I’m here to talk to you about the benefits of writers’ nights, open mics and literary soirees. Um. As you have seen. In the title. Of this blog.
“What brought this on, Claire?” you ask.
Why, thanks for your interest! I’ll tell ya!
Tomorrow night, my buddy Patty Templeton (one of the mighty slushers and bloggers for Black Gate) is hosting a small private “Fiction Fun Time Potluck ” at her place. I’m very excited. I will dress up, maybe even wear lipstick! There will probably be candlelight and a lot of giggling. And WORDS! Glorious words — from the mouths of aspiring novelists and struggling upstart writers: each of us, manuscripts in hand, getting a moment in the spotlight. My favorite thing ever!
Wikipedia (it being Wikipedia, all normal cautions apply) has the definition of a salon (literary, that is, not hirsute) thus:
A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation… Carried on until quite recently, in urban settings, among like-minded people…
…Some scintillating circles formed in the smaller courts which resembled salons, often galvanized by the presence of a beautiful and educated patroness…
I’m not sure how much refinement there’ll be (we all cuss like sailors and flirt like courtesans. But I’ll betcha good working-class wages they didn’t do things all that different in 18th century Paris and Venice), however, I do know we’ll come away with a thorough knowledge of monsters, robots, murderers, gods and maybe even faeries.
My excitement for tomorrow’s revelries got me thinking about events similar to these I’ve attended or invented over the last few years.
I’ve been hosting or co-hosting open mics since 2006, pretty much once a month, in one fashion or another. My friend Nin and I used to run a Chicago bookstore called Kate the Great’s Book Emporium, where we had theatre troupes, musicians, comedians, artists and writers through all the time. Our writers’ group “The Chicago Writers’ Coven” met once a month and put on an open mic regularly. I also used to go to (now, alas, like Kate the Great’s, defunct) Twilight Tales, a weekly reading series in Chicago, where I met a mighty horde of horror writers, under the brazen wing of author, teacher and editor Tina Jens.
There’s a neat-o reading series at a place called The Tamale Hut that my friend and fellow writer Jenny Seay runs. Another well-established one is a weekly late-night poetry open mic I used to attend at a cool north-side Chicago restaurant called The Heartland Cafe. My alma mater, Columbia College Chicago, did — and still does — all sorts of story-related festivals.
Maybe that’s where I got my incessant craving for them. I go too long without a gathering of writerly types, I get very cranky. Ask John O’Neill. Ask Patty Templeton. I’m like the Incredible Hulk. You don’t want to know me when I’m cranky.
When I started running these open mic/writers night things, I didn’t know a dang thing about how to do it. Organizing social events makes me tense. Being put in charge of a large group of people? NO, THANK YOU!
Happily, I started out with a great co-hostess, Jeanine Marie Vaughn (AKA “Nin” or “Nina Hyena”), who’d gone to school for Directing in the same theatre department at which I studied Acting.
Guess who knew how to organize? Guess who could coordinate unruly groups of people as if they were the American Theatre Orchestra and she, the great Paul Gemignani?
Yup. Nin. Every time.
You can bet I learned a lot from her. Now I’ll share some of what I learned with you.
How to Organize a Writers’ Night. Loosely.
Are you a writer yearning for writerly companionship and perhaps cupcakes? Are you tired of reading your uproariously clever and brutally bellicose and recklessly inventive “adventures in fantasy” tales to the walls of your basement?
Consider organizing your own monthly reading series.
It doesn’t take much. Some floor space. A few cushions or folding chairs.
The gathering could be at your house or apartment — I used to do it in my one-bedroom flat! The group doesn’t have to be a writhing mass of humanity, you know. It could be you and two of your writing buddies.
The gathering might take place at your local bookstore (if they are very forbearing and friendly), or an empty room at your school. In the summertime, you might hold it at some sweet green park “melting in the dark,” as the song goes. The possibilities are endless.
You will also require like-minded folk.
Now, this last condition may sound like the hardest thing of all. But, I promise you, in the age of the Internet, there are ways to FIND like-minded folks.
Bear in mind, if you’re only hosting an event once a month, it is very likely that your friends who live too far away for regular visits might make an exception for special occasions. Awesome special occasions like WRITERS’ NIGHTS! A wee road-trip could be in order.
One really important and not-to-be-dispensed with item: Food. My father once told me:
“Good things happen around people and food.”
And it stuck with me. That’s some of the best advice I ever got, along with, “Most people respond to a friendly voice.”
