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Worcester Magazine
February 21-27, 2002

Writers Rocking

By Caitlin McCarthy

Every writer is looking for a scene, including me.  Blame it on the legendary �Algonquin Round Table,� where artists met during the Roaring �20s to drink, network, and share stories.  Worcester native Robert Benchley was a member.  As a fellow writer from Worcester, it was always my dream to find a circle of peers.

My search stretched to the Boston area.  Next to New York and Los Angeles, Beantown boasts the largest numbers of writers in the U.S.  And where there are writers, there are publishing houses, agents, and magazines.  Say what you will about the Internet, you can�t beat face-to-face contact.  It�s the difference between virtually being part of the publishing scene, and actually participating in it.  Since Boston is only an hour away, I viewed the drive as a small investment in my writing.

I found my circle of peers at Dire Reader in Cambridge.  Unlike the Algonquin circle, people aren�t gathering at a toney hotel; they�re meeting in the blueberry-colored Willy Wonka-of-a-building known as the Out of the Blue Gallery.  Affectionately referred to as �Dire� by regular attendees, this reading event is held at 8 p.m. the first Friday of every month.

Now I know what you�re thinking.  Reading event.  They�re usually so literary � literary being code for uptight.  That description doesn�t fit Dire.  It�s more of a rock �n� roll venue.

In what way? Timothy Gager, the creator of Dire, has shattered the traditional five-minute time limit for open mike readings and extended it to 15 minutes.  At Dire, open mike lasts for 60 minutes.  Two feature authors then read for 45 minutes.

Gager is the author of Twenty-Six Pack (Dead End Street) and The Damned Middle, Life in a Drunken Slumber (Dead End Street).  He dreamed up the name �Dire Reader� with his buddy and open mike co-host John Bailey.  The two felt Massachusetts writers had a �dire� need to �read� longer and a place to do it.  Writers in the area have enthusiastically responded to the concept.

Gager refers to Dire as the �wild card of open mikes.�  He says, �At some, you can almost guess who�s going to read and in what order.  You won�t find that here.�  Steve Almond agrees.  Almond is a past Dire feature and author of My Life in Heavy Metal, to be published by Grove Press in April, 2002.  �Dire Reader brings unpredictability to the Boston area,� he says.  �Gager�s broad-minded about who can read.  There�s no worrying over who�s the �right� kind of reader, the most �political� person.  It�s the ideal set-up � you never know who you�re going to hear.�

And you never know who�s going to be listening in the audience.  Local celebrities such as singer-songwriters Juliana Hatfield and Jules Verdone, and Mike Deneen (founder, Q Division Records) have already checked Dire out.  The celeb sightings made it into The Boston Herald�s �Inside Track� column, the so-called bible of Hub gossip.

Andrew K. Stone, a past Dire Feature and author of Disappearing into View and All Flowers Die (So There Books), says, �What makes Dire special is that you can be a first-year college student and appear on the same bill as a published author.  Nobody minds that.  It�s an amazing thing for an unpublished, young writer to network this way.�

The lack of arrogance and posing at Dire does allow young writers to take chances and read their work in public for this first time.  Many authors know that reading is a talent aside from writing.  It takes practice.  If you can stand the nerves, it�s a big benefit to put your writing out in front of an audience and see how they react.  Elizabeth Searle, a past Dire feature and author of Celebrities in Disgrace, A Four-Sided Bed (Graywolf Press), and the Iowa Short Fiction Award Winner My Body to You (University of Iowa Press), feels that �when you show people your writing for the first time, it�s like opening the door to a tomb.  It�s such a breath of fresh air on your work, to have it evaluated so directly and immediately.�

No matter where you are in terms of your writing career, you always need and appreciate feedback.  I recently read sections of my (as yet) unpublished novel, A Few Social Ones, at Dire and relished the positive responses.  Michelle Chalfoun, the Dire feature for May and author of Roustabout (HarperCollins) and The Width of the Sea (Cliff Street Books/HarperCollins), loves it when �readers show up and tell me about the relationship they�ve developed with these characters that I�ve sent out into the world.  It�s like finding out that my children did okay, they�ve survived without me, they�ve become interesting, independent beings.�  Winona Ryder certainly found Chalfoun�s Roustabout interesting; she�s optioned the novel for a movie.  Chalfoun�s The Width of the Sea is currently out in hardcover, and will be released in paperback this June.

Connections are always a possibility at Dire � not just connections with other writers, but with publishing insiders.  Tim Huggins, owner of the prominent Newtonville Books, says, �If I were an agent or acquiring editor, I would check the Dire series out.  Hey, you can enjoy great readings while drinking a beer among cool art.�

Want to check this scene out for yourself?  Dire Reader is held at the Out of the Blue Gallery, 168 Brookline St., Cambridge, the first Friday of every month (with the exception of March � when Dire will take place on March 8.) The gallery�s phone number is 617-354-5287.  Visit www.direreader.com for more details.

Caitlin McCarthy is a writer living in Worcester who recently read from her unpublished novel, A Few Social Ones.
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