Mortification, in the First Person

by Michelle Gagnon

One of my all-time favorite books (and a popular gift for friends who write) is called, MORTIFICATION: WRITERS’ STORIES OF THEIR PUBLIC SHAME.

It includes vignettes from such storied authors as Roddy Doyle, Michael Ondaatje, and Val McDermid on the most embarrassing experiences they’ve ever had during their writing careers. For example, did you know that Margaret Atwood’s first-ever book signing took place in the Men’s Socks and Underwear section of a department store? Or that some of Chuck Palahniuk’s fans started throwing dinner rolls at him during an event in San Francisco? And apparently Stephen King was once forced to sign so many books that his fingers cracked and started to bleed.

Up until last October, my most mortifying moment as an author occurred at a local bookstore, when not a single person showed up for my reading.

And then along came Litquake.

Litquake is San Francisco’s premier literary festival, a week-long celebration of the written word that features hundreds of authors reading at dozens of events. More than 16,000 people attended last year. Being asked to participate is a big deal, particularly for one of the most coveted spots.
And for the 2011 series, I was included in a great one, entitled, “These Mean Streets: Reality and Fiction Collide.”
I was the only woman appearing on a slate with a former mob informant; the terrific writer, working PI, and all around great writer David Corbett; and a slew of other big names. The event was being held at Tosca Cafe, one of my favorite bars in San Francisco.

All in all, it was shaping up to be an exciting evening. Thanks largely to the fact that the event would be happening in a bar, I even managed to convince several friends who don’t ordinarily attend readings to come along.

You can never predict how big the crowd will be at one of these events, but that night, Tosca was packed. Standing room only, easily a couple hundred people in the room.

I was nervous, and hadn’t slept terribly well the night before. Too nervous to eat very much all day, in fact. So I did what any sane person would do–I drank a glass of wine to calm myself down.
I was scheduled to be the third reader of the evening. I sat through the first two, my mouth dry, palms slick with sweat, tapping the pages of my chapter on the table (to the growing irritation of my friends).

And then, it was my turn.

I’ve performed in hundreds of dance performances, and have participated in dozens of author events over the past few years. One thing I know: the minute I get up there, the nervousness dissipates and I’m fine.
So there I was, standing in front of a microphone with a spotlight bearing down on me, facing this hot, crowded room.

Initially, everything was clipping along just fine. I read the first few pages of my chapter, and the crowd seemed appreciative–at least, no one was heckling or throwing things at me.

In the middle of page five, the words started swimming before my eyes. I paused and tried hard to force them back into focus. They refused to cooperate. I realized that for the space of at least a minute, I hadn’t said anything. Panicking, I tried to collect myself. I stood up tall, found my place, and got through another paragraph.

I’ve never fainted before in my life–never even came close. But next thing I know, I’m lying on my back with a total stranger inches from my face, yelling, “Were you locking out your knees?”

Which even in retrospect doesn’t seem to be the first thing you should ask someone who has just passed out cold.

Thankfully, there was an open booth behind me. According to my friends (who delighted in detailing the exact order of events after I’d recovered slightly), I said, “I’m dizzy,” then sat down hard in the booth behind me. After which I proceeded to plummet ungracefully into the lap of the woman occupying the banquette (featured in the photo above, right before we became much better acquainted).
And of course, this was the one and only time that I’d decided to wear a dress for a reading. Meaning that I pretty much flashed the entire audience. Thank God I was wearing tights.

My friends helped me outside and plied me with glasses of water and relatively fresh air (there were a lot of smokers around). Strangers came out to check on me. The rest of the reading proceeded inside; sadly, I missed most of it. As a favor, the event organizers let me get up and finish my story at the very end of the evening.

A week later, during the closing party, Litquake impresario Jack Boulware informed me that they’ve never had an author faint before–apparently it was the talk of the organizing committee. So much so that they’re debating naming an honorary award after me next year. Word is still out on whether it will be bestowed for passing out or remaining conscious.

So now, should the editors of MORTIFICATION ever contact me, I can assuredly put Stephen King’s most embarrassing moment to shame.

I’d love to hear about your most mortifying experience, either during and event or really, at any point in your life. Please. It will make me feel better.

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19 thoughts on “Mortification, in the First Person

  1. Foreign languages… always an opening for language tragedy… I hadn’t been in Portugal more than a couple of weeks, with just a couple of months of language training. At a very solemn occasion I wanted to say how much I appreciated spending time with the audience… I only knew one verb for it and it best came across as how pleased I was to waste time with them – laughing ensued for everyone but me- the red-faced one who was so embarrassed that she couldn’t get out the door fast enough.

