The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Reading
February 1, 2016 § 55 Comments
I have a love-hate relationship with readings. On the up side, it’s awesome to get an audience response to work in progress, and it’s great to hear fellow students read at a conference, because we all bust out our best writing and often bring pieces outside our workshop genre.
But we’ve all heard That Person read. You know—the one who burns eleven minutes in a five-minute slot, or the one with the graphic sex scene that has everyone squirming in their seats (the bad kind of squirming), or the whispery reader no-one can hear.
Even with good material, some writers struggle. They may lack experience reading their own work aloud, they’re nervous, or they chose a piece that doesn’t make sense without a larger context. Sometimes a writer just got stuck being #26 on a list of 30 readers.
You don’t have to be That Person. Or even That Writer Who Was Probably Good, What I Could Hear Of It. There are Seven Deadly Sins of public readings, and every single one of them is avoidable.
SLOTH: Do your work, and do it in advance.
Have a specific, timed, chosen piece in a format you can see. If you’re reading from your phone, put it in airplane mode because your mother will call in the middle of your first sentence. If you need reading glasses, have them on your face. Try not to read from your laptop—on most podiums, the lid blocks your upper body, and it’s an old theatre trick that when the audience can see your chest, they feel more emotionally connected to you. Knowing in advance what you’re going to read goes double for workshop leaders—I’ve seen a fair number of teaching writers arrive at the podium with a book full of bookmarks and spend time leafing around. Really? You didn’t respect your students enough to carefully choose the pieces you wanted to read and in what order?
GLUTTONY: Don’t be greedy with your listeners’ time.
Know your time. Come up short. Nothing is more inconsiderate than taking longer than the allotted time—you’re saying “My work is more important than everyone else’s,” and you’re part of a domino effect that ends up screwing the last five readers. Most conferences are tightly scheduled, and even if people are polite enough to stay past the official end to hear the last readers, their brains are already at the bar. If you don’t know what the time limit is (or if there is one), ASK. If there’s no limit, assume it’s five minutes and be the saint who stops at four. This also means you must know how long it takes to read your piece out loud, so do that, with a stopwatch, OUT LOUD. It’s much longer than to read it silently, even mouthing the words.
LECHERY: Just don’t.
The sin of Lechery is often called “Lust.” But it’s possible to lust joyfully, to lust for one’s spouse, even to spend your springtime morris-dancing if that’s what you’re into. Lechery, on the other hand, is lust foisted on the unwilling. And believe me, your audience is unwilling. No explicit sex. No pedophilia. No rape. Detailed violence falls into this category, too. You don’t know who in your audience got raped last week, molested as a child, or is just plain squeamish. Reading graphic content changes the emotional feeling of the room in a way your audience didn’t ask for, and that penalizes the next reader, who now has to start from that mood. (God bless the reader at my most recent conference who cleared the air with a limerick after a particularly gruesome piece, and took that out of his own time.)
GREED: Read one thing, and only one thing.
Don’t think “oh my piece is so short and I get five minutes so I’ll read two.” If your flash fiction is one minute long, revel in the joy of your fellow readers that you’ve made the night run faster (and make the piece a knockout). Poets, you may read two poems if they are short. If so, announce at the beginning that you will be reading two so the audience isn’t surprised when you start up again. It’s better to start with the shorter one, as an appetizer. Keep the transition tight, so you end up with only one round of applause.
Revel in your envy of other writers’ pieces. Admire those who read well and make mental notes about their delivery—what can you copy? What makes their piece good? Use your admiration as a chance to start conversations by telling another writer you loved their reading (great for shy conference attendees). Clap enthusiastically for every writer as they walk up (if format allows), and again when they finish. It’s scary and hard to read your work in front of a group, and just standing up and doing it is worthy of praise.
Pick a piece you love, that you enjoy reading and are proud to share. If you’re feeling like the writer struggling the most in your workshop (and we all are), this is a chance to show your already-polished work. If you’re choosing between two pieces, pick the shorter one. If you have an option to read something funny, go funny.
WRATH: Contain it.
1) This is not the time for paybacks. At one conference, the workshop leaders stopped attending the student readings after one too many “Well, Distinguished Writer hated this in class, but I’m reading it anyway.” You are showing your public face, so make it one people respect and want to spend time around.
2) Wrath will one day bubble up inside you, the listener. You will be at a reading where someone reads porn. Or violence. Or pedophilia. For eleven minutes. If looks could kill they would be eye-murdered by fifty restless listeners. It’s still your job to maintain a supportive and attentive expression, and yes, to clap when they are (finally!) finished. You may downgrade your clapping from “enthusiastic” to “polite.” You may mentally revise your own work; you may assume an earnest expression and write kill me now in your own journal as if you are taking notes; you may daydream with your eyes open and startle into applause as if you were lost in the world the writer has created. You may even (as I did last week) stand up at an un-hosted reading and volunteer to keep time and make gentle ding sounds to signal each writer’s last fifteen seconds. But you may not eye-roll or mutter. Just note the deadly sins, and resolve never to inflict them on an innocent audience yourself.