• In Praise of Readings: A Brief History of the Book Events I Have Attended

    S. Kirk Walsh Looks Back at 33 Years of Writers in Public

    Galway Kinnell, Wendell Berry, Donald Hall, and Sharon Olds at Rackham Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Michigan, January 29, 1987

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    On this cold winter evening, Rackham Auditorium, a majestic Art Deco hall on the campus of the University of Michigan, was packed with almost a thousand people. My mom had bought tickets to the event and had invited me. She was always going to different kinds of cultural happenings—concerts, lectures, exhibitions—and often brought me along when I was home from college. She was passionate about Georgia O’Keefe, Anaïs Nin, and Beethoven. When she was undergoing psychoanalysis for several years, my mom read every book Sigmund Freud ever published, underlining and taking notes along the way. Recently, my mom had discovered the poems of Sharon Olds.

    At age twenty, I had never been much of a reader or a writer and had never attended a reading. Growing up, I had struggled with dyslexia and accepted the idea that I wasn’t meant to get along with the English language. Words involuntarily split themselves at random spots on the page (for example, with driver, the d floated to one side of river). Pronunciations of some words—such as pneumonia or thermometer—often disappeared, and I couldn’t locate the edges of words and the syllables would get lost somewhere underneath my tongue. At the time of the reading, I was an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University in Upstate New York, studying economics (because it was the major that my roommates had picked), and much of my extra time was spent playing sports (I was on the varsity lacrosse and tennis teams), and attending Greek mixers and parties.

    My mom and I sat somewhere near the middle of the crowded auditorium. There was a palpable feeling of anticipation in the air. When it was Sharon Olds’ turn to read, she arrived at the podium, wearing a pair of bright red shoes, the kind that Dorothy might wear and tap together, and a navy blue dress. She took a sip of water, and the glass shivered in her hand. Olds stared at the water for a second and then commented, “Lively water.” The audience laughed. The poet smiled and then proceeded to read a selection of memorable poems from The Gold Cell and The Dead and the Living. “Stop, / don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,” Olds read from a poem titled “I Go Back to May 1937,” “he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things / you cannot imagine you would ever do, / you are going to do bad things to children, / you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of, / you are going to want to die.”

    Olds was powerful in a way that I had rarely witnessed in an adult. Her words soared like an agile swift maneuvering above our heads and up along the gold-leafed ceiling of the vast auditorium. This reading was my first exercise in truly listening—and a world of language opened up to me. At the time, I had little experience with the alchemy of words and emotion—and how the convergence of these two during a reading by the author could produce something electric and unexpected. Something stirred in my chest. My mom was equally transfixed. She glanced at me, squeezed my hand, and grinned, as if to say, “See, I told you so,” without saying it.

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    About six years later, after enrolling creative writing classes in college and then at the Writers’ Voice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I became a student in the graduate writing program at New York University. There, I met Sharon Olds, who still teaches at NYU. During one of our visits, I mentioned the reading in Rackman, how I had gone with my mom and that the event had inspired me. Sharon responded mentioned how nervous she had been reading with all of those other poets, and she hoped that her red shoes would give her an extra boost of confidence and boldness.


    Lorrie Moore,
    Herring-Cole Hall, St. Lawrence University, February 1988

     Lorrie Moore was a graduate of St. Lawrence in 1978 and returned to the campus to read from her debut story collection, Self-Help. (Moore was born and raised in Glen Falls, New York, about three hours south of the remote, one-light town of Canton, New York, where St. Lawrence is located.) In 1988, I was a senior and recently had enrolled creative writing classes after I discovered more of an easygoing rapport with language while studying in London during my junior year. One of my courses required daily writing and I didn’t have the time to consider my weaknesses as I wrote responses to seeing theater two and three times a week, often in the fringe theaters of the city. During my time away, I also traveled to Ireland and stayed with some friends of my dad’s in Dublin, and I remember listening to the musicality of their lilting accents and their deliberate attention to words and expressions, and being awakened to another dimension of language—how the music and the precision of it could elevate the expression and meaning.

    Her words soared like an agile swift maneuvering above our heads and up along the gold-leafed ceiling of the vast auditorium.

