There is something special about reading an autobiography by an author you really admire. However, there is something even more special about listening to that author reading their own words aloud. The fiction reading Jo Ann Beard gave at the Williams Bookstore on Sept. 20 offered that experience for me.
Beard, a recipient of a 1997 Whiting Foundation Award, a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of essays that have appeared in The New Yorker, was unassuming in figure, and did not carry herself in a manner that I expected.
She wore a gray sweater, a pair of cargo green pants and a pair of Birkenstock shoes. If I had seen her on Spring Street, I would not have thought that I had just met the woman who, according to the event description, had “achieved cult status among a whole generation of young writers with her essay collection The Boys of My Youth, which came out in 1999.” However, looking around at the room full of people who had shown up for her reading, it was clear that Beard did not need any external validation to affirm her expertise and literary success.
She began by reading an essay she had written recently; it centered on the subject of her father’s death, and her feelings and emotions afterwards. She read sitting on a table next to a microphone, but her voice projected across the room in a calm and melodious manner. She spoke about her father’s role in the military, her childhood memories and her time eating dinners at home. All the while, she tiptoed around the topic of her father’s death – the narrative circled around emotions and feelings rather than any direct action. Beard wove in and out of the linearity of the story, eventually landing on the act of writing the essay itself.
She admitted that it would sometimes take her hours to construct one sentence, and explained how she was currently sitting down and sipping tea at her table as she was writing the very words on the page. She then described how she was looking forward to eating her lunch of hummus and carrots and something that she did not prefer to share that she liked to eat. (It was a bag of Pringles, by the way.)
The reading was particularly memorable for me because of the way in which Beard performed her writing to the audience. Her reading was exploratory, carrying the audience through both her inner and outer thoughts. She sat with her feet crossed, one over the other, and held her essay on white copy paper in front of her, just below her face so that the members of the audience could still read her expressions as she passed over each word and phrase.
Beard would arch her eyebrows in response to the rhetorical questions that she would ask about her past life, and she would offer dramatic pauses after certain pivotal moments. Other times, she would transition from one scene to another, making it purposefully confusing for the audience to try and make sense of the narrative. She ended the event with a reading of one of her favorite poems, Denis Johnson’s “Now.”
Jo Ann Beard teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and her work has appeared in ‘The New Yorker.’ Photo courtesy of NPR.