Monday, November 18, 2013

My First Time: Laura van den Berg

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Laura van den Berg, author of the critically-acclaimed short story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves, a Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection and on the shortlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.  Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  You can read more about the book at this earlier blog post here at The Quivering Pen.  Laura's first novel, Find Me, is also forthcoming from FSG.  Karen Russell (author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove) had this to say about her: “Laura van den Berg is one of the most freakishly talented young writers at work today, and a master of the short story form.  Hers are deliciously unnerving, moving, and monstrous tales.”  A Florida native (and a former Gettysburg College Emerging Writer Lecturer!), Laura currently lives in the Boston area.  You can visit her website here; she also hangs out on Facebook and Twitter.

My First Reading

In the summer of 2003, I took a fiction workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.  I grew up in Florida, so seascapes were familiar, but the New England beaches were different than the kind I was used to: the water was colder; the beaches were rockier; there were lobster rolls.

That summer, I was twenty and though I didn’t—couldn’t—realize it at the time, I was on the brink of tremendous change.  Over the next two years, I would commit fully to fiction and apply to M.F.A. programs, meet my future husband, decide to leave Florida for good, move to Boston, and see my first short story published.  The workshop in Provincetown was the first I’d taken outside the college classroom, the first independent gesture I’d made toward writing and studying fiction seriously.  I can still remember staying up all night writing and revising.  I can still remember walking out to MacMillan Wharf with a few writers late one night.  It wasn’t until this year, when I was cleaning out my files in preparation for a move from Baltimore back to Massachusetts, that I finally tossed the pages of notes I took during my workshop there.  It was a formative experience, not in any loud or obvious way, but a period when the interior pieces were starting to shift, when the world was beginning to seem slightly more open to me.

I was in Provincetown for a week and sometime near the end, workshop students were offered a chance to participate in a reading.  Enough time has passed for me to forget the particulars—how many readers, how exactly the event was organized—but I do remember signing up to read and then immediately regretting it.  Compared to a lot of the other workshop participants, I hadn’t been writing fiction for very long.  I had never read anything aloud in public before.  We were supposed to keep our readings short, and the flash fiction piece I’d selected suddenly seemed pale and clunky.  By the time the reading arrived, I had practiced so many times, I had practically memorized my story.

I remember the theater being warm and full.  I remember sweating under my T-shirt.  My hands shaking.  I remember my turn coming and walking to the podium, about to attempt something that might have seemed small to a lot of people, but seemed to me, in that moment, near impossible.  In memory, it does not feel like an overstatement to say that I was beginning to step away from one version of myself into another.

I read the story (which I can’t recall a word of now).  It couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes.  At the end, there was the obligatory applause and I shot back to my seat, flushed, heart pounding.  The other writers read, and I tried to really listen.  I wondered what my fellow readers might have been carrying with them up to the podium.

In Provincetown, I imagine I didn’t give the best reading, but it was my first and I survived it without throwing up, passing out, or some other disaster.  Offstage, my week in Provincetown had been the most productive of my life; never had I generated so many pages.  I was beginning to feel like a writer and something about reading in public, for the first time, affirmed that feeling.

Six or so months later, I found myself doing my second reading.  The girl sitting next to me had never read in public before and she was quaking.  I was still plenty nervous, but could derive a smidge of confidence from having done it once and survived.  It’s okay, I said, turning to her.  It’s not so bad.  I’ve done it before.

Author photo by Peter Yoon

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