I Used To Stand On a Stage and Tell Lies About Famous Authors

Today is the one-year anniversary of the last Writers With Drinks, which happened on Feb. 8, 2020. (Writers With Drinks is a live spoken word “variety show” that happened—and maybe will happen again someday—in bars, mostly at the Make Out Room in San Francisco. I’m the organizer and usually also the host.)

In retrospect, I can’t believe how much I grappled with the decision of whether to cancel our March event in the face of covid—there was a lot of soul-searching and anguish, and at last we reluctantly pulled the plug. Two days after we announced our decision, San Francisco shut down all of the bars and nightclubs, so we would never have been able to do that event, no matter what. At the time, I really hoped we’d be back by the late spring or summer, which now feels like a bizarre notion.

At least the last Writers With Drinks was a fantastic event—featuring Charles Yu, Meng Jin, Juliette Wade, Tracy Clark Flory, Barbara Tomash and Aaron Glantz. We had literary fiction, poetry, feminist sex writing, science fiction, and a deep dive into how ruthless mortgage lenders put people out on the street, for a little extra profit.

Whatever happens next, I’m really proud of Writers With Drinks — we raised untold thousands of dollars for local non-profits, ranging from the Women’s Cancer Resource Center to the Trans Life Line to the Center For Sex and Culture, and we always kept the event affordable. (For years, our sliding scale was $3 to $5, no-one turned away for lack of funds, but eventually we changed it to $5 to $20, but still NOTAFLOF.) I never wanted anyone to feel like our event was too expensive or fancy for them to attend. Also, the “variety” format meant that every month, I got to hear from science fiction fans that they’d just discovered their new favorite poet—or from literary peeps who’d just fallen in love with a science fiction author. We almost always sold out of the poetry books at each show.

Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to talk about how Writers With Drinks got started, and maybe how it changed over the years.

There were two components to Writers With Drinks that felt somewhat unusual when I started doing it (apart from the “reading series in a bar” thing, which people seemed to think was a new thing even though it definitely wasn’t):

1) The variety show format. I tried super hard to make sure the five or six performers represented as many genres and styles of performance as possible. I especially liked having stand-up comedy alongside performance poetry, and erotica alongside other types of fiction. I always found that these seemingly contrasting styles had a lot in common, in terms of how they used words and tone and pauses, to set up a punchline or an emotional beat. I also hoped this format would dismantle hierarchies and arbitrary divisions between different ways of using words to move people, and show that even though genre fiction, poetry, comedy, smut, literary fiction and journalism had different strengths, they also played well together.

This “variety show” thing resulted from me going to too many silo-ed readings and events: poetry slams, erotica nights, science fiction readings, lit-mag parties. I felt like there were a lot of amazing scenes that weren’t talking to each other—or listening to each other—and they could benefit from meeting on neutral ground. Plus I hated going to events where it felt like there was an “in crowd” of people who all knew each other, and everyone else in the audience was shut out. I wanted to create a space where nobody was part of the inner circle, because multiple communities were represented.

2) The fictional bios. Part of the gimmick of Writers With Drinks was that I MCed each event in a loopy, hair-on-fire manner, with bonkers monologues at the start and end of the show. And I made up ludicrous fictional “bios” for each reader/performer. I wanted this event to feel approachable and not too much like some Very Serious Event that an audience of peons were lucky to attend. I had gone to too many events where the MC introduced each person with a dour solemnity that conveyed how Important everything was, and wanted to avoid that tone at all costs.

I started MCing readings in this bizarro style before Writers With Drinks even existed. An indie magazine called Comet asked me to host its events, because the editors were shy, and I decided to experiment with the weirdest hosting style I could come up with. Soon I was getting asked to host other events—culminating in an indie magazine showcase featuring four or five small literary and culture mags. I found myself at a small theater in Oakland, trying to think up something unreal to say about fifteen different writers. My cat at the time had severe feline diabetes, and I needed to be home by nine or ten to give her an insulin injection, and each of those fifteen writers was only supposed to speak for five minutes each. Instead—shockingly—everyone went way over their time and soon it was midnight and I had missed the last BART home. I was freaking out about my poor dying cat, while racking my brains to think of a bizarre “fact” to spout about another writer.

I learned my lesson: never host events without a clear time limit, and never try to come up with more than like six fake bios in one night.

Writers With Drinks got its start as a fundraiser for Anything That Moves, the bisexual magazine which was on its last legs. I was part of the editorial staff and we desperately needed funds to print our next issue—which, I think, ended up being our last issue. After ATM died, the event turned into a fundraiser for other, a tiny indie magazine that Annalee and I were publishing. And then it was a fundraiser for local non-profits, especially CSC for a while there. For a while, we were doing regular WWD events on the East Coast as well as the West, but that was a lot of work.

So how has Writers With Drinks changed over time? A few things come to mind.

First, I stopped being quite so uptight about the “variety show” part of it. I used to have a lot of rigid ideas about making sure that as many different genres and styles were represented in one event — to the point where, if I already had a literary author, I wouldn’t let another one appear at the same event, even if my favorite lit author was visiting from out of town and could only do that one night. Once or twice, I had authors who wrote in multiple genres, and I leaned on them to read something from a genre that wasn’t already represented. Eventually, this started to feel a little too prescriptive, and like I was enforcing genre boundaries rather than subverting them—plus we increasingly had authors come and do the show during book tours, which meant we had to feature people whenever they were available.

