If you’re a writer, you’ve likely subjected yourself to awkward, lifeless Readings enough times to wonder whether there’s still a purpose for these mysterious liturgies. We probably don’t need an old time tent revival (I hope not!)… But asking, “what’s the point?” may be long overdue.
What I mean is: perhaps who/whatever began the institution of the Public Reading regarded it as a vital community sacrament, during which writers worked out their literary salvations with fear and trembling. But by the time it was passed on to us, all that was left of it was a form. We’ve kept it up like saints, but at some point we have to ask about the purpose of the rite.
So—why DO we do this??
Here are 8 (fake) guesses based only upon having observed the events. Add yours in the Comments section!
1. Sellin’ Mass Books. If an author gets out and reads her stuff, the masses will throng to her afterwards and ask for 12 copies apiece, all autographed. Shelves will empty. Publishing gods will be appeased. Money everywhere.
2. Academic Cred (a.k.a. Evidence). Creative Writing Professors hit the streets (or the room down the hall) to mingle with the laity. A prof may say to her audience, Behold my work. And thus you see: I do things. Very cool things.
Students leave in envious awe. Profs keep their jobs. English Departments are stormed by prospective students.
3. Someone invites a writer to read. (Writer says yes.)
4. Dollars. An invitation to read for a Respected University Reading Series that pays some hundreds of money?! (Yes, such things do exist!) That’s more dollars than the average poet sees in a year. Done.
5. Empty Calendar Space (a.k.a. Legacy Series). An institution must host 3 readers each season, but only 2 are booked! Responsible Party moves to #3 or #4, depending on budget.
6. Routing. An author’s on a book tour and needs a stop in SomeTown, USA. Whomever It Concerns gets an email: “Can I read at your institution on such-and-such date?” (W.I.C. says yes.)
7. Academic Dues. If an author’s in school for Creative Writing, he may want to test his mettle. And/or appease the gods of Academe. And/or have his work heard by peers. And/or there’s beer there so WTH.
8. Networking (a.k.a. Insurance). Author #1 is a bad reader. And you know what? She isn’t even a very good writer. But if Author #2 doesn’t invite Author #1 to give a reading, the literary world will collapse on Author #2: Rumors will spread; careers will end, books will mysteriously be rendered unpublishable, limbs will be torn; vitriol spewed from the lit-blog mountains. Also, epic brutality at the next AWP.
But for Real.
Okay so… While there’s some truth in these “reasons” (and certainly some good in them, too!), I don’t believe they tell the whole Public Reading story. For any of us.
If cornered, few writers would want their Readings to be motivated strictly by the above list. We’re creatives. We’ve built our lives on art. We aspire to something bigger—or at least more deliciously complex—than duty, career, appeasement, dollars, calendars, mutual back-scratching.
But what might that “bigger” (or more complex) be? If the above reasons feel too shallow or incomplete, and if we agree that Readings shouldn’t take place just for the sake of having events to plan and attend, what other reasons are there?
To create an experience: of the written work, of text on the breath, the communal ingestion of art, the spark of something live. A human connection in real time, made possible by the written word.
We rarely talk about such things, perhaps because we’re not convinced they can happen at a Reading, or that they matter much when they do. Or maybe we’re not convinced that WE matter, both behind the page and in public.
But we must believe our work on stage matters.
It’s the first “rule” of any performance: We must determine that when we get on stage, we’re doing something significant—for our art and for our audiences. Otherwise, we’re wasting everyone’s time.
The experience we hope to create will vary depending on the vibe of our own written works, our personalities, on what we each envision happening when we connect (in person) with a crowd.
But the key is to have a vision: to generate some ideas and hopes about what could transpire in a room when you read. If the extent of our Public Reading Imagination is “Make words be out loud,” our texts are better left to the page.
But Doesn’t This Require Mass Ego?
No, but you do have to believe your work is worthy of practice, investment, presentation. Which is no small thing… but you actually already believe it! You believed it enough to write your work, to revise and publish it (and/or endure rejections), to pore over book cover designs and margin widths. You believed it enough to accept an invitation to give a reading.
So it’s not an ego trip to then want to read it well, to embody it somehow, to work to connect it with a live audience. In fact, by this point, such work is just… sensible. (And awesome.)
Still, I’ve heard writers express fear that if they try to make something engaging out of a Reading, people will think they’re super-into themselves.
I get this fear. I used to work wildly for chances to perform my songs, only to get on stage and sing them like a spineless mouse. Why? I was afraid to be “caught” believing my work was worthy of emotion, energy, drama.
The problem is, this strategy always backfires. My songs sounded unworthy and unmoving, because I sang them like they were. And who was really served by these sheepish pseudo-performances?
As it turns out, only myself. In trying to avoid appearing too “into my own stuff,” I was actually being selfish: serving my fears and ignoring my audience.
So if you’re worried about ego, here’s something that took me years to learn: for a performer, few things are more egotistical than giving a mediocre performance, thinking it’s worth your audience’s time.
Being dynamic/creative doesn’t mean you think you’re the sh*t. It means you think your audience is. It means you care enough to engage your listeners. And it means you care enough about your art to bring it to life. You already do this on the page! Do it at the mic, too.
And if you get some criticism, well, haters gonna hate. Anything great will earn its critics. Don’t let them shake your commitment to your art and audience.
Getting Started: Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot!
Dear Writers, no more of this meek sagging up to a mic, trying to blend in to the bad art behind you. When you present yourself as unworthy of attention, listeners usually believe you. You inadvertently cheapen their experience and skew the way they perceive your art.
And lo, many will say to me, “When were we acting unworthy? When were we cheapening our audience’s experience? When did we skew their perception of our art?” And I will say, check out these four rules. I’ve never regretted following them:
- Always be prepared. (aka Always Practice; click here for planning tips!) When you’re scattered, awkward, and uncertain, you give the impression that this event wasn’t even worth your time. Why should it be worth anyone else’s?
- Never apologize, unless it’s a real mistake. I’ve heard writers say, “I’m sorry that was such a long poem,” or, “I’m sorry this story is depressing.” This is your art; don’t apologize for it! If you’re really sorry it’s long or depressing, don’t read it.
- Confide, but don’t excuse. You may be tired, “off,” sick, wired… But you have a “duty” to the crowd that’s gathered to hear you. If you’re losing your voice or you’re under the weather, tell your audience (it may explain the hot toddy).But don’t present it as an excuse. Instead, believe your art is bigger than how you feel—that it can still make something happen in this room.
- If you make a mistake, keep going—UNLESS the mistake is super-obvious, in which case, acknowledge it. There’s nothing more awkward than asking an audience to pretend they didn’t see or hear something they obviously saw and heard. (Plus, laughing with your audience is fabulously connective.)
So! If we’re ready for Readings to create experiences, we’ll want to talk details—mics, soundchecks, venues—because we’ll want to be heard, we’ll want the venue to support our art, etc. Therefore, up next: microphone and “soundcheck” tutorials!
Meanwhile, join the conversation! Do you have more “Reasons for Readings” to add to the lists above? And if Readings have mattered to you, why? in what ways?
Also, how have you engaged your audiences, made connections? In what ways have you embodied your texts?
Finally, what did I miss here? What do you want me to address?
Comment away, Writers!Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?