How to Give a Good Reading (or, What We Talk About When We Talk About a Good Reading)
Katherine Perry | August 2002
I recently attended a reading by a well-known writer-we'll call him Mr. Long Wind-sponsored by the Midwestern University in my town. To set the scene, the hall was packed, audience members-and not just the usual required students-spilled out of the doorways, sat on the floor, stood near the windows. This particular writer attracted a large following outside of the literature and writing disciplines. It was, in short, a big event for the department, the university, and the town.
In his introduction, Mr. Long Wind told us that he had just changed his topic over the course of dinner that same evening. He had decided to combine two topics.
Never a good sign, I thought.
We were in for a long night.
And a long night it was. Mr. Long Wind read for over an hour and a half, interspersing a lecture with selections from his new memoir-the beginning, middle, and end. The sponsoring committee, I'm sure, got their money's worth. No one needed to buy the writer's new memoir, however, now that we knew the entire story. By the time the reading was over, it was not just the students who scrambled hurriedly to exit the hall.
We all have similar experiences: the graduate school or open mic reading where five minutes stretches into fifteen; the introduction that is lengthier than the keynote address; the monotonous tone that sends audience members snoring; even the recent reading where, much to the disappointment of the audience, we could not hear the soft-spoken writer. Anecdotes of embarrassing or disastrous public speaking and reading engagements could be an entire separate article-a book, even.
As writers and academics, we have all sat through our fair share of these lectures, speeches, and readings. We have perfected (we hope) an attentive, insightful gaze desig- ned to convey our maximum attention, while in reality we may be planning our next lesson plan or grocery list. It is events like those described above that bring it-sometimes painfully-into focus: writing well does not necessarily equal an ability to read well. You may be an award-winning, well-published, dynamic writer, but what makes a good reader?
We may teach classes, or speak up in classes as students, but giving a reading is different. Beginning writers and readers, in particular, need practice and need to communicate effectively-not just during the reading itself, but also while planning the details of the event.
Some presses, such as Sarabande Books, work with authors going out on book tours. While they don't formally offer advice to their authors, they do informally offer tips and advice, which according to Nickole Brown, Sarabande's Director of Mark- eting, changes given the temperament of the author.
Remember, too, that it is not just the readers themselves who are responsible for the success-or lack thereof-of a particular reading. "Reading coordinators can make readings successful," says Rick Mulkey, who, as director of creative writing at Converse College in South Carolina, frequently organizes campus readings.
Mulkey reminds coordinators organizing a reading that "if a college or organization invites a writer in to give a reading, treat that writer with respect." Again, this may seem obvious enough, but certain details can get overlooked in the process and excitement of the event. This means thoroughly advertising the reading; familiarizing the students attending the reading with the writer's work, including taking time beforehand so that they feel comfortable discussing the work; and having the writer's books available for sale.
David Stevens, who directs Seton Hall's Poetry-in-the-Round, notes that the common denominator of successful readings is mutual interest and reciprocation-of host, speaker, and audience members. "For this reason, the best readings I have attended (and organized) rarely involve speakers who make $30K per appearance and who attract literary groupies hoping only to touch the hem of their garments," Stevens says. "The best readings are often surprises given by lesser-known-even unknown-writers who are enthusiastic, show an awareness of their audience, and offer up writing that is fresh and vibrant."
Other details such as accommodations, publicity, and the venue are important elements of a successful reading and should also be taken care of before the day of the event, leaving both the reader and the host with less stress and eliminating any last-minute surprises. If you are organizing a reading, consider AWP's Reading Series, a literary booking agency. A large and diverse group of writers are available for readings, and AWP makes all the calls and arranges the contracts for the readings. AWP also sends a checklist to sponsors of an event; this is especially helpful if it is your first time organizing a reading (visit http://www.awpwriter.org/membership/ benefit.htm for more information on the Reading Series).
After attending enough readings and public speaking events, it becomes easy to separate the good from the bad, the loud from the quiet, the enunciators from the mumblers. Remember, though, that what works for one writer and one audience may not work for another writer or audience; you have to find what works best for you. Here, then, is a list of suggestions for giving a successful reading:
Know your audience
Is the audience made up of academics, faculty outside of your department, or members of the community? Will there be students required to attend, or undergraduates furiously scribbling notes for a report? Is this an audience that would be receptive to a humorous piece, something dramatic, or something poetic?