    The night of the Lorrie Moore reading, I convinced one of my roommates to go with me instead of heading to the crusty bar with the sawdust-strewn floor next to the railroad tracks, where my friends and I drank on a regular basis. The reading was held in the red-stone Herring-Cole Reading Room, which was built in 1869 as the first library on campus (and rumored to have more than one paranormal visitor). It was a building that I rarely entered during my three-plus years at St. Lawrence; instead, I did most of my studying in the contemporary library across the way. The reading was sparsely attended. Moore stood at the podium, with the circular stained glass window—with the school’s crest at the center—in front of her.

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    Petite in stature, her clear voice—and deadpan delivery—belied her size. She read the penultimate story of her collection titled “How to Be Writer.” “First, try to be something, anything else,” she read. “A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably.” The radiators quietly hummed and clattered in the monastic space. Snow fell outside. It felt like we were hermetically sealed inside this historic room by Moore’s fictional words of caution about pursuing a life as a writer. As I sat there, little did I know about the books and stories that were to come from this unassuming writer, that she would become one of my favorite living authors, and I, too, would set about this daunting path of becoming a writer myself. When Moore finished, she took a few questions from students. Then, she bundled up into a down winter coat and stepped outside into the swirling flurries of the North Country.


    Paul Auster, New York University, December 14, 1995

    From 1994–1996, I worked as a freelance collator at The New Yorker. I started at the magazine soon after Tina Brown took over its pages and the magazine production hadn’t quite migrated to the digital space. As a result, three of us worked in the collating department, doing just that. The editor—whether it was Chip McGrath, Peter Bennett, or Ann Goldstein (the copy chief who later went on to translate Elena Ferrante’s popular novels)—brought in several copies of an article, short story, or essay: There was the fact-checking proof, the editor’s proof, the copy editor’s proof, the lawyer’s proof, and the proofreaders’ proof (usually one or two). As collators, we were charged with “collating” all of these changes by priority and the numerous vertical red slashes marked by the editor, indicating which edits had been approved.

    The most significant proof was the Gould proof. From 1945 to 1999, the famous Gould proof presided over The New Yorker offices, with the marks and edits and comments by its head grammarian and copy editor, Eleanor Gould Packard, or “Miss Gould,” as she was called around the office. By the time I had arrived at the magazine, the office was in its second home on 20 West 43rd Street, between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas. Miss Gould was deaf, but still continue to produce her thickets of copy-edits at a steady and prodigious rate with Chip McGrath often serving as her intermediary with staffers when something needed to be clarified or explained. Though my job as a collator could be tedious at times, I received a real education reading the Gould proofs and transferring the corrections and edits that the respective editors had accepted.

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    On this December day, one of my collating assignments was the galleys of an essay, “Why Write?,” written by Paul Auster. Since the piece was a first-person essay (in the “Life and Letters” section), there were relatively few edits to collate, and instead, I enjoyed the author’s precise prose and vibrant anecdotes. (This was one of the pleasures of the job—getting to read all of the time.) The essay was structured in five discrete sections where the Auster described events in his life and others that led to his eventual vocation as a writer. It was delightful and harrowing and inspiring; each anecdote revolved around a degree of accident and chance (a recurring theme in Auster’s fiction). The concluding episode recounted the eight-year-old author asking the legendary Willie Mays for his autograph after a spring game against the Milwaukee Braves. Unfortunately the young Auster didn’t have a pencil on hand and Mays responded, “Sorry, kid. Ain’t got no pencil, can’t give no autograph.” This memorable episode led the author to always have a pencil in his pocket.

    After work at the magazine, that evening, I took the 6 train from Grand Central to NYU to attend a reading sponsored by my graduate program: Paul Auster was reading! As it turns out, Auster read “Why Write?” that evening. It was strange and exhilarating, and only something that could take place in New York City. I felt like I was living inside a Paul Auster story. What chance! What coincidence! “If nothing else, the years have taught me this,” Auster read toward the end of the essay, “if there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to use it.”

