As I’ve been getting ready to leave for some New York readings and the Brooklyn Book Festival (if you live in NYC, come hear my panel on September 22 at 10 am at Francis McArdle Hall or catch my readings at the Las Comadres/La Casa Azul Bookstore booth afterward or at the Hudson Valley Writers Center at 4:30 pm), my husband and I have spent a couple of weeks attending a full round of literary events. So many readings and talks crammed into a short space of time made these weeks rather hectic, but since we each are often putting on such events and we were only attending these, they were also a lot of fun.
When you’re always setting up readings and other literary events for yourself and other writers, you can get so caught up in all the work of it—and it is a huge amount of work—that you don’t really enjoy them as you ought. It’s a lovely change to be able to simply show up while someone else does all that work and enjoy the reading or talk, the questions and discussion afterward, and the gathering of likeminded people who care about books and writers.
These recent events have reminded me of some truths about literary events, whether they are readings, lectures, presentations, panels, public interviews, or conversations between two authors in front of an audience.
First of all, these events are the foundations of a literary and writing community, so show up at them, even when they’re not yours. I often tell students, “You want to have readings of your work, to have people attend and perhaps even buy your work? Then, show up ahead of time to other writers’ events, attend and maybe even buy the book, if you like it. It’s called paying your dues and building the community you want to have when it’s your turn.” I’m always amazed at how many don’t want to take the time to show up for anyone else’s event, but want others to take the time to show up for theirs.
Does it take time? Yes, it does. It’s like writing. You have to make time to write, or it won’t happen. You have to make time to build the literary community that you want to support you when it’s your turn, or it won’t happen. Whether it’s simply attending local events or putting in more effort in order to organize such events or reading series or conferences.
In the mystery community, all of the major conferences—the Edgars, Malice, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and all the others—are organized by volunteers. All of these great opportunities to speak on panels and sign your books are made possible by people who give up their free time—in large quantities—to make them happen. Pitch in and give back when you can.
Secondly, you can learn a lot from any event, even a bad one. So the writer read his work in a monotone without lifting his eyes from the page once? You’ve learned something that you never want to do, haven’t you? You’ve seen firsthand the importance of varying your tone of voice and making eye contact with your audience. And the panelist who arrogantly monopolized the whole panel and drowned out the other writers you wanted to hear? So annoying! But now, you know better than to do anything like that yourself, don’t you? And when a writer is an excellent speaker or reader, pay close attention and pick up tips that will improve your own reading or speaking skills. If the event is poorly organized, what exactly is the problem? Note it down as something you’ll want to double-check ahead of time with your own events when the time comes. Smart people learn from everything and everyone.
Thirdly, when you’re not in the spotlight or working behind the scenes, it can be wonderful to sit and just enjoy someone who reads beautifully their powerful poetry or fiction or speaks with humor or passion about their subject and their work. Afterward, it can be great fun to chat with others who were also blown away by the great reading or talk you’ve both just listened to. It can be a real joy to meet the gifted writer and make a heartfelt connection that may even turn into a long-term friendship.
I’m fortunate to live in a city with one of the biggest, most active literary communities in the country. (Yes, Kansas City, Missouri, folks.) If you don’t, however, don’t despair. Find out what’s going on in your city or town and become a part of it. If there’s absolutely nothing going on—and that’s unlikely—start something yourself. Pull together a group of writer and reader friends and start giving impromptu readings or holding open mics. If you put out small amounts of energy into building a literary community, you’ll find new people joining in and your tiny reading series or open mic growing and developing. Every literary community started somewhere with someone. Partner with your local libraries—that’s an excellent way to begin.
In the end, we get out of life, a writing career, and a literary community what we put into it. I’ve been actively involved in doing this—putting on reading series, writing grants to bring in writers and teachers, building a stand-alone writer’s center, and more—for over thirty years, and I have wonderful friends, knowledge, experience, and memories to show for it. And when I give a reading, people show up in droves. I’d like to think it’s because I’m so good at writing and reading—and I certainly strive to be good at both—but it’s probably mostly because I show for their readings and even gave many of them their first readings or put on their first important event. We build the community we want to have when it’s our turn.
What readings and other literary events are available in your community? Do you attend? Do you take part in some way in putting things on?