read me a story… no, wait, don’t

“Readings can be tricky affairs,” Irish author Aidan Higgins wrote. “There’s nothing more calculated to cause a gritting of the teeth, a shudder of the spirit or even a rising of the gorge than to be voluntarily confined in a Function Room to endure an hour-long ranting by the author in person, of predigested matter now regurgitated, delivered in a monotonous drone. It is enough to make a cat laugh or a dog throw up.”

So begins a piece by Douglas Bell in Saturday’s Globe, in which he goes on to wonder why readers “…who experience the writer’s work as an entirely private matter turn out in such numbers to experience it again as a public performance?”

Good question, though I’m glad they do. While it’s true that a bad reading can make you look around for something tall to jump off, a well executed one can be great fun, enhancing the private read and giving another dimension to the work. Also, not everyone at a reading has read the book; for many it’s their introduction. This is a good thing, no? People who haven’t read it are likelier to buy it. Which is why I can’t understand authors who don’t make the most of these events by making it an event rather than a dry reading. How hard is it to offer up a little background to the story, for instance? A bit of chat. A merry anecdote or two about the research or the way such and such a character wouldn’t take no for an answer. Anything.

Granted, public speaking and/or reading is an art and some people are just easier with it than others (recently heard Claudia Dey ‘do’ How to Become a Bush Pilotnow there’s an event; and the first time I heard Ann-Marie MacDonald, well, you forget she’s reading, you think you’ve bought tickets to a one woman play) still… readers seem to fall into three categories.

1/ Naturally brilliant (usually meaning they’ve taken the time to prepare and treat the whole business in a professional manner even if they appear ultra casual).

2/ Naturally enervating (often due to an over-infatuation with one’s own voice).

3/ Naturally somewhere between brilliant and enervating (a tolerable scenario, but why not, with just a soupcon of effort, be so much more… I mean we can all read the stuff ourselves… what the audience wants is not to hear the words but to experience the book through the experience of the author).

I say all this as if I know what I’m talking about. As if I spend my days poncing about entertaining the masses. Pay no attention. Just random thoughts on how maybe to enhance a fairly essential aspect of the The Process, for both reader and listener.    

Additions to the list would be welcome!

—  use a mic if you’re a soft speaker or if the room warrants it; it’s a rotten business to have to strain to hear

—  unless you’re reading a whole short story (in which case, dear god, please make it short) let the audience know a bit about the overall premise of the piece/book

—  best not to read the dullest bit even if it has the cleverest words; action is good, humour is best

—  mark up places to pause, and then pause there (you will not come off looking like a dork, honest)

—  slow down; however slowly you think you’re reading… slow down

—  preface and/or break up the reading with those afore-mentioned bon mots and asides to the audience

— leave time for questions, and have a few favourites from past readings that you can share to get things started

Finally, as an audience member, pack a few general questions— even if we haven’t read the book we can ask about the subject matter, or what inspired the writer to begin the project. It’s always so painful when no one raises their hand for the first five minutes. Heart-breaking if it goes on any longer.

Happy reading, happy listening.

Let’s see… I think I’ll start with the bruschetta…

5 thoughts on “read me a story… no, wait, don’t

  1. Also: nervousness is good if you can channel it into performance energy. And remember to look up from the page every now and then. When I was starting to read poetry in public (in my long lost 20s), I once asked someone how to tell if an audience is reacting to a poem. She said to look into into their eyes to see if their pupils were dilating. I tried it and realized it was just her way of telling me to make eye contact. These days I sometimes can’t see my audience (because of lighting or the blurriness of my reading glasses), but I always try to remember to acknowledge them with some eye contact. Public reading of a story should be something of a conversation. One-sided though it may seem, it’s not. A reader feeds off an attentive audience’s energy.

    1. An excellent point. I’ve never thought of that, but it immediately puts me in mind of a reading I attended recently where every time the author looked directly at me I ‘woke up’ a little more, tuned in (if indeed I had tuned out). Makes it feel very personal.

      As a reader, I tend to avoid looking at the audience, almost pretend they aren’t there; not sure I could do the eye contact thing comfortably, but I’m curious so I’ll give it a try next time I have the chance; egad, I’m nervous already… ;)

  2. As a reader, eye contact helps me slow down (one of your very good points) and wakes me up a bit, as it does you as a listener. I think it makes the whole experience a bit more intimate for everyone involved. And though the idea makes you nervous, just keep in mind that the audience wants you to look at them. Look at them as a group, but don’t be afraid to single out certain audience members in the front and farther back. I believe the whole audience senses that intimacy and feels the connection too.

    It might help you to get over your nervousness to know what your eye contact is communicating to the audience. It is saying: “I have a story to tell you” (rather than “I have a book to promote”), which makes it a natural extension of the writing itself. Personally, that’s what I want from a reading, as opposed to little anecdotes about the book. Keep in mind, what makes Anne-Marie MacDonald a terrific reader is her acting ability. I think it might not be a bad idea for a writer to work with an acting coach, just to get that sense of a performance.

    On the other hand, Alistair McLeod’s reading is nothing at all like a performance (not in the Anne-Marie sense), but is incredibly mesmerizing in the way his words move so naturally through him. He allows the power of the words do all the work (which is advice I once got from an acting teacher).

    What an audience wants to witness most of all is a writer’s connection with his/her words and that is something that comes with doing as many readings as you can.

    By the way, nice pic.

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