Instructions for Reading Your Work in Public

NB: Paper Cut Flophouse was a group blog that ran in the late aughts. Most posts were written by two contributors: me, using the pseudonym Roman Briton, and my friend Pompeston, the mastermind of the endeavor. This is a cross-posting of a post I originally wrote for PCFH; here’s a link to the original.

First, schedule your reading somewhere, anywhere, that is extremely not easy to find. An alley behind a derelict girdle factory. A fallow field along a disused state highway. A hidden alcove on one of the upper floors of the condemned records building of an abandoned steel town. This is the critical first step to making sure you will have an unsuccessful reading. Next, remember to never tell anyone about the event, especially not your relatives or closest friends. If a mention of your upcoming reading accidentally slips out, deny what you have just said. If denial fails, plead drunken confusion. If you are clearly sober, sabotage the friendship. If your friends turn out to be social masochists and your bridge-burning attempts only increase their desire to hear you read, change the venue, making sure to move it by a distance of at least ten miles; also change the time of day by at least six hours, the date by at least three months. If you become worried that you might slip again, consider keeping the details of your reading a secret even from yourself.

No matter where you end up having your reading, make sure it is nowhere near a bookstore. Ideally, your reading should likewise be in a dry county, in a state that has no truck with literary culture. Sobriety and willful ignorance will be vital to the failure of your event. Next, get a job you hate, one where you are worked to the bone, drained dry at the end of every shift, with no energy remaining for creative endeavors. Make sure that the job has glimmerings of practicality, but only faintly so; your parents should be somewhat relieved, but still concerned. “The beef rendering industry isn’t going away anytime soon, that’s for sure,” they should say, smiling nervously, “but do assistant sluice managers have any room for advancement?” Whatever your vocation, make sure you have no time left over for writing: take extra shifts; bring work home with you; sign up for a correspondence course. If you have not done so already, develop a taste for alcohol. Let your love grow, but not like a well-tended flower, more like an ignored and sturdy vine, weedy and ferocious in its impulses, the tendrils of your habit entwining with the ramshackle chicken wire of your self-loathing. Lose money. Forget your passions. Forget, if you can, that you ever even wrote a word. Go to seed. Become pasty, disheveled, untucked. Be prone to haphazard spasms of knowing, disgusted laughter. Eat the leftovers of others from the break room refrigerator. Steal medicines you have no use for from the pharmacy. Begin a collection of old newspapers; keep them fastidiously folded in paper bags, hidden inside the Murphy bed in the basement apartment you call home.

When it comes time for your reading, let it take you completely by surprise. Frantically dig the manuscript of the first chapter of the novel you began as a sophomore out of storage. As you bang up the stairs and out through the screen door and across the crumbling pavement and eager dandelions, skim your pages, your eyes crusting over with nostalgia. Such early promise! Head out to your reading—in the far corner of the empty mimeograph repair shop, at the bottom of the dry quarry, under the neglected wharf—both horribly late and deeply satisfied at your own fragmentary genius. Drive into the early evening sun remembering that time you got into an argument with your ex—back in college, when you were still going out—about all the unpublished work Hemingway’s first wife lost in that Paris train station. Wasn’t it a damn shame? Wasn’t it a great loss to literature? “Oh, no,” you replied, smiling wistfully, “Don’t you see the beauty of it? That no words can ever be as good as those which can’t ever be read?”