    Rick Moody, K.G.B. Bar, East Village, New York City, April 7th, 1996

     During the Nineties, this darkly lit bar at 85 East Fourth Street, near the corner of Second Avenue—aptly named because the tenement building once housed the U.S. headquarters to the Ukrainian Communist Party—was something of a scrappy, flickering light in the New York City literary world. On any given night of the week, as many people as possible crammed into the 800-square-foot space for a momentous reading by one author or another. On this Sunday evening, Rick Moody was reading short fiction as a part of Ken Foster’s K.G.B. reading series. My friend, Dana, and I sat at one of the front tables, next to Moody’s then-girlfriend, Amy, in the intimate club. It was crowded and dark, and the honks and screeches of cars and taxis floated up from the urban streets. Amy was wearing a cheerleading outfit, a tightly fitted sweater and a short, pleated skirt, while the rest of us were dressed in our usual urban attire of jeans and cardigans and variations of black. Her outfit was clearly out of place, but then I quickly realized Amy was dressed for the part as the number one supporter of Moody’s cheering section.

    I felt like I was living inside a Paul Auster story. What chance! What coincidence!

    With little introduction, Moody began to read the short story that was about to be published in the forthcoming issue of Conjunctions and would later become the title story of his next book, Demonology. A single light attached to the lectern glowed down on his pages. “She was really small,” he read. “She barely held down her clothes. Five feet tall. Tiny hands and feet.” Moving through a rotating series of photographs and snapshots and distilled moments, the fierce narrative, blurring between fiction and nonfiction, tells the traumatic story of his older sister’s death at age 37, who died from a seizure, leaving behind two young children in November of 1995. It was a breathtaking experience, a sock in the stomach, hearing this remarkably sad story read aloud by Moody so soon after he had written it.

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    “I should fictionalize it more, I should conceal myself,” read Moody. “I should consider the responsibilities of characterization, I should conflate her two children into one, or reverse their genders, or otherwise alter them, I should make her boyfriend a husband….” The bar felt darker and lighter at the same. Not yet a year had passed since Moody’s sister’s tragic death, and here we were listening to his fictional recounting. Tears ran down the side of his girlfriend’s face. A light continued to shine on the lines of prose. Moody looked up at the silently stunned audience and said, “Thank you.”


    William Trevor, Kaufmann Theater, 92nd Street Y, May 12, 1997

     On this Monday evening, I attended with my friend, Anne, who I had met in graduate school at NYU, and my former boss, Mary, at The New Yorker. We couldn’t believe our luck: Trevor rarely read in the States and here we were, waiting to hear the masterful Irish storyteller take the illuminated stage. Dressed in a gray tweed suit with a navy blue tie, William Trevor was introduced and quietly took his spot behind the blond-wood podium. Then, he took a sip of water, fished out a pair of reading glasses from his jacket pocket, and arranged the sheaf of papers on the podium as the enthusiastic applause died down. He read two stories—“Teresa’s Wedding” (that he mentioned had written twenty years ago) and “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” (written only a couple of years ago)—in their entirety.

    “The remains of the wedding-cake were on top of the piano in Swanton’s lounge-bar, beneath a framed advertisement for Power’s whiskey,” Trevor began “Teresa’s Wedding.” His Irish accent danced through the enormous darkened auditorium. His precise voice and delivery transformed the space into something cathedral-like. Almost sacred. We were listening to a true master. After Trevor completed the first story, he took a second sip of water and then proceeded to read the second story about a blind piano turner torn between his living wife and his dead one. At the conclusion, the audience erupted into applause. Trevor nodded his head, slipped his glasses back into his jacket pocket, collected his papers, and walked off stage.

    Afterward, we stood in line and had our books signed by Mr. Trevor. I had brought me a copy of After the Rain (his most recent collection), which I had planned to send to my grandmother who was also a big fan of the author’s writing. Her grandfather had been a bricklayer from Drogheda, one of the oldest towns in Ireland, and she had a penchant for Irish storytellers—Trevor, Joyce, Yeats—as well as The Bible (being a devote Catholic who attended Mass on a daily basis). Upon arriving at the front of the signing line, my voice trembled as I thanked Trevor for his beautiful reading and then mentioned that the book was for my grandmother. He signed the title page with his quiet signature, closed it, and patted the front cover. “I hope she enjoys it,” Trevor said with a smile.

