I recently gave a reading to a small audience -- seven people, two of whom worked at the venue and two of whom had clearly come together. It was an intimate space, made all the more intimate by the empty seats; however, it afforded me an opportunity to learn something.
I should clarify: I wasn't disappointed by the small crowd. I would happily address an audience of one, because that person came to see me. Can you imagine that? An adult who could've spent his or her evening doing anything else chose to do this instead? Hell, you can sit in my lap, if you like! But the turnout at my previous reading had been ten-times as large and the group dynamics were now significantly different. For one thing, we all teetered on the edge of embarrassment. Was this it? Was that okay? When the bell chimed above the door, would anyone turn to look? (The answer was no. Everyone faithfully kept his or her eyes trained forward.)
I like to make an audience laugh. By the time we get to the Q&A, it's usually a pretty jovial crowd. But laughter is a social contract. Have you ever noticed your tendency to laugh in a crowded movie theater, but not so much on the couch? That's because your laughter -- and the laughter of those around you -- is a way of demonstrating, "It's okay, gang, this loud noise/awkward exchange/self-deprecating author isn't a threat to our collective security." The smaller the audience, the more difficult laughs are to come by -- and without laughter, it's difficult to gauge my performance. So that was tough.
I thought maybe there'd be a heightened sense of community, given our modest numbers, but the opposite was true: my efforts at group-bonding were strongly rebuffed. It dawned on me (as I quickly back-peddled) that each person had come in his or her own right to listen to me speak. These men and women weren't speed dating -- I'm not OKJamie. I mean, I am okay, but -- well, you get the point.
Finally, and most unnerving to me, when I read aloud from Froelich's Ladder I noticed that one woman was reading along! Maybe this is normal behavior? But I alter the text I'm performing. I skip words, I move clauses -- occasionally I delete an entire paragraph. Sentences have a different relationship on the page than they do in the ether. That voice you hear in your head, in all likelihood, is not my voice, so I have to make allowances for my natural tendency to rush and concatenate. This adaptation is a necessary improvement, I believe, but try telling that to the woman on my left.
"You may have noticed I changed some stuff," I confessed when I was done.
"You skipped," she scolded me.
"I didn't skip. I edited. For content."
"No. You skipped."
And so I did. Thus, let this be the lesson learned: next time I'll give fair warning, whether it's an audience of a hundred or one.
1. Froelick Gallery
I used to work at a CPA firm in the Pearl, a posh neighborhood in Northwest Portland. On my daily commute I'd walk past the Froelick Gallery, and it gradually occurred to me that this would make a good name for a character. Only later did I realize that "Froelick" was an Americanized version of the German surname Fröhlich, most likely appended at Ellis Island.
In English, "Fröhlich" translates to "blithe, happy, joyful, merry, [or] gay." Given my layperson's understanding of German, I'd expect it to mean, "the tempered sense of contentment one may experience on a Tuesday afternoon, provided that Wednesday remains at bay and Monday is long since forgotten."
2. Bill Froelich, Jr.
If you search for "Froelich" and "ladder" on Amazon, the results will yield my novel, Froelich's Ladder, and Up A Ladder, an autobiography by Bill Froelich, Jr.
I've purchased a used copy of Mr. Froelich's book, which had a second printing in 1992. In the prologue, he promises the reader "a narrative of pain, pathos, and at times reversals, and then there are periods of jubilation and self-satisfaction at times of successful accomplishment. It is a compilation of anecdotes, happenings, and behaviorisms in a travail on a pathway through an average life style."
Mr. Froelich was seventy-one in 1992. I doubt he's still up his ladder, so to speak, but his written word ("no ghost writers nor professional amanuenises involved in this writing") lives on.
3. Froelich Engineers
I recently received an email from M. Froelich, a local engineer. He'd seen my interview in The Oregonian and wondered if I could sign a copy of Froelich's Ladder for his dad. Sure, I said ... for $100.
No, not really. I wonder, how many Froelichs are there in the continental United States? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? I hope to hear from more as time goes on, so long as they don't write any books. That's my bailiwick, Froelichs -- lay off.
If I ever write a love story -- which is to say, if I ever write a novel where the central plot hinges on the relationship between two people -- I'll build it around the premise that what you love most about a person will ultimately drive you insane.
Is your boyfriend spontaneous? Delightful! His flakiness will make you bonkers. Is your girlfriend a responsible adult? Finally, for once! Her uncompromising nature will sound your death knell. It's not something your partner keeps hidden from you; it's a matter of character, emphasis, and time.
Back in 2013, when I was shopping around Froelich's Ladder, I kept getting the same complaint from literary agents: it's too whimsical. Now, that was true: I wrote a whimsical novel based on a whimsical premise -- that of an impossibly tall ladder. But what these agents meant to say was I'd strayed too far from reality. They wanted a novel that represented reality with all the verve of a card trick. Is it the four of spades? It is? Great, give it back. Instead, my book gushed, OOH, MAGIC!
Ironically, my publisher connected with this sense of whimsy. She touted it. And as the term was gradually scrubbed of its negative implication, blurbers and reviewers began to echo her. "What a whimsical novel!" they congratulated me. "However did you manage to capture that sense of whimsy?" It was very confusing, like being praised for flaking and/or refusing to compromise. Which, hey, actually summarizes my experience! Weird.
The character of Froelich's Ladder remained unchanged -- it was only a matter of emphasis and time. Which makes this anecdote the best kind of love story, the kind that trends from alienation to harmony. Lucky me.