  2. I think you’ll win the prize for the most mortifying moment. How humiliating. Reminds me of my first day as a nursing student on the ward when I fainted during morning reports. Interesting how our bodies betray us, isn’t it?

    Probably my worse event in the writing field was doing a scheduled signing at a mystery bookstore and no one showed up.

  3. I was in a bookstore once and asked a woman if she wanted me to sign my books that were in the shelves. She said that it would be wonderful, so I started signing all of the books. About half way through someone tapped me on the shoulder and said in a very loud voice, “I hope plan to buy all of these books you have defaced.” Turned around to a furious store employee. “If not, I’ll call the police.”

    Turned out that the woman I initially asked about signing the store’s books wasn’t an employee and had vanished. I explained I was the author of the books I was signing, and flipped the book to show my picture. Still irate, she called for the manager, who explained to her that it was a good thing when authors signed their books as it often made the book more valuable to some customers. The employee was new and not fully up to speed on the things that happen pretty much only happen in a book store. I guess designers don’t sin their clothing in department stores. Since I ask the manager first. never had it happen again.

    Once I told a woman that I would be happy to sign my book (it was in her hands). She said no thank you.

    I was allowed to finish the signing exercise with the manager’s blessings.

  4. Ah, Michelle. I used to faint all the time as a kid. Nothing makes me feel more helpless or panicked. But, I have to say, this story after the fact is hilarious.

    Seeing as how I am constantly extracting my foot from my mouth, I have many embarrassing stories. The first that comes to mind, however, is not writing related.

    You may like to know that to her absolute horror, I plastered Bonnie Raitt against her tour bus in my enthusiasm to tell her how great I thought her performance was back in 1977.

    It was the terror on her face that registered enough for me to back off. I charged her from across a parking lot, screaming her name. My husband (boyfriend at the time) had grabbed me by the belt loop, but he was no match for my determination.

    I was mortified, especially since I told myself I was going to be cool, sophisticated and appreciative. I managed to achieve appreciative. The rest was sheer embarrassment. I still owe her an apology.

  5. I had the same thing happen during a drop in signing, John–thankfully they didn’t make me buy the “defaced” books.

    Chaco Kid, turns out that the words for “I’m full” and “I’m pregnant” are remarkably similar in French. Which I discovered in a fancy restaurant in Paris, to the great glee of my fellow diners.

    Kathleen- that’s hilarious. Bonnie Raitt should have been flattered.

  6. Wow, that’s a tough one to top, Michelle. I’m not even going to try. But I will extend my deep condolences to you for your unfortunate turn of events.

  7. True Story. I’m in college. It’s summer break, so I’m back in Southern California visiting family and friends. A welcome change from the unbearable humidity that is Manhattan in July. A buddy and I meet these two girls. I forget what his looked like. I was rather excited about mine, though. See, I have a thing for Padma Lakshmi, and my girl looked just like her. After some tap-dancing they agreed to a double date.

    Now, my friend is a bit reserved, didn’t want to do a sit-down-dinner-first-date sort of thing. So we decided to meet them on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. He also gets a nervous stomach come game time, Michelle. So we grabbed a quick bite at California Chicken Cafe before meeting up with the ladies. I think I must’ve drank nearly 2 liters of water as I waited for him to finish his half a chicken.

    That’s right. Half.

    Anyway, so he’s stuffing his face. And I’m going on and on about how this girl is gonna get it and she doesn’t even know it. How she’d poked the bear, and now the bear was gonna…you get the point. Machismo, bravado, whatever you want to call it was in full effect. I had a ranch shirt on, jeans and sunglasses too. I was stylin’. LMFAO comes to mind when I think about how I was acting that day now actually.

    But I digress. My phone rings as we’re eating, well, he’s eating. It’s my Padma. What does she want? I pick up. At the same moment, I felt nature’s urge.

    Now, a normal, sane human being would’ve held it, or just told the person on the phone they’d call them back. But real men, men’s men, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood type men, they multitask.

    I’m a real man. Let’s roll.

    Off I go into the bathroom talking, my buddy still chomping down on a drumstick at the table.

    “What’s up, babe? You excited about tonight?” I asked as I unzipped my fly. I might as well have added a “Yo, Adrianne!” at the end of it.

    As I relieved myself, she responded. Don’t ask me what she said, though. I can’t remember. I had just totally pissed myself. That’s right. I wet my pants like a bratty, snot-nosed two-year-old. Made a nice little three quarter moon wet mark in my crotch area, complimented by a happy trail down one leg of my Ralph Lauren ladies’ man jeans.

    Padma was no longer relevant.

    I hung up on her, called my friend’s cell.

    Ring, ring.

    “What’s up?”

    “Come to the bathroom.”

    Now, think about that last statement.

    You’re a guy. A straight guy. And your male friend calls you on the phone and tells you to meet him in the bathroom. I’ll abbreviate his response: WTF!

    “Just come in here.”

    Good buddy that he is, he hangs up and shows.

    “Oh my god!”

    Then the laughter came. Then the wait staff and the other patrons added to it as I failed to walk out of the restaurant with any dignity.

    Needless to say, I missed my date with Padma. I’m sure she didn’t appreciate my hanging up on her. And I never had the cojones to call her back and render an explanation.

  8. Love these (horror) stories. During a Q&A at one of my readings, someone asked me about one of the main character’s previous (and prominent) occupations. I blanked, and then said that the reader must have mistaken my character for another… in another book. The room went deathly quiet. The mistake, of course, was mine. I mumbled something about the toll writing takes on one’s mind, but there was no graceful way out of that one.

  9. I was a pretty good amateur magician in my college days. I got a coffee house to give me the stage one night. In those days I billed myself as Jim Bell, “Master of the Amazing.”

    And amaze them I did, up until the big finale. It was a mind reading trick. I used a partner for this. I sat on the stage as my partner got various items of info from the audience, and used a code to get that to me.

    Just as I’m about to make the big reveal, one of the chair legs slipped off the stage. I started falling backwards, slowly, slowly, then boom, right off the stage.

    It’s hard to recover your amazingness after that.

  10. Michelle, I seem to remember fainting in your presence at Bouchercon in Alaska…so although I wasn’t doing a reading at the time, I feel your mortification!

  11. Michelle, when I was in high school I was the ‘line manager’ for volleyball games…which meant that I had to call balls in/out and run around chasing them when they were amok. Our volleyball team made it to the final 8 in the state, which was held at some enormous school and was a very big deal for us. I got very dressed up for the event, complete with a new dress and shoes.
    During one of our games, I had to go fetch one of those errant balls. Ever diligent, I ran across the court in my brand new, super slick flats and wound up sliding on my butt in front of hundreds of people, my quest for the ball undeterred.
    But falling wasn’t the worst of it: yes, I was in a dress and flashing the crowd, but I was also very close to the bleachers and totally took out a little old man who was getting ready to sit down. He landed on top of me, which spurred some wonderful high school nicknames for me, and needed a bit of first aid before sitting back down.

  12. Not necessarily writing related? Once in High School days I was at a dance in Ruleville, Mississippi. My friend Jack Hawkins came up to me and said he needed me to come to the bathroom with him. Once there he showed me that his zipper was stuck half up …or down. As soon as I went down on my knees to help unstick the zipper, the door opened and a couple of guys came in. Jack’s back was to them. Sensing what was happening, Jack began to moan … is pleasantly the right word? Luckily the boys were not from our school.

    I think fiasco is the right word.

  13. Not necessarily writing related? Once in High School days I was at a dance in Ruleville, Mississippi. My friend Jack Hawkins came up to me and said he needed me to come to the bathroom with him. Once there he showed me that his zipper was stuck half up …or down. As soon as I went down on my knees to help unstick the zipper, the door opened and a couple of guys came in. Jack’s back was to them. Sensing what was happening, Jack began to moan … is pleasantly the right word? Luckily the boys were not from our school.

    I think fiasco is the right word.

  14. Cripes, I feel for you.

    But at least you had the good fortune to be unconscious for some of the ordeal. The ones you’re conscious for all the way through are… choice.

    Mine: Not the signing that no one turns up for. That happens, and you keep the smile stuck on your face and chat with the bookstore staff and brazen it out.

    What I had was a signing *that the bookstore staff forgot about*, and had forgotten to publicize, get posters for… anything. *Everyone* was mortified. God, that was awful.

    Nearly as mortifying in its way: the double signing where all the visitors were for me and *not a single one* for the other writer. CRIPES, I felt for her. Such an awful position to be in.

  15. Dec. 1987 – discovered that standup comics paid in free drinks should never …neeeevvvveeeeerrrr….take partial payment between acts.

    April 1989 – learned that guys newly married married to foreign girls should never try to use new language skill on that girls older brothers who don’t necessarily appreciate American dudes taking their sisters from home.

    Those lessons last a life time.

  16. Omg, this is the funniest post & the comments kept me laughing. Oh, Michelle. I feel for you, sister. I’ve been cranking on deadline & promoting my latest, but this post really was worth taking a break.

  17. Oh Gosh, this is hysterical and I just cringed for you too! Am thinking I would have had that wine too. My similar experience with fainting was in boot camp, only it involved waking up to my company commander cursing me out. At least you had pleasant people around you! Thanks for sharing!

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