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Read Better Now Damn It! 5 Tips to a Better Literary Reading

Just eleven days ago, as I squirmed before delivering my commencement address, the professor who introduced me mispronounced my name. Then, I stood in front of friends, family, professors and those who showed up for the free food, and I began my speech about my experience on graduating from an MFA program in creative writing. Public speaking is nerve-wracking anytime, but attempting to represent my class with words behind a fancy podium in a wacky graduation robe and funky square hat made everything feel that much more chaotic. Still, all in all, my speech went well.

To bring in the News Year’s vibe and my personal goal to put myself into the blogosphere more in 2010, and hopefully inspire you to get your voice heard in all forms, I thought I would throw out some observations I have had about public speaking, and specifically the dreaded literary reading – when a writer gets up in front of an audience and reads their original work.

Photo by Gina Found

Photo by Gina Found

One thing is clear, most people are terrified of those 15 minutes in front of a live audience – and it shows. Seeing someone rush, stammer, and fidget through unrehearsed material, never looking up from the page to interact with the listeners, can drag down even the best of writing. Sound painful? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Actually it can be kind of fun. Here is what has helped take my fear out of any public reading. I hope it does the same for you.

1. Breath. When your name is called and you walk to the front of the room, under dim lighting with a spotlight in your face, make sure you are breathing. While this seems obvious, I have walked up to a podium and not checked in with myself, and forced out a shallow squeak of a voice. Once I know that I am nervous, it is all down hill, at least until I start breathing.

2. Know that 15 minutes passes quickly: No matter how terrible you are, no matter if you crap in your pants and stutter out nine words before blacking out (what I expect will happen to me), time marches on. You will not be awful forever. There is a definite time limit. So you might as well try to kick ass. Even better is that most of us have been trained to applaud at the end. So while you are lying there on the floor, laying there in your own filth, expect to hear the audience clapping encouragement anyway. They will think it is performance art.

3. Use 16-point font: It is easy to get into the habit of a 12-point font because that is what we as writers probably write in. However, when you are nervous, those letters get even smaller when trying to read. It is much easier to get lost with all those lines if you lift your eyes away from the page. To fix this I print out my readings in 16-point font. I also use “landscape” (versus portrait) and double space everything. I have found it is easier to keep track of where I am with fewer words and lines to follow. This means that I feel more comfortable looking away from the page to engage the folks I am speaking. Yes, this does mean more page turning, but this has never been an issue, especially when following the next suggestion.

Photo by Gina Found

Photo by Gina Found

4. Read slowly: I have seen a lot of writers attempt to power through nerves by powering through their words, keeping their eyes on the page and reading as quickly as possible. This is usually when my eyelids start getting really heavy if I am in the audience. Reading fast might be a benefit for a brief action sequence but never makes sense when reading an emotional section, one that requires some rise and fall, and space for audience reaction. It also eliminates mistakes of the tongue from speaking to quickly. I read slowly enough to articulate my words and give my audience enough room to catch as much as possible.

5. Know what you are reading: I try to practice my reading 50 times (always aloud and a couple of times in front of a mirror) before doing it for real. I think I heard this advice originally from Tananarive Due (who is a killer reader by the way). Lots of practice allows me to really know my material and memorize chunks that can be delivered to my audience comfortably and consciously and gives me the most opportunities to talk with my audience versus talking at them.

Of course, there are a few other ideas I use when preparing for a literary reading, but most of them are just compulsive fine-tuning, which still may make its way on TWL one day. For now these five suggestions get me to my overall goal, which is to connect with the audience and create moments to take chances: do voices, break the fourth wall, talk directly to the audience about what a knucklehead I am or ask them where is the best place to get chili fries before returning to my reading. I hope these suggestions work for you as well – and best of luck at your next reading.

I was thinking about adding an audio file of a recent reading. Let me know if you’re into it.

By the way, we are offering free stuff here without any B.S.

5 Comments

  1. I remember some of these tips from BOC during the college days but you’ve added some interesting extras. I find, being from the A.D.D generation, colored markers help at a quick glance both on my desk calandar and on words on stage when I’m singing.
    Oh yeah, what happened to the old “picture the audience naked”… I think I saw Homer Simpson use this in an episode.

  2. Hey Mitch,

    Good tip.

    I also remember the “audience naked” one too. In fact, I remember it from the Brady Bunch, but everyone was in their “underwear.” While I love the advice, and its concept (because it is hilarious. thanks for bringing it up), I don’t think it is really helpful.

    For me, all I want to do is not stutter or lose consciousness while reading. Trying to keep track of those I want to see naked and not see naked is a complicated idea, which just fills my plate even more when trying to concentrate on other things. However, I like the notion that we are all equal when we are naked and leveling the playing field that way, but I think this needs to be done before going on stage. Still, I am always down with Homer!

  3. It was a great talk, and I especially love these photos…when humor reigns it all balances out…I HATE those hats, they make me look like an alien waiting for take off…

  4. Hey Alma,

    Yes, the hats are the pits and almost as unflattering as the boxy velvet gown.

  5. Thanks, Devin. This is great. Among others, I love this line: “You will not be awful forever.” That’s such a freeing concept. And I think I could use this mantra for more than just public readings…

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