October 14th, 2009

Readings in Motion

In the year since my last readings post, I’ve done perhaps 20 or 25 readings and other public presentations about my writing. I’ve had lots of fun, learned plenty, had some embarrassing moments and heard some amazing readings. I’ve also gotten loads better–my voice rarely shakes now, I enunciate and project, I know approximately how much emphasis to give the funny lines and the sad ones, and I no longer equate speed with fluency. If circumstances occasionally result in my giving a below-par reading, the benevolent hand of random chance occasionally result in my giving an above-par one, too.

The bad news seems to be that, no matter how much I improve, the nervousness does not go away. I fret a lot pre-reading, going over the selection again and again and wondering whether the piece isn’t just garbage that I should be ashamed to present in front of an audience? I am a fairly obnoxious dinner companion pre-reading, but tonnes of fun–in the manner of a pardoned death-row prisoner–after any reading that didn’t utterly suck, which is most of them. It remains hard to convince reading organizers, some of whom have gone to trouble and expense to have me there, that I am thrilled to be.

And I am! Thrilled that I get to personally deliver my work to the world. A little terrified, yes, but mainly thrilled. And getting better, the more I learn about the process.

So what have I learned? A few things since that year-ago post, actually. If you are curious, here are some very basic practical tips that I overlooked for a while (too long). Now that this stuff has occured to me, I am ever closer to consistently giving readings people will enjoy listening to (note: these lessons are from my combined experiences as reader and audience):

1) Ask if you can be heard in the back before you begin, and adjust your voice/mic until you can be. It is tempting to avoid being primadonna-y and plunge in at a preselected pitch and let the audience cope how they can. However, if you can’t be heard, most audiences won’t cope; they’ll yell at you to speak up/adjust the mic. That’s obviously annoying for the audience to have to do, and it is also very startling to a nervous reader to have people yelling at you.

On a similar note, adjust the mic *stand* before you begin, so that you don’t have to give your reading crouching or on tiptoe, neither of which helps with delivery. Ask for help from the stage if you can’t figure it out; likely the reading organizer/tech guy/random helpful soul will come darting up immediately.

2) Prep your guests. Every reader has some friends and family who aren’t very literary-reading savvy, and maybe have never even been to one before. If they want to say aloud, “Wow, that was great” after each poem in your set and/or attempt to engage you in dialogue from the stage, you may well enjoy that, but then again you may be completely thrown off/dying of shame. Even if a little vocal audience validation is exactly what you want, warn those validators to stick to polite applause for readers that may come before or after you. And please please please, tell your posse not to sit in the front row if they want to leave immediately after your reading. People tromping up the aisleduring the next reader, sometimes *talking* is something I’ve seen a number of times. Of course no one should have to sit through stuff they aren’t interested in, but try to get’em to sit near the door and leave discreetly. I honestly think that some people have grown so used to movies that they forget that it’s a real person up there whose rhythm could get thrown (or feelings could get hurt).

3) Try to stay within the time limit. This is necessary to ensure the goodwill of your fellow readers and the organizer. I have lots of awesome 22 minute passages and it is tempting to read them always, but if I were asked to read for fifteen and there’s a band coming on after literary portion of the evening, the later readers are going to get screwed and hate me, so I don’t do it.

Also, as a listener, I’ve found evenings of readings have a rhythm that it’s best to go with. If everyone reads for 15, I am in 15-minute-mode, and a 22-minute reading suddenly seems torturingly long, though an evening of 22-minute readings is fine. Or maybe my brain is weird.

4) The best readings, in my experience, require very little explanation. The best selection to bring to the stage is completely self-contained: one complete story, a selection of complete poems or a complete poem cycle. The second best thing is the beginning of something, from the first page until you run out of time. The third best is, uh, some self-contained thing in the middle that still doesn’t require much explanation.

But sometimes you simply don’t have an interesting segment the right length that stands alone. Or, damnit, you just want to read the ending for once. So go for it, but work on the explanation as if it were a new piece of reading–make it clear and interesting. The one time I tried to link up two sections from different parts of a story in a reading, I think I lost a good percentage of my audience because I hadn’t rehearsed my explanation and it was not very clear.

The brilliant writer and reader Leon Rooke often jumps around within a reading *without me knowing it* because his bridge passages are so funny and interesting and completely in keeping with the tone of the story. The only downside is when I read the published piece looking for the bit that isn’t actually part of it. Strive for this.

It should go without saying that work shouldn’t need an explanation for anything more than logistical purposes (“Ok, so Jimmy is Johnny’s stepson, and they’re on the road to Vegas”). If an author feels the need to tell the audience how to interpret what they are about to hear, it demonstrates a lack of faith in either how smart the listeners are or how good the writing is, neither of which is an appetizing thought as one tries to get into the work.

5) It’s your time–do what you like. I love it when authors like Pasha Malla chat with the audience, tell funny stories, and engage in dialogue, and I was totally impressed to hear Angela Szczepaniak‘s rejoinders to a heckler be funnier than the actually heckling. Evan Munday and Jon Paul Fiorentino’s typical reading for Stripmalling is a slideshow. A couple weeks ago I heard Spencer Gordon introduce his short story, briefly and wittily, and then he said the words, “I just have to do it in a southern accent.” I thought to myself, and I believe I wasn’t alone in this, “Oh, shit!” Which made it all the more amazing that period Mr. Gordon actually has the twin talents of story-writing and accent-doing is not to be trifled with. It was a stellar reading, warm and funny and original on a number of levels.

My readings are still pretty non-esoteric. I’m pleased if I can get the words from the page into the air in a relatively entertaining manner. My big new thing at my next two readings will be to actually tell a brief anecdote *about* the story before reading it (with cue cards, der; I haven’t gone completely crazy!)

But I am learning to chill out occasionally, and enjoy myself more and more every time. Here’s a picture from one of my more awesome readings/seminars (actually, I did relatively little talking at this one, perhaps why I enjoyed it so!) at North York Central Public Library’s Young Writers’ group.

Even though I struggle with the readings still, I know how lucky I am. How many people get to do this stuff, really?


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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