    We couldn’t believe our luck: Trevor rarely read in the States and here we were, waiting to hear the masterful Irish storyteller take the illuminated stage.

    Four years later, my grandmother passed away at age 99 (a month after September 11th) and my father returned the signed Trevor book for my own library. When I opened the package from my dad and saw the story collection and the author’s autograph, I was transported to the large auditorium at the 92nd Street Y and the sound of Trevor’s voice—and his precise, lyrical language—and his kind smile.

    Edward P. Jones, Barnes & Noble, Upper West Side, October 16, 2003

    At the time, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my husband, Michael, on West 75th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus, and worked part-time as a copy writer in the marketing department of Lincoln Center. Most mornings, I picked up the New York Times from the newsstand on the corner of West 72nd Street and Amsterdam, folded it under my arm, as I walked south on Broadway to Lincoln Center. At my lunch break, I read the newspaper at my desk tucked away in a corner cubicle.

    A few days before, I had read a profile of Edward P. Jones, who was described in the article as “an unemployed proofreader.” Despite his first story collection Lost in the City being a finalist for the National Book Award (and garnering many other awards and praise), Jones was still relatively unknown among readers. I was intrigued by the description of his debut novel The Known World, set in 1855 about a prominent black man, Harry Townsend, who leaves thirty-three slaves to his widow wife. In the New York Times profile, Jones mentioned that he spent ten years working out the labyrinthine narrative that included a large constellation of characters in his mind, and then spent only three months writing the first draft after he got laid off from his job as a proofreader at a trade magazine called Tax Notes.

    That Thursday evening, the reading, at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side, was sparsely attended. About half of the folding chairs were filled. Jones was soft-spoken and reserved, his oversized black-framed glasses dominating much of his round face. He read a short excerpt from the novel and then took questions. One woman asked him how long it took to write the novel. Jones answered, “Ten years.” She continued to press, “But I read that you wrote the first draft in three months.” Jones paused, demonstrating patience in the face of this stranger’s impatience. “I was working out in my head for ten years, and I count that as part of the writing process.”

    Afterward, I waited for Jones to sign my copy of The Known World (a first edition since I bought the novel so close to its publication date). When Jones asked my name for the inscription, I mentioned that I was a fiction writer, too, and that I was working on a novel. I had signed with a good agent, who represented some of my favorite writers (Marilynne Robinson and Michael Ondaatje) and we were going through the revision process of my first novel prior to submission. I was excited that I was getting closer to potential publication and a well-respected agent had taken an interest in my work. Jones looked up at me with a glimmer of recognition in his eyes.

    “You know, I just got lucky,” he said referring to his own success. My cheeks reddened, and I nodded. I think we both knew that it was much more than luck that had brought Jones to the publication of his new novel and a national book tour and a profile in The New York Times. I didn’t say it, but I thought, It’s not luck; you’re a genius. Six months later, The Known World won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

    Austin Bat Cave Reading Celebration of Young Writers, including David Price, May 2010

    In 2004, my husband, Michael, and I made a cross-country move from New York City to Austin, Texas. He was accepted into the Michener Center of Writers, a three-year MFA program. I was worried about leaving New York City and our life there. But, soon, I discovered there were many things to like about Austin. One among many was its growing literary scene that revolved around the Michener Center, the Texas Book Festival, and the Harry Ransom Center. At the same time, I recognized a lack of writing programs for younger writers as I had spent several years teaching creative writing in the public schools of New York City before we moved. It was work that mattered to me, particularly since I had struggled to find my own voice in language and writing when I was a young student. Being new in town, I had extra time and I went about creating a nonprofit called Austin Bat Cave, which was inspired by Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia, and provided free writing workshops and tutoring for students (ages 6-18).

    Jones was soft-spoken and reserved, his oversized black-framed glasses dominating much of his round face.

    As is true of any new nonprofits, it took time to find our footing in the Austin community: Our first summer workshop occurred in 2007, and by 2010, the organization offered year-round programming. This is how I met the poet Roger Reeves. When he moved to Austin to attend the Michener Center, we were introduced to each other because he had expressed an interest in volunteering for Austin Bat Cave. During the spring of 2010, Roger took on the enormous undertaking of working with students from around the city and publishing a citywide anthology titled Every Letter: Austin Anthology of Younger Writers. Nick Flynn had also agreed to be a part of the project and wrote the introduction, along with Roger, to the student volume.  

    At the time, Reagan High School, in northeast Austin, was a struggling school, and it was difficult to set up writing workshops due to its understaffed administration. Roger managed to find a way to meet with a handful of students at Reagan, and with many other students in several other schools throughout the city, and included twenty-three young writers in the published anthology. One of the students was named David Price, and he wrote a poem titled “Random Life.”

    On the day of the reading celebration in May of 2010, David had discovered that his girlfriend had lost their premature baby. Roger and my husband, Michael, picked up David at home for the event, but given his grief over the tragic turn of events, Roger gave him the choice to read or not to read as a part of the evening’s lineup that included other students and Flynn. David decided to read in front of the sizable audience of family members, other students, staff, and ABC supporters. “I can taste the sunrise / David is at Wal-mart / My house is HOT!!!! / Like a slave ship / Most people eat milk with cereal / Now nudda.” His steady voice filled the loft space in East Austin where the reading was being held. “Sunny on the outside / Means wet on the inside / The door opens / for the story to end.” David closed the anthology and looked up, his eyes glistening, and Roger hugged David as we all applauded.

    Denis Johnson, Blanton Auditorium, the University of Texas, October 25, 2012

    By the fall of 2012, I had put the first novel manuscript in the proverbial drawer and written a second novel, a kind of love letter to New York City that told the story of one couple navigating infertility, infidelity, and loss. My agent wasn’t able to sell the second novel and I had started exploring a third novel, an idea inspired by events that took place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during World War II.

    Johnson was a regular visiting professor at the Michener Center, and his reading attracted a large, energized audience that nearly filled the 600-seat auditorium. In August, Michael had underwent major surgery in late August (his hamstring was reattached to his pelvis after an accident) and was still recovering; my mom had suffered the first of many psychotic breaks and had been admitted into a psychiatric ward and was undergoing a series of electroshock treatments; one of my brothers who was suffering from debilitating alcoholism had recently left rehab and few people had heard from him since; and my 41-year-old stepsister was dying from a rare form of cancer with only a few weeks to live. For several months, I hadn’t been writing because I was caring for Michael and fielding calls from my family about one crisis or another. Reading and writing became distant friends, and I had no idea when I was going to meet them again.

    My friend, Karen, had encouraged me to attend the Johnson reading. It was my first time out in some time. As we walked down the steps of the auditorium, I felt vulnerable and strange and slightly outside my body. After a brief introduction, Johnson took the stage. He was nimble and lively on his feet, looking small and elfish from our seats midway in the large auditorium with its steeped raked seating. Johnson talked about working with his recent group of graduate students and a writing assignment that he had given them. “I told my students to write fictional scenes in two-hundred word pieces, so I decided that I needed to follow my own assignment.” Johnson proceeded to read a scene that would become the opening section, “Silences,” of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” which is made up of ten sections.” “We started talking about the most ridiculous things we’d ever kissed,” read Johnson from the story. “Nothing of interest. We’d all kissed only people, and only in the usual places.” I felt light again. I felt inspired by the possibilities of writing, that anything could happen, particularly as one set easy-to-attain goals.

    It was a short, poignant reading punctuated by many laughs. Johnson’s cheerful demeanor illuminated the auditorium as he and Jim Magnuson, the Michener Center’s then-director, traded jokes and anecdotes, the way old friends do. I was reminded of why it was important to write, to have writer friends, but also attend readings. It was a reminder of the importance of reading and writing, how these simple acts can provide sustenance during the darkest of times. When I left that Johnson reading, I recommitted myself to writing at least two hundred words whenever I sat down at my desk.

    Denis Johnson Memorial Tribute, Prothro Theater, Harry Ransom Center, January 15, 2018.

