Don’t Be Brave
November 3, 2014 § 20 Comments
We’ve all been at that reading. The one where our fellow memoirist clears her throat, steps to the podium, and shares with us the graphic details of her sex life. Or molestation. Or domestic abuse.
We’ve all cringed that cringe. We’ve all felt I’m so sorry this happened to you, but maybe a roomful of strangers about to go eat dubious cheese cubes together is not the place. We’ve all thought, Can’t I just read this in your book, you know…later? We’ve all walked up after the reading and said, “Wow, that was so brave!”
And sometimes we’ve been that author. Possibly oblivious, possibly aware that suddenly the room has gone quiet in a not-good way and only our workshop leader is making supportive, professional eye contact.
But sometimes, that’s the piece you’ve gotta read.
So how can an author approach “difficult material” in a public reading, in a way that engenders applause and a wine-fueled craft discussion instead of people hugging you and offering their therapist’s number? Because “You were so brave!” is nice, but “I’ve never thought about it that way, and you wrote it magnificently!” is better.
1) Make sure your piece deals with drama in the moment and not just drama of situation. The Holocaust is drama of situation. It was terrible, sane people agree. The Diary of Anne Frank is about a group of people who don’t like each other very much trying to live in a small space, plus something horrible outside makes them keep doing it. Pick an essay or section that shows an action or a choice, not just the existence of a terrible situation.
2) Even if your piece is very sad, try to include a moment of humor. It can be black humor or wry humor or cynical humor, but even a single reasonably-funny sentence lets the audience breathe and reminds them that you’re in charge, you’ve processed this experience, you’ve crafted it into words and you can handle it.
3) Practice your intro along with your reading. Don’t thank everyone or you’ve effectively un-thanked the people you didn’t mention. Stay calm and positive in your intro to give the message, Don’t worry, I’ve got this.
4) Drill your reading until it’s a performance. Deliver it with power, with confidence, with eye contact. A vocally-weak or teary reading feels like a therapeutic confession. A strong reading–even with glistening eyes–ushers the listeners through your experience and surprises them on the other side with passion, joy, tragedy or enlightenment. Plan where to breathe and mark those places on your page. If you know there are parts where you choke up or tear up, plan to breathe right before them. If necessary, arrange with another writer in the audience that they will nod reassuringly when you look at them, for a mid-reading confidence boost.
5) End with power, not self-erasure. Choose a stopping point that shows your character making a choice or having taken an action that will lead (the listener hopes) to a positive outcome. Smile and say thank-you. Leave the audience with the message, I survived this and a lot more, to be here today–isn’t that amazing?
Writing our trauma can indeed be cathartic. Crafting our trauma lets us share it with strangers. And performing it with confidence and purpose helps us own it.
Don’t be ‘brave.’
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
Excellent advice. I’d never thought about it quite this way before! 🙂 Writing can certainly be therapy, but you’re right that the writing we send out into the world–especially at a reading!–shouldn’t be designed to help us in the same way a long, tear-filled talk with our best friend might. Our public writing and reading should be done not to get things off our chest or feel heard or consoled but to BRING something to the table, to give a gift to our audience. And you’ve given us some excellent, concrete ideas for how to make sure we do this. Thanks!
Thanks, Sharon! I know some of this stuff is basic, but I honestly think it helps the power of the experience come through.
It’s got to be about the story, the moment, not the topic. You’re so right. It’s not True Confessions. That’s too easy and exploitative.
Thanks – and I think delivering a vulnerable essay with power can have an even greater effect – it’s not so easy to just say, ‘oh, how sad.’
Reblogged this on CL Pauwels at Large and commented:
Excellent advice for those difficult readings. I have an anthologized essay I doubt I could get through in public, but I’ll keep this in mind.
I totally have pieces that I know I can’t make it through! But hey, one day 🙂
Reblogged this on The Readneck Review Blog and commented:
This is what scares me about being an “author”…. being around other “authors” too much. Thankfully I am truly awesome at being a blue collar hermit when it comes to literature. Its like a secret super hero disguise. Put on boots and blue jeans and an old Carhartt jacket and youre golden.
That and not living anywhere the cesspool of humanity that we call cities. That helps a lot.
Ive been reading a lot of Thomas Jefferson lately if thats not obvious by the last line…
Love this 🙂 I have to say, “reading me” feels like a secret identity!
This is what scares me about being an “author”…. being around other “authors” too much. Thankfully I am truly awesome at being a blue collar hermit when it comes to literature. Its like a secret super hero disguise. Put on boots and blue jeans and an old Carhartt jacket and youre golden.That and not living anywhere the cesspool of humanity that we call cities. That helps a lot.Ive been reading a lot of Thomas Jefferson lately if thats not obvious by the last line…
This great advice could also be adapted for reading poetry. While a poem might not contain humor or an “I’m ok” message in and of itself, the reader can establish the mood and tone of the overall reading by the way each poem is introduced, and the choice and order of the poems being read could also help assuage any feelings of “doom” in the audience.
Yes! Great point!
Reblogged this on Sarah Stockton and commented:
An excellent article n how to frame personal and emotionally difficult material in a public reading. This article addresses nonfiction but could also apply to fiction and poetry readings. In the comments I also wrote: “This great advice could also be adapted for reading poetry. While a poem might not contain humor or an “I’m ok” message in and of itself, the reader can establish the mood and tone of the overall reading by the way each poem is introduced, and the choice and order of the poems being read could also help assuage any feelings of “doom” in the audience.”
I don’t necessarily think that showing emotion during a reading is a bad thing (speaking as one who tends to feel vulnerable in any public presentation)and I think there’s something to be said for trusting your audience to handle it. But there is a balance between being present and being overwhelmed. This article says it well.
This is wonderful advice. I have done numerous readings and been to many others, and no matter how good a writer you are, there is a set of skills, different skills that have to be employed to do a memorable reading; memorable for all the right reasons. It’s not just about picking out a part of the book that’s dramatic and spitting it out, as you so elegantly remind us, Allison. Something compelling is essential, but humor and lightness are essential in a public forum. Even if it’s just a touch of it. Thanks, Allison, for reminding us how to do it right!
You’re welcome, and thanks for the positive feedback! You’re right – reading is a different set of skills and I think a lot of us shortchange those skills from fear or just don’t realize how important it can be.
Thanks for these valuable suggestions for public readings of “difficult material;” sound advice for any author reading.
Thanks Allison. I am reminded of some of your strong, fabulous, readings.
[…] 5) No comments about bravery, please. If someone chooses to write about a personal event and share it in a workshop, she doesn’t need you to tell her how brave she is—either for surviving the event or for sharing the story. You’re not in workshop to comment on the writer’s courage; you’re there to give feedback on her work. As a creative nonfiction writer, I never feel more squeamish or vulnerable as when someone encounters my work and tells me how “brave” I am. I don’t write to be brave. I write to create art. I’d much rather hear: “I’ve never thought about it that way, and you wrote it magnificently!” […]
[…] A while back, we both read Alison K. Williams’s essay “Don’t Be Brave” in Brevity. She talks about approaching “difficult material” in a constructive way, and I […]
[…] “drama in the moment” – the impact of “drama of situation” on specific individuals. In “Don’t Be Brave” she explains the difference between “drama of situation” and “drama in the moment”: “The […]