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Autocannibalism, ten bucks, and a nearly-bungled essay reading

But whatever his species, he did cut off a piece of his ear, fry it in butter and eat it.

Life was messy in the winter of 2015. My long-time girlfriend and I had split up for the third and final time, I was bogged down in another semester of college, and my financial prospects were a total wreck. I had walked almost everywhere that winter, in a pedestrian-hostile part of Columbus, because I couldn’t afford to put gas in my car. 

Had you asked me then, I would have said the only thing I could look forward to was the warmer walking weather of spring. I was wrong, of course, and wrong because I was too lost in the frenetic shuffle to notice what a gift I had made for myself. Because I was so geographically limited, I spent more time at home than I had in years. More time at home meant more reading, more writing. I certainly needed the extra time to work.

I was desperate for cash. I was a full-time student. I wrote advertising copy for the Ledger-Enquirer, edited local art and entertainment magazine, worked part-time in the Columbus State grants office and took as much freelance work as I could find–I wrote blogs on everything from scented candles to Ayurvedic medicine. It was maddening. I was running through the gutter of busy streets to and from class, composing lines in my head as my feet thumped the cold pavement, hoping to get to a dry place before all the words disappeared from my over-taxes and, let’s face it, very average brain. 

And I was still so desperate for money, I did the only other thing I knew to do that would fit with the already unmanageable schedule: I submitted stories and essays to every paying journal I could find. I must have submitted two dozen pieces to four dozen journals. For all of those submissions, I made one—one—publication. And the princely recompense for my efforts? Ten who American dollars, sent via PayPal, before processing fees. 

This was also the spring semester in which I enrolled in Joe Miller’s creative nonfiction workshop. He and I were often at odds that semester; when he was eager about my subject, he was gloomy about my treatment, and visa versa. But Joe, a man entirely without guile, notice I worked hard. He could see my writing improve. He decided I ought to be the featured reader at the semester’s premier showcase for creative writing students: The David Diamond Reading and Recital Series. 

The series, named for classical composer David Diamond, whose link to the Columbus area I’ve entirely forgotten, was started by poet, professor and Director of the Carson McCullers Center, Nick Norwood. The series pairs a CSU writing student with a Schwob Conservatory artist or ensemble for an evening of reading and music. Pretty cool event, and it carries on every semester, though the event has migrated from the Smith-McCullers House to the more commodious Bo Bartlett Center. Music students perform regularly; for writing students, it’s the great honor of the semester. It’s a big deal. 

And so the day of the reading came. I dressed in appropriately-scuffed chukka boots and a rumpled sport coat with elbow patches. I allowed myself use of the car. I drove to campus and printed the short essay I planned to read. It was a 500-word sketch, restrained, tasteful, and I thought it better to leave the audience interested in more than leave them daydreaming about another round of refreshments. I felt light, ready, relaxed. I was going to kill. 

The Smith-McCullers House is a lovely stuccoed bungalow on a level lot in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, as notable for its ‘established landscaping’ as for its ability to hold property value. Cars lined the quiet street when I pulled up and I could see a few people chatting on the porch. Inside, I shook hands with fellow students, with several professors who had come out for the event. I found a glass of wine and settled into conversation with one of the woodwind players who would perform after my reading. And then Joe, flushed, finds me.

“What are you reading,” he asked. I showed him the two double spaced pages I’d printed earlier. Joe was still then a new professor and this was the first event for which he was responsible. He knew the piece I intended to read, and I was glad to be so prepared for his first show. He asked, “what else are you reading?”

I didn’t have anything else. It had not occurred to me to consider how much time I was expected to fill. I explained my logic in choosing this single, short reading. 

“You’re supposed to cover fifteen minutes,” he said. “At least.”

We were only a few minutes away from my introduction. Joe was supposed to go before a dozen of his peers plus fifty other attendees and tell them his hand-picked writing student would read for, at best, five minutes. The musicians would then close the night with twenty minutes of music. 

The only thing I could do was open, on my phone, the one essay I had published, the one for which I’d been paid ten bucks, pre-fees. 

“Tom Ingram will read [Title of Some Essay I’ve Forgotten], plus a brand new piece he’s just had accepted to a prestigious online literary journal,” Joe announced. He held out his arm, inviting me to the podium. Joe gave them the information as best he understood it, but he had misunderstood two key points. The journal was neither prestigious nor even a literary journal. 

But, after reading the prepared essay and thanking everyone for their applause, I pulled out my phone. I explained that if cannibalism for humans is eating human flesh, then autocannibalism must be eating one’s own flesh. I then read “Open Letter to a Very Cool Underground Writer and Occasional Autocannnibal.”

I hope you will take a moment to read the essay. It’s shorter than the introduction you’ve just read. I mean, if you made it this far. 

I would also like to note: there is nothing cool about Gene Gregorits. I did not think much of him then as an artist, and I think almost nothing of him now as a human being. But whatever his species, he did cut off a piece of his ear, fry it in butter and eat it. So he remains, however loathsome, a true autocannibal. 

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