    Johnson passed away on May 24th, 2017, from liver cancer, and this memorial was held the day after his final collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published by FSG. The event was held at the Ransom Center, where Johnson’s archive now resides (about 50 boxes of documents: the loose manuscript material of Tree of Smoke fills six binder notebooks; notes and jottings on receipts, paper coasters, envelopes; and the prosthetic eye and prop knife Johnson wore in the film version of Jesus’ Son). It was only his second collection of stories, providing a sort of literary bookend to his wildly popular Jesus’ Son.

    Reading and writing became distant friends, and I had no idea when I was going to meet them again.

    Several writers and friends gave tribute to the legendary writer during the evening: Steve Enniss, Bret Anthony Johnson, W. Joe Hoppe, Jim Magnuson, Jane Miller, Tom Grimes, Elizabeth McCracken, and his widow, Cindy Lee. Before her reading, McCracken recounted a moment when Johnson was returning to teach at the Michener Center for a semester and several students came into her office and said with much enthusiasm, “You don’t understand—Denis Johnson is my favorite writer.” And she responded to each of her students, “Denis Johnson is everybody’s favorite writer.”  The audience broke out into laughter.

    Then, McCracken read the exact same passage, “Silences,” from the story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” that Johnson had read that night at the Blanton Theater back in October of 2012. “How often will you witness a woman kissing an amputation?” read McCracken. “Jones, however, had ruined everything by talking. He’d broken the spell.” One voice placed over the other, while being the same voice at once. It was like Johnson was there, but he wasn’t there at all.

    Carmen Maria Machado, Austin Public Library, January 28, 2020

    This reading took place on Tuesday night in the ground-floor auditorium of the Central Library in Austin, which overlooks Lady Bird Lake and Cesar Chavez. That afternoon, I had spent several hours in one of the reading rooms. Over the summer, I had sold my first novel, The Elephant of Belfast, to Counterpoint Press. It was an unexpected, exciting turn of events as I had left my agent of many years and then sold the manuscript on my own. After I received the offer, I called my dad and shared the good news. He was thrilled for me, knowing the years of hard work that I had put into my fiction. I called my mom, too. For the past three years, she had been living in a long-term nursing home in Detroit; most of the time she was caught in the infinite repeat of depression, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress (from horrendous child abuse that her years of psychoanalysis never quite treated). Over the past seven years, we lost pieces of my mom to her mental illness. Often when I called, she begged me to take her out of the facility because they were coming to get her. When I called with the good news about my novel, it was like her old self broke through her heavy medicated haze, and she said in her former, lighter voice, “I’m so proud of you.”

    In late January, I found the anonymous, hushed quality of the library’s reading room both a solace and a comfort, with its wide plate-glass windows that opened up onto downtown Austin and its familiar hum of fluorescent lights and occasional rustling of plastic bags carried in by strangers. There, I reviewed edits from the UK editor who was going to be publishing the novel at the same time as Counterpoint. Indeed, life is never one thing. Though I was excited about my novel, I was sad and lonely, too. In late October, my dad had fallen ill, one physical ailment cascading into another and producing an endless vortex of hospitalizations, emergency rooms, rehab facilities, tests and blood work, and doctors and nurses and medical records, all of which was set in motion by a knee-replacement surgery performed in early September. My dad died on the morning of November 20th. The month of December was spent organizing his funeral and getting through my first holiday season without him and spending time with my friends at the hospital because their fourteen-year-old son was being treated for a rare form of throat cancer. I was weary, and the work related to my dad’s death was far from over: The upcoming weekend, I was planning to travel to Detroit, Michigan, to help out with the cleaning of my dad’s house.

    When I arrived for Machado’s reading in the library’s auditorium, I spotted many friends, students and acquaintances throughout the high-ceilinged room. I felt like I was attending a wedding where I knew most of the guests. I said hello and exchanged many hugs as I made my way to the front of the audience to find a seat in between two of my students. Despite feeling emotionally worn out, I felt lifted up, seeing so many friends in one spot.

