Yeah, That’s Not How You Do Literary Citizenship

getting real tired of your shit“I’m a professional writer of forty years! Can any of you stand up and say the same?”

The microphone hijacker is drunk. His shouts crash out of the speakers and drown the awkward silence.

A group of (really quite talented) writers in their twenties had gathered at the bar to read poetry and prose, to listen, appreciate, and celebrate each other. I came thinking, “Maybe I’ll read next time.”

The drunk does not approve. He repeats: “I’ve been a professional writer for forty years!” He reads clumsily from his partner’s book of poetry. He commands us to purchase it when it goes on sale next month on Amazon. To the relief of the crowd, he only reads one poem before retreating to his table.

I’ve been, for the most part, quite lucky in my meetings with other writers, so this man’s rude interruption last night came as a nasty surprise. I’ve had writers judge me for writing and enjoying genre fiction and young adult, but I’ve never personally come up against someone so bitter. It’s a part of the writing world that I’ve been vaguely aware existed, but have not encountered.

What causes an older, more experienced writer to shame someone for their youth and relative inexperience? These writers came wanting to build a sense of community, wanting to support each other and perhaps attract more to the fold, and they were shouted down by a bitter old man.

You could hypothesize that it has to do with age. The landscape of writing is changing. More people than ever before can be published writers. Is he resentful? Is that why he reminded us multiple times that he’s a “professional” writer, despite acting just the opposite? But my experience with older writers has always, on the whole, been incredibly positive. They’re often willing and eager to share their experience and help younger writers through the many stumbling blocks of the profession. Or, when they’re older but new to writing, I’ve been treated as a fellow student of the craft, someone else who’s still really learning.

Perhaps this comes back to luck. I hope not. I want writers like last night’s drunk to be a minority. I want the kind, encouraging writers like Cathy Day and Linda Taylor to outnumber him.

The readings continued despite him. Writers and those who had come to listen fought back against him. I imagine he was too drunk and angry to care about our words the time, but I hope he woke up this morning regretting his actions. I hope he thought over what he’d said and done and realized how toxic such behavior is to the writing community.

I have never done a reading in nearly so public a place as a bar. I’ve read in classrooms and at a bookstore surrounded by my fellow Alphans, who outnumbered the unknowns. Those were safe spaces. A bar has the potential for, well, people like that drunk. Even when he wasn’t interrupting us to give the worst possible publicity for his partner’s poetry, his table was rude and loud. Readers at a microphone surrounded by several speakers could hear that table over their own voices. That wouldn’t happen in the kind of secure environment I’m used to. That honestly scares me. I don’t know how I’d react in that situation, and I hate that I’m so intimidated.

The thing that really sucks is that I’m probably not the only one. What if one of the readers last night had that experience and is frightened off from doing it again? What if someone came, like me, thinking that they might join in and now, like me, are kind of freaked out by the idea, all because some drunk writer decided to take his frustrations out on us?

I am incredibly proud of anyone who puts themselves out there and does a reading like that, even moreso if you can survive an experience like that and do it again. We need more of those people spreading confidence and support, getting the bitter poison out of our collective systems. Maybe those of us who have a little less courage can take strength from them. I hope I can.

What about you? What’s the worst (or best!) experience you’ve ever had with a reading? Can you empathize with this dude more than I can? Have you seen more of this dark side? Hit up the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “Yeah, That’s Not How You Do Literary Citizenship

  1. I love this post. You managed to articulate perfectly how I felt last night at that reading. That was my first time reading in a TRULY public space, and he definitely made it an interesting first. The thing that really shocked me was his lack of some sense of professionalism or appreciation for younger writers trying to create community.

  2. I have to admit I’m kind of amazed by this–after reading it here and on Madison’s blog. And I just am so sorry it happened. As someone who has only recently been reading aloud my work and then only in a classroom setting (safe, as you mentioned Sarah), I can’t imagine the pit in my stomach if I’d been there. But you definitely have the right attitude and perspective. Hopefully it was an isolated incident; hopefully if it DOES occur again the bartender or someone can put a stop to it. Kudos to the brave folks who kept on going in spite of it!

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