I’ve been working with yet another fabulous Converse College low-res MFA thesis student this semester, and she’s preparing for her graduating student reading in January. What advice do I have for her…and, really, for all writers who read from their work? (All of this is IMHO, of course.)
1. The main thing is to stay within the time limit. Everyone assumes that they’re the writer who is soooo good they can go an extra five or twenty minutes, but believe me, hardly anyone is that writer. I can remember three specific writers I could sit and listen to forever…and that’s three out of how many hundreds of readings I’ve attended? Stay in your time limit—and be responsible about it, too. I hate when someone claims not to have a watch or a phone with a clock feature, or when they clearly haven’t timed their reading, and so they look up and say to the audience, “I’m not sure how much time is left. Should I keep going?” Who’s going to say, “No,” to that…besides me, I mean? Know your time limit and know how much you can comfortably read—including the patter and/or intro—in that time.
2. Easing into the reading with a charmingly amusing remark is nice, though I once saw a poet get to the mike, announce the title of her poem them immediately read it, and because it was a thrilling poem and because she was an excellent reader, that was memorable. But after that opening, she went into some between-poem patter. People like to have a sense of the person behind the words. Also, it’s hard to absorb so much “literature” in one swoop. I saw a different poet read, and she took absolutely no breaks between the poems she read except to say the title, and that was overwhelming and difficult to listen to.
3. I don’t know how poets choose poems to read, but it seems as though there may be common themes, or there may be a variety of styles and subject matter. Frankly, I don’t know how poets do a lot of what they do…they amaze me! For fiction writers, though, if you have something funny, that’s good. If you don’t, that’s fine, too. I like to try to have a scene that feels complete (or as complete as possible) within the time limit, with a beginning-middle-end and where something concrete happens. Think “narrative”: try to find a story, even if it’s just a small part of your larger novel. If possible, I also like to choose something that doesn’t require very much set-up.
4. Some writers advise avoiding reading scenes with too much dialogue. It can be hard to sort out which character says what. But I write a lot of dialogue, and I survive reading it at my readings. Don’t do funny voices when you read dialogue unless you’re one of the three writers who can carry that off, and I’m betting you’re not.
5. For God’s sake, dress up! Or dress in a way that makes you feel confident and yet is comfortable. Be respectful of the audience. Be mindful that even if you wear a ratty T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, the audience will have an image of you selecting that exact ratty T-shirt and will know that for whatever reason, you’ve decided to present yourself as a ragamuffin. Can’t you simply look presentable for this one time?
6. No jangly jewelry. I take off my bracelet because it can knock against the podium.
7. The requisite water bottle. Always bring your own, in case the organizers aren’t organized (which they often aren’t). I try not to drink from it while reading, but if you must, go ahead and do so confidently. If you can, try to drink during a natural break in the story or between poems. Situate the bottle in a safe place so the audience won’t become mesmerized, wondering when it will spill.
8. Stand still. Stop swaying behind the podium. Don’t shift your weight from side to side. Don’t cling to the sides of the podium as if it’s the only thing holding you up unless it is.
9. I do my drinking after, not before (or during), but this is a matter of personal preference. Just remember that red wine can stain your teeth and tongue purple.
10. Can you please-please-please-please-please not flip through a thousand pages, poets? Can you please buy these things called “stickies”? Can you stick them on the pages of the poems you want to read? Can you even write a number on them, so you know the order of the poems you will be reading? If we wanted to watch people flip through pages, we’d stare at the cheapskates standing around the magazine section at Barnes & Noble.
11. Practice your reading exactly enough times so that you feel comfortable with it (and the timing of it) but not so many times that you’re totally bored with it. Remember that listening to something is different than encountering it on the page. Prose writers: it’s okay to make adjustments and/or deletions to lines, words, and/or paragraphs for clarity.
12. Make eye contact. Speak slowly. You are probably talking faster than you think, especially if you live on the East Coast, so speak more slowly than you think you need to speak. Practice in front of an honest friend who can tell you if you’re talking too fast. On the other hand, if you live in the south, you may be speaking more slowly than you think. Where’s that honest friend?
13. Speaking of your honest friend…you might ask someone you know in the audience to signal you if you’re too quiet/too fast/too something you’re worried about. You might also ask this friend to be ready to ask the first question—an easy one!—in the Q&A if no one else speaks up.
14. I hate microphones, mostly because I’m sort of afraid of them. If I can, I try to stand at it before the event to see how it works. (An advantage to arriving early.) Also, I loudly announce, “I’m afraid of microphones,” and someone always volunteers to assist and take charge of it for me.
15. I like 14-point fonts. Easy to read if there’s not enough light. Not so big that I’m flipping the page every two seconds. Of course, I’m old, with fading eyesight. If 8-point works for you, go for it. Binder clips or paper clips are better than staples because you can remove them. And I often follow along with my finger running along the page. I hope I’m doing that subtly, but maybe not. Oh, well.
16. Thank everyone for coming. They all have better things to do, but they’re at this reading instead. They deserve thanks and maybe cake afterwards, also.
17. Take a deep breath right before you start. Hold it a moment longer than you think, then let it out slowly. Pause. The audience will now be riveted, their attention focused on you. Begin.
18. Have fun.