Writers Out Loud
By: Zoe Aslop
As a graduate student in New York, Rachel Coonce was reading from her memoir in front of a crowd for the first time when she heard a sound coming from the audience that surprised her.
“I was speaking from my heart and telling a story from my childhood,” she remembers. “As I was reading everyone started laughing.”
Coonce was delighted.
“It was a magical experience. I was clearly being cheeky and telling anecdotes that were really bizarre, but I didn’t realize how funny it was and what a big role humor played in that story. It became a huge part of my memoir.”
After finishing her MFA in New York, Coonce moved back to Washington, where she connected with Sarah Lawrence classmate Courtney Sexton to bemoan the loss of their writing community in New York. In the spring of 2014, they started The Inner Loop reading series to bring together DC-area writers, the more varied, the better.
“We’re going for variety in terms of genre, stages of career, writers who’ve gotten MFA and those who never will, ones who are published and unpublished of all ages,” Coonce says.
On the rainy night this November the crowd that trickled into the Colony Club for a reading kicked off by Professor Patty Park was diverse. The atmosphere was intimate. A ping pong table was cleared away. People set up rows of chairs and the room continued to fill. In the lineup of readers who read for three minutes each after Park’s fifteen minute slot, a young man in black denim read a poem about Beltway traffic, a blogger with flowing hair shared an essay on reading 50 Shades of Grey at her dying child’s bedside, another man read from his published novel based on Russia’s space race and a veteran federal employee described the mental breakdown of his smart TV. By the time they finished, the room was full. Much of the audience, it was clear, had come from work.
“It’s government workers, lawyers, people from nonprofits and the state department, consultants,” Sexton says, comparing the District’s tightknit writing crowd to the New York scene, one fragmented along lines of genre, connections and status. “This is people’s passion They are choosing to spend their free time outside of these other big things they’re doing in this city together as writers.”
Eying the crowd, which skewed young, before beginning, the blogger wondered aloud whether she had chosen the wrong piece. But, as she began, the room, fresh from laughing loudly at Park’s descriptions of Queens, went quiet and rapt.
The alchemy that happens between a writer reading their work and an audience is terrifying for the same reason that it can be instrumental – it exposes gaps and connections a person writing alone in a room might never anticipate. Sexton and Coonce urge writers to take risks and play, exploiting the audience as sounding board.
“One of the things we encourage is for people to submit works that are not full or complete because it helps to have an audience to find those gaps and those points of connection,” Sexton says.
Since starting The Inner Loop, Coonce and Sexton have seen their readers learn about themselves as writers, publish essays, finish novels and memoirs, switch genres, make connections and collaborate. Their next step, as they have planned it, is to share the wealth of local writing with the rest of the city. Starting in 2020, in addition to readings and residency program, The Inner Loop will hold popup readings outdoors to engage passersby and work with local bookshops to showcase local writers.
“In the end, what are we creating art for?” Sexton asks. “We joke a lot as writers that what we do is this super narcissistic dark thing but writing is a shared experience. Not everyone can connect with you through the page but if they hear you and see you they can connect with you in a new way.”