Writer in Residence

In Praise of … Performing Your Work

By Mark Sampson

A passion for public speaking, for public performance, has been with me even longer than the passion for writing. I trace it back to when I won a public speaking competition as an elementary school student in Charlottetown in 1984 with a jaunty little piece of propaganda about Saying No to Drugs. It felt like a seal had been broken. Soon I found myself staging entire reenactments of Return of the Jedi with my reluctant cousins in my parents’ basement. I spent my tween years getting involved in local theatre, performing in shows like Hooray for Hollywood, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and Fiddler on the Roof. By the end of junior high, I was delivering whole sermons to the congregation at our church.

This love of public performance often strikes me as counterintuitive, considering that my favourite perk of the writing life is the solitude. There’s just something to be said about being alone, and being alone with the written word, with the fictional worlds that inhabit your head. But even in that solitude, I find the act of composition itself to be a performance. I’m one of these authors who reads aloud constantly during every stage of the writing process. When it comes to narration, I’m just as concerned with how it sounds as I am with how it reads. I literally give voice to my characters. And even during the earliest drafts of my stories, I often imagine how I would deliver the scene I’m working on in front of a crowd. 

If you’re lucky enough to get published, you may also be lucky enough to get invited to read your work at a festival or reading series. For many first-time authors, this can be an nerve-wracking prospect, especially if you haven’t had a lot of experience with public performance. I get that. Putting our work out in the world – especially if that work is profoundly personal or creative – can leave us feeling exposed, and getting asked to perform that work in front of a live audience can feel doubly exposing. But my advice, for what it’s worth, is to go for it. Always take the opportunity. Never say no. Life is too short for no. Even if you haven’t published before, or haven’t published very much, there may still be opportunities to perform your work. Find out if your town or city has a reading series with an open-mic component, and sign up. Or join (or start) a writing group that makes reading work aloud part of the workshopping process.

Of course, as with anything, there are a few caveats to performing your work. 

The tips I have to offer are pretty common, but they bear stressing. First and foremost, if you’ve been invited to read your work somewhere, stick to your allotted time. Stick to it even if you’ve flown to the other side of the country to read for five minutes in front of an audience of 10 people. Hey, it happens. Me, I often find adhering to the requested time a challenge, especially if my favourite or most performance-worthy scenes don’t fit into that length. But my advice is to respect the organizers’ wishes. It can be incredibly rude to hijack an event with an overextended reading; and even if the audience is really digging it, you can bet they’ll start looking at their watches even before you go over your time. 

My second tip is to pick your scene or group of poems in advance (how else will you know if it fits into the allotted time?) and rehearse the hell out it. Rehearse it even if you feel like you went over it a million times while it was still in draft. Rehearse even your introductory banter, your set-up of the scene, the interstitial jokes and anecdotes between poems. Don’t wing it. It’s hard enough to perform in front of a crowd, and looking disorganized or unprepared just makes everything worse. Being well-versed in the excerpt you’ve chosen frees you up to do the more important work: to connect with your audience, to make eye contact and gauge the vibe in the room and create opportunities to enrich and/or entertain the people there, which is the whole point.  

That’s not to say there won’t be times where you’ll need to think on the fly or be spontaneous on stage. I’ve had to re-jig a selection or even cut a scene short because there was just something about the energy – or lack of it – in the room that compelled me to do so. I’ve come to trust these impulses over the years. I will often even rehearse a back-up reading in case there’s something about the atmosphere in the room that makes my initial selection feel inappropriate. The point is, know your audience. As much as it may feel like this is your time in the spotlight, the audience should always come first. 

Finally, if you’re going to perform your work, then perform it. Don’t just recite the words. Inhabit the lives of your characters, the spirit behind your poems. Be deliberate on every pressure point, every cadence. Modulate your tempo. Do voices, if it makes sense. If there are good vibes come from the crowd, then feed off them. It’s totally worth it. Being deliberate in performing your work can make readings a lot more rewarding – for you, and certainly for your audience.            

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.

Mark Sampson is the author of the novels Off BookSad Peninsula, and The Slip, as well as a short-story collection, The Secrets men Keep, and a poetry collection, Weathervane. He has published fiction and poetry in literary journals across Canada. Mark lives in Toronto.