My palms were sweaty as I drove from Cincinnati to Louisville for a discussion of my memoir, The Stage Is On Fire. This would be the first time I would be talking about my memoir with a group of people who had read it. I had spoken with readers individually about bits and pieces. Fellow writers had critiqued parts of it in writing groups. Editors had checked my grammar, but I never had the opportunity to hear thoughts about the entire text from a group of readers.
My best friend had given copies of my memoir to friends and family for Christmas. Based on my best friend’s recommendation, her mother suggested my memoir to her reading group. They agreed. Her book group has been meeting for several years. It is comprised of women who look like they could be comfortable sipping mint julips in fabulous hats at the Kentucky Derby. (I suspect not one ever leaves home without lipstick.) She invited me to participate via an email in which she explained that the group loosely discusses books once a month.
We met in a restaurant next to the renovated department store where I used to go to teen dances. I was the first one to arrive, having left Cincinnati especially early propelled by nerves. I identified myself as part of the book group and was taken to the table. Within a few minutes, members started to arrive. My best friend’s mother gave a me a hug and introduced me as a long time partner in crime with her daughter. The group commenced their process of greeting one another and deciding what they wanted to eat.
The discussion began. Several questions bubbled up. Was I still with Luke? What was I currently doing? What was I writing? Did I plan on staying in Cincinnati? The questions were more about me, the person/author rather than about the book. I am not sure what that says about the book. Perhaps it says their interest in me was peaked as a result of reading my story? Perhaps it means the book itself did not inspire discussion. Perhaps I had left too much out of the memoir? I am not sure. I just noted that the text was rarely discussed, though their interest in me was apparent.
In the midst of dinner and coffee, several people shared their individual responses in quiet moments with me directly, as if telling secrets. My best friend’s mother had highlighted parts of the text that had made her laugh, or where she loved the way I had expressed a particular thought. She tenderly showed me her book with the marks and notations. She pointed out the moment where I talk about the technicolor experience I expect life to be when you are in love. She said that is exactly what love is like for her.
Perhaps the most powerful moment happened when the member sitting next to me turned to me and said, “you know you are a miracle.” I had never been called a miracle and it really shook me. She was referring to the Turner syndrome study and the fact that Turner syndrome often leads to the death of the fetus during pregnancy. She said she thought I had something to do in this world. That is an amazing thing to hear and really internalize. Trying to figure out what we are to do in this world is the thing people spend a lifetime trying to sort out.
The book group was a success for several reasons. It was wonderful to be with a group that had taken the time to read what I had written. (I can’t imagine ever not feeling humbled by the precious gift of someone’s time and attention.) Also, it was helpful to hear what parts of the memoir resonated with the group (and note what parts were not commented on at all). Most importantly, the book group provided me the opportunity to practice talking about the book, and myself – to get comfortable talking about my story not just writing it. The book group was a real gift.