    Machado began with a reading from her powerful memoir, In the Dream House, and then was interviewed by local writer Deb Olin Unferth. The two writers spoke about the creative process, the necessary courage to write about domestic abuse and violence, the genre of horror, and Justin Torres’ We the Animals and how it provided inspiration for the splintering point of view of In the Dream House. At one point, Machado said that there are some things that you need to accept that you’re never going to know. For example, why she didn’t leave her girlfriend sooner? “They will always remain a mystery,” Machado said. “Instead, focus on what you do know—your own interior life or how pop culture and media can reflect this.”

    While sitting the audience, I felt a sense of comfort and ease as the author spoke about mystery and what life brings us. Machado spoke honestly about her writing and experience of being in an abusive relationship. The auditorium felt like a sunlit shore of compassion—open faces, inspired smiles, nodding heads, quiet chuckles and laughter of identification. We were all happy to be there. Even though I was deflated, I felt propped up by my students and friends. They were all around me. It was welcomed sensation, sitting there in the third row of the event—experiencing a temporary respite of peace and contentment, a feeling that things were going to be okay even though they weren’t exactly okay.

    When I called with the good news about my novel, it was like her old self broke through her heavy medicated haze, and she said in her former, lighter voice, “I’m so proud of you.”

    Little did I know what would unfold during the coming days, weeks, and months—that I would return to Detroit two days later to clean out my dad’s house and when I visited my mom at the nursing home, I would discover that she had stopped eating. She could barely lift her frail body from her bed. She was no longer interested in playing cards (what we usually did when I visited her). Instead after five minutes of visiting, she told me it would be better if I left, that she was tired and needed her rest. Like my dad’s decline, things happened quickly. The following week, the staff recommended that we move my mom into hospice—and she died five days later, on the evening of February 9th, ten weeks after my dad. Despite being divorced for almost fifty years, my parents were still very much connected.

    Because of the closeness between their deaths, my sister and I decided to wait a month and hold my mom’s service on Saturday, March 14th. We needed to catch our breath. We didn’t know that a global pandemic was tumbling toward us. The service would end up being a small private ceremony. And this would be the last “normal” thing that we would do before my husband and I returned to Austin the following day and remained home indefinitely. There would be no hugs. There would be no I’m sorry your parents died so closely together. There would be no other readings. There would be no coffee with friends. There would be nothing. For two months, I would cry almost every day. Our house would become a house of grief, with my husband holding much of it.

    No, I didn’t know any of this as I sat in the auditorium of the Austin Public Library and took in the lively conversation of Machado and Unferth. The sky darkened as the rush-hour traffic continued to hum along Cesar Chavez. The great orb of the sun was disappearing, sending ribbons of apricot and deep lavender across the open Texas sky. I knew, just a block away, thousands of Mexican free-tail bats were alighting from the concrete buttresses of the Congress Street Bridge, producing a wave-like motion, an ever-changing pixelated path into the distant horizon. Even though I couldn’t see the undulating bend of winged creatures, I knew they were making their nightly migration and they would predictably returned to the underside of the bridge the following morning at sunrise.

    As I sat there, listening to Machado and Unferth, I didn’t know it would be the last time that I would sit among a large community of people—lovers of the written word, passionate about telling the truth, my peers, my students, my friends—and would experience an opening of courage and inspiration.

    At the beginning, right before she read from her memoir, Machado gestured toward her tan knee-high, heeled boots that she wore with short-sleeved gray knit dress. She looked sophisticated, beautiful, and strong. Machado kicked out one foot and displayed her boots with a bit of flourish, and smiled, explaining how one of the things she loved about readings was picking out her outfits. I was reminded of Sharon Olds’ red shoes from that event at Rackham with my mom in 1987, that moment we shared as Olds read her stunning poems aloud to us and how my mom’s invitation to that reading opened the door to language for me. And how being able to see a writer’s shoes—or in Machado’s case, boots—can make all the difference.

    S. Kirk Walsh
    S. Kirk Walsh
    S. Kirk Walsh is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has been widely published in The New York Times Book Review, Longreads, StoryQuarterly, and Electric Literature, among other publications. Over the years, she has been a resident at Ucross, Yaddo, Ragdale, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Walsh is the founder of Austin Bat Cave, a writing and tutoring center that provides free writing workshops for young writers throughout Austin. Her debut novel, The Elephant of Belfast, will be published in 2021 by Counterpoint.

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