From the podium, I looked out into an audience of about 60 people. Their eyes focused on me, and from their facial expressions – a smile in the second row, fascination in the fourth – I saw that they were absorbed. Nobody sipped coffee, or coughed. Nobody shifted position. I continued reading.
“The air was heavy, thick with heat and mud. We skirted exposed oyster beds in the shallow water, moving slowly enough that we could hear the oysters snap and pop.”
My mouth was dry, but I was reading better than all of my practice sessions, and I didn’t want to throw my momentum by taking a sip of water. All weekend I tried to suppress my nerves as we cheered our son’s team at a soccer tournament in Charlotte. I did not succeed in hiding my stress from my husband, though, and he asked what was wrong.
“I’m just nervous about my reading on Sunday.” I attempted a smile.
“I wondered,” he said. “You seemed really nonchalant about the whole thing.”
And I was nonchalant. At first. Talking in front of a crowd doesn’t bother me. I used to give informational meetings several times a week in front of total strangers when I worked for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. But as the Valley Voices reading approached, and I practiced my piece over and over and over again, finding another fault with each and every read-through, I realized that reading your own work, for which you’ve mined every word, for which you’ve excavated your soul, is a very different thing than giving a sales pitch for your employer. Sharing your own work on a blog already makes you feel vulnerable, even though you get to be secreted away in the privacy of your home when others read it. So to stand in front of a crowd and expose your creation out loud? It makes you feel squishy and naked, with every flabby flaw exposed.
My husband asked, “Why are you so nervous now, when you weren’t before?”
“Because I heard the other writers read at rehearsal, and they were really good.” I studied the cobalt blues in the hotel hallway carpet. “I don’t have any confidence in mine.” I didn’t say it, but I thought, maybe mine was was the only nonfiction submission they received. Maybe that’s how it slipped in.
“You’re just sick of looking at it, and you’re nervous about reading. Don’t beat yourself up.” He hugged me. “It was selected, Andrea. The judges liked it. That’s why you’re there.”
My mouth was parched. Only two pages to go. I felt a little faint. I looked up again and saw the same rapt attention. I had passed the place where I thought the piece sagged, and the audience was still with me. Their silence was electric. I could feel that I was reading well. Thank God. It didn’t suck.
When I finished, I croaked out a small “Thank you,” then sat in my chair, quaking, relieved that I was done. I was able to enjoy the other writers’ work, and was grateful for the beauty in their poetry, and the laughter they surprised out of me with their humor.
After the reading, I was speaking with one of the judges, thanking her for reading all of our work, when a woman tapped my shoulder and told me, “I loved your piece. I was right there with you. I could smell those marshes, and I’ve never been there.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much for telling me that.” I beamed at her.
Later, one of the organizers of the event gave me a big smile and told me I had read well.
“Thank you, Jane! My God, I was so nervous. I couldn’t believe it even made it in.”
“Because it doesn’t have a point! It’s just pretty. No tension, no drama, no climax.” None of the elements of a successful story.
She looked surprised. “It doesn’t have to have all of that. I was with you on that boat, I was engaged the entire time. I could hear the motor, I could smell the marsh. I experienced that boat ride with you. We all did.”
On the way home, I mulled the problems I had seen in my piece. I painted a picture, yes, but is setting enough without a story? Is “pretty” enough without a punch at the end? I chewed on Jane’s words, “It doesn’t have to have all that.”
And then, I thought about visual art. I pictured nudes reclining, and a still life of golden pears, and how the beauty in well-rendered scenes moves me. I thought about Van Gogh’s oil painting of a café terrace at night. Its rich blues and vibrant yellows, the halos of the stars, the luminescence of light from the cafe spilling onto the dark cobbled street. There is an inherent tension between the welcoming café glow and the inky darkness of night, a drama in the contrasts, if you really want to analyze it. But mostly, I just find the painting pretty. There is a beauty in it that doesn’t need a story. A beauty in it – the contrasts of light and dark, of blue and yellow, a couple walking toward the cafe, a triangle of green fir on the edge of the painting – that is a story.
It occurred to me then that with all the ugliness in the world around us, sometimes, pretty is enough.