I always get that feeling right before reading my work in public. You may know it: the urge to simultaneously faint, throw up, and run out of the room. My first few readings were terrifying. I was fortunate to have many opportunities to read my work in the year my book came out. However, I’m sad to report that the anxiety never went away. But! It did get a bit easier, and, after a lot of work, I can honestly say I really enjoy reading in public now. I’m thankful to have attended a couple of great sessions on readings from Diaspora Dialogues (shout out to DD!) where I learned some tips. Below is a list of some strategies that have worked for me, and may be beneficial for anyone in the same (wobbly) boat. Some of these are less relevant in the current environment, but most hopefully still apply to readings done virtually. Also, life is busy sometimes, and it’s not always possible to do all of these things, but one or two of them may help.
- Remember, it’s a performance. I think, for me, one of the most important realizations was that reading and writing are two related, but very different art forms. No matter how many hours you’ve spent on your writing, nor how brilliant the poetry or prose is on the page, it may not always translate into a great reading. Readings are performances, and should be treated as such.
- Choose wisely. Picking the right piece is crucial. Beyond the obvious length of allotted time, think about which parts are best to share. Usually sections with humour or something that captures the emotional weight of the story are best.
- Have a reading copy. Keep one file or book aside that you can use just for readings. I’ve included a couple pages of my reading copy below for reference. I feel sometimes we hold published work as too sacred. Mark it up! Make notes! If it helps, highlight pauses or points of emphasis. The audience can read the book if they choose, but there’s nothing wrong with telling only the parts of the story that work best in the spoken form. I go line-by-line with a ruler and try to be as ruthless as I can be. For prose, you might also find that in most cases you can tell a complete story by skipping ahead and just explaining what has happened in a couple of lines, before jumping back into the exciting scenes. Here’s a link to one example where I tried to do that.
- Clipboards are magical. If you don’t have a book yet, or you’re reading a draft, bring a clipboard. It’s nice to have something more solid to hold onto, and can prevent your hands from shaking too much.
- Record yourself. I often record myself reading the piece on my phone, and listen to it a few times with headphones on the day of and/or on my way to the event (remember attending events in-person?). I think most people don’t enjoy listening to their own voice, but if you can get past this, it’s a great way to improve.
- Ask if you can go first. If you don’t feel comfortable until after you’ve read, ask the host if you can be the first one up, or among one of the first readers.
- Give yourself extra time to relax beforehand. If you are able to arrive early, take some time to center yourself. Move around, go to the washroom, find a quiet place to rehearse once more, or talk to friends and new people in the audience if you find that grounding. I also usually try to stand at the mic or on the stage once before the reading, to visualize what it will be like after my name is called.
- Read the room. This one I’ve struggled with. I remember I read one story that an older crowd loved. But at another event, I read the same story to a younger crowd and it didn’t have as positive of a reception. Having a few practiced pieces to pick from for certain kinds of crowds is an asset. I try to make a similar judgement on which piece to read based on the racial identity of various audiences [Caveat: sometimes you just want to read what you feel like reading!]
- Try not to lose focus of the story. When the reading starts, try not to be disheartened if the room is quiet or the funny parts don’t get big laughs. Oftentimes, you might not be able to pick up on all of the folks smiling and nodding. Also, if you are scanning for every reaction, you are more likely to lose your spot or stumble over words.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself or take it personally. If for whatever reason it doesn’t go well, be forgiving with yourself and view it as a learning experience. There will be other opportunities.
Despite all of these strategies, that feeling might never go away. However, try to remember the elation and high that can come after a reading—I don't believe it would be as satisfying if the process wasn’t a little bit scary. Making art is risky; so is putting yourself out there and performing. Doing both should be celebrated.
[Coconut Dreams reading copy sample]
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Derek Mascarenhas is a graduate of the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Program, a finalist and runner-up for the Penguin Random House of Canada Student Award for Fiction, and a nominee for the Marina Nemat Award. His fiction has appeared in places such as Joyland, The Dalhousie Review, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Antigonish Review. His linked short story collection, Coconut Dreams, was called a "stunning debut" in Quill and Quire’s starred review and The Globe and Mail named it one of the best reads from Canadian small presses. Derek currently lives in Toronto and is working on a novel in the magic realism genre.