Margaret Atwood once said - and I don't remember if it was in this wonderful book or in an interview or what - that once of the very best things you can do as a writer is to give readings. I was close to dumbfounded at this advice. This might sound arrogant, but if you're a writer you probably recognize it as true: you hear the same goddamn advice over and over and OVER again. It comes in different forms, and sometimes it appears as the opposite of itself, but there are certain things that stay true and bear repeating and you can still get good and tired of hearing them from every possible source. But this was new. This was the first time I'd heard this advice.
It astonished me to hear something new in the sea of yeah-yeah-yeah, so I instantly doubted it. How are readings really going to help your bottom line? You reach a small roomful of people in most cases, a couple hundred in an auditorium at best (and most unlikely). But she's Margaret Living-Canadian-Treasure Atwood, so I figured she knows best, even if I didn't really understand.
As of Monday night, I understood. I went to my first-ever reading (...I think? There must have been another one before now, surely, I'm not that introverted) at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip, and the reader/writer was Cheryl Strayed. This UTTERLY FANTASTIC and not-large bookstore was quite packed with Sugar and Wild fans waiting to hear her. I stood up for about two hours, all told. From the personal perspective, the one where I'm me living in my skin and this is the woman who's inspired me to be a better and truer human in 84 different ways, it was incredible. When she signed my book, I said idiotic stuff, including "thank you" about 6 times in a row, which was really what I wanted to say most even if it didn't come out the way I wanted it to. I wanted to hug her and bow to her and ask her about my mom and cry into her nice black dress. But there were too many people also waiting to say thank you and watch her hand write into their books.
From the writer's perspective, so much was accomplished: big sloppy fans of hers, like me, got to hear her voice and see her in living life, which I'm sure was gratifying for her. People walking by looked in, saw the crowd, came in for a listen, and discovered her for the first time. She sold a ton of books that she wouldn't have otherwise sold (the bookstore sold out of Wild), all of which have the potential to be lent around to friends and lead to more sales. The bookstore itself profited quite a lot (yeah, I bought some more books, some of which I'd intended to buy and others not so intentional). People in line for the signing got to trading stories and learned about even more books that needed reading. And now I'm telling all of you that if you have the chance to hear Cheryl Strayed do a reading, don't miss it, and that will lead to STILL MORE sales and word-of-mouth. It's just a big round robin of book-reading and book-buying. Even though it's only a little, person-to-person thing, doing a reading - not like appearing on Oprah, for instance - it makes a non-insignificant, stone-in-a-pond kind of impact. Lesson learnt: Margaret Atwood is right about everything.
So go see Cheryl Strayed if she comes to your town. Here's her schedule for the rest of 2012. If you have no idea who this Cheryl Strayed is that I'm talking about, buy this book. Don't ask questions, don't protest, don't read about it and think about it before buying. Just buy it. I can pretty much guarantee you won't be sorry. If you insist that you can't afford it, here's the archive of her Sugar columns at The Rumpus, but it's less fun by an order of magnitude than reading it in book form, and harder to fold down pages and write YES!! in the margins.
In other news, I think there's an essay on its way out of me this evening. I'm feeling a little less confident about my KUFC book, for reasons I want to write about in the essay. It has to do with Salieri. That's all I'll say.