I gave my first public reading in 2002. I stood on a stage in Culver City, California and read my piece “Working Wood.” Another classmate read that night, too – and sadly, I cannot remember who that person was – but the “guest reader” that night was Gayle Brandeis, winner of the Bellwether Prize for her wonderful novel The Book of Dead Birds. Since that time, Gayle and I have become friends, and I consider it a great honor that my first reading was accompanied by her powerful words and soft, gentle spirit.
At Antioch, every student got trained on how to give a reading, and every student was required to read as a qualification for graduation. Another example of Antioch’s wisdom in preparing writers for the real world.
So last Friday, when I gave my first reading at a bookstore, I tried to call forth all the lessons from Antioch and all the strength of Gayle as I read from my work. I fumbled over my words a bit, and I may have picked a chapter that was too long for the setting. But I did remember to look up every once in a while and to inflect my voice with the meaning of the words. People said I did okay.
As always, I felt most comfortable in the Q and A. A decade of teaching has taught me to be more at ease with the extemporaneous conversation than with notes. Plus, it’s my favorite thing to see people connect with the stories on these pages, to watch the people who honored me with their presence learn about the people whose lives I am honored to know and write about.
I get a thrill every time someone buys The Slaves Have Names, but when I get to read from the book or talk with people face-to-face about these amazing individuals, it’s as if every face in the audience and every face I imagine on the page is looking at me and giving me a little nod. . . . yes, yes, Andi, it’s good you did this. We’re glad to hear and be heard.
My time at Antioch, my observations of authors’ readings I’ve attended, and my experiences speaking and reading have helped me learn a few things about this practice.
1. Practice. Practice. and Practice some more. Read through the selections you have chosen out loud, standing up, in front of someone who loves you. Read through it out loud in the bathroom. Read through it in the subway station. Read through it out loud several times. You want to catch the place you’ll stumble in private, not in front of your audience.
2. Keep water on hand. On Friday night at New Dominion, both the wonderful events coordinator and my husband had water for me. And when I finished reading, I took a huge swig to keep my mouth moist so that I could be understood. Then, I used the water as a way to pause and think when people asked me questions. It’s a natural way to give yourself space to pull your thoughts together, and it’ll keep you from choking up . . . mostly.
3. Don’t just read. Absolutely, people come to hear you read a passage from your work, but they also want to know some of the story of what you’ve written. So be sure to introduce the book, explain why you wrote it, set up the section you’re going to read a bit, and then take questions after. Connect with the people there: look them in the eye, thank them for their questions, respond honestly and kindly to everything they ask.
4. Show up early. There’s nothing worse than feeling rushed when you’re about to read because then your mouth gets even drier and your pulse quicker, and when it comes time to read, you sound rushed and a little frantic. Give yourself time – I recommend a half-hour or more – to settle into the place. Take a look at the room where you’ll be reading, get a sense of where people will be sitting. Be prepared to set up your own book display and project if need be. Then, a few minutes before the talk starts, sit down and rest. If you are in the room with your audience, use your book as a shield to keep you from chatting too much and losing focus. People aren’t likely to talk with you if you look focused in preparation.
5. Be yourself. Most of the time, when we go to readings, we are going because we love the writer’s work and, thus, think we love the writer. So when you read or speak, give the audience what they want to see – your work and YOU. Maybe you’re soft spoken but sharp witted – okay, then use a microphone and be funny. Maybe you’re pretty serious and a tad bit sarcastic – then let that show. Nothing is worse than trying to hold up a facade and answer questions honestly. So drop the mask and just be yourself. Your audience will appreciate that.
So what makes you excited or nervous about reading or speaking in public? Seasoned readers, what other advice would you offer?