Secondly, the book sales at Writers With Drinks went from being a bit of an afterthought to being a more central part of the event—and I got better at pushing them, so we tended to sell a ton of books each time, and we were helping to support indie bookstores as well as whoever we raised money for.

And finally, I think my schtick as MC got a bit more refined. My monologues became shorter and I started doing fewer of them, because I didn’t want to hog the stage too much. But meanwhile, the fictional bios got a bit more elaborate, and more tailored to the author or performer in question.

Early on, I would just scribble down a few words like, “Terry Bisson is an architect who builds semicolon-shaped buildings” and then get up and riff on that for a couple minutes. But I started to put more thought into the bios in advance, writing down a ton of notes. I wanted to make sure I didn’t accidentally insult some author who had made time to grace our stage, and I also wanted the fictional bio to inadvertently say *something* about this person and why I thought they were cool. I wanted each bio to feel like a celebration of the person in question. And once I had done hundreds of these things, I did not want to repeat myself too much. I ended up spending a big chunk of Fridays and Saturdays brainstorming these things.

There was still a fair amount of riffing and improv in the fake bios, but starting around 2006-2007, they were becoming more like little microfictions. Here’s the fake bio I wrote for Maria Dahvana-Headley in 2018:

Maria Dahvana Headley took the virgin-whore dichotomy and squared it, and then she turned it into a hypercube---with several other axes including warrior-physician, mentor-destroyer, and ransacker-curator. Wielding this hypercube of false dichotomies, she was able to stride all the way to the top of SNAKE MOUNTAIN, and march right up to the FANG THRONE with her big strobelight of gendered catch-22s, and she kicked LORD SERPENTOR off the Fang Throne, and then Maria Dahvana Headley effortlessly found the secret passage hidden underneath the throne and triggered the opening, so she could stride down the staircase into the huge cavern where an army of sculptors were toiling in total darkness to create ideal women out of clay so they could be brought to life with one gust from the Snaketongue Bellows, and she rallied all of the clay statues of idealized women to become an unstoppable army of unreal beauty. They marched across the land in their tens of thousands, not flesh but not clay either, breaking all dichotomies, and wherever they went women walked out of their houses and followed Maria Dahvana Headley's clay army. At last they came to the place where the tree of self-doubt was spreading its roots, with its branches heavy with blood-red starchy fruit, and every piece of fruit was another rhetorical question like, "Are you going to go out of the house wearing that?" or "Do you really think you should even bother interviewing for that job?" Maria Dahvana Headley knew that you could not uproot this tree, nor could you chop it down, and if you tried to tear off its bark, the bark would just grow back twice as thick as before. BUT Maria Dahvana Headley instructed her army of clay women and flesh women to inscribe an epic poem on the tree of self-doubt, a heroic saga about women who fucked up and fucked around and even fucked themselves over, but still kept fucking going. And the tree tried to grow its bark back, but there were too many of them and they carved too hard and too quickly and the words cut too deep, and the fruit started falling on the ground with a torrent of sploshy squelchy noises, until the branches were bare and the tree started to topple over. Maria Dahvana Headley peeled away the bark containing her epic poem full of alliterative verse and carried it back to Snake Mountain where she hung it over the Fang Throne, where it hangs to this day and people travel from all over the world to read it, and then they turn around and join Maria Dahvana Headley's army, which by now consists of HALF THE WORLD'S POPULATION. Have you joined yet? Here's your chance to pledge allegiance to MARIA DAHVANA HEADLEY! ! ! ! ! !

Not all of my fictional bios were as long or as elaborate as the above spiel, but I often tried to make them like little fables that don’t entirely make sense. One of these days, I would love to collect the 100 best bios and turn them into some kind of limited edition book thingy—though most of them are a mixture of typed-out notes and last-minute scribbles, which would require some work to decipher.

The main thing I learned from doing Writers With Drinks that community-building is hard work, but it’s also the most rewarding thing I know. People connect and build alliances in a whole different way when they’re listening to stories and poems and jokes, and there’s a magic to helping different scenes to share a space together. I really hope we can gather in a bar and listen to a mixed bag of performers again, one of these days.

Music of the week:

If you need a pick-me-up and are not one of those misguided music snobs who hates medleys, then allow me to share my endless delight with you. For the past year or so, when I feel really really bad, I put on Ladies of Soul Live at the Ziggodome 2016 and just rock out. The Ladies of Soul are an R&B “supergroup” out of the Netherlands, featuring Prince’s former saxophonist Candy Dulfer, plus Trijntje Oosterhuis, Edsilia Rombley, Glennis Grace and Berget Lewis. And this 2016 concert manages to pack like 100 songs into two and a half hours. The “Disco & Pop Medley” alone features 21 songs, in 15 and a half minutes. Featuring a random Billy Ocean cameo! I guess Live at the Ziggodome 2016 is available as a DVD, but I just bought it as a set of MP3s, and it’s just pure sugar. These singers are amazing, and they must have chugged a thousand energy drinks before hitting the stage—it’s that bouncy.

My stuff:

I published a couple articles last week! Over in Teen Vogue, I round up some young adult books by self-identified trans/nb authors. And in Esquire, I write about how space opera has changed in the past decade, and how The Expanse is part of a new wave of space adventures featuring regular people instead of square-jawed demigods.

Meanwhile, today, we just announced the pre-order campaign for my upcoming young adult debut, Victories Greater Than Death! You can get a gorgeous enamel pin—and if you pre-order from an indie bookstore, you can also get some lovely art prints. Details at the link!