Friday, April 07, 2006

Cringe-Inducing Moments, Or the Juice

While serving the two-year prison term called graduate school, I gave a reading at a bar featuring other students. It was the first such public display of my work, and since my friends, classmates, and Girlfriend would attend, I wanted it to be perfect.

Taking the advice of the many who had walked before me, I went for humor. My choice was a self-contained section of my thesis-novel, and I knew that it was chock-full-o'-yuks. Each line was hilarious. Everyone would love it.

But as I read, fear got the better of me, and I stumbled from one sentence to another. I heard a giggle here and there, but no big laughs.

Finally, I got to what I considered the funniest section of the piece. It had a great punchline: "'There is no Horny the Dwarf?' he asked. 'Then I guess Snow White is shit outta luck.'"

I was so certain of success that I paused for the inevitable hilarity to quiet down. But there was silence. Not a single laugh, not even a pity laugh from Girlfriend, not even a modest push of breath through the nose that would comprise a snort.

Then I saw the looks on people's faces: squinted eyes, frowns, eyes turned away. They were cringing. I wanted to throw myself before a pack of abused pit bulls that hadn’t eaten in a fortnight.

Anyone who goes to enough readings or sits in enough workshops has witnessed (and been told of) cringe-inducing moments galore. And, in the spirit of trying to make myself feel better, today I’m going to share some of them with you.

One cringe inducing performance...

Sadly, I think everyone enjoys reading others' embarrassments, as it makes them look better. At least I do.

Cringe-Inducing Moments

1. One poor lady served up a piece about a newly married couple that featured a female rocket scientist; a scene where they cried about not being able to have children; and a camping scene in which the husband was not able to fight off a bear with a stick, because “the stick was too small.” QED.

2. When I was in grad school, a student read a story in class about a woman who was worried she had contracted herpes. The protagonist wasn’t infected, but in the final scene of the story, a rapist attacks her.

“'Don’t do this,'” she said. 'I have herpes.' 'That’s funny,' he said. ‘So do I.’”


We all stared at the floor.

3. At a conference, a frumpy, middle-aged housewife presented a story that consisted completely of S&M, explicit sex, and a certain act involving one's fist. I guess you don't know what happens behind closed doors. (Thanks to Friend of Wife for this great tidbit.)

4. Also in grad school, a fellow student wrote a embarrasingly awful rip-off of "Beloved" in the form of a short story. Told in the voice of a slave, it read like a Klan textbook on black diction: "Ise nots bein' good for massa, he be whippin' me," for instance.

...and another...

Everybody in class shifted back and forth in their seats, not wanting to blurt out that it was a stupid, racist piece of crap, until one person said, "Damn. I didn't know that 'Ise' meant 'I.' I thought that the guy's name was Izzy."

6. "He was her Calgon." We all went back and checked our Greek mythology on this one, but found no Calgon in the encyclopedia. No, the writer meant the bath soap Calgon, which (according to the commercial) "takes you away." When the teacher slammed him for this, the guy got all defensive, and the rest of us said nothing.

6. Random bits:
--(punctuation uncorrected): “I see a man. I said to my sister "you want to see a man? that's not a man I can take you where youll say thats a man she said.

--(dialog) "You have found the most important archeological discovery in the last 50 years. Now, make love to me."

--"They kissed like animals eat."

7. I've saved the worst for last. At a public reading series hosted at a bar, the audience was treated to the fiction stylings of a shaved-head, ear-ringed, motorcycle jacket-wearing dude of 25. He was hip, he was edgy, he gave the most awful reading I ever hope to endure.

...and yet another

He read from his (unaccountably) published novel, telling of a sexual encounter involving the narrator and a transvestite prostitute. The dude read fast and loud — very loud, practically yelling at us. In one sentence that lasted about five minutes, he told us in graphic detail about The Fun With Trannies, "framed" by a background story that involved something about shooting heroin and going back to the womb and masturbating in high school and he WAS READING AT US LIKE THIS.

As he neared the end of his sentence, he said the words that are unfortunately burned into the brains of myself, Wife, and everybody else who heard it: "And then the transvestite hooker grabs my ass and the butt juice runs down my leg..." The butt juice. He said "butt juice." Not just cringe-inducing, it was horrifying.

Butt juice. I can’t get that out of my head. In a sense, edgy reader guy has won.