Quick story from the first day of my first fiction-writing class in college. As if I wasn't already a sorry bundle of self-doubting, identity crisis-worn nerves (e.g., What am I doing here? I haven't written fiction since I was ten", "I'm no good at this", "Am I insane?", etc.), the professor decided to preface the course material with some hardcore advice on the tasks that come with being a writer—aside from, of course, the writing part. It was all good and well-meaning—if tough-loving—and I'm sure he had no intention of instantly incinerating whatever confidence I still had at the moment. But as soon as he brought up self-promotion, I felt doomed:
"Remember," he said (rather cheerfully, I think). "Just because you're a writer doesn't mean you can get away with being a hermit all the time. If you're going to make it as a writer and sell your work, you have to promote yourself in public. Give readings. Go to writers' workshops. Network with other authors and publishers..."
In other words, public speaking. That rocked me to my introverted core. As the class continued, I immediately started pondering if it was too late to drop out and find a major that didn't require conversation skills.
Thankfully, I didn't drop out. And thankfully, as I've gained more confidence and friendships in the writing field, the idea of networking doesn't terrify me as much as it did in undergrad. But public speaking—specifically, readings—that's still complicated for me. I've only done a handful of them (and I'm sure the lack of practice doesn't help), and each time I dread it. It's true that, over the years, I've become better at conversing with strangers (working receptionist-esque jobs does wonders for that); even presentations in classroom settings are comfortable now, thanks to nine years of higher education. Yet the idea of a public reading or speech—of being in the spotlight—doesn't sit well with me. It goes against my introverted instincts of being the observer, the absorber, the quiet support in the background. Being the center of attention is not exactly my idea of fun.
Despite all of this, I do love readings—attending them, anyway. I also recognize their importance, necessity even, in the writing world. They put a face to a literary work, bringing in a human element, a personal element, that's sometimes missed on the written page (powerful as it is). That's not to say the writer's soul (to use a bold term) can't be found privately in the written format; if it couldn't, that person wouldn't be a writer. But I think witnessing an author share their own work aloud, in their own voice (writing is, after all, rooted in spoken language), renews the appreciation of that writing as something organic, something that stirs from within. In some ways, it's like the difference in listening to a recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and seeing a live orchestra perform it: both are beautiful, both can impact us deeply, but nothing reminds us of the miracle of music like a seeing a group of finite, flawed human beings bring it to life. I suspect that's why so much of the history of storytelling is rooted in oral tradition, and why audiobooks are gaining popularity in the 21st century. We like enactment; we like stories that are personally, viscerally shared. When I had the privilege of seeing Chika Unigwe read from On Black Sister Street, it pierced through the fact that her novel isn't just fiction, but the devastating reality of millions of trafficked women, and of women she met face-to-face. We still need the private, quiet, reflective sharing of solitary reading, of course—much more, I'd argue, especially in this loud and busy world. But, along with their marketable strategies of self-promotion, public readings are also good reminders of the communal life of stories.
|Diane Ackerman reading at The Universe in Verse (Academy of American Poets)|
Of course, my love of readings doesn't make it any easier to participate in one. I've been in two in the last few months: my MFA program's Thesis Reading, and a poetry open mic at my local library. The first I prepared for months, reciting in my living room, even taking voice lessons and some coaching in public speaking. I imagined, maybe, that some minimal training in voice projection would result in a magical, Hollywood-like breakthrough of empowered speaking, à la "The King's Speech." And did it? Nope. When I got in front of my family and peers to read an excerpt of my novel, my voice was still shaky, and my attempts at dramatic reading (voice acting, anyone?) were still awkward. The open mic event I prepared for with the opposite approach—that is, no preparation whatsoever. I didn't even decide which poem to read until five minutes before going up to the podium. (Billy Collins's "Snow Day," by the way—ironic for a scorching June afternoon.) Again: shaky voice, awkward phrasing, and not even a group of familiar faces to reassure me. In short, I'm not emerging as a great orator any time soon.
But here's the thing: even though I suck, and even though all my fears about how those readings would go came true, I don't regret participating. I loved doing them. I had fun doing them. In the moment, I had no qualms about leaping outside my comfort zone or making an idiot of myself in front of dozens of people, because I was too busy enjoying the material, and enjoying the act of sharing it. And that's just plain bizarre, coming from a self-conscious introvert—the girl who, just a few years ago, would have literally rather died than embarrass herself in public. Some of that contrast is from personal growth: it's the result of a long, hard road to embrace my flawed self and not care so much about what others think, even in public situations. (I mean, I still get easily embarrassed, but my self-worth is no longer tied to making a good impression.) But think it also has to do with what I'm presenting during a reading: literature, poetry, stories. Things I love and am passionate about. In her introvert manifesto Quiet, my hero Susan Cain explains why this distinction makes all the difference:
"It's easier to take risks in the service of something or someone you really care about. Professor Brian Little speaks of our 'core personal projects' — the projects and people we place at the center of our lives. What and who are these for you? Once you've identified them, don't even think in terms of risk or not-risk. Just think in terms of how do you accomplish your goals."
|Post-Thesis Reading photo with fellow graduates, professors, and MFA colleagues.|
I'm not perfect. But I can deal with the awkwardness, even the failure of public readings, because my passion for what I'm reading aloud—be it a story I've worked hard on, or my favorite poem—exceeds my social anxiety about reading it well. It makes a reading feel less about me, and more about this beautiful, soul-stirring art form. Reading, then, becomes an act of sharing, not displaying. And believe it or not, people notice that authenticity. I had not only peers, but complete strangers come up to me after my thesis reading to thank me for sharing such an important and difficult subject matter as mental illness. After the open mic experience, one woman leaned over and asked to hear again Collins's opening line: Today we woke up to a revolution of snow. I think she could hear how much I adored that line, which sent her adoring it, too. It reminded me that readings are conversations—a dialogue over a mutual passion. Reading well or professionally is secondary to reading with love.
I have a long way to go as an orator. But for something as wonderful as writing, I'm willing to undergo the stumbling blocks, and the dozens or hundreds more less-than-stellar readings. So long as I get to share literature with people who cherish it as much as I do.