Last night I met some friends for a drink at a bar near school before a ritual of our program, “the reading.” Every other Friday night four or five students get up and read some of their work, and other students, friends, and significant others come to listen. It’s a nice tradition, and as all of the writers in the program seem to say, “it’s good to get experience reading your work now in front of your peers.” The implication is that someday you will be reading again in front of a more unfriendly audience in some noisy bookstore or cafe and by having done it in your MFA program you will be better prepared for this eventuality. I find the optimism in this thinking alternately inspiring, depressing, and surprising, for it implies that most of the writers in my program believe that they will have an audience at some point following grad school, which assumes that they will be published at some point after grad school, which, at this point, seems very distant.
I had heard about these readings before I started school, and I pictured a small theater as the location. I imagined a stool in the center of a dark stage; a writer (clad in black, of course) appearing to applause, then reading under a single spotlight. It seemed glamorous, important and, in a way, romantic. I mean, reading your writing in front of an audience! On a stage! I pictured myself doing it. I would invite all of my friends and they would cheer when I appeared on the stool center-stage. I would wow them with the emotional wallop of some powerful essay I had written. It was an excellent fantasy.
The truth is, the graduate readings are held in a brightly lit, narrow room next to the undergrad cafeteria. There are uncomfortable wooden armchairs set up in rows in front of a podium. Some wooden tables line one side of the room and inevitably some latecomers end up sitting on them. There’s a lobby leading into the reading room, where coffee, cookies, sodas and other snacks are served during the two hour “show.” Everyone laments the lack of school-bought alcohol. The room does not darken when writers are introduced. Sometimes cars honk on the street below while the readings are going on; sometimes ambulances scream by. Once, a group of undergrads rehearsing for a musical production decided to practice on the Common outside, and their singing could be heard during a recitation of poetry. The readings are not glamorous. Which is, it now occurs to me, perhaps appropriate. Any readings that a published writer might do are not glamorous either: coffee shops, bars, school lecture halls just like the sterile one we meet in.
I have long since lost the desire to participate in the graduate readings. There’s a clique-y presence at these events. Certain students inevitably draw larger crowds than others. There’s an unstated preference for funny material, since that works best at entertaining a group of students who, most likely, have gotten together for drinks in the hour or two before the reading begins. Some students write pieces specifically for the reading, poking fun at classmates or the school. This reminds me a little bit of high school. The student who serves as the host of the reading, introducing the students and their work, reads witty bios of the authors by way of introduction, you know, like “Mary Sue grew up in New Jersey, near the mall,” or “Johnny spends his free time scouring Boston for discarded bottle caps he can make into lamps,” or “Melvin doesn’t like to admit it, but he’s from Minnesota.” These kind of loosen the audience up (and maybe the readers too).
Often, when a more serious-minded student reads, the audience members (in the bar afterwards) complain about being bored, or make fun of phrases and readers that seemed too melodramatic. There are bad readers, too, writers whose material is great, but their performance is not: they read too fast or too quietly. The audience gets restless, leaves early for the bar, or in extreme cases, falls asleep. I suspect that an audience of your peers is perhaps tougher than an audience of strangers. After all, in a bookstore or bar or coffee shop, chances are that those who come to hear your work have chosen to come specifically for that purpose; whereas the readings at school, by virtue of being the only departmental event, the only non-exclusive activity where you can hang out with people from the program in a social setting, draws people who want to socialize and drink more than they want to listen.
Still, these events can be entertaining, and they are a great chance to hang out with people you might not see often. I rarely leave inspired to write something better, but that isn’t necessarily the point. I drink beer afterwards with classmates who tell me that “Boston is a backwater” and as soon as they can they are going to the “only real place to be for publishing, New York.” One guy is wearing a t-shirt that says “I had an abortion.” We talk about people from our program we don’t like, or professors who are easy to make fun of. We drink a lot. These days the phrase “I can’t believe it’s almost over” comes up a lot, as does the incredulous “we’re almost done,” and these apparent laments get repeated endlessly during some conversations, which makes me think that we have nothing else to say to each other, and that not only can we believe it’s almost over, but that we want it to be over. Desperately.