“Make it funny, or make it dirty, and if you can, make it both.” -Richard Cecil on public readings
I was once told that F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Nothing lasts forever, except for poetry readings.” I don’t know if this attribution is correct, quotes are often misapplied, but the spirit of that line is a familiar one to most of us when it comes to public readings. Most writers have had the experience of looking forward to a reading, only to find themselves sitting quietly, smiling politely, and subtly glancing at the clock as if they were caught in the middle of a long sermon. Here are five pointers for doing readings that can save yourself and your audience in no particular order.
1. Have work you can read
This might seem basic, but I’ve been to too many readings where the author can’t actually read the work they’ve brought. If you’re doing a reading you should plan on bad lighting since many are held at coffee houses, bars, or the back corner of a bookstore. If you’re work is printed on the page don’t use the same 12 point font you always do, use 14 or 20 point so that the words are easy to read no matter what dim hole you’re put in. It’s also helpful to read off a tablet since they’re illuminated. This has the added benefit of keeping your hands from shaking if you’re the nervous type since the weight of a tablet keeps them more steady.
2. Choose your slot wisely
If you’re given the chance to choose your slot when reading, always close. That way the audience walks away with your work fresh in their mind. It also helps if books are being sold immediately after the reading.
If your slot is chosen for you, consider what you need to do. If you read first don’t go over twenty minutes. It wears out the audience, and makes the other readers hate you. If you’re in the middle you need to read something loud or strange enough to be memorable.
3. Sad work is a trap
If you have a fifteen page story about the terribly lonely life of a person in a nursing home, a somber retelling of a loved one’s battle with terminal illness, or a series of poems that deal with the loss of a pet they might have great personal meaning to you and be exceptionally well done, but don’t expect the audience gathered at a reading to be eager to share in your grief or failure. In most cases they came to be entertained and escape the sad facts of life. I’ve never been to a reading were an incredibly poignant and depressing work energized the crowd.
4. Short is better
Readings are often held at venues where there is constant background noise. If you’re reading at a coffee house get ready for the grinder to blurt out during your reading, and the table of soccer moms who stopped in for mochas to try to talk over you. If you’re reading at a bar glasses can break, the jukebox might not be turned off, and frequent yelling will break the quiet parts you so intentionally crafted in your work. With this in mind it’s best to read short works (four pages or less). Most often authors don’t read in quiet auditoriums with a hushed crowd, but out in the world. This causes a problem for longer works since it’s easy for an audience, briefly distracted by the noise around them, lose their train of thought, and become confused. I’ve been to several readings were despite my best efforts after ten minutes of listening to a reader I had no idea what was going on in the story. Approach a reading like a stand up comic. Focus on short works that hit, and move on. A story that can read in less than five minutes will have more resonance than one that takes fifteen minutes or more to relate.
5. Make it an event
A reading is not about you, it’s about the audience. They’re not there to carefully consider your work the way they would reading on their couch, but to be entertained. It’s important to realize that. With that in mind make sure that you choose work that is funny, weird, or will get a reaction. Don’t just read your work, but perform it. If you stand with your head bowed, eyes focused on your paper the entire time, you separate yourself from the people who came to see you. Look them in the eyes, talk to them, move around and get loud. The best readings are ones were the audience gets something they never expected. Sing if you can sing, or read old love letters to the crowd in between stories. Make it an event, and not simply a time when they saw someone read words off a page.