Why Are Readings So Awkward?

Hey Writing World.
I love you. You’re brilliant. You make amazing things happen on a page.

But you have NO IDEA what to do behind a microphone.
And so many of your venues are grim! They make us forget that there’s ever been magic in words.
Basically, there’s an oozing sore on your writing, and it’s where and how you read it.
PS. The seventh grade called; it wants its awkwardness back.

But seriously.

How many poetry, nonfiction, or fiction readings have you attended for which the audience showed up for a reason OTHER than:
A. inherent interest (attendees were other writers)
B. politeness/goodwill
C. obligation
D. coercion for extra credit

Personally, I’ve filed all two of my Extraordinary Reading Experiences away in my Magic Memory Place, so I can take them out when all hope seems lost.

At most readings, I long to take the reader aside and give her a pep talk. And a hug.
Own that mic! You’re worth it!
Or gently suggest that maybe, somewhere inside, she really does like other humans.

Also that her voice is capable of inflection.

I’m not talking about new readers. I’m talking about everyone from graduate writing students to seasoned, oft-published reading-tour professionals.

And sadly, even when speakers ARE confident, when they’re engaging Heroes of the Stage, they’re obliged to insert their Reading Mastery into a room that looks like paste. Or an EconoLodge.
Actually, I take that back. I defy anyone to deny the vague connection between the typical literary reading and a hospital room.

Dear Writers, Why Must This Be?

It’s not because writers hate people. (Well, some of us do. But let’s stick to generalizations.)
And it’s not because we don’t care about our audiences, or the value of public appearances.

We can’t get into every reason today, but we can start with this:
Significant constraints exist even for those who want to do something inviting with a reading. Finances, politics, time… not to mention Tradition.

Plus, there are FAR too few resources for writers who want to learn how to be with an audience, how to engage their texts via their voices, how to present themselves in a way that honors the work they’ve done on the page.
It’s a rare writing program that addresses the fundamentals of stage craft (how to hold a mic, how to relax), let alone the larger skill set involved in creating a mutually enjoyable experience between reader and listener.

If that weren’t enough to overcome, there are emotional/psychological hurdles:

  • The idea of working a crowd can feel inauthentic to writers; as if it’s salesmanship or catering to the lowest common denominator. (It’s not.)
  • Often, attentiveness to one’s body and its presence feels foreign; worse, such attention might evoke a sense of manipulation or persona, or of distraction from the text itself. (It doesn’t have to.)
  • It can be easier to feign nonchalance or outright distrust of “performance” than to do the work of learning to be good at it. (Ouch.)

Nevertheless! There’s a growing interest in exploring reader/audience connection as a means of honoring – rather than undermining – the author and her words. Despite my lighthearted approach, I’m addressing this precisely because I want you to take your work more seriously.

I’m a somewhat recent convert to the Established World of Literature.

For years before joining this venerable brood, I made my living as the singer/songwriter for the band Ellery.
I’ve published far more songs than poems. I think I’ve performed hundreds of shows for every reading I’ve given. My bio (below) is an alien life form.

So what am I doing here?
Well, I got an advanced degree in English and developed an abiding love of critical theory and academia.
That story is unimaginably sordid. Let’s save it for later.

For now:
My failure to have been properly reared in The Ways of the Literary means that I still see its world as an outsider. Although I love the Literary/Academic Universe – (I’m invested in it, totally charmed by it) – it’s not my native home. Its customs, habits, and culture(s) often feel foreign, and/or hilarious.

So my goal here at Ploughshares, as interloper, as black sheep, as one among many lovers of Literature, is to hold a mirror up to its world, help it see itself, take risks, explore its potential relevance.

This will take many forms, but I’m starting with a friendly castigation of The Reading because, coming from a performance career, it captures my imagination, my exasperation: this holy, musty rite that no one’s altered for a while.
Like, since God rested.

But what truly impels me to explore it is my firm belief that the public experience of a text – as a thing in itself – is worth artistry, time and attention.

What COULD happen when a group gets together and experiences the same text at the same time, from the same voice?
And what would happen if we asked this question more often?

As a performer, and as a veteran coordinator of venues and events, I have some ideas.
So in my next post, I’ll start with fundamentals:
– How to hold a mic.
– The benefits of “soundcheck.”
– Feeling more at ease in front of people.
– How to alter a venue to better support your event.

Okay, blah blah blah “performing.” Isn’t that for music and theater? I’m a writer! A reading is not The X Factor!”

Quite right: a reading is NOT live music, nor is it theater. It’s its own animal.
But right now it has mange.
So, after fundamentals, we’ll take a look at the concept of performance itself. Because we can’t hope to improve The Public Reading without addressing the many issues listed above.

Included in all this will be various ways to engage a crowd (no gimmicks); the benefits of a “setlist;” how to practice…
Basically, how to punch the world in the face with the greatness that is your written work.
Or, if you prefer: how to give a reading that supports your craft.

Start Talking.

Meanwhile, I need your Comment Love!
What have you loved about readings you’ve attended? What have you hated?
Do you have any hilarious/embarrassing Reading stories? (Note: You may want to change names to protect the innocent)

What do you want to know? What would help you as a reader?
What would help your organization, university, series?

Summing Up.

My unorthodox arrival in The Literary Realm makes me eager to explore the perceived gulf between it and the (supposedly) Non-Literary world that is my home.

I’m starting us off with Public Readings…
More literary/poetry conventions – as seen from outside – are coming soon. Feel free to send suggestions!

Until then, here’s to words on the page, to words on the breath, and to you and your welcome comments below.

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