Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Talk Story

By Cornelia

alutations and thank you for being here today, O Esteemed Naked Readers... Friends... Romans... Members of the Jury... Persons Who Just Happened to Accidentally Click Through When We Accidentally Showed Up After You Accidentally Googled "Naked Weekend/Nurses/Rodeos/Operas/Feet/[Fill in the Blank]"... Meine Damen und Herren....

I am today both honored and pleased to share with you the news that (God willing and the creek don't rise, etc.) I shall, one week from tomorrow afternoon, be endeavoring to make a success of my first-ever paid speaking engagement, at the kind invitation of the Outdoor Art Club in Mill Valley, California. As such, I have been reflecting on past occasions during which I've found myself behind a podium, beginning with the debate in eighth grade social studies class when I donned a tam-o-shanter, Elvis-Costello-esque glasses, and an eyebrow-pencil moustache in order to more effectively impersonate Dr. S.I. Hayakawa, the Canadian-born semanticist then campaigning to unseat incumbent United States Senator John Tunney.

(seen here without his preferred headgear, but he totally did
wear tam-o-shanters at the slightest provocation--pinkie swear)

Despite my success in swaying the parental audience in Hayakawa's favor that evening, I take no responsibility for his part in the passage of Proposition 13, the property-tax initiative which many blame for the subsequent implosion of California's public school system.

aving survived this maiden speech without mishap, I eschewed the lecture circuit for the remainder of junior high in order to spend more time with my family and concentrate on my studies--not least since there wasn't exactly a plethora of local venues clamoring for appearances by an underage impersonator of small-statured Asian Republicans, no matter how limelight-mad she happened to have become following that first heady taste of public acclaim.

During my freshman year at Carmel High School, however, I reluctantly came out of retirement, feeling it was my duty to try the patience of the local Lions Club, seeing as how they had announced the advent of their annual student speech competition. The topic was "Tomorrow's Energy, Today's Dilemma," so after a potluck dinner and an all-hands round of patriotic songs, I walked across the cafeteria to deliver prepared remarks on solar panels, Stirling engines, wind turbines, biomass power generation, and the general need to diminish our nation's reliance on coal and petroleum.

I trounced fellow C.H.S. students Laura Edmonds and Nicole Hydorn, but had my butt handed to me some weeks later by this way-older chick from Santa Catalina in the Monterey County semi-finals. Bloodied but unbowed, I returned home with a commemorative pen-and-pencil desk set, which I cherish to this day.

pportunities to hone my oration chops were paltry-verging-on-nonexistent for the remainder of that year, though I was quoted in The Carmel Pine Cone after having leapt to my feet during the Q&A portion of a town council meeting to protest the proposed designation of "Carmel Rancho" as the official name for our secondary village zip code, on the grounds that "it just sounds really tacky."

Denied further excuses to trot out my burgeoning Inner Churchill, I fell into a despondent funk. Still, I kept all appendages crossed that I might someday discover an auditorium willing to have me... not like I want anything huge, I maintained during my nightly petition to the fates for a chance at more juvenile airtime... I mean, seriously, I don't even need a microphone or whatever. But my pleas fell on a deaf-eared cosmos until I lit out for New York as a sophomore.

ending my way eastward, I hoped against hope that this change in geographic affiliation might improve my chances at getting to babble in public. In retrospect, I'm thankful that Jerry Springer did not yet have a talk show to call his own, as I shudder to think what drastic measures I might have taken in order to quench my unrelenting monologue jones.

I was an odd child--the more typical thespic aspirations of my peers held no appeal. I didn't hanker after even the juiciest roles in some high-school-gym production of Blithe Spirit or You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Not for me those summer-drama-camp cabarets, those heartfelt juvenile-dinner-theatre star turns belting out "Tomorrow" or "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top."

he thing I wanted most to do was talk, unscripted. I wanted to pontificate, to expound--to speak, perchance to edify and amuse-- without the trammels of costume or character. Where the hell did that come from, my junior-varsity Bill Buckley-ness? My fetish for Robert's Rules of Order?

