I gave the last of my scheduled readings last night in the Poetry Center at San Francisco State. After having no voice for most of the past week, it was a relief that it returned enough that I was able to do a good job because the audience was fairly large and my spouse and kids were able to attend this one.
I have to say, I LOVE reading my work. Absolutely love it. Actually, I love reading. Anything. I would read the phone book in front of an audience if someone asked me to do so. Seriously, if anyone needs a reader, call me, I'm available.
I know a lot of writers who hate readings and, while I can sympathize, I don't really understand it. Yes, I understand the nerves and the anxiety about standing up in front of an audience. I felt them last night. This was a new audience for me, filled with a host of unknown faces, professors, classmates and even students I had taught as a TA a few semesters ago. I wanted to do well. I wanted to show off. I wanted to WOW them all. Even with the laryngitis, I did pretty well. People laughed in the right places (including one that, though it always gets the biggest laugh, I swear, I don't quite understand why it's so funny to people) and stayed with me to the end. I can tell when the audience is with me. There's a special electricity, a feeling of connection with the audience, that is incredible. I love it, it gives an extra bounce of animation to my voice.
I find reading my work to be valuable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it gets me out there, lets people know who I am, what my work is like, and, hopefully, helps build me build an audience. But it's also a valuable part of the creative process for me. The time limit imposed by most readings has helped me cut and edit and hone several stories, made them razor sharp. I also listen to places where I change wording as I'm reading, listening for the flow of my words. As I rehearse pieces and as I read in public, I'm paying attention to the cadence and rhythm of the writing in a way that's different from how I hear it in my head. I tend to read my work out loud before I begin rewriting or editting anyway, so this is just a continuation of that process. And then there's the immediacy of the feedback. Writing is an artform that usually takes place at quite a distance from its audience, usually in private, and the writer rarely, if ever, gets to hear or see how the work is received. A public reading is different. The audience is right there in front of you, you can see and hear how the words are received. You can feel when the audience is with you and when they drift away. That instant feedback is valuable information for any writer.
So...if you are a writer and you dread reading, how do you get comfortable with it?
Above all, practice, practice, practice.
Way back in the misty reaches of time, when I was trying to be a good corporate worker, I spent seven years honing my speaking skills in Toastmasters. It was an incredible learning ground for becoming comfortable in front of an audience. The main thing to remember about being in front of an audience is that really, they're on your side, they want you to be fantastic.
I also had another phenomenal learning ground, though I didn't realize it at the time. I spent at least five years reading the Harry Potter books out loud to my kids for bedtime stories. I've read the entire series out loud at least twice, once to each child. That was five years of practicing reading out loud every night for five years.
For a specific reading, I practice reading the pieces I'll present over and over again. Last night I presented two short pieces, one of which I'd never read out loud before and, because of the laryngitis, I didn't practice that much before hand. I could tell. Practicing your own work does a couple of things - it helps you get into the rhythm of the piece so you're more comfortable when you get up in front of the audience, but it also makes it so you know where you are on the page. I had to keep putting my finger on the lines so that I didn't lose my place last night, which makes it harder to use my body to give added emphasis to certain lines.
Practicing the piece also means that you can lift your eyes from the page and make eye contact with your audience. Guess what? That means you're connecting with them, you pull them in more because it seems like you're speaking to them. And, because you know the piece so well, you don't have to worry about finding where you were or forgetting the next line.
If you don't like to make eye contact, and I don't, here's a Toastmasters trick. Look at the top of the person's right ear. The ear is at the same level as the eyes and people in the audience can't tell the difference when you're looking at them, the focal point is so broad at a distance, it doesn't matter. I'll make "eye contact" even when the audience is sitting in the dark and are just gray balls out there because I think it helps keep them connected.
Above all, when you give a reading, speak up. Take pride in the words you wrote. This is my biggest pet peeve at readings. Writers who mumble, rush through their work, don't let the words have the weight and magnificence they deserve. Make sure you breathe from your belly while you read - it makes a difference. I always try to use my chest voice as well, it's deeper, carries further, and has a resonance that my thin, high head voice doesn't have. It sounds much more confident, too. Speak slowly, carefully, and show the audience that you care about the work - it helps them care about it, too.
One of my professors this semester, Anne Galjour, offered great advice for reading. The nouns carry the information of the piece, but the verbs carry the emotions. When you read, put the emphasis on the verbs.
And, seriously, if anyone out there wants me to read, give me a call.