Gauge your audience and try to bring the appropriate piece. Also, consider variety, and give the audience some breathing room between their laughter or tears. "One of the biggest mistakes new poets make when giving readings, especially those who are still students or who have only started reading publicly," says Mulkey, "is to read the same kind of poem over and over. Audiences need those hills and valleys."
Know your allotted time
This is a big one, as evidenced from the introductory anecdote about Mr. Long Wind. Think of teasers in magazines that draw you into an article: Always leave them wanting more. Ever heard of the expressions "less is more,"short and sweet?" They are popular expressions for a reason: make sure the audience hears just enough to want to read-or in the best case scenario, actually buy your book-not enough to know the entire story.
Don't irritate the audience or your hosts by going over the allotted time. This is especially important if you are reading with other writers. At my MFA graduate reading, for example, two out of ten readers stuck to their five-minute time slots. This meant the program stretched well over two hours-which is a lot to ask from any audience, particularly one made up of family members and out-of-town guests. While I'm sure the long-winded readers' parents thought they were fascinating, the rest of the audience stifled (or in some cases, failed to stifle) yawns.
Organize your material
Does the selection require any introductory remarks or a summary, say, about what happens to the characters prior to where you begin reading? Or are you reading in an order that will require some sort of explanation? Remember: don't feel compelled to read from beginning to end. There is no need to explain the entire novel in detail, but do make sure the audience members know where you-and they-stand.
Organization of your material is essential, according to Mulkey. If you are reading several poems or selections, choose the order carefully. "Think of the organization of a reading as you might think of the organization of a book, or even the way a symphony is arranged with several movements and tones," he says. "David Baker, for instance, gave a marvelous reading at Converse that people still talk about. I think one of the reasons it was so memorable is because his reading guided the audience through a series of movements, everything from the humorous to the tragic."
If you have never read your selection out loud before, practice reading the piece you have chosen. Does it actually take you five minutes, or does reading five pages take you longer? Time it and find out before you get to the event.
For creative writers, reading work aloud is imperative, and not just for public speaking. You can hear the music-or awkwardness-of your own writing easily this way, and it is one strategy to revise a piece. Do you catch on a word, a sentence, a paragraph? Do you find troublesome or tongue-twisting words and phrases? If you don't change them, Brown recommends noting these trouble spots on the manuscript you're reading from, in order to make the necessary adjustments. "Once you're up there," she says, "you have a tendency to forget everything."
Also, get a sense of when you should either slow down or speed up. Most writers, Brown notes, have "a tendency to read too fast. I tell a lot of my authors to read slowly, almost to the point where she feels as if she's reading too slowly."
"Tape recording yourself while reading and listening to yourself can be helpful," says Brown. "This is essential in poetry, when you have to get the cadence in your work right, or what you intended might get lost."
Practice, practice, practice
Again, the more you try, the easier it gets. Avoid reading directly from the page. If you must read directly from the page, look up and make occasional eye contact to connect with the audience; you should know the material well enough to look up and see the audience's reaction.
According to Stevens, new writers are not alone, both in their nervous habits and in their need for more public speaking experience. "The biggest mistakes that new writers make at readings are the same mistakes made by all people unaccustomed to public speaking (who] generally act like scared rabbits," Stevens says. "Unfortunately there is no great remedy for this problem except experience, though all of the normal nerve-calming techniques can help: taking a deep breath before beginning, making a joke, picturing an audience naked (though I've found this approach to be dodgy at academic gatherings), and so forth."
Find alternative speaking or reading venues
The more you practice public speaking in alternative venues, the more confidence and experience you gain. Seek out opportunities on your campus or institution or in the local bookstore or community, and volunteer. Find ways to give presentations to faculty members and students at your institution. Graduate students often have their own reading/open mic opportunities; these are often smaller, less formal, student-friendly events that allow you to get involved and get used to reading in front of an audience. Many campuses also have communications or teaching centers where you can get some coaching on public speaking.
If you don't have such a program at your institution, talk to your department about establishing one, even if it is a series of brief seminars. For students, this is invaluable preparation for life after graduation; students can only benefit from the series of conference interviews, panels, and readings they have to look forward to. For teachers, this is also a good chance to practice, revisit, and refine your own skills, and, of course, to share your knowledge, tips, and horror stories.
