The bell had not even rung and here was Jerad Alexander, sucker-punching his adversary, while the ref looked the other way.
Alexander, bearded, burly, former Marine, was scheduled to go toe-to-toe with a Navy man, Rob Mosca, in one of those pugnacious salons they waggishly call Write Club.
It’s the blood sport of the literati: A pair of essayists stands before a crowd of tippling rowdies and sounds off on opposite sides of a very broad topic. The crowd picks the winner, and awards him or her the tail and ears of the loser.
OK, not really. They don’t get severed body parts for prizes: just tiny plastic trophies. But losing can hurt. Especially if you’re going up against a published author like Alexander, who, before the match at the Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge began, explained the relationship between the Navy and the Marines this way.
“We are a department of the Navy,” said Alexander of the Marines, “but we are sort of the men’s department.”
Unfortunately for Alexander, who was hanging with the smokers in the courtyard behind the Poncey-Highland watering hole, Mosca wasn’t around to hear his branch of the service besmirched. Moments later Mosca was getting his revenge, matching Alexander three-for-two in a push-up contest. On stage.
Pushups, smack talk, they’re all part of Write Club, which takes the boring tradition of “reading from one’s work” and turns it into gladiatorial combat.
Write Club came to Atlanta in 2010 when founder and “overlord” Ian Belknap visited from his hometown of Chicago, where he had staged the first Write Club a year before. Belknap, a struggling and frustrated spoken-word performance artist and one-time comedian, organized a match here at Push Push Theater. Among the combatants was screenwriter and script doctor Nick Tecosky, who went up against musician/writer Bill Taft, defending “There” against “Here.”
“I barely squeaked a win,” said Tecosky.
Shortly thereafter, Belknap suggested Tecosky and Myke Johns start an Atlanta franchise. Write Club Atlanta came out of the gate like Secretariat, drawing 70 paying customers to the first show in 2011, and attendance has continued to rise. Close to 300 came to the Write Club Atlanta event held in conjunction with Creative Loafing’s fiction contest last year.
About 150 millennials and their older cousins attended this recent event, and were clearly having the time of their lives.
It’s important to remember onstage were writers, reading from their own original work, and were entertaining rooms full of cheering, screaming, paying fans.
That’s weird. Since bookstores are dying and nobody (supposedly) reads the printed page these days, whence this love of original prose?
Belknap explains it in the introduction to a new book, “Bare-Knuckled Lit: The Best of Write Club,” a collection of the best essays that have knocked heads at Write Club events in Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco. Several of the pieces in the book are from Atlantans such as Tecosky, Johns, Jason Mallory, Bobbin Wages, Bill Taft and Dani Herd.
Herd, a standup comedian who also does Shakespeare on stage, contributes an essay, “Full,” on the self-medicating allure of the crispy Chick-fil-A sandwich. Bill Taft, in “Return,” writes about how one heckler can ruin your whole gig. Tecosky visits the ghosts of his past in “Angels,” and shows how a life of regret can be a comfy place.
The stories are organized by battles: Native vs. Foreign, Roots vs. Branches, Love vs. Lust. And at the end of each battle readers can pick a winner, for what it’s worth.
The short prose pieces work well on the page.
They work explosively on the stage.
First and foremost, the spirit that energizes the live version of Write Club is the seven minute window. That is the time allotted for each budding scrivener to argue his or her case.
Enforcing that limit is what Belknap calls “The Despotic and Plainly Visible Clock That Would Ratchet Up The Stakes As Time Drains Away.”
Seven minutes. That’s about a thousand words, give or take a few breaks for laughs. The ticking clock injects adrenalin into the event. And woe be unto the fool who miscalculates. The vociferous audience will shout the tardy reader off the stage using their collective voices to imitate the annoying end-of-quarter buzzer of basketball games, robbing the reader of his kicker.
This bloodthirsty audience is also critical, writes Belknap. Knowing that the crowd will crown a winner and scorn a loser puts the competitors on point, and encourages them to bring their A games.
Write Club Atlanta is a volunteer affair, and the proceeds of the evening are donated to the charities chosen by the winners, which gives the participants even more reason to strive.
Herd watched with mischievous pleasure from the second row as Alexander and Mosca puffed and sweated onstage. Suddenly Mosca threw in the towel. Having won the push-up competition (which, in honor of the brawny servicemen, replaced the traditional rock-paper-scissors), Alexander earned the right to choose the order of appearance, and wisely chose to go second.
A somewhat out-of-breath Mosca extolled “Sea.” Alexander spoke of “Land.” Both competitors drew laughs.
The competition was close, but Mosca earned the win.
Herd said getting laughs is satisfying, but added that “the coolest thing is not making people laugh, but making a connection.”
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