I recently did a reading of the first chapter of my novel and several poems to the Morgantown Poets at the Monongalea Arts Center in West Virginia. I enjoyed it immensely, and I have always looked forward to doing readings of my—or anyone else’s—work. I teach literature and sometimes the best way to study a poem or a prose passage is to first read it out loud—to absorb how it sounds, how it flows, how the writer worked with the words, how the passages were chosen and precisely arranged to get just the right effect. A poem is like music, and in reading it aloud you can hear the words sing.
But not all writers enjoy reading their own work. So many of us still get nervous standing before a crowd, thinking, “They’re all listening to me—to every word I say!” Yes, it’s intimidating, and, to this day, I still hate walking into a classroom at the start of a semester and feeling everyone’s eyes on me. Once I get going I’m always fine, but I do know what it’s like to be nervous, unsure, on display, utterly self-conscious, and so eager to finish and just get-the-hell-out-of-there.
So because of all that, I’d like to share some pointers. Now that you’ve written and completed your work, you now deserve to share it in the most intimate, sensory, immediate, and ultimately controlling way that you can manage—by reading it aloud.
Here are some tips.
Practice. This is essential so that you can time yourself and know how much you can read. It’s sometimes hard to gauge times—I find I always take less time at the event than I do in practicing. I presume that’s because I stop more in practicing to “get it right,” while at the actual event I just keep plunging forward. But know that practice is the only way to get a notion of how long you’ll take. Also, where you practice is crucial. You need a place where you can truly read out loud—not in a library, not at Starbuck’s, and not near a room where your relatives or friends are watching television. Find a private spot where you can close the door—a cellar, an attic, a secluded area in a yard, a deserted warehouse, an empty swimming pool—a place where you can shout as much as you want. And then . . . read! The robins or pigeons or mice might stare at you but they won’t notice any errors.
Be organized. This goes without saying, but you don’t want to be splashing through your notes or desperately trying to find your place—which you “just had”—when you start out. So have all your passages marked. Have everything handy and easily found. And if water’s not provided, then you might need a bottle handy. And be sure you can carry everything you need to the podium—you don’t want to drop anything along the way. And, if you need them, be certain you can access your reading glasses.
Check out the setting beforehand. If you have time, it’s good to survey the environment where you’ll be reading. Is there enough light? Is the podium shaky? Can you lean on it without it collapsing under you? Is the room too hot, or too cold? (Most likely, you’ll be too hot—just doing the reading should be active enough to keep you warm.) Is the podium already cluttered? Is it slanted enough that things might fall off? Is there enough room for all your books and papers--and iPads and laptops? And if you use technology, make sure it will do what you want it to do. For a reading I almost never use it simply because I don’t trust it. (A colleague of mine inadvertently entered a command by just the way he held his iPad right as he stood up to read, and all his material disappeared.)
When you first reach the podium, look at your audience. Walking up to the podium is always the scariest moment. You might be on a panel instead and won’t have to do this, but let’s assume you’re a star and have the room to yourself. To overcome that moment at the beginning when you’re most unsure, here’s what I suggest. When you get to podium, look at the audience. Don’t look down and arrange your pages. You can do that soon. But take the very first moment to look inclusively and widely at everyone who’s sitting there. You might see a grouch or two, but in most cases the people are present because they want to hear you. You have the advantage at that moment because you are the invited guest. They’re pulling for you—because then the reading will be better yet and they’ll enjoy you more. Also, when you look at them directly, you avoid imagining worse things about them. If you just look down, then the people remain undefined, shadowy, lurking half-presences that grow more threatening in your overwrought imagination. So look at them first, before you’ve even opened your book. You’ll make them real, known, and thus not scary at all.
But when you first start reading, look at your words more than your audience. That doesn’t contradict what I said in the previous suggestion. I’m talking here about when you actually begin reading, after you’ve said a few words like, “Thank you for having me tonight; I will read from . . .” I’ve noticed that when I start the actual reading, especially since I just addressed the people directly, I mistakenly look up from the book often to maintain the connection with them. And it’s mistake, at least for me, because when I look up too much at first I lose my place and trip over a sentence or skip a word. I’m connecting with the people but not with the text, and that’s crucial at the beginning. So, my suggestion, just for the first few moments of actual reading to prevent any initial glitches, pay more attention to the book and where you are in it—you’ll have plenty of chances later to regain that closeness and get your audience “into” the story.
Take your time. Let me repeat that: TAKE YOUR TIME! This is the best piece of advice I can give you. The most common problem with readings is that readers go too fast. I understand why this often occurs—if you’re scared, you want to get done quickly. Or if you have a lot of material (and you haven’t planned or timed it) you feel you might not get to finish it all. But the effects of speaking too fast are almost always bad: a monotone, poor enunciation, not being heard well, and your eyes so locked into the text that the audience sees only the top of your head. These words are yours. You know they’re great. So take your time with them and show them off. Present them like treasures. You’ve worked hard to get them just right, so treat them like the precise codes of meaning they are. Roll them in your mouth as if they’re lumps of ice cream, let the phrases glide through the air like the aurora borealis, and present your statements with grandeur because they’re your true findings and conclusions about life.
Enunciate clearly. If you take your time this should occur naturally. The more you slow down, the more time you take with the pronunciation of each syllable. People have more problems understanding words than hearing them. So make each part of each word distinct, don’t “slur” over the words, don’t let your voice drop in pitch and volume at the end of a sentence. And again, remember, your words are wonderful, so you want to make them heard—precisely, distinctly, roundly and deeply. You’re conducting a symphony in language, so make sure the notes are clear.
Make your voice carry. You’re not reading to the first row. They’ll hear you no matter what you do, even if you whisper. You’re reading for the back row. So you need to speak loudly enough for them to hear you. Don’t shout, just let your voice come from deep inside you—from the diaphragm, I’m told, instead of the throat. If you know your voice is soft, ask for a possible microphone, or ask everyone to move closer—tell them you want a campfire effect. (Besides, if there are any editors or agents in the crowd, they’re probably sitting in back.)
Voices of your characters. You don’t have to be fancy. If you can’t master accents, or gender differences, or slang, don’t try. You can suggest differences in characters’ voices by simply changing the pitch, making one a bit deeper than the other, or a bit higher. Or you can just point your head in a different direction when you’re speaking in that voice. This helps in dialogue: one person talking slightly to the right, the other speaking slightly to the left (and, if your hands are free, when speaking “right” you can raise your right hand to make a gesture, and then use the left hand when talking “left”).
And ENJOY IT! My last recommendation, and it’s the best! This is your moment, your material. Everyone’s looking at you not to frighten you but to share in your achievement, and you’re showing you’ve worked long and hard for it. Such a chance doesn’t come often. So savor it! And—I guarantee—the more you enjoy it, the more your audience will. Pleasure communicates. If you’re having a good time, so will they.
So get out there and have a blast.