Two years ago, I’d walked through a coffee shop in downtown Manassas and spied a writing group reading their work in the corner. I eyed them, ordered a drink, surreptitiously took a brochure with me, and silently walked out.
Four months ago, I moved to Manassas.
Two months ago, I remembered that group and that brochure and I looked them up. I asked on Facebook when the next meeting was and they decided it was time to schedule one.
One month ago, I went to their cross-over group’s associated Open Mic Night.
It started at seven pm and I was running late. I’d been held up at work–yes, even on a Friday–so I didn’t even double-check the address until I got to the door and peered inside.
It seemed suspiciously empty, but I was hungry. I went in, ordered a sandwich, and opened my phone. Just about the time the barista was bringing my ham and cheese sandwich to my table, I found the note, stating that the Open Mic Night was at a DIFFERENT coffee shop, a block or so away.
I thought to myself, “it would be rude to walk in with someone else’s food.” So I sat there and finished my dinner.
A few minutes after 8, I made my way down the main street of Manassas, past the live music that filled the streets, past the alleyway seating for the hip-looking restaurants, to the corner of downtown by a closed bookstore. Google Maps said it was further on, so I followed my maps, occasionally switching screens to spin a Pokestop. (Come on, I had an egg to hatch and I was walking around, so why not?)
As I neared the train tracks, I learned something I’d never suspected. There were shops FACING the tracks, not just the road. I rounded the corner, and there, before me, was the coffee shop: Jirani. This place was full.
I opened the door and the sound of poetry greeted. As I looked around and assessed if I actually wanted to do this, I saw dozens of people listening, waiting their turns, all facing the corner stage. Beyond the stage, I saw a side room, with sofas and bookshelves. This was a place that wanted people to hang out.
There seemed to be no free tables, but not every table was full. Near the door, I asked two ladies if the seat at their table was taken. They shook their heads then, when I asked for it, nodded.
The next speaker was a lady with a home cleaning business, discussing how upset she was when a client contacted her to clean her mother’s house instead because she’d left her husband. Her spoken piece reminded me of the stresses on the inside of a relationship, that people don’t always see. Of the struggle, when the end comes, of convincing people that the private struggles ever existed. I clapped hard for her.
There were more stories. And poems. At some point, I went to get a drink.
Now, I know I’m an anomaly for a writer. I don’t drink coffee. Or tea. I drink caffeine maybe twice a month. But, I wanted to support the coffee shop that let us use their space, and I wanted a drink, so I ordered a chai, with a couple pumps of vanilla syrup. It’s 90% powdered milk and sugar and spices, you can barely taste the tea. And I drank the chai. At 9 pm at night.
During the intermission, I thanked the lady whose piece had spoken to me. I introduced myself to the people near me and to the hosts. They asked if I would read something and I tried to demur. I’d come too late, they were already filled up. And he convinced me to add my name to the end of the list, insisting that there would be time.
So there I was, sitting at a table, listening to people read their poems, their stories, their novels. Meanwhile? I’m on a sugar-high, plus caffeine, and the nerves of anticipation for reading my own work aloud, for the first time at an open mic night. My heel was tapping at the speed of a vibrating electron. I’d long ago turned off every app on my phone except for 1. The one that held the piece I’d decided to read. As the readings went on, my battery percentage slid. From 33%, to 27% to 14%.
I’d practiced that morning, knowing there was a chance I might be asked to participate. Knowing if I didn’t participate, the anxiety would be even worse on my next visit. My choices of what to read were limited by the fact I don’t typically write short. I’m a novelist, not a poet. Usually.
The crowd started to thin, hitting perhaps 1/3rd of the original crowd that I’d been confronted with upon entering before it was finally my turn.
With 9% battery remaining, I strode to the microphone, following an eight-or-so-year-old girl who’d read with her mother. A pretty tough act.
I knew that most of the audience had participated, were writers themselves. I’d anticipated that.
The piece I read? Was on the nerves of a querying author, waiting to hear back from an agent — I figured this was likely the right audience for that piece. I stood there, half-blinded by the spotlight and went through all the things I needed to remember. Reminding myself to project. Reminding myself to look up when I could. Reminding myself that nerves would make me feel like talking faster, so I should slow down.
At least I didn’t have to remind myself to enunciate. When reading aloud, I’ve been accused of naturally over-doing that.
Taking a deep breath, I introduced myself–testing the mic–and then I was as ready as I was ever gonna be.
When I finished? Smiles and applause. The gentleman who’d talked me into reading complimented my piece. My ears burned, my cheeks hurt from grinning, and I turned off my phone before it could die.
Then, when I got home? One of those very agents that I’d queried, who’d inspired the piece? Emailed at 11 pm to ask for more pages.
I didn’t sleep until 3 am.
Writer In Progress
Morgan Hazelwood is currently querying the YA fantasy adventure Flesh and Ink and working on a middle-grade contemporary fantasy. Raised by a librarian and an SFF fan, she devoured the entire fairy tale and folklore section in her elementary school library, then moved on to the public library and her parents’ well-stocked shelves.
When not writing, you can find her devouring book series on her kindle, hitting the gym, dressing up at local conventions, or feeding her webcomic addiction. She also lends her voice to Anansi Storytelling – a radio-style podcast of folktales from around the world.