Our first correspondent!
Kerri is our first boots-on-the-ground reporter. Here’s her account of the first Midwest Story Night. Take it away, Kerri:
The city of Youngstown, Ohio experienced the wonderful and the unusual on January the 18th for the very first night of Chuck Palahniuk’s Midwest Story Night.
Sounds of feet shuffling, chairs being pulled out, glasses filling with ice, and excited chatter filled Cedars West End. People came out with pages in hand. Each person eagerly writing their name on a bright orange note pad and tossing their chance to read into the thrifted black cowboy hat on the table. Readers’ hands clutched and almost wrung their copies of stories. Some sat alone—some had friends with them for support—the luck of the hat ensured the nervousness was irrevocable throughout the night.
After a brief welcome and thank yous to all those in attendance, there was a description of how the event would take place—all those who wanted to read were pulled at random. Those coming from great distances were given a higher priority of randomness. Each reader had a max of fifteen minutes to read the work that they would like to test out on the audience. This was a night to unleash what was merely on a page and give it legs. To see who would be engaged—was there laughter? Did someone say, “Oh my!” in the back of the room? Did someone just walk out?!
Nearly three hours’ (breaks included) worth of various stories ranging from lady-scaping that results in a hospital visit, the tempered waiting to speak to someone in customer service while video-game characters destroy the house, exotic dancing in your late thirties in the Midwest—because good jobs that pay well are scarce—detectives afoot, experiencing a spray tan from a creepy mobile van with various shades of sun crispness, and a reading from a self-published-seagull version of The Sopranos presented as a children’s book.
Each reader, with nervous excitement, took the stage full of eagerness. Sure to sign their waiver to be filmed and entered into the current high-stakes contest recently set in place by Palahniuk, where three winners can walk off with either $5,000, $3,000, or $2,000 in May, from three different story nights: Portland, Oregon; the Bronx in New York; and now, Youngstown, Ohio.
Some readers made themselves very comfortable by adjusting the mic—the music stand—taking an inaugural sip from their beer glass, and setting it on the black nightstand nearby before beginning. Some chit chatted with the audience beforehand. Some would launch right into their story without these adjustments or setting the scene before reading. Each reader owned the stage, or just borrowed it for the night. Some just stumbled upon it accidentally and decided to give their poetry a go despite the evening being dedicated to stories.
The first reader, Maegan Heil from Michigan and a subscriber to Chuck Palahniuk’s “Plot Spoiler,” was given an extra spotlight from a local news station by one of Youngstown’s own—a strong advocate for the valley and surrounding counties—reporter Stan Boney from channel WKBN news. Midwest Story Night was awarded outstanding, local encouragement by media coverage in the Warren Tribune and Business Journal as well. Social media was also used to provide promotion for the event. A wide range of travelers near and far found their way to Cedars West End.
After three readers had finished, we took a ten-minute break. Fifty or so people had made their way to this industrial area. The stir of camaraderie commenced around the first three readers almost immediately, as some took a celebratory shot for ripping off the band-aid early. Others were able to relax back into their bodies and ready themselves to listen to the next readers. The adrenaline could calmly disperse throughout their entire bodies.
At one point during the first ten-minute break, an older woman, with wire-rimmed glasses and white hair as straight as Joni Mitchell’s, revealed her nervousness within the first hour of the readings, due to being out so late in such an unfamiliar urban part of town, and wanting to read as soon as possible. With the luck of the hat, her wait was brief and she was able to present her story along with mentioning her most recent dealings with self-publishing.
After about halfway through and multiple timed breaks—the room was feeling a little more comfortable and at ease with libations, smoked chicken tacos, and smash burgers—the rustle of the tin foil in plastic serving baskets was multiplied as people enjoyed a few handhelds while listening and socializing. All of this really made the readers feel more comfortable. So much so, they forgot about their phones for a change. There was the scuttle of audience members rushing up to readers after they were on stage—like newfound groupies to a rock legend—voicing their encouragement along with relatable anecdotal conversations—really gave the evening the heart. Writing can be a lonely profession, but seeing so many find their like-minded community just seemed to fall in place.
There also seemed to be a theme weaving within the stories. The women readers brought forward the trials and tribulations of bodily maintenance and personal revaluations regarding the constant upkeep to their bodies, appealing to those that find them attractive—not to mention how damned tiring it was for all of them—also—expensive or even dangerous. Each story, strong with an almost musical-like refrain running through it as Palahniuk had instructed our Substack writing class to use. His own repetition can be noticed in Fight Club with the use of repeating the rules of Fight Club. The instruction was working and noticeable.
When the men approached the mic for their turns later in the evening, some revealed how intimidated they felt by earlier readers. Doing so brought applause from the crowd and a few hoots and hollers. It was agreed all around how the women really brought it that night, as the men read a selection of detective stories, the ferocious urge to buy a fresh pack of smokes from the corner store—while trying to quit and not wanting to leave a sleeping child at home alone—and a coffeehouse encounter gone upside down.
Some of the stories would end abruptly due to being excerpts of works in progress. That caused a jolting effect to listeners who were willingly lulled and trapped into strong stories. The mix of story and some memoir made a comparable contrast in how the audience related/reacted. Even after some of the readers were done, comforting audience members offered hugs of support to those visibly shaken after reading a heart-felt story. The more emotional some of the stories were, there a visible shift of uncomfortableness in the audience. To go from laughing to shock was a lot on the system; nevertheless, a community was forming—people were in-tune and relating in a realistic way, which our phones or social media will never provide. This was human to human—real-life, real-time bonding—and it was beautiful to bring together. (Plus, the feel of letting down some defenses with light social drinking can make for a good experience with like-minded people—to say the least.)
One important part of hosting the event, too, was to avoid pulling anything from the stories as a means of humorous transition between readers. That can be seen as low-lying fruit, and embarrassing for readers. Totally cringe-worthy. That was rarely done that evening—which gave each reader/writer the respect they deserved for their courageous walk to the microphone to read at whatever level they may be at.
Overall, twelve readers gave the audience that first punch in the ear, which was delivered, welcomed, and popped us alive with adrenaline. Some bailed after they read—but for the most part, many people stuck around to support other readers. There is a good sense that the February 15th Midwest Story Night will be even more well-attended. Past readers plan to bring more work, friends—and REVISIONS. Some just want an immediate book deal or movie option after reading once. Stranger things have happened in Youngstown. It’s a great place to hide. To meld into the area and go unnoticed while writing the next great American novel. Also, where the story writes itself around the author and why it’s always good to have a notebook in hand to jot down what is happening. The “you would never believe it if you weren’t there” type of situations that make for good story fodder. The Midwest readers gave the old one-two punch to the body as their training began!
What a good time we had! The social media buzz is already rippling. The best part was watching a writing community form within Cedars West End, as it should be again, and has in the past few decades. So thankful for all those in attendance and the readers that really left it on the stage. Special thank you to Randy Dong for his advice and troubleshooting our first Story Night. Mega THANK YOU to Mara, Billy, Kirsten, Noll, and Fred—a great team that made it all come together easily. THANK YOUs are also in order from our hearts to Chuck Palahniuk for the opportunity to bring the event to Youngstown, Ohio, and watch his teachings manifest in the stories of the writers that read! Looking forward to the next one!!
I’ll begin posting the videos this week.
The next Hindsight Story Night in Portland will be February 20th.
Yes, the day after our shooting party1, and the day before my birthday. Don’t get any funny ideas, okay?
Erin and Krissy with AR-15s. The mind boggles.