September 22nd, 2008

Writers Reading

If Rose-coloured is of any practical use, it might be to writers who are or soon will be dealing with stuff like the stuff I’m dealing with. If I can help one writer somewhere not go insane trying to proofread his or her manuscript, my work is probably done. And so, to further that project, I’d like to offer my thoughts on the latest thing I’m trying not to go insane about, which is public readings.

I’m hardly an expert–I counted this morning in the shower and I’ve done a grand total of seven readings. If you’ve been to any of them, you know that I am not the world’s best reader, but if you’ve to *several* of them, you know I’m getting better. In addition to those seven incidents, I count as education my considerable time as *audience* for readings, as well as all the time I spend standing on a chair (it helps!) practicing. So maybe, single-didget experience not withstanding, I have a little advice to offer.

To start with, I know the sources of good advice–try Michael Carbert’s Why Are Literary Readings So Excrutiatingly Bad?” Don’t let the grouchy title fool you, this is a fair and warm article by someone who *likes* literary readings enough to want them to be better than they often are. In addition to a good deal of useful advice for the organizers of readings, for the writers themselves, Carbert recommends, “…a basic awareness of pacing, breathing, and emphasis can only heighten a reading’s effectiveness. Writers uncertain of such things would benefit from rehearsal and listening carefully to a recording of themselves.”

To which I would add three things:

1) Plan. I rehearse, but I’m a nervous novice; I understand that more confident and experienced readers can give a polished performance without reading it over standing on a chair half a dozen times. However, I’ve seen very good readers absently flipping pages on the podium, muttering, “Hmm, I’m not sure what would be best… Maybe just a little bit more from chapter three…” No one wants readings that end anticlimatically because they are cut off before the end of the passage, or because the passage was chosen at random and doesn’t have a suitable end, or readings that drone on endlessly because the reader hasn’t chosen an end point and doesn’t keep track of the time. All of these are sort of sad for the listener, who was really hoping to hear not just a random sample of the text, but an actual aesthetic experience there in their chairs, listening.

More good advice from other people: I once met the poet Alayna Munce shortly before a reading, and I asked her how she chose what to read. She explained that her book, When I Was Young and In My Prime is a somewhat complicated poetic novel, and that reading from it required carefully choosing and putting together a number of passages to create an accessible performance. When she got up on stage, I saw her book was feathered with post-its that she flipped among, but her performance that day was simply lovely, polished and simple and even funny. When I read the book soon after (I think practically the entire audience bought the book), though it was still beautifully simple and occasionally beautifully funny, I realized just how much careful jumping around in the text she had done to pick out a strand of narrative and follow it through for twenty minutes. She made the effort so the audience wouldn’t have to suffer confusion, and for us, it was totally worth it.

2. Perform. God help us all, I do have some theatrical training, though only barely enough to know that words are not only the medium but the message. Reading aloud gives dimension to the work that is not available on the page–the energy and emotion of the voice–while subtracting another–that of the silent space of imagination of the reader. To take away the reader’s own pacing and internal version of the text, the performer really ought to offer something just as good–the characters differentiated in tone, the pace modulated, etc. At their best, actors inhabit their characters, become them, which is a bit much to ask of the untrained writer, but still–I did make up those characters and narrators, so I *am* as close to inhabiting them as anyone could be. It’s worth a shot.

Someone with a lot more training the theatre than I, who uses it to brilliant effect, is Claudia Dey. Her novel, Stunt, would probably sound captivating if read by Emily the Bell Telephone autodrone, but it was Dey’s spellbinding inhabitation of her characters when she reads that made me want the book in the first place. The jacket copy doesn’t intrigue at all compared to the intensely focussed, emotional performances she gives at readings. *Stunt* has a first-person narrator, which I consider the easiest voice to use on-stage–dialogue being the toughest, but Dey’s skill is superlative in any voice. (PS: I finished the book yesterday, and it truly is one of the best things I’ve read this year. And I heard it all in my head in the author’s voice.)

3. Enjoy. I do get *so* wrought up before readings, all seven of them, that people ask if I’d prefer not to do them, but I love readings! No, really! All self-consciousness aside, I do like my own work, and the opportunity to personally deliver to an audience is a great privilege. You also discover a lot from witnessing reactions to your work first-hand–the silence of people listening raptly is completely different from the silence of people fighting to stay awake, is completely different from the silence of people furrowing their brows in confusion. I swear to you, it’s true. I *like* doing readings, and I hope through all the nervousness, it shows. I would never want people who have taken time out of their lives to listen to me to feel they’ve made a bad choice, or that I don’t appreciate it.

The worst reading I’ve heard recently was a fellow who clearly hated reading. He had a clump of crumpled unbound pages he shuffled repeatedly, he read in a monotone and never looked up. He was obviously unhappy to be there (it was a voluntary situation, so this unhappiness is somewhat mysterious) and his dismay seemed directed at the audience whose gaze he would not meet. And he went over the time limit! Frankly, the text seemed like something I wouldn’t have liked under any circumstances, but the author’s acting out the enormous favour of reading it to us didn’t help matters.

We all have enough unavoidable problems in the ungoing narratives of our own lives. To get to sit back and be told a story is such a nice respite–a pleasure to receive, and though stressful, to give also. I’m giving two readings in Winnipeg on Wednesday, so until then you can find me at home, standing on a chair.

They’ve signed me up for surfing but they can’t get be in the choir

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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