Before you give the reading, ask the host or sponsor if there will be time for a question-and-answer session at the end. If you do not feel comfortable with Q&A time, let this person know ahead of time.
If you do take questions, repeat or rephrase the questions in front of the microphone so that the rest of the audience knows exactly what you are responding to. Remember that audience members look forward to this brief time to learn about your personal writing habits. (It's your time for hero worship-enjoy it.)
Visit the venue
This is another way to eliminate surprise and, hopefully, anxiety. While it may sound obvious, Mulkey notes that considering the physical space where the reading will occur is something many writers overlook. "Just as certain theatrical performances work better on certain stages or arenas, a reading, and the writing chosen for that reading, can be enhanced by considering the space," he says. If nothing else, seeing the arrangement of space should make the reader as comfortable with the surroundings as possible.
The arrangement, of course, varies from writer to writer. When Carolyn Forché visited Converse, according to Mulkey, she moved the podium to the stage of the auditorium and dimmed the lights in the audience, thereby enhancing the dramatic presentation of her poems. A few months later, he set up the auditorium the same way for Linda Gregg's reading. Gregg, however, moved the podium to the floor and brought up the light level, which worked well for her intimate and personal poems.
Make sure the audience can hear you
This seems obvious enough, but often because of the nervous energy and intensity of the beginning moments of a reading, it's forgotten. There is nothing worse than attending the reading of favorite authors and not being able to hear their words. For the reader, this is easily done by testing the mic in the beginning and asking the audience if people in the back can hear. For those of you in the audience, this is your chance to speak up: if you can't hear, raise your hand or signal to let the reader or host know. While this may be a brief intrusion to the reading, it's better than sitting through a reading not hearing a word, isn't it?
Practice your reading etiquette
Mind your manners: this relates to several of the categories above. But it never hurts to remind a fun-loving bunch of creative writers to respect the reader and the audience.
A few things for the reader and the audience: Please don't chew gum while reading. Please don't shuffle papers while someone else is reading. If you must arrive late, try to make as unobtrusive an entrance as possible. This goes the same way for your exit: Don't leave during the middle of the reading. And, need we be reminded, keep the cell phone at home.
It never hurts to think of your reading as a performance and have some fun. It all comes down to this: for as many painful readings as we can remember suffering through, there are just as many-if not more-fabulous, compelling readings that we did not want to end. And wouldn't you want everyone to remember your reading, like David Baker's at Converse, because it was so enthralling-not because you read on and on and on?
James Ellroy is just one writer who comes to mind for delivering a knock-your-socks-off reading; he grabs the audience from the very beginning. Keep in mind that writers, however, are not expected to be actors. If Ellroy's in-your-face approach isn't exactly your style, no worries; a subtle approach also demands a stellar performance in its own way.
Why do these readings make such an impression? What, after all, makes them more memorable than others? Perhaps the quality of the writing; perhaps the writer gave us a witty or teary performance we won't soon forget; perhaps the writer kept us glued to our seats, waiting for the next word, the next breath; perhaps after hearing those very words come alive from the page, we knew, for the first time, that we wanted to-that we had to-be writers.
What happens after all the practice and preparation? What next? "Readers need to know that mistakes can and will happen, and they need-within reason-to bear up with as much good grace as possible," Stevens says. "I have given readings where only three people were in attendance, and I have seen far better writers than myself-Robert Coover, Billy Collins, Alicia Ostriker, and Peter Carey, among others-give bang-up readings under less than perfect conditions. Let's face it: as literary people we generally don't garner the adoring throngs enjoyed by movie stars or pro athletes. We give readings to advance the cause of our art (and, when lucky, to earn a modest honorarium). That should be enough."
So relax, take a deep breath, and find out what works best for you. Whatever your next public speaking event-whether it be a guest lecture, a reading, or a presentation for an interview-you can gain the confidence and skills to make it a success through practice. You might even have the audience laughing in the aisles-and not because of some mistake on your part. They may think they've spent an evening more entertaining than watching must-see TV, and if you're really lucky, they just might buy your book. And next year, they may invite you back, because they can't stop talking about how compelling your reading was.
Katherine Perry holds an MFA in fiction from George Mason University. A former Publications Manager of AWP, she is now a writer and editor for University Relations at the University of Missouri System.