Friday night I had an extraordinary opportunity to do a public reading of the first chapter of the memoir I’m writing, Standoff at Ronnie’s Place. The event was held at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where the editors of Mason’s Road, the journal that published this piece, were throwing a launch party to celebrate the journal’s first two issues.
Now I’ve done plenty of public readings. What was different about this one was the fact that until that evening, I had not met a single one of the 75 audience members assembled. In addition, many of them had never heard of Berks County, Pennsylvania, the all-important setting for my piece. If I hoped to gain these people’s interest in my tale, I was going to have to earn it.
Elizabeth Hilts, my creative nonfiction editor at Mason’s Road, introduced me. She explained that the issue’s theme had been pieces with a strong sense of setting, and added that when she first read my submission, “I walked through that door with Kathryn and stood out in the rain with her and felt everything she felt. Her language would not let me go.” [Paraphrasing possibly impacted by author's inner excitement.]
What a wonderful thing to hear said about your work, in front of witnesses, no less. And I’m thinking Okay, this was worth it, I can go home now. But then people clapped, and still expected to hear me read.
I was prepared. I had my black three-ring binder that opens flat. I had my pages printed out in a 16-point font that allows me to scan—even quickly memorize—entire lines so I can look out into the audience and connect with them.
I'd handwritten large asterisks where I sensed that an extra beat of silence would allow my words a tad more resonance. I’d put the pages in plastic sleeves so my dry fingers wouldn’t flub while turning pages.
In my hotel room, I’d repeated the biggest tongue-twisters so that I might rely on muscle memory for correct delivery of “squashed plastic seat pads” and “the telescopic sights of their rifles” and “marking with blood splatter”—it’s my heart that still stutters on those last two.
I replaced Elizabeth at the podium; she moved to the back of the room. I began: “I wrapped myself in a parka and headed into the storm.” The story pulled me back in time, where once again I headed through the door of our farmhouse to try to impact what I could of my fate. But it wasn't the same; Elizabeth’s comment was already changing my experience of that day.
As I looked into the audience for my oh-so-cleverly planned moments of staged connection, emotion welled in me when I found something I hadn’t bargained for: real connection. My voice pushed through the silence in the room and the audience tipped toward me to receive it, some of them with their hands to their mouths as if saying, “Oh no, I fear where this is going.” Yet they came with me. By the time I had fully transported myself back in time to enact once again the events of my story, I no longer stood alone in that driveway, with the rain pummeling my face. Around me stood 75 silent witnesses, willing to take the soaking right along with me.
My awareness of this new camaraderie built all the way to my final line: "My children would soon be home, and they needed me." Speaking of the way Ron's act impacted the boys often breaks me, and this night was no different. When I closed my notebook, I could only mouth the words "thank you," yet my gratitude was sincere.
Of the readers that night, I had driven the farthest (although in a fun twist, three of the contributors read via Skype from India, Tel Aviv, and Savannah, Georgia). A few registered surprise that I had made the trip. After all, I was paid nothing for the story, burned a half a tank of gas at $3.50/gallon, and had to shell out $120 for the hotel room.
Yet not going, for me, had never been an option. We can never know what gifts are hidden within the opportunities offered us unless we show up and say “yes”—even Ron’s suicide standoff, with its forced participation, eventually offered up hidden gifts.
This time my gift was a new awareness: a storyteller is never alone for long. We may have to navigate solo through some challenging events in life, but our aloneness is a temporary discomfort. Through story we can later invite people to become part of that world—and there, together, we'll all be less alone. I entered the worlds of others who read that night, and even after the reading, I had the privilege to bear witness to several stories offered me by people moved to share their own life experiences.
Through story, magic happened in Fairfield that night, and all of us who attended were transported and transformed.