I can comfortably give a reading in front of hundreds of strangers (okay, well maybe not exactly comfortably, but I can do it without feeling like I’m about to die of a heart attack). But put me in front of a bunch of friends and family–particularly the strange and unpredictable amalgam of friends and family who show up in distant cities for readings–and I find myself–in the midst of a passage–erupting into a full-blown panic attack. Take the other night in Boston: at the Brookline Booksmith, one of my favorite New England bookstores, I gave a reading to a nice crowd (my karmic payback after suffering in the Bay Area) and scattered throughout the audience were the following: my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, two sisters-in-law and a brother-in-law, my 9th grade English teacher, and my favorite aunt.
It was my favorite aunt–or perhaps the combination of my favorite aunt and my 9th grade English teacher–who tipped the balance. I was so happy they were there–thrilled really–but then I realized that I had to read in front of them. From my new novel, Black & White. From passages in Black & White that contain graphic images, nudity, and even the word fuck. It was the word fuck that did me in. It comes fairly late in the reading–on the last page, the home stretch–when my protagonist’s father asks the gallery owner who is displaying provocative photographs of his young daughter, if the gallery owner thinks he “gives a flying fuck” about what other people think as he takes his daughters out of the gallery.
Well, as my heart pounded, my throat threatened to close up, and my mouth went dry, I spent the better part of the reading trying to figure out how I was going to avoid using the word fuck in front of my favorite aunt (did I mention that she’s 83? did I mention that she’s a deeply observant Jew?) and her friend who she brought along (also in her 80’s, also yada-yada) and every once in a while also catching a glimpse of my 9th grade English teacher and wondering how Black & White was measuring up to A Separate Peace in his mind.
When I finally got to the offending passage, my eyes quickly skimmed the line. I figured I could say damn. Damn was definitely better than fuck. Wasn’t damn in the bible? Or maybe that was the new testament. “I don’t give a damn” I found myself reading. So it was a little bit flat. So it didn’t have quite the same impact. So what?