NYC’s Difficult to Name Reading Series Ends with Screenwriting Tips, Mid-Aughts Angst, Drake Takes

Conceived and curated by Ryan Sartor since April 2014, the Difficult to Name Reading Series ended its New York run at the Brooklyn indie bookstore Books Are Magic on Friday, July 20, with rousing readings involving Pac-Man, funny performances revisiting angsty mid-2000s internet culture, and in-depth conversations on screenwriting and rap. In the bright and airy front room of the shop, music critic Charles "Otter" Holmes kicked off the night by sharing his expert opinion on Drake. Holmes expressed his disappointment with the rapper’s latest album, Scorpion. “The one good part of [the album] is ‘Ratchet Happy Birthday,’” he said. His imitation of the song and a personal anecdote about a fourth-grade birthday party gone awry was a highlight. Holmes stressed that Drake is still “the greatest living rapper” and that “not even trying makes Drake great.” When it came time for a giveaway, as one of the only attendees with a CD drive, I was gifted with an unconventional but oddly harmonious combo: Disc 2 of Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Cello Suites and Side A of Drake’s Scorpion, both slipped inside the case for Hospitality’s 2014 album Trouble. Artist Molly Soda presented a multimedia piece. Accompanied by electronic music, she read from hot pink or green text that flashed against a black background. The contents? Entries from her Xanga circa 2004. She pleaded with her dad to let her get a lip piercing at 15. She skewered anonymous users who were constantly hitting her up for help with their pages, shutting them down with lines like, “Stop asking me for layout help if you are 1) not my friend, 2) I am not subscribed to you.” While this could be read as a criticism of an internet culture that privileges anonymity over real moments of connection, in light of recent Facebook data use issues, it was nice to retreat to the mid-2000s, when the burgeoning World Wide Web was full of promise and possibility. Kevin Nguyen is an editor at GQ and a veteran of DTN, having read at it “seven or eight times.” He returned to the podium with a story featuring a unique character: Margot, who plays Pac-Man and “loved video games. They were both your enemy and your friend.” With lines like, “Sprinkles are for closers,” Alex Watt had the room in stitches with his piece, “Everything I Learned about Business I Learned from Mister Softee.” New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu gave a reading of a work-in-progress in which the narrator writes his friend’s eulogy in a San Diego Wendy’s near the funeral parlor. Hsu also explored the idea of a “memory palace,” leaving audiences with a thought-provoking meditation on memory, grief, and loss.  A comedian and co-host of the weekly live comedy show SAVAGE, Hoff Matthews eschewed formalities, declaring, “You can’t do stand-up behind a podium, or it becomes a graduation speech.” In a cruel twist of fate, after Matthews was named Most Likely to Succeed in his senior year of high school in 2006, the yearbook editors decided to give the superlatives “funny alternate titles.” The result? Matthews was named “the next Donald Trump.” Not the same thing. The highlight of the night was undoubtedly the far-ranging conversation between Sartor and screenwriter Michael H. Weber. Together with his writing partner Scott Neustadter, Weber has penned unforgettable original movies such as (500) Days of Summer (2009), as well as adaptations such as The Fault in Our Stars (2014), based on John Green’s runaway YA hit novel of the same name. The evening provided a fascinating glimpse into Weber’s writing process; those aspiring writers who forgo outlines in favor of a looser approach may want to note that Weber spends about a month crafting an airtight outline before writing a first draft. When asked about (500) Days, Weber stated that its genesis was “a statement about how studios were making romantic comedies…In the late ’90s and early 2000s…they were built around wacky trailer moments and all of our favorite ones growing up were basically people talking…[We said,] ‘Let’s go back to the ones where the obstacle is just someone doesn’t feel the same way about one person as one person feels about them.’” Having never lost that spirit of originality, Weber has cultivated a successful career in screenwriting without moving to L.A., which gives hope to aspiring East Coast screenwriters who are very happy where they are.   Speaking of L.A., the new iteration of Difficult to Name will kick off at Stories in Echo Park on August 24. After a long sigh that seemed filled with premature homesickness for the vibrant literary scene and easy public transportation of NYC, Sartor, who’s moving to pursue screenwriting, went on to say that on Aug. 30 he is also starting a monthly table read series for scripts. He is having trouble finding diverse actors and appreciates any leads. Afterward, as the sun began to set over the bustling streets of Cobble Hill, I caught up with Soda outside of the venue. She’s currently working on a video game with an independent game designer, Aquma, about the internet in the mid-2000s. When I drew a parallel between this new venture and the work she just presented, she replied that she works a lot with that time period (I should have known better; even her website, with its collage of conflicting images and links, is an artistic statement on internet culture). When I caught up with Weber back inside, he mentioned that he has been a fan of The Millions since the beginning, expressing his excitement over The Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview. As the crowd got ready to migrate over to 61 Local for beers, I asked Sartor what Difficult to Name—this institution of the New York literary scene—has meant to him: “Sitting down and listening to people read is like the joy for me.” I’m sure all literary scene regulars share the same sentiment. Despite the ubiquity of readings in NYC, many may find themselves at a loss now that this iconic series—with its unique format and colorful characters—is heading to the City of Angels.