Now, don’t get distressed. The Burden of Provisions does not have to fall on your bowed (from so much typing at laptop) shoulders. If you ask them nicely (or tell them nicely in a way that seems like asking, which I personally find works quite satisfactorily) writers will bring food. And how!
In the early days of open mics, Nin and I (with a lot of help from our boss Katie) tried to provide all the food ourselves. When that got costly, we started passing a tip jar for compensation.
Believe me, the Potluck Way is better. Make other people do the work! You delegate, they bake. (Or buy Coke and Cheetos at the nearest gas station.) GENIUS!
From the moment the stalwart writers troop through your door in a rustle of grocery bags, scattering a hodge-podge of veggie plates, cheesy melty stuff with the dippy chips, hummus, pizza and brownies, there will be a sense of warmth and belonging.
You then ask them if they’re planning on reading that night. If they are, you jot down their names on a scrap of paper. If they aren’t, you give them a leeeetle bit of a hard time until they promise to read next time. Why should they get off the hook constantly? Unless they’re just there to listen. If so, don’t knock that! Reliable audience is GREAT!
For small groups of five or six, a 15-20 minute reading slot is great. If the group gets any larger, the readings should be shorter. 5-10 minutes, I’d say. Unless you’re planning on starting early and going very late.
Now this next bit might feel uncomfortable: if someone is going much over their time limit (of course there are exceptions!), this starts to be rude to the other readers! Please do not hesitate to shark in and cut them off — politely. It is for the Greater Good.
Good thing to remember: A night like this ALWAYS takes longer to get underway than you think it will. And people will be late. We’re artists. Cut us some slack. Plan for it.
Once everybody’s names are on your little scrap of paper, choose a random order and let the readings begin!
Ahem. I will note that the “random order” gets less random the more you do these things. You learn your fellow writers’ voices, who complements whom, who is funny, who is dire, who is dark, who’s the tear-jerker. Some will read fiction, some poetry, some nonfiction, some scenes from plays. It’s totally fabulous to mix things up!
A great rule of thumb is to start with a strong piece and end with a BANG!
How do you figure this out?
If one reader generally gets a lot of laughs — they’re probably a zingy person to start with next time.
If you notice another reader who constantly gets groans of, “How can I follow THAT?” and “Never mind, I’m just giving up!” after his or her reading, then do both that reader and all the others a favor and put him or her last.
Sometimes a spectacular reading is intimidating to follow. But also remember that it can be awkward for that reader, who is supposed to feel safe and welcome and proud, to be put into a position of having to apologize or self-deprecate for being spectacular just to make the other readers feel better. It’s a weird dynamic but it happens more than you think! Put the scary-good stuff at or near the end — everybody walks away from the night riding high!
If it’s someone’s first time reading, give them lots of support and encouragement! Maybe even give prizes! Uphold them! Even in small groups, reading aloud can be terribly intimidating.
Hint: Make everyone heap their plates full first, or else there will be a lot of wandering and scooping in the middle of someone’s story.
Hint: Take a break after the first 3-5 stories. A breather. Walk-around. Bathroom time. But don’t let it go on for TOO long, or else you’ll never finish your reading, and — after all — some of your friends may have a long ride home. Unless it’s a sleepover. (Rar!)
Hint: Host gets to go first or last and do little introductions of each writer if s/he feels like it.
Every second Thursday at our little used bookstore in Palatine, a small group of writers comes from as far east as Chicago and as far west as Woodstock to share their dream journals, short stories, novel excerpts, poetry, character sketches and songs.
It is so joyous; it takes the words right out of our heads and off our computer screens (where sometimes, let’s be honest, they MOLDER sullenly) and into the fresh and eager ears of a forgiving and interested audience. Such gatherings inspire us to write harder, to consider our audience, and, ultimately, to Get Stuff Done. Some of us work best under pressure, threats of Death by Dunkin‘ Donuts, and flagrant bribes. (Like John O’Neill, for example.)
I guess what I really wanted to say, long-windedly, is that if the salonnières of 18th Century Paris can have things like the Hôtel de Rambouillet, and if Patty “La Marquise” Templeton can have a Fiction Fun Time Potluck once a month, and if I, of all people, can host an open mic with some mild degree of success, then I say that YOU can do it too.
Why be lonely when you’re just an email (or Facebook invite) away from merriment, literature and gorging? Go for it. Report back. We’ll be curious to hear about your experience.