November 3, 2014 § 20 Comments
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 a ruthless marketer of her own personal trauma.