On Thursday night at 6:00 p.m., a calculated and pleasant voice broke the florescent hum in the New Haven Free Public Library. The P.A. system announced, “The library is delighted to present The Sixth Annual Readings of Anne Fadiman and her students, Alex Klein, Lauren Oyler and Sophia Veltfort, to take place in the performing arts area.” The performing arts area is a corner of the library’s basement. Due partly to advertising and refreshments provided by the Yale College Dean’s Office, and more so to the admiration of friends, family and fans, about 100 people gathered for a carefully choreographed, and often quite funny, hour of words.
Fadiman explained that the event began in 2006 when the library asked her to speak as part of their “Writers Live Program.” Fadiman agreed, she said, “but on one condition, that I be permitted to bring some of my students to read with me.” The library said yes, and the tradition has carried on each year.
“I really like the idea of showing the patrons of the local public library who are readers, that’s who they are, what good writers Yale undergraduate are,” Fadiman said, “We are all familiar with the excellent academic works of Yale students, and of course we read the Yale Daily News, but this is a different genre that we might get tastes of in the YDN Magazine or the New Journal. But, it is fun to see them up there reading.”
Anne Fadiman is the author of “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” and “At Large and at Small: Familiar Essays.” She is the Francis Writer in Residence at Yale and teaches two extremely popular writing seminars. The students’ essays were all written for one of these classes. Sophia Veltfort took “Writing About Oneself” last spring. Alex Klein and Lauren Oyler took “Advanced Non-Fiction Writing” last fall.
The three students are all incredibly accomplished writers themselves. Klein has reported for the Times of London, The New Republic, and New York Magazine. Veltfort’s essay co-won Yale’s Wright Memorial Prize, was a finalist for the Norman Mailer award, and is going to be published in the Harvard Review. The day Oyler’s profile was workshopped in class, prolific writer and journalist Gay Talese was visiting. Fadiman recalled that Oyler’s essay, “made a big impression on him and he felt that her piece should be published in Vanity Fair.”
Fadiman stressed that because she has so many “terrific writers” in her classes, the most awkward aspect of the reading for her is the selection of the three students. “I could never select my three best writing students,” Fadiman said. “The three that I choose are always among the best writers and happen to have written pieces that I think would be particularly engaging if read aloud.”
Fadiman looked on with a humongous smile as each student stood to read. The students’ pieces spanned topics from a mortal fear of bees to a New Haven stripper to a daughter’s search for her father. Although all of the readings were excerpts from much longer pieces, the writing held together coherently and proved quite powerful, even in reduced form. The readings gave the audience just enough to understand the sentiment of the piece, and want to know more.
Alex Klein began the readings with his essay on a month he spent at an apiary, a place where beehives are cultivated. In it’s entirety, Klein’s essay is a profile of the beekeeper there. “I got to know the beekeeper well, and we became quite close. It was probably through getting to know her that I was able to face up to the bees themselves and actually do some beekeeping.” Klein’s excerpt vividly describes the drama of his encounters with the bees in an amusingly self-deprecating performance. He read, “Should I really be afraid? I know these insects. They just sort of help plants get laid.” An experienced performer, Klein seemed comfortable in front of an audience, allowing appropriate pauses for laughter and swinging his voice with the rhythm of his words. “I sometimes write in a voice that I think can be spoken or theatrical,” Klein said. “I think maybe that’s in my piece.” He said that in writing this piece, he had the opportunity to experiment, to play with his prose. Beyond learning that he could “be around bees without freaking out like a little girl,” Klein said, “I learned you can really create powerful prose opening yourself up a little bit and writing about yourself and allowing yourself to be a bit more vulnerable on the page.”
The next speaker, Lauren Oyler, also read an excerpt from a profile entitled “Born Naked.” Oyler wrote about a 19-year-old New Haven stripper. Her first line reads, “The first time I saw Jackie naked was the first time I saw Jackie.” Oyler goes on to wittily describe her experience at the club Cat Walk, her relationship with Jackie and her changing views of stripping. At first uncomfortable at the club, Oyler begins to recognize the opportunities Jackie sees in stripping. Oyler was worried that her sense of humor would not translate well in an oral medium because she tends to utilize long sentences, creative compound adjectives, and scare quotes — devices that resonate best in print. But her worries were ultimately unfounded, and her reading elicited many laughs from the audience. Despite the humor, Oyler’s piece ends on a poignant note that Fadiman describes as “a twist that really makes you stop and think. It ends on a somewhat more serious note. I love the ending because it is like a bell whose tomes keep on echoing in your ear long after the bell has struck.”
Sophia Veltfort’s piece also ended on a more serious note. Veltfort’s larger essay addressed the topic of her identity. “My story is unusual,” Veltfort said, “because not a huge number of people have two moms and a sperm donor for a dad.” Sophia’s essay was a series of vignettes taken from different years of her life as she attempted to create an imagining of her father. The essay follows her struggle to come to terms with the unreality of the fictionalized character she had made her father out to be from the few adjectives she knew of him. The plot of her essay seems to mirror the tract of her writing career. “Writing About Oneself” was Veltfort’s first nonfiction class. With a strong background in fiction writing, Veltfort’s nonfiction carries a wonderful sense of storytelling and narrative purpose.
The night ended with Fadiman’s reading of a recent essay titled, “My Old Printer.” Fadiman said she truly wanted the night to focus on her students, and described her reading as “an afterthought.” Fadiman’s reading complemented those of her students. Each essay related to an overall theme of attachment, she observed, adding that her attachment was to her ancient, bulky, beloved printer. She described her printer as suffering “the inevitable aches and pains of old age: paper jams, ghost images, toner smears. It needed medical attention, but, like a patient too obese to be lifted from its bed, it required house calls.” Fadiman continued the rhythm of lighthearted jokes followed by a poignant message as she explained that her relationship with her printer was likely based on her association with it. She read, “Surrounded by the light-footed young, who skitter effortlessly from task to task, we cling to our obsolete equipment because we are afraid that we will be discontinued, that we will be hauled away on Bulky Waste Day.”
But Fadiman’s writing and the skills she teaches are far from being taken out on Bulky Waste Day. All of the reader’s words, in their wit and tremendous honesty, demonstrated vitality. There was a clear sense of camaraderie between the group, not excluding, but folding the audience into their world. “I think reading aloud is tremendously important,” Fadiman said, “because we can hear things that we can’t see.”