by Janice Law
I made the happy discovery recently that I have a “performance piece.” Normally I don’t venture into such high flown territory, confining myself to novels, short stories, articles, these blogs, and the occasional splenetic letter to the editor. “Performance pieces” are for folks with artistic pretensions and deep thoughts about the nature of reality— or consumerism.
But a reading with a group of local poets and one genuine performance artist changed all that. They all went first and they were good. They emoted; they did clever things with their voices; a couple were amusing. I began to be concerned about the reception of a little story of premeditated mayhem.
But, fortunately, it is in the nature of the beast to crave entertainment, especially laughs. And poets, though they may occasionally stray into humor, are really more comfortable with the darker emotions and with subtle reflections on our essence that are not always compatible with library chairs.
As it turned out, the library audience was ready for something simple and sinister and my little story, “The Writing Workshop”, (AHMM Jan/Feb 2011) fit the bill. If I couldn’t say like Dickens that the audience was completely enthralled and emotionally steamrollered, I can say that they laughed in all the right places and brought the evening to a satisfactory conclusion. I realized that I had found a sure fire thing to read; my performance piece, in short.
For the benefit of others who are off on a reading tour or dragooned into entertaining the local writing group or library book club, let me give you a recipe for that useful item, the “performance piece”.
First, make it short. Chairs are hard; the refreshment table is tempting; it’s been a long day already. My story was just 10 pages, double spaced, Times New Roman pt 12 type. This can be managed even by an amateur reader. Retired from teaching 8 o’clocks to 35 or more drowsy college students, my voice is no longer the raise-the-dead instrument it once was, but ten pages can be managed without too many sips at the water bottle.
Second, make it funny, if at all possible. Sure noir is great and who doesn’t aspire to deep thoughts about the human condition? But as the clock ticks toward 9 p.m. or the even more dreaded mid-afternoon lull, the human condition is such that the audience wants a lighter touch.
Which doesn’t mean we have to jettison our favorite topic. Neither writers, nor, as it turns out, aspiring writers, are necessarily of good character. Such literary folk are quite content to contemplate the demise of hostile editors and anthologists and mystery magazine honchos. Had the story been longer, they would, I think, have accepted mortality among publishers as well.
Third, consider the dialogue. Too many voices tax the amateur in theatrical matters, and I for one lack all dramatic talent. Because it was in my favorite form, the slightly obsessive confessional monologue, “The Writing Workshop” kept the dialogue to a minimum— just as well since all the speaking characters were male.
The first person narrative lends itself to short pieces. The format keeps the focus on the protagonist, cuts out extraneous plot lines, and pretty much eliminates red herrings. Not so good, maybe, for armchair reading but easy for an audience to follow.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a performance piece if it didn’t have a certain amount of drama. This one unfolds from a writing class to the narrator’s reminiscences of his own first visit to a mystery writing workshop. It continues with the interesting ways that he put his learning to use, earning modest amounts of fame and fortune before coming unglued. The story concludes with the end of the writing class, whose prison location is thereby revealed. This trajectory is easy to follow even with the distractions that come with public spaces and the end of the day, and it makes for a happy reading.
I only have one problem now. I’d like another little performance piece. Something short, snappy, funny, and dramatic which doesn’t require an odd costume or strange voices. I keep looking through my notebooks and revisiting old stories but none seems quite right. Clearly performance pieces don’t grow on trees.
However, I can tell you that if you are to read for any group of writers or would be writers, you absolutely cannot go wrong dealing with the sorrows and humiliations of the writing life. And because revenge is sweet, plotlines removing arrogant editors and nepotistic anthologists will always gladden the audience’s hearts.