Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Sock Puppets

The last semester of my MA program in writing was dedicated to the thesis—seventy-to-eighty pages of work, revised through an intensive partnership with an advisor, plus a weekly class when folks finishing their time with the program from each of the different genres (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and science writing) came together to discuss their theses, elements of craft, and what we would do once we were done with the program.

The capstone to all of that was a reading. Each of the graduates had about eight minutes to read a selection of their work for an audience of fellow students, faculty, alums, and whatever family or friends attended.

I had completed the MA part-time via night school, while working a full-time job. It took four and a half years and during that time I attended just about every these reading. I knew what I was getting into.

Still, I was nervous.

I’ve had my share of public speaking engagements and I’ve read my work at plenty of open mics. All considered, I was probably as well prepared for this reading as I could be. Still there’s a sense of gravity to events like this--that as much as they are meant to be a celebration of work, they also mean putting your work up to public scrutiny, and yourself as the conduit for your work reaching an audience made up mostly of people who haven’t read your work before and who never will again.

I was reading about clowns.

One of the stories in my thesis was “Clown Faces,” a story later published in an anthology called Things You Can Create, which I had revised heavily over the course of my thesis term, and I’d be reading from a particularly dark new segment of it--a portion when an evil clown who dropped out of clown college contemplates unleashing a lion on the other members of a circus.

In an effort to counteract the gloom of the piece and add an especially surreal layer, I decided to read while wearing a big red clown nose.

As I prepared for the reading, looking at myself in the mirror as I familiarized myself with lines and memorized key sentences, I realized another advantage of the clown nose. It was funny.

In a public speaking/reading trick that I have learned and forgotten over and over throughout the years, if I can get a crowd laughing, and particularly if I’m laughing with them early on, it can be a tremendous means to diffuse tension. The clown nose looked to be my answer this time around.

And then another answer came up.

One of the poets reading that same night (to protect the innocent, we'll call her Julie) was particularly nerved up about the prospect of sharing her work with an audience, particularly a poem posed as a dialogue between two characters, when she didn’t know how on earth the audience would follow what was going on.

I happened to walk into one of our final classes before the reading, just as she was venting this trepidation, and more importantly just as another classmate suggested that she do the reading with sock puppets.

“That sounds awesome,” I said as I took my seat, only fifty percent aware of what they were talking about. “And I’d be down to play one of the sock puppets.”

“Really?” Julia asked.

I had made the remark off the cuff, and assumed that the whole thing was a joke. It occurred to me in that moment that it may actually be serious, and that if I, who was vocally encouraging her, back pedaled out it could be seen as a real jerk move. So, I said, “Of course.”

I wasn’t sure how serious either one of us were.

But the night of the reading arrived. As always, bottles of cheap wine abounded in the lobby. I poured my first glass. When Julia found me she was already on her third glass and rapidly approaching the line at which one becomes too drunk for a reading to be a good idea.

She handed me my puppet--a bright red wool sock with googly eyes glued to it. “Don’t worry, they’re new socks,” she said. A second later, she handed me the poem, delineated on the page like a script.

Julia read early on, and she did well, in a series of poems that culminated in her inviting me to the podium. I bounded out of the audience, sock puppet and script ready, and we proceeded to ham it up to an absurd degree, in a moment I’m not sure that the faculty loved, but the crowd sure seemed to get a kick out of.

After that performance, wearing a clown nose for my own reading felt less like meat and potatoes, more like the gravy on a night of literary absurdity. And I thought to myself, that Julia and I--and the whole lot of us--hadn’t just survived that reading and the end of our grad school years. We had taken ownership over them.

It’s easy to look at a public engagement as something that has to be formal and nerve-racking, and there’s a time and place for solemnity. That said, I walked away from that reading with a renewed sense of all of the fun that life can be when we do let our hair down and worry less about perfection, more about having a good time. There’s plenty time in life to take yourself seriously. We’d might as well take advantage of the opportunities for play while we're at it.

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