BMR’s Nonfiction Co-Editor Talks Performance

Ben Dolan is Blue Mesa Review’s Nonfiction Co-Editor, and a second year MFA student at UNM in Creative Nonfiction.

I’ll start this entry by demanding you read fiction writer Kevin McIlvoy’s story, “The Last Things We Said,” published in Keyon Review’s Spring 2011 issue.  I know, I know—it’s much more than you were expecting to have to read when you clicked over to this blog. But I think it’s a good introduction to today’s writerly topic: Performing Prose.

Now if you didn’t read McIlvoy’s short story, or even if you did, you might not be sure what it’s about. It’s disorienting. You’re probably wondering how this piece relates to Performing Prose because you’re not even sure how it’s performing. If you’re impatient, you felt lost in the narrative sections so skipped to the dialog. If you’re a generous reader, you read each word until the end and tried your darndest to make some connections. If you’re a lover of stream-of-consciousness narration, you reveled in the disconnectedness of it all.

But I’m not that generous and I don’t love stream-of-consciousness. Honestly, at first, I only skimmed the story. I skimmed it because I had no more than five minutes before attending a reading featuring the author, Kevin McIlvoy, and I felt guilty about going to a successful author’s reading having never read any of his work. I didn’t know he’d be reading this piece. I didn’t care what he read, really. I was happy to see a writer up-close, whispering the secrets of his craft.

He was soft-spoken when he took the podium, often filling sentences with “um” and “uh.” He told us he’d be reading two pieces, he called them “sibling” pieces.  He introduced “The Last Things We Said,” (the piece you just read, or skimmed, or skipped) and explained its basic premise: a man is freezing to death in the refrigeration unit of a Schwann’s truck. Simple enough. He explained the term “lavage,” a procedure in which a frozen person is cut open so their insides can be bathed in warm liquid to promote faster thawing.

Then, as if administering an exam, he said, “This reading will take approximately half-an-hour.” And he began to read. His face changed and his head bobbed and his eyebrows lifted. His voice quickened and slowed, volume surging and receding.

I quickly began to see that McIlvoy, as he read, was doing something novel. He was performing. He was the narrator. His voice was colored with the narrator’s urgency and disaster. When he came to the dialog portions, he moved through them like a rehearsed actor reading a familiar script. In between lines (for example, the repetition of “Better?” “Better.”), he sometimes paused for several seconds.  You could almost hear the stifling cold of the Schwann’s truck in McIlvoy’s imposed reading-silence. You could almost hear the narrator’s heart slowing, his blood freezing.

After the reading, a member of the audience raised her hand. “Honestly,” she said, “the first time I read this it felt totally chaotic. But hearing you read it now, it didn’t feel that way at all.”

She was on to something. His was an emotional reading, no doubt. It was full of vigor and calculated silence. It was a performance and his piece was different when he read it aloud. His voice and intention colored it anew. A chaotic piece changed into a story real and exact and alive, which of course, is what all of us prose writers are trying to do—change a black and white page into reality.

Kevin McIlvoy’s reading made me to wonder if, really, we, as writers, are responsible for even more than what we put on the page. Where is a story, exactly? Is it on the page, being shipped to readers’ mailboxes and posted on literary websites? Or does part of it stay in the author’s head? Does part of it never transfer? And, as a writer, does that bother you as much as it does me? Should we start taking acting classes?