I plan to riff, as I always do at such events, feeding off the energies of the crowd, dipping into various corners and engaging people who catch my eye. But first, a reading or two from the book, a taste of why this strangeling is even standing here. I start with an essay I wrote while in a dark place:
Legos. That should do the trick. Red brick, blue brick, maybe make a window here. I am alone in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment, single bed with Ralph Lauren comforter in the front room (even those seeking enlightenment have a very few earthly pleasures). The master bedroom in the back of the apartment is empty, the vanity and big queen bed gone with the princess.
From a darkened corner in the back of the room, a cough from an uncomfortable soul. Ignoring it, I decide to skip to a snippet of prose:
The first piano notes of
that Kanye West song
about the jerk-offs
was her ringtone.
Ding ding ding dong
and my heart would
order my fingers to
answer at once.
I hate that fucking song.
Again, another cough from the same corner. I decide to be my usual overbearing self. "What, you don't like the Kanye song?" I ask the person I cannot see.
The answer floats in: "I like it just fine. It's you I don't like." A few people in the class laugh quietly. Others turn to see who's talking.
"Well, that makes two of us," I shoot back, before starting my riff: it doesn't really matter if you like or dislike a writer, what matters is whether they evoke emotion, blah blah blah. I pick on a few people in the front rows and ask them about their favorite writers and what makes it click for them. I'm starting to find my rhythm when someone asks me: "Do you really not like yourself?"
For a second I can't decide whether to be a smart-ass or a truth-teller. I decide to be both. "My mother used to call me a son-of-a-bitch without realizing the irony," I say. "But she was half-right. I am a son-of-a-bitch, and it's the easiest thing in the world to dislike me. I do it every day." A couple of students start to write the answer down in their notebooks, so I press on:
"Don't write this shit down. Seriously. I'm not telling you anything you shouldn't already know. Every writer has issues. We're all pretty messed up. That's why I'm not surprised at our coughing friend in the corner. You don't like me? Fine. Join the club. I'm the founding member."
Someone asks: "Did you ever like yourself?"
"Once," I say. "A long time ago when I believed the hype and became a happy boy. Now I believe the truth."
"And what's that?" The question comes from the voice in the corner.
"Truth: I'm a mess, just like you. Truth: I'm never going to figure it all out. Truth: I want to like myself. It's hard to do, but I'm trying, and I'm starting to get there. Proof: I've got some of my swagger back, 'cause I'm standing here."
"And Yeats was right," I say, because even without seeing the face I know the voice in the corner. "Truth: Everything that's lovely is but a brief, dreamy, kind delight."
I wake up. It is dawn.