Earlier this year, I spent two days in Oregon’s Crater Lake. During the daylight hours, I snowshoed and drove around. The twin evenings I originally intended to keep simple, too, and dedicate solely to reading one book: Jon Franklin’s Writing for story.
The daytime travels took my breath away; at my evening task, I failed miserably.
Writing for story seems like one of the countless writer help books, but it takes an interesting approach. It starts with Franklin’s two most acclaimed stories — Mrs. Kelly’s monster and The ballad of Old Man Peters — reproduced verbatim. Then, it slowly takes them apart, sharing all sorts of principles and advice along the way. Those should allow you, the reader, to also possibly win the first Pulitzer Prize for a category started just for you… or, at the very least, write your own good non-fiction story.
So, the first evening, I settled comfortably in my little cabin nestled right next to Rogue River¹, put on a sweater, lit a wood-wick candle in lieu of a fireplace, opened Writing for story, and read the first chapter. I never finished reading the rest.
The story, Mrs. Kelly’s monster, an account of a brain surgeon fighting with his patient’s tumor, was gripping, expertly paced, extraordinary. Once again that day, I was left breathless. After finishing the story, I didn’t want to read any more; at that very moment I simply needed to write. I needed to inhabit the same space, same profession, as Jon Franklin did decades and miles away from me. And so I did, spending the rest of my cabin time tapping on my keyboard.
Then, I started thinking about other pieces of writing that affected or changed me so greatly.
I thought of Michael S. Malone’s Snow tracks, an obscure essay that spoke of Silicon Valley in a way I never saw anyone treating it — humanistic, poetic, respecting the past, but thinking of the future.
I remembered a short chapter in Stanisław Lem’s darkest book, Fiasco, that showed me the freedom that a writer can possess if they unleash their knowledge, their creativity, and their mastery of language all at once.
I also recalled my favourite poem, Present in all things by Brynn Saito: the first poem that I felt was written to me, and one that made me realize that I can — I must — care about poetry.
And then I thought: if I can think of a few such short pieces, surely some friends of mine will have some as well?
Party Where We Read Things (a temporary name that never got an upgrade) took place a few months later. The rules were simple:
Please bring a piece of writing that inspired you, changed you, meant something to you, or otherwise got stuck in your head.
Also, be prepared to read it, and talk briefly about why you chose it (before or after).
It can be serious, funny, fiction, non-fiction, whatever. As long as it’s words. The basic guideline would be 1,000 of them maximum, but we’re all figuring it out together.
As with any project whose main component is vulnerability, I was worried that a) no one would care to participate, and b) for those who do, it will be really, really awkward. When was the last time you read something aloud to someone? Something that means a lot to you? Someone who’s not a kid?
I worried too much. That one weekend night, my living room became filled with as many people as it could reasonably hold, and “awkward” was nowhere on the list of words I’d choose to describe it.
We sat down, and read, and talked.
What my friends brought with them was at the same time obvious (in the of course Audrey would read this kind of piece! kind of way) and surprising, since I haven’t heard about most of the essays and books.
What my friends said was illuminating as well, making me appreciate them even more, and also expanding my idea of what reading can mean to people. A friend who writes novels for living talked about how difficult it was for him as a writer, sometimes, when he realized how little he remembered from the books he himself read. Another friend read from her Kindle: she kept giving away copies of the book she loves most, so she was left with no single copy. And they were many more personal stories and confessions, not meant for this public forum.
But my favourite part was just hearing people read. A humorous essay punctuated with laughter, then a cerebral think piece delivered with confidence, only to be followed by a mournful, whispered poem. We all chuckled when a friend’s excerpt from Burroughs started with “There is a growing interest in new techniques of mind-control,” or when another friend promised “a little-known indie self-published book” and then read from… her sister’s teenage diaries (with permission).
It was an extraordinary night.
The readings brought by my friends became an impromptu playlist. As I’m slowly going through the books excerpted from, and familiarizing myself with authors admired, my life’s changing for the better. But that’s icing on a cake.
To commemorate the party, I typeset and printed a book with everyone’s submissions and introductions. This book will only ever exist in fifteen copies, one for each participant of Party Where We Read Things. It felt important for me to have a tangible artifact of this one evening, although that might be just me: I really love books and typography.²
But that’s icing on a cake, too. You don’t have to print a book at the end of your party, but I hope that you will have a party either way: that you’ll steal this idea, invite your own friends, do something similar.
There is a saying that I particularly like. It takes on many different forms, and you might’ve heard it expressed differently, but I am particularly fond of this version: You become what you love.
You become what you love.
Things you read, movies you watch, places you visit, the work you do, things you care about, all of those influence you and slowly seep into you. Depending on your predisposition you can look at it as an excuse, as a challenge, or as an opportunity, but this is the only choice you will have. You have no choice otherwise: You become what you love.
The corollary is, also, this: You become who you love. People you hang out with, people you care about, people you admire, people you aspire to be, pieces of their souls will find a way towards yours. For better, or for worse.
For me, that summer evening, it was decidedly, exclusively for better; I had the privilege to see people I love talking about things they love. I hope you do, too. If you decide to give it a shot, let me know how it worked out for you.
¹ A nearby highway is called Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. Oregon has a knack for dramatic naming.
² I used a font called Mercury Text and grades to respond to how I remembered my friends reading stories and essays they brought, with a lively rendition printed ever so slightly denser and warmer than a poem read in hushed tones.
If you are curious what I wrote that night near Crater Lake, it was this essay. I feel pretty proud of it. If you liked this idea, you also might another event, “Alternatywy 4” in America, interesting.
Thank you to Diana Kimball, who once invited me to her Readtreat, Tim Hwang, the organizer of MacroCity — both of these inspired mine — and Laura Holmes, who once put in my head the idea that reading out loud to people you love can be a wonderful thing. Many thanks, also, to Lauren Smiley who recommended Writing for story, and to Tyler Howarth who pointed me towards Crater Lake — you both set this all in motion. Lastly, thanks to Naureen for providing a final push to make it all happen, without even realizing it.
And, thank you to all participants of PWWRT.