Reading Your Work in Public
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
Someday in your career as a writer you will be asked to read your work before a live audience. This venue could range anywhere from a lecture hall to a publisher-sponsored book tour. Reading your writing aloud in public is intimidating under any circumstance, but with some practice and preparation, you can make it enjoyable for you and your audience.
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a presentation workshop and attend a lecture on this topic at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, Vermont. The workshop was conducted by James Navé, of The Writing Salon; the lecture was given by Rebecca Cook, a creative writing and literature instructor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. I thought I’d share some of their recommendations with you.
Before the Reading
Selecting Your Material. If you are reading an excerpt of prose, it should have a strong beginning, action and description that move the scene, and a resolution with a hook. Some dialogue is fine in the prose excerpt, but you want your audience to “see” the scene, and this comes from vivid description and taut action. For poetry, select pieces that are short and varied in style. The changes in rhythm and subject matter will keep your audience engaged. Again, think in terms of word pictures. What will the audience “see”?
Practice and Preparation. Time yourself. Practice reading out loud with a timer in front of friends or family. Rebecca Cook recommends recording yourself to listen for those annoying nervous habits, such as clearing your throat or saying “um” repeatedly. Never, never read longer than your allotted time. Remember the rule of a good actor: Leave them wanting more. For the average reader, it takes approximately five minutes to read 2.5 pages of double-spaced prose aloud. If your work is too long to fit into the time frame, look for places you can cut. You may discover you have a stronger piece.
Know Your Audience. Will you be reading in a public place, such as a bookstore? If so, choose material that’s appropriate for all ages. You can take more risks with most academic venues, reading work that is controversial or experimental. If you write experimental poetry that has an unusual format on the page, however, be aware that it may not translate well to the spoken word. When in doubt about the demographics of your audience, ask.
Dealing With the Nerves. Everyone gets nervous reading in public, but remember, your audience wants you to do well. Arrive early for the reading so that you can test the microphone and the set-up of the room. Bring a bottle of water to soothe your dry throat. Singers know that you should breathe from the diaphragm. To find your breath support, take a comfortable stance, with your weight balanced and your legs spread slightly apart. Then place your hands on your abdomen and inhale deeply. You should feel your abdomen expand. James Navé refers to this as the writer’s center, the source of vocal power and emotion. Finally, be sure to stand still when you read. Rebecca Cook points out that not all microphones are omni-directional; they may lose the sound of your voice if you move too far away.
Although it may seem impressive to read from a published book, it’s easier to find your place on a page that is typed in the standard 12 point font and double-spaced formatting. If you make a small mistake (such as skipping a word or two), keep going. For a large mistake (such as leaving out a page), don’t be afraid to stop and start over. What about a ringing cell phone? Rebecca Cook advises you to pause and let the person tend to the phone. Then continue from where you stopped.
Creating Your Audience. It happens: Your big day arrives, and there is no one in the audience. What can you do to prevent reading to an empty room? Ask your friends and family to attend your reading. You should also promote your upcoming event in community calendars and newsletters. If you have a blog or Website, be sure to put up an announcement with times and locations. Some writing sites will let you make announcements as well. Make up some flyers for bookstores, libraries, college campuses, coffee houses, or any other places where writers or readers gather. Be sure to ask permission before you post your flyer.
Engaging Your Audience. In his presentation workshops, James Navé
tells his students that every reading consists of “one-third imagination, one-third text, and one-third audience.” You, the writer, wrote the text on the page. That text was created from your imagination. Your job is to bring the audience into the realm of your imagination, to make them experience the world you have created. How do you do this? Think of your work as having two major elements: motion and emotion. Before you read, visualize the scene. What is your character looking at? What does he feel about what he sees? As your character moves through the scene, how do his feelings change? In a poem, your audience experiences the world from one vantage point and enters your imaginative world to see things from a new perspective. If you concentrate on communicating the imagination of your written creation, the audience will feel the emotion and motion of the piece.
After the Reading. Allow some time for discussion. Be prepared to answer questions about the writing process and about your work. When your time is up, make a graceful exit but give your audience something to remember you by: a bookmark, a pen, or even a chocolate Hershey’s Kiss (always a favorite). If you are reading in a bookstore, don’t forget to sign extra copies of the book for the store to display--a great marketing tool for your work.
My special thanks to: James Navé and Rebecca Cook. The Writing Salon was born from creativity camps Mr. Navé conducted with Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. Visit The Writing Salon at their site: http://www.thewritingsalon.net
Rebecca Cook has published poetry and prose in New England Review, Northwest Review, and Poet Lore, among others. Her chapbook of poems, The Terrible Baby, is available from Dancing Girl Press.
Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning author whose fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry have been published in magazines, newspapers (including The Arizona Republic and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), and anthologies. In 2002, Ms. Gassman was the recipient of an Encouragement Award in Creative Writing from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and in the 2005 Preditors & Editors Reader’s poll her story, '”Healing Arts,'” was ranked among the Top 10 in the nonfiction category. She also teaches writing classes and conducts workshops in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Please visit her Web site at: