Reading Aloud

by Julie Wilson

I used to think that public readings alienated the writer from the audience because it infused too much performance into what should naturally leap from the page. Chances are, though, you’re going to end up reading your stuff out loud. And while as writers we may inhabit our characters, we’re not necessarily actors. Nonetheless, we should prepare as if we are.

I just gave my first public reading. More than the unconditional approval I so desperately crave, I was worried about my performance. Reading your own work is a luxury, and, when delivered well, a triumph. The last thing a writer wants to do is suggest anything less than they know what they’re doing; that they believe what they’re saying; that so should you, too. So I got into the practice of reading aloud while composing. The simple act of breathing, for instance, becomes an athletic feat for some of us the second we’re in front of a crowd. And it’s good to know your range, how far you can take a character, if you can sell sarcasm, if maybe you should cut back on the dairy to avoid words that really schmeck! Most of all, you want to appear comfortable. What reads on the page doesn’t always perform well. You might think it does, but it’s not always the case.

Par example. A few years ago, I turned up for an open audition of The Vagina Monologues. I was the only person to read from original material. I’d written a piece about my grandmother’s ovarian cancer, more specifically her catheter. (These things happen.) The day of, I panicked because I’d yet to read it aloud. Truth was, I’d been avoiding it. It was a powerful piece, but it was also about my grandmother’s hoo-ha, for crying out loud. I was embarrassed by my own writing. I convinced myself that I was a writer first, actor second, so I didn’t need to rehearse – the words would speak for themselves. I rushed through it, tripping each time over the “vagina” in my monologue, something flowery and delicate, lady of the landish. Finally I changed it, replacing it with something appropriate but harsh. When it came time to read, I had to keep my eyes from skimming ahead. Sure enough, I did a last-minute edit and out came “VAGINA!” I felt like all those kids in all those quiet places who suddenly shout out words we didn’t know they knew. And, the thing is, the audience has to live with those decisions longer than we do. I got to go home and deal with the compromise I’d made, but it was the casting director who had my vagina ringing in his head for the rest of the day‚Ķ to speak. Point is, your audience shouldn’t have to do the work for you. Don’t ask them to compensate for your awkwardness. If you’re ill at ease with something, they’re going to know it. Our words are powerful. They move. Nothing wrecks that pleasure more than hastily chosen wording or false emotions.

If you have any doubt about the potential of language, go listen to a sound poet. It’s jazz, the way the voice becomes an instrument interpretting the text down to every last letter. Nonsensical. Guttural. Saucy. Lovely. There’s no denying it — writing begs to be read out loud. It’s exciting – invigorating – for both the author and audience. A rare glimpse into the purest core of your characters and scenery.

Love your words. It’s nice to imagine a reader curled up with your book and a cup of tea on a lazy Sunday morning. But, if you’re a reader like me, I love to pace the apartment, emptying myself of my last breath when I encounter a really great passage. You know what I’m talking about. When your lips start to form the words because you just have to know what it would sound like? Wouldn’t you like to elicit that same response in your reader? We all know what it feels like to have the flow of great text broken by a simple trip up in phrasing or dialogue. We want to hold the reader close for as long as possible. I swear, read your stuff out loud and you’ll catch all the imperfections, the mistakes you honestly didn’t mean to make. It’s too easy not to.

Most important, be prepared to have a blast. Do what needs to be done to win the favour of your audience. My reading ended up being in a back courtyard, off a main intersection, delivered from a stoop, by moonlight, sans mic, to a crowd of a few hundred, all hopped up on free beer, doughnuts and barbecue. And you know what? The crickets were louder than the audience. I shredded my vocal cords to keep them hanging on, and it paid off. Because I was prepared. I knew how to sell the piece and I ran with it. Be earnest and the audience will accept you. Remember, these words wouldn’t exist without your efforts. Do what you want with them. And give the folks a show!

Copyright 2003. Julie Wilson.

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