Recently I found myself standing among a group of strangers on a street corner in Oakland, all of us with earbud headphones in. It could have been any other afternoon near a stoplight, but today at this stoplight we were all listening to the same thing: my words, spoken in my voice. Not unlike at any other reading of my work, I was a little shaky and could barely make eye contact. This time, however, I wasn’t actually speaking.
It was the first of many Invisible City Audio Tours, a nonprofit specializing in surreal tourism—exploring unexplored neighborhoods through the work of authors, composers, and artists instead of guidebooks. The first tour, Heliography, commissioned work from 12 writers, each of us assigned an address along the stretch of Telegraph Avenue between MacArthur BART and the Uptown gallery district of Oakland.
Invisible City’s founder, Tavia Stewart-Streit, encouraged us to visit each spot and stay awhile, finding new ways to notice these atypical points of interest—a freeway underpass, a mortuary, a wig store. Once our short fictions were complete, she sent us to the recording studio, where into the microphone our stories went.
As far as I understand it, the rest of her process involved incredible feats of strength, a rallying of the populace, many sleepless nights, and a donated fleet of GM automobiles. Artists were commissioned to create “souvenirs” to sell at each landmark. Composer Jesse Solomon Clark created a musical landscape to bridge the spaces between stories and stops. Audio was mixed and podcastified. Maps were printed. Then, along with more than 100 other tourists, we took to the streets.
That’s how I found myself attending my own reading for the very first time. There, in front of the wig store, listeners were pooling around a table full of lovely illustrated zines about the history of hairstyles. Some of them were looking through the zines, some were looking at each other, some were looking at me, and then right past me as if I were just another listener. And I almost was.
It occurred to me (only then, in that overwhelming moment) how unusual an opportunity this was, the one I was right then squelching by avoiding eye contact as if suddenly they all knew a secret about me. When else is a writer able to examine the faces of her “readers” so closely (or to see she has readers at all), able to catch microexpression flashes of understanding or enjoyment or revulsion or worse? Short of such writerly acts of subtlety as donning sunglasses and a hat at an event, or sneaking up behind someone after “accidentally” leaving out a copy of one’s book—probably never. Certainly, we will never get to read our own work and understand it the way anyone else does. The chance to hear it as someone else does is almost as impossible. To roam freely through the landscape of listeners, wordless but knowing you are heard—what a strange, trembling miracle.
As miracles go, I was seriously failing to appreciate this one, thanks to the terror of witnessing people’s reactions and the extra terror of realizing I had zero control over what those reactions were. Of course, we never do. Text and meaning-making have always been the province of the reader, though a writer’s sense of ownership often outlasts its expiration date. But this time, without the prop of a podium or the chance for revision on the fly, I didn’t have even the illusion that I was involved in the act of experiencing my work. Once my words went down the rabbit hole of that microphone, I was finished.
Finished is that rare feeling that comes along once every other blue moon or so and feels remarkably like a stomach ache. It seems like it should be a triumphant HaHaTakeThat! Instead, all I felt was humbled, this self becoming smaller and my tiny story growing larger, snaking out of the layer of ego that must be shed (new ego skin still raw underneath) once a work becomes itself in the world.
Finished, as it turns out, means standing naked in the street and not pretending you’re an emperor or that anyone will notice or care. (This is the Bay Area after all, where nudists and writers alike come a dime a dozen.) And there I stood—all at once exposed and insignificant, an author completely displaced—so that I could be moved, if you will, by words that had been mine before they found their place.
It sounds debilitating, but I assure you it’s also warm and inspiring. We should be so lucky to feel that way more often: writers working independently but as part of something larger than our own neurotic brains, something strangers are as excited by as we are—when usually we’re each holed up in a closet-office somewhere, revisions blurring, pages spewing straight out of the printer and into the drawer, years on end, on end, amen. Finishing feels like being among the living again.
That night a few writers got to feel like real live people, or like visual artists with the gift of a tangible space to correspond with their words, a distance from which to appreciate them. Like at the end of a sitcom, we all learned something about ourselves: that many of us wrote about refracting light, that many of us recorded barefoot, that our words could hang on the air before us and be untethered from us and be free. It was a wonderful kind of strange I hope everyone gets to feel.
You can take the tour anytime (or any place), but for the full effect check out the next Invisible City happening Friday, Oct. 1, in Oakland—ride BART to the MacArthur station, then make your way past 12 surreal stops before you arrive in the epicenter of Art Murmur, the city’s monthly art walk. Make sure to begin the tour before 7 p.m. to catch all the souvenirs (like oasis sand globes, miniature dioramas, and beer koozies) and surprises along the way.
Download the stories for free (at www.invisiblecityaudiotours.org), throw them on your iDevice, and swing by on Oct. 1. If you see me there, I hope you say hello. I’ll be the one at the wig store with my headphones in, giving you a funny look.