Sunday, August 14, 2011

So How Was The Reading?

On Thursday night, our stove went crazy and turned into a sort of jet engine. By the time things were settled, I'd called 911, burned my fingers, and so on. So I didn't get a lot of sleep, and I had a bit of a dose of anxiety at the start of the day on Friday.

I had my reading to do that night.

When I first began feeling the jitters, I assumed they were leftovers from the night before. But as the day progressed, I realized that despite my confidence, even eagerness regarding the reading, I was still experiencing stress.

But it didn't really bother me -- I was nervous, I was jumpy, I was stalking around the house, but I was in a good mood. I had no idea I was setting myself up for one of the most spectacular endogenous neurochemical events of my life. I will go into further detail in later posts, but I've been forced to rethink my positions on both the place of stress in my life and my relationship to the concept of hierarchy.

I showed up early, and there were few people there. As folks trickled in, I saw that people I'd expected hadn't shown up, but people I hadn't, had. Fair enough! It was particularly pleasant to see Chrissy from my last scriptwriting class and Chris Cornell from Viable Paradise, but I was very happy to see everyone.

There was an unexpected but welcome change in personnel -- Allison Landa was there, reading from her memoir. It was nice to hear how she'd been working with the material since I'd last seen it; Joe was lucky to get her.

Howard Zalkin read a marvelously hallucinatory piece about recovering from encephalitis. Pamela Holm gave us a look at middle-age adolescence and addiction in which warmth and snark mingled pleasantly, and W. Ross Ayers told us about how much fun it is drinking in redneck bars. Exactly as much fun as you'd guess.

And then it was my turn.

I'd been feeling more and more disconnected from my immediate surroundings as my moment approached. I felt strong, I felt confident, and I knew the actual piece was rock-solid. It deals with issues of racism and violence, and it is not intended to be a source of comfort. I'd spent the afternoon carefully re-formatting it so as to clearly establish a rhythm for performance -- lines which needed to be said alone were set apart, paragraphs broken up to ensure that I maintain eye contact with the audience, etc.

Because there are two things I'm using in conjunction here -- there is the quality of my actual prose, and then there is my ability to emote, to project, and to, well. Project a certain intimidating physical presence. It is my intention that this be not simply a reading but a performance of a piece intended to be read aloud.

The style of writing I used is more flowing, more musical, more polysyllabic, less concerned with word-by-word clarity than with the human voice; that said, it is as clearly and directly written as possible.

I've spent the show standing at the back; when Joe calls me up, I have to walk the length of the room.

When I reach the stage, I look back. Damn, the room a lot shorter from the other end. I can hardly see the people in the back. I take a second and make eye contact with Joe, give him a nod -- "Thanks for the chance, dude" -- and then...

I take a breath. I turn around slowly, inspect the entire room, the entire stage. And I take another breath.

I'm in no hurry. I'm claiming this place. Where I stand, what I see?

It's mine. This is my place and my moment and I own it.

Then I take a shallow breath, announce the title of my piece, and begin reading. The piece begins with a lengthy bit of exposition. My favorite part is when I look out at the audience and say, "You are all racists, and I am a racist, and that is how it is in a racially divisive culture." You cannot imagine how much I enjoy the little pause I give them after that statement. "How the hell is he going to get himself out of this?"

I find that it's taking an effort for me to stay near the mic, and through my performance one of the things that bothered me was drifting off-mic and then scooting back. I have the kind of voice you don't really need to mic, but this is being recorded.

I am loving this. There is an impulse to perform in me, and those who converse with me can testify that there's a point where I slip into performance mode. I struggle with this, even though folks seem to like it, because it's sort of loud and attention-hogging, and you know what?

I can fucking unleash up here. I hold nothing back. I am angry and honest and wretched. I do not tell people how I want them to feel; I tell them the truth and give them the space to react to it. The pressure is forcing laughter out of them every time a line reads as a little less grim than the ones around it.

Then the expository passage is over, and the moment I begin reading the actual story of my experience?

My brain blossoms, lobes opening like the wet, fleshy petals of an orchid.

(For the record? I was stone cold sober. Didn't even hit up the wine.)

My field of vision registers not as an assembly of solid objects, but as flat areas of tone, shifting and overlapping like so many cut-out pieces of paper. I have vertigo; more, a sense that my body is dismembered, each joint a real gap in space.

But I am a skull ranger; I know this is my brain fucking with me and I know how to cope. The sheer emotional pressure I'm experiencing blasts the associated hallucinations into the edges of my mind. I can see the writing on the paper, one paragraph crystal clear and the rest like gray ants warring, and I do not move my body more than I have to.

It isn't dismembered; I'm a four-dimensional creature in disguise, the visible 3-D cross-sections of my body cunningly arranged to give the impression of humanity. If I keep my hands within three feet or less of my shoulders they'll never know.

Again, these stray thoughts, like my visual flow of data, are blown to the corners by the massive, the concrete blows of emotion that travel through me. The cauldron of rage that I keep in my chest isn't a cauldron, it's a blast furnace and it's pointing right at the audience. All of my anger, my violence, it's all right on the surface right now nothing held back.

And the words flow smoothly, the contact with the audience constant, palpable. I am shattered but I am whole, more complete than I've felt in as long as I can remember. Everything about me that I hate or fear -- the rage, the bitterness, the judgment, the brutality, the madness, the capacity for violence -- all of these have been forged against the anvil of my morals, turned to tools, and now I am speaking the truth as strongly as I can.

The feeling of strength, of precision, is overwhelming. I cannot be wrong in this moment. I am absolute.

Fuck you all, this is Art, this is big Art, this is the real motherfucking thing, and it's blowing through me, pumping me fat as a firehose, rigid with pressure, the eternal explosion inside me finally powering an engine.

This is mine. This moment. This place. These people. This art.

And when I finish, I have an experience that I've longed for my entire life, since reading about it in childhood. Syneasthesia, interpreting input through the wrong sense. Smelling colors and so on.

The sound of a handclap is a white spark, like fireworks.

The applause blinds me like a burst of flashbulbs, I feel it as pressure, but when the sound dies down and my eyes clear, the first thing I see is the missus. And what I see in her face? It's not just affection. It is the face of someone who has just been completely blown away, who is amazed at what I am, and who likes what she sees.

And she ain't the only one.

So how was your Friday, motherfuckers?


Novysan said...

Ha ha! Awesome and scary. yes. I've been there. I've had (and hope to have again) moments where my visual field become nothing more than a collection of flat colored shapes, a huge abstraction, a living Pollack. Sometimes it's just an instance, sometimes I can "play" with it, and have a shape resolve into meaning, "oh it's a chair! I remember those!" then it's gone a again, 4 strange uprights and some crossbeams, but just color and shape.

Glad you were able to push through and let it feed into your performance state. Olivier called it the "flow."

Sean Craven said...

My breakthrough moment in the visual arts was when I had one of those experiences and found myself able to control the shapes, move them around, and use them to construct images. I drew dramatically better the next day.

And that was the mightiest flow I've ever experienced. I've never felt that combination of rush and control before. Man, it was something.

Glendon Mellow said...

"The sound of a handclap is a white spark, like fireworks."

This is why I love your writing. Damn, Sean! Beautiful stuff hitting me in the gut.

Sean Craven said...

Thanks, Glendon! For someone like me, experiencing synaesthesia is like a birdwatcher seeing a sandhill crane out of season.