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Pursuing the Modern Day Troubadours

© by S. Kay Murphy
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I didn’t go see Eminem when he had a show at Blockbuster Pavilion some time ago. Don’t get me wrong; I like his artistic expression, and I appreciate the genius in his work. But I envisioned the live performance as an intense, high-decibel circus with an audience carried away in frenetic participation. My anxiety level soars in large crowds, and, at 48, I have almost outgrown the need to pump up the volume so loud it makes my skin vibrate.

On the evening of Eminem’s show, Susan Straight, author of the novel High Wire Moon, would be doing a reading and book signing at our local Barnes & Noble, so I chose to go there instead.

I arrived early—to beat the crowds, I guess was my thinking, although there were none, just the usual browsers who decide on a Friday after work that the best way to celebrate a weekend is to look at what’s new in the bookstore. I got comfortable in a big green chair with my copy of High Wire Moon, reading back through the passages I had particularly loved, hearing the gentle cadence of the lyrical words in my head, feeling all over again the emotion they had evoked the first time I’d read them. At the time, Susan’s novel had been nominated for a National Book Award and the winners were yet to be announced. I wondered how many people had read it—and how many more would if it won the NBA.

As I sat listening to some sweet Nora Jones piped softly through the P.A. system, a small group of introverts gathered in the chairs set up for Susan’s appearance. Some of them clutched copies of her book. Others had notebooks and, brandishing pens, began to scribble quietly. These would be the writers who had come to hear how another writer did it, how she found the magic formula for success. No one spoke. I wanted to talk to them, to get them to share with each other their enthusiasm for Susan’s book, to get pumped up and exuberant so that when she arrived we would be a tiny teeming mass of excited fans, clapping and jumping as she approached. But I didn’t. I’m much too reserved for that.

Writers are quiet people generally; to engage in the craft of writing is, by the very nature of the experience, to engage in isolation. We write the words on a page alone, and, more often than not, we are alone when we send the envelope out that contains the words we’ve written—alone again when the envelope returns to us. It is a solitary process. Even if the words are purchased and published, we are not present at the newsstand or bookstore when the printed copy presents itself to the reader. And even if we were, we could only stand and watch that reader’s eyes to see if we had made some connection with our words to her soul. For most of us, the process leaves us in the limbo of never knowing who was touched, who was moved, who was angered or inspired by our words. We simply write them, send them, and move on to the next project.

Not so Eminem who, although he may (or may not) write in isolation, has what must be the overwhelming experience of performing his rhymes and schemes, exhaling his own tumultuous life into them as he spits them at his audience. In Shakespeare’s time, troubadours would write long, lyrical ballads that were often tragic, then travel around and collect money as they gently sang their songs of lost, stolen or unrequited love. It was a humble way to make a living. Certainly we’ve come a long way… in some ways.

When Susan Straight arrived, she was ushered in by a bookstore representative and the first thing she asked was that everyone move their chairs closer to gather round her in a circle. We did. She told us then that she wasn’t sure she could read, that there had been a tragic event in her family that day, and suddenly we were offering sympathy and forgiving her in advance if she chose to leave. But she insisted that being there with us was what she needed at that time, and I felt somehow that we were giving something to her as a group. She picked up a copy of her book, allowed it to settle in her upturned palms, and it fell open. Distracted by the motion and the words on the page, her eyes dropped to glance over them. “Maybe I’ll just read a section from the beginning,” she said.

I had read this passage twice and loved it. Now, I will always remember her soft voice bringing maternal life to the story she created. The words evoked even greater emotion when read aloud, partly through her intonation and cadence, partly through the pain we all knew she was feeling.

When Susan finished her reading and remarks, she signed our books, one at a time, amiably, graciously, interacting with us as if we were a group of old friends. I felt a pang of sympathy for Eminem at that moment. True, he would have thousands more at his gathering than Susan Straight had at hers, and Eminem’s fans would be screaming in adoration of their troubadour, a contrast to our muted applause in the bookstore. But Marshall Mathers, the man, would not have the one-on-one, eye-to-eye human contact and the opportunity to connect on a much more intimate level with his audience.

I’m not trying to say one experience is better than the other. But I know which one I prefer.

This work originally appeared in the Saturday, December 9, 2002 Los Angeles Times