August 9, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Marian Rogers
I can still feel the catch in my throat when I saw my name on the reading schedule that week at the workshop. I had just gotten all my things into the dorm room and was sitting on the bed going through the informational folder. It was my first writing workshop, and I didn’t know what to expect. The absolute last thing I expected was that I would have to do a reading before the assembled mass of writers of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The sample I submitted when I applied was the first writing I had done in decades. The workshop was generative, so new writing would emerge, but from where exactly and how, I had no idea. As I looked again at the reading schedule, I took heart that my name was on the list for the final evening.
I learned more that night at the welcome gathering in the hall where the readings would take place. Fellows and instructors would read the first two nights. Evenings for the rest of the week would be devoted to readings by workshop participants. Studying the room’s logistics, I was relieved to spot what looked like a miniature microphone suspended in front of the podium. I’m soft-spoken, and in normal conversation people will ask me, sometimes even command me, to speak up. Just as I was settling into the comfort of what I thought I saw, we were told there was no microphone. If we projected our voices, the room itself, with its tiers of seats, wraparound paneling, low windows at the back, would provide the necessary acoustics. A grand piano stood to the side of the stage in silent agreement. This room is perfect, it seemed to say, even for a concert of words.
A few days later it was my turn to read in our nonfiction group. The assignment: 600 words including a list. The list—a select catalogue of items my parents had to leave behind when we moved them to the retirement community—was not the hard part. It was the story of the family gathering before that, the four of us children traveling in from out of state overnight and in the early morning to help Dad convince Mom, who was slipping down the slope of dementia, that it was the right decision to go. As I read, my voice quavered, then stopped, and I went over the falls and began to cry. I felt the woman next to me place her hand on mine. I heard the instructor ask if I would like her to finish reading for me. As I composed myself, she said she was surprised it had taken that long for someone in the group to cry. That kind truth helped me finish in my own voice.
Over the next days, I gathered tips for my reading the final night:
- Pare your piece down to fit the time limit: in this case, 3 minutes, so 400 words maximum.
- Step away from the podium to the edge of the stage, to connect and be heard.
- Anchor your pages with a folder underneath so that if your hands shake, your pages won’t.
- Remember the audience is friendly. Look for your instructor and workshop members around the room, your fellow in the back row giving you a thumbs-up.
- If the going gets tough, find a right angle somewhere in the room and fasten yourself to it.
The last is a tip my brother gave me once. He said fixing on a right angle when speaking can steady you and help you ride out fear or sadness. Those five tips helped me through my first reading, and others after.
More recently, of course, readings have not been in person. Yet that hasn’t made reading any less daunting and or any of us less vulnerable to emotion. If anything, over the past long year of isolation, loss, and grief, the grip of emotion seemed tighter, harder to loose, as many things that once steadied us vanished from the horizon. In early spring in a Zoom meeting of a writers group, I read a piece about my father, who died in 2019. As I read I could only see the page before me on the computer, not my audience, the faces that had become so familiar, supportive, reassuring. As I reached the final sentence, I felt a clutch in my throat, I stammered and stumbled as tears began to gather at the corners of my eyes. The right angles of the screen, of the page, of the paragraph, on their own, without the faces in my audience were not enough to steady me. When I finished, I looked out the window beyond my laptop. I saw hills and valleys, rises and dips, the lake not far in the distance topping out almost to overflow with winter thaw and first rain—mirroring everything I felt as I read. And then there they were again, my audience of writer friends, aligned so squarely on the screen, each framed by right angles, smiling, nodding, clapping, bringing me back.
Marian Rogers is an alumna of the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Rebirth Your Writing retreat. She owes an immense debt of gratitude to Cedar Ridge Writers. Marian holds a PhD in classics from Brown University and is a longtime editor of scholarly nonfiction. Find her on Twitter @Rogers_Marian and on Instagram @marathena75.