This Thursday, members of the esteemed San Francisco Writers’ Grotto will stand up and read their worst writing, in front of an audience. It’s part of the annual Litquake Festival, and it’s called "Regreturature." KALW’s Martina Castro went to last year’s show and did some thinking about her own creative process.
It’s Wednesday night, and I’m at the Verdi Club in San Francisco. The show is sold out to a crowd of hipsters and glittering literati. I’m surrounded by high-pitched laughter and colorful cocktails. I feel like these people “are somebody.”
The first writer takes the stage. It’s best-selling author Mary Roach, reading from a column called “Guppy Love.” She wrote it in her first job as a public information specialist at the SPCA.
“And I'm going to skip ahead here to the last line, because I had 600 words and I had to wind it up fast and I didn't know how to do it,” she says. “Here's what I wrote: ‘So let's hear it for guppies!’”
This is a piece of "Regreturature": part literature, part stomach-sickening, face-wincing, skin-crawling, regret – the kind of writing that, at a minimum, you keep tucked away in your closet. That’s where I keep mine, but it’s better left deep under the house, collecting mold. Taking it out or reading it is unthinkable.
But that's exactly what ten writers are doing in front of hundreds of people. Best-selling, reputable writers, whose work you can read in publications like McSweeney’s, Mother Jones, and the New York Times. Writers like Jeff Greenwald, who reads from his first book of poetry.
“I realized, there is no radio,” he reads, fighting back the laughter. “The seals are singing to the vanishing evening, barking through a pain I could never understand.”
And it gets worse. He’s holding a copy of his book that he bought used at Green Apple Books. He recognizes the inscription – it’s one he wrote to his parents when he gave them that copy as a present. Apparently they sold it off to Green Apple without ever telling him.
Other regreturature readers include Todd Oppenheimer, Katie Crouch, and Julia Scott, all members of the Writers’ Grotto in San Francisco. They read from poetry contest entries, Hello Kitty diaries, and personal journals, revealing some pretty melodramatic and embarrassing stuff.
But the writers look relaxed, almost relieved to get a chance to read it out loud and laugh along with the audience at their former, less talented selves. Almost as if to confess. But Julia Scott says she wasn't relieved until she left the stage, precisely because those words used to be so meaningful.
“You don't know how it's going to come out until you say it and you don't know whether the crowd is going to go along with you and find what you wrote at age 20 hilarious,” she says after the show.
But they did find it hilarious. People laughed until their sides hurt – and so did the writers, like Jeff Greenwald. He says you have to be able to laugh at yourself and be comfortable with humiliation in his industry.
“You don't hear back from editors. When you're lucky enough to get a rejection, it's always a disappointment. You write something that you think is wonderful, and you hear back, ‘well this is great, but take all the good parts out.’ So those of us who do this kind of work have kind of agreed to continually live that life, we must be getting something from it,” Greenwald says.
And the readers get something too, he adds: “It's only when we are really vulnerable when we are most accessible.”
So, all this has me thinking about my writing. I write for radio, I wrote this very story you’re hearing right now. And I could just end it here.
But, I can see how you might think it’s unfair of me to display other writers’ worst work, without sharing a little of my own. So, I dug around, and found a piece of my own regreturature, circa 1996. This is from my first “book” of poetry – and I use the term “book” lightly here. Here’s a poem from my melodramatic days at age 14:
What is wrong with us today?
Are we all too tired to play?
Don’t you feel? Don’t you care?
Do you understand? Do you dare?
People die, left and right,
All through the day, and all through the night.
Do you think this can’t happen to you?
That tomorrow, your life cannot be through?
Well, it happens to everyone some day,
We are slowly, but surely, passing away.
One day, everyone must die.
Yet, most don’t have a chance to say bye.
Just remember, how no one lives forever,
Maybe then, your life, you can learn to treasure.
This story originally aired on October 10, 2012.