On Venues

Lit by Rebecca Lawton, 05/03/13

One year while attending the Winter Olympics, I gradually became aware that people were using the venues to stand in for events. They would ask, "What venues will you be seeing this afternoon?" Or, "We're going to the luge venue." It turns out the venues were many and varied, some new and shiny, some old and renovated, as were the events. A sense of chaos came with the influx of people from all over, and the chaos was borne out in the language used to describe it.

Recently I was asked to read from my new novel,Junction, Utah, at the most unusual venue yet. It was a Seder ceremony, really an annual river guides reunion. (See how I've used venue for event already.) Each year the reunion takes place in a lovely spring-green meadow, a portion of a large piece of land overlooking the American River near Coloma, California. I've always felt the venue clearly related to the subject of my novel, which takes place in part on wild rivers and, in fact, in part on that river. But I've also always considered the event the last place one would want to stage a literary reading—-generally the party becomes so raucous a reader could expect the half-drunk audience to throw Matzo at anyone who bores them. We attend the event to see each other, eat good food, and drink and play rowdy music.

In the days leading up to Seder, our hostess, a retired river guide and schoolteacher named Barbara, suggested that I consider reading a passage from my novel at some point in the ceremony. I said yes only because I assumed the reading would never really happen. There was no way she'd want me to do it when the time came; she too would see the event didn't allow for the quiet attentiveness readings generally command. Currently my novel is in e-book format only, and I went so far as to leave my hard-copy manuscript at home, clearly believing I would not need it.

The Seder proceeded as usual, beginning with Friday night dinner and get-together, continuing with boating and hiking on Saturday, then culminating in the feast and ceremony Saturday night. No sooner did our self-appointed Rabbi stand to speak than he was heckled mercilessly, all part of the theater of our particular brand of Seder. Non-stop toasting commenced, followed by dinner and guitar, mandolin, and fiddle music. Lively talk filled the circle around the campfire. All was going according to schedule. Around 10 o'clock, knowing the party was almost through, I prepared to leave for the night.

At that moment Barbara approached me. "I'm going to the house to get my Kindle," she said. "When I get back we'll announce your reading."

"You can't be serious. This is hardly the time or place."

"It's the perfect time and place."

"But the music is still going strong. I don't want to stifle all this fun with a reading."

She just laughed. "Stay here," she said. "I'll be right back."

The night was black and full of stars. There were snakes — something like thirteen had been counted on the property that day alone. Barbara strode confidently through the long grass toward the lights of her house up the meadow. I was starting to think I might have to go through with it.

Did I want to? Sort of. I'd dreamed of the day when my river writing would be embraced by the community that inspired it. I'd gone so far as to think I'd be invited to read around a campfire sometime, maybe even on a river trip with my peers, as I'd once invited Edward Abbey to read on a trip on the Colorado River. He'd declined, and I'd felt crushed. Reading from his work was, I believed, what he'd come for.

But now a reading seemed ludicrous. And I'd risk appearing as if I had attended the event for self-promotion. In addition, I expected the same degree of heckling that had plagued the Rabbi.

When Barbara returned, one of the young musicians took a break from playing and announced that everyone should gather around for a reading from my latest book. At that moment, I knew there was no escaping and I'd better be ready for anything: heckling, bored faces, rejection. That it might go well never crossed my mind.

It was the first time I'd ever read from a Kindle. That was another unknown. However, to my delight, I easily found the page on which I wanted to begin reading, gave a brief introduction, and, as the night grew silent, I began to read.

I read about river guides. I read about saving passengers who'd been thrown from boats in rapids. I read about a twenty-something protagonist who could've been modeled on many of the women who were there that evening and whose faces now watched me with wide-eyed curiosity. I read a passage that took place on the American River, and I suspect that many in the crowd not only knew the place intimately, but they also related to the action that took place in those very waters.

To my extreme surprise, it was an attentive, open-hearted crowd. If the dropping of a pin could have been heard in the tall grass, it would have. The audience listened carefully and laughed in all the right places. It was an amazing venue.

I came away knowing that I know nothing about how to select the time or place for a reading. What I thought I knew about an event I've attended probably twenty-five times over as many years was blown out of the water by the enthusiasm of my hostess-friend. She had told me it was the perfect place to read a river book. And she was right. I would not have wanted to miss that experience for anything, and I would have if I hadn't had the courage to jump in.

If I were Oprah, at this moment I would say that what I know for sure is that I don't know s**t. That if I can stay open-minded and open-hearted, I stand a better chance of living this life fully. And that it might not be the venues or events that determine our success, but the heart connections underlying them.

To authors, I say: Read anywhere you are asked. Read even those places you wished to but never dared to try. You just might learn something new about yourself and your work. And you might start becoming the person you hoped you'd someday be.

Rebecca Lawton was among the first women whitewater guides on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon and on other rivers in the West. Her essay collection on the guiding life, "Reading Water: Lessons from the River" (Capital Books), was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and ForeWordNature Book of the Year finalist. Her essays, poems, and stories have been published in Orion, Sierra, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Shenandoah, THEMA, More, and other magazines. She blogs about writing and environmental issues at Writer in Residence. (http://beccalawton.wordpress.com/)

Lawton's writing about the West has won the Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers, three Pushcart Prize nominations (in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry), and other honors. She has received residencies at The Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska, and Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers in Langley, Washington. Her debut novel, Junction, Utah, set in the resource-rich Green River valley, is available as an original e-book from van Haitsma Literary.

She works as a writer and scientist and serves on the Board of Directors of Friends of the River. Her website: www.beccalawton.com

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