Over the past few posts, I’ve been chronicling my experiences at various writers conferences and workshops. You can check out the entire lineup here.
Many workshops offer the chance for participants to read their work aloud to a sympathetic and engaged group of readers. They will even clap loudly for you at the end, no matter how eloquently (or not) you were able to share your words.
I first realized that doing a reading was a possibility for me at the Yale Writers’ Conference a year and a half ago. Our workshop leader made the announcement as if she were adding broccoli to the lunch menu, “Oh, and by the way, you’ll all have a chance to do a reading. I suggest you try it. It’ll be good for you.”
That caught me completely off-guard. As you might have read here, insecurity ushered in my application for the Yale workshop. I mean, it’s Yale, right. And, as if submitting my novice work to be read and critiqued by others wasn’t brave enough, I was being encouraged to read it aloud. Where was that little tidbit in the application materials?
Honestly, the only reason I did it was so that, one day, when someone asks me if I have ever done a reading, I can answer, “Why yes actually, my first-ever reading was at Yale.” Hopefully, I won’t have to clarify, “Yes, the one in New Haven.”
So here’s what I learned about readings.
- Readings are not in my wheelhouse. When I read in front of others, I sound like a hoarse frog that’s fallen off its very comfortable lily pad smack into very cold, murky water. Which is super weird because I’m quite comfortable speaking off the cuff in front of people.
- Readings are an amazing experience. Ultimately, you’ll be glad you did it. Pinky swear.
- Practice a
fewmillion times before you actually stand up to read.
- Attend the readings of the other writers in the group and support them the way they supported you–clapping when they are done, not pointing out they sounded like a cold/wet frog, etc.
- Respect the time limit. You will look like a disrespectful amateur if you don’t.
- You must respect the time limit. (Nope, that’s not a typo. I meant to write it twice. 😉 It’s really important.)
- Stop at a point that leaves the audience wanting to know more. This is especially true if you are selling books afterward.
- Remember to breathe. If fact, if these were truly in order, time limit would be number one and this would be number two. Take breaths. Frequently.
- Be familiar enough with your work that you can look up at the audience every now and then. It will make everyone more engaged. (If you’re like me, it might also make you more nervous when you look up and remember there are for real people in the audience. Just remember to breathe.)
- And have someone take your picture.
Here is Yale. The first time.
And here is One Story…see how I am getting more comfortable? Practice makes comfort.
At One Story, I read a very personal piece–a poem about a friend’s suicide. Even though I wrote it about 3 years ago, I had not read it aloud before. This is a really important thing to consider. I knew this audience provided a safe, accepting place for me to read this very private poem and I wanted to share it. But, I broke down and cried half-way through. Someone in the audience reminded me to breathe and my fellow writers were extremely supportive, waiting for me to catch my breath. I wiped my eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and made it through the piece. But it was hard. Brave and hard. I have wondered if I should have read something else. I’ll never know if it was the right choice. I do know that everyone was gracious after and I hope maybe my words touched someone in the audience. A few people cried right along with me. I will forever be grateful for that.
So, if you get a chance to do a reading, do it! And if you participate in a writing group, consider making reading aloud part of the meeting. Each writer can just read a few pages–it doesn’t have to be the whole piece. Words have a different echo when they are thrown out to grab oxygen than when they are simply lying flat on the page. Reading them aloud will make you a better writer. Pinky swear!
It’s also important to attend readings of authors you admire. It’s a chance to thank them for the many hours they spend toiling away on a story that has touched you. And it’s often a chance to meet them and get them to sign your book. Squee! It really is important to become a part of the larger writing universe. We can’t spend all of our time at our lily pads in our own little corner of the pond. Reading and attending readings is a great way to accomplish that.