I confess I don't have the slightest clue. I was otherwise a shy kid, an outright geek. I still suffer from stage-fright when it's my turn to call the burrito place with a takeout order. I have no political aspirations, no impassioned agendas, no burning desire to rail against corporate skullduggery or the abnegation of the rights of baby seals or anything. I just really really like to stand up and spout random stuff in front of people. Wedding toasts, dinner-party anecdotes, diatribes when my sister was trying to get the zoning board to let her build a small addition to her old house. I don't plan what I'm going to say, I don't show up with a fistful of index cards or any prepared notes, I just love that moment when my buddies at a banquet-hall table tink their forks against glasses of ice water so I can stand up and ramble for a few minutes.

t's not like I'm always great at this, especially considering the no-notes part. There have been times when I totally fell on my flop-sweat ass, stammering and blushing my way through heinous chunks of utterly incoherent and unfunny blather. But oh, when it goes well! The rush of it, the joy... that surge of glorious feeling you get when you've tapped into a little piece of zeitgeist that matters for people who've been kind enough to lend you their ears. Nothing else compares, for those of us with a bardic bent. We want to step into Spalding Gray's or Perry Mason's hallowed shoes for just a little while, try our hands at conjuring down a skein of word-voodoo from the very air. I expect it's why people become trial lawyers, or cracker-barrel raconteurs, or shamans. It's heady stuff, when it works. I love to hear it done well even more than I enjoy the chance to offer up my own attempts at the art.

aybe I won't succeed at this a week from tomorrow, but it's really cool that the fine people at the Outdoor Art Club are willing to let me give it a go. I'm sure this speech-fetish thing is aligned very closely with the urge to write, but it's not the exact same compulsion. It feels like it falls somewhere between writing and acting, without being either.

It's not something that there's a whole lot of call for, in this day and age. Not to say we don't have contemporary lecture circuits, just that we don't see grand Chautauqua gatherings anymore, or clan dinners in the long hall at which a traveler might earn his keep for the night by reciting Beowulf. The heyday of Boston's Atheneum and even Manhattan's 92nd Street Y has passed. We have other entertainments, more readily accessible. And I don't say this to bemoan the loss of William Jennings Bryan while shaking my fist at the advent of iPods and HBO--I like my instant-gratification Sopranos fix as much as the next person. But there's something visceral about getting to "talk story," as the Hawaiians describe it, that isn't captured by any other medium.

ach time I've had the pleasure of listening to someone with a gift for the oral tradition, it has changed me--especially when I've heard it live. I can't imagine anyone is unmoved while watching Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, but it must have been a thousand times more gobsmacking to be standing on the Mall, taking in that golden arc of language direct from the source. I've been lucky enough to see a few raconteurs of world renown in action--Douglas Adams, Jimmy Carter, P.J. O'Rourke, and Madeleine L'Engle come to mind, as do the many fine mystery writers I've had the pleasure of listening to at conferences and book signings--but the speaker doesn't have to be globally famous to give me that pure hair-on-end pleasure of drinking in the spoken word. I have been moved to tears and/or shrieks of laughter by a great number of people who wouldn't consider themselves repositories of erudition, or even storytellers. Airplane seatmates, little kids, old dudes in bars, even this homeless guy my cousin Eric and I ran into outside a Manhattan deli at three a.m. one summer night when we were in high school--a raconteur of the highest order who spent half an hour standing on a milk crate describing this flock of dragons he swore was flying up third avenue by the light of the full moon.

I love it when people talk story, and as I've said herein I adore any chance to do it myself. The idea of actually getting paid for that pleasure is nothing short of miraculous, to me. I just hope I spout something worthy of the honorarium, though I worry it will make my Inner Winston swell up like a giant poison-toad pinata if all goes well in Mill Valley.


  1. I share your love for the spoken word. To you, and to anyone who loves a great "Talk Story," there is a festival every Labor Day Weekend in Seattle called "Bumbershoot." They always have gifted speakers. Good luck to you, Cornelia--if you talk anything like you write, your listeners are in for a treat.

  2. I find blogging is a bit like standing up and nattering on. You might have a subject in mind, but you may not know where it's going to take you--and it might work, but it might not. Of course, you can edit before throwing your discourse out into the ether (thought lots of folks don't).

    And how did you know I'm naked?

  3. James, you are most kind and Bumbershoot sounds like the perfect way to spend Labor Day weekend.

    And as for your fine self, Edgy M, I think it was the "Edgy" that gave away your clothing status. I mean, what's more edgy than nudity? Okay, maybe PVC chaps or something, but still, downright starko's awful damn edgy.

  4. Cornelia,
    I echo the sentiments of James......certainly you won't give your audience what another naked author describes his speeches as being : "a soporific experience!"


  5. Have a marvelous time at your speaking engagement....having been privileged to see you in action, I know you'll knock their socks off...


  6. Some years ago i attended a concert by Canadian singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor (whom i have raved about hugely a lot - go hear her, honest, really). the show was in a not large venue in Berkeley - a hall somewhere, maybe a church or a school? Pretty low key/ But even a Canadian singer-songwriter gets an opening act. And hers was - get this - a story teller. Not even a story teller of any super-duper special talent (say, like someone who tells stories using American Sign Language - oh is THAT cool.) but hey, we were folkies, right? So we would, well, tolerate this amusing little slice of what, Americana gone by?
    HOOO BOY. She was amazing. She was good she was wonderful she was captivating. She told 2 stories I think, chidrens' stuff I think, and we all sat there, gaga. When Connie came out she said something like "oh my god, HOW many people were on the stage?" because even from behind the curtain, there was this THING happening on stage.
    Story-telling. Who knew?
    Alas, Bumbershoot has become HUGE, BLOATED, PRICY and spectacularly unfun for most of us who used to go. There was a fine event, fundraising for the 826 project in Seattle, which I have championed (tried volunteering there, just couldn't manage it, but they're in my nabe) and it included Sarah Vowell. I think Stu and would listen to Sarah Vowell and her slightly nasal, totally endearing voice, tell us ANYthing. Heck, we've listened avidly as she told us more about Gettysburg than we ever wanted to know.
    I talk. I still get nervous, antsy and totally sweaty palmed in spite of years of practice in front of city councils and groups and audiences most of whom have NOT come to hear me. Sometimes they want me to talk more, not to stop and i am in a swoon when someone says "oh, don't stop".
    I so adore the image of CR Hayakawa.

  7. Hi Cornelia!
    Hope your speechifying goes terrifically well and the audience is appreciative. :-D
    I've been on a debating team while I was in high school, too. I didn't get very far though. I had rational but unimaginative arguments and I was just too darn shy, and that always leads to short term memory loss for me. I write much better than I talk. I was hoping the Airforce might break me of the shy thing and public speaking 'dear in the spotlights' state. Dang, it didn't. I'm fine with groups of one or two, or even three, but I'm terrified of addressing bigger crowds. I was posted to a training base in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales in 1987 - lovely country town with a brilliant Mexican Restaurant, go figure - with several thousand airforce apprentices of varying teenaged numbers, plus the infrastructure of teachers and base staff. This training base also was home the 'Superman' course: the six week training "Sergeant Supervisor" course. Admin was making big noises that they wanted me to take the course, which included way to much marching drill for my liking, etc, even though I wasn't staying in the Force when my termination date came up the following year. So the Admin sergeant put me on as an auxilliary Flight Sergeant on the next Officer Commanding's parade. Ok, the OC's parade was the biggest drill parade on the base, and to put me in charge of a drill flight of 20 or so of my peers and senior NCOs was probably a mistake. Lucky for me, my flight was way up the back of the thousand or so turn out. My short term memory loss kicked in along with performance fear and natural shyness. I forgot things, orders and such or transposed them. Urk. My little flight just sighed resignedley and did things automatically anyway - thank god. I was shaking so much after we came off the parade ground and were dismissed, that I had both hands glued around a cup of coffee for nearly an hour afterwards.
    I've been on panel discussions at conventions for about eight years now, and I've gotten used to some public speaking, but the corporate professional in me can turn into the shy little girl when least expected, and according to others is funny to watch. Sigh. I so hope you do better, Cornelia. :-D

  8. Can't wait to hear how it all goes. You know, there could be a memoir: The First Year of Cornelia Read's Fame.

    I'd read it.