to help me. Oh, well.

By the time I left the bar, it was pouring down rain, and I'd forgotten my umbrella. But I didn't stay inside until the rain cleared up. No. That would've made sense. Instead I made my way through the rain with great difficulty, so that by the time I got on the bus to go home I was completely soaked and looked like I'd participated in a wet T-shirt contest (good thing I was dressed in dark clothes, and good thing Joe Francis of Girls Gone Wild notoriety wasn't there), which, come to think of it, seemed to fit in with the theme for that night's reading series.


  1. That sounds like such a fun event. I wish something like that happened here in Brooklyn. And good for you for going on your own AND actually talking to people.

  2. i'm so glad you went!
    what a GREAT post!

    and how brave of you to go to a bar by yourself!

  3. This sounds like my kind of event! Good on you for approaching strangers!

  4. Oh neurotic workaholic girl pleasepleaseplease please write a book and set it in Chicago!!!

  5. Hi Rebecca,
    I usually just Google literary events in Chicago, because more often than not they're free/cheap, which is good for a broke grad student like me. I often go on my own to those things because most of my friends don't share my interest in writing.

    Hi mi,
    Thanks! I think the bravest people at the bar that night, though, were the writers who read their work in front of everyone. Someday I'm going to read my stuff out loud to an audience too...

    Hi Talli,
    Thanks! Now I just need to work on getting enough courage to go up and talk to cute guys...

    Hi KarenG,
    Aw, thanks! (blush) My first novel is actually set in Chicago, and I'm working on revisions right now. One thing I'm working on in the next draft is making sure that certain aspects of Chicago show up more visibly in it.

  6. What a great event! I don't drink, but I think it would be fun even without an alcohol. :)

  7. I much prefer Coke over Pepsi! :)

    But I burst out laughing when it got to the theme. That was a surprise. I liked how you stopped texting & then sat down & met some nice people.
    But the part about the hockey game & the arm going up & the background commercial is just so visual! Your writing is such a joy to read.

  8. Hi India,
    It was a fun event, even without the alcohol! But I think that next time they should read under the influence of Coca-Cola. Or Frappuccinos.

    Hi notesfromnadir,
    Aw, thank you so much! I really like your writing too!
    The theme was a surprise, and it definitely caught me off guard. But I'm glad I went to the event anyway.

  9. Ths sounds like such a neat event! I'm jealous of all the cool writing things you have in Chicago (like the Story Studio).

    Your post is hilarious, btw. You totally should have tackled those girls! lol

  10. That sounds like a blast! I'm glad that you went...and stayed!

  11. Hi Guinevere,
    I probably would have tackled those girls if I had been drinking alcohol.
    There are a lot of cool writing things in Chicago, which is one of the reasons I love living here. I'm trying to make more time for them though, because I'm always working.

    Hi Shannon,
    I'm glad I went too! And it was a blast! Even if I didn't win that book and even if I still kind of want to go all Mean Girls on that one person and...

  12. I kind of like this idea. Wish they'd do something like this in the Philly area, but, er... I might have trouble convincing my wife to let me go out to a bar and drink and read my stuff to people. That'd be an odd conversation.

    "Honey, it's promotional, right?"

    "What do you mean? You don't have a book to sell yet!"

    "Yeah, but I will. It's platform building."

    "Getting drunk is platform building?"

    "Er... maybe?"

    Yeah, I guess that wouldn't work. I still like the idea, though. :)

    And good for you for taking a chance and doing something different!

  13. Hi Simon,
    Maybe your wife would let you do it if you said it was research, like if you wrote a story about a guy who drinks before he reads his stuff to other people. :)
    I like how you said that getting drunk is platform building. Is it possible to get drunk on Coca-Cola? I know it's possible to get hyper on it, because that's what happens to me all the time.