Losing the Fear and Loathing of Reading Your Work in Public

Reading your work out loud in front of an audience can be a bit like standing naked on a crowded subway platform…or so I would imagine. I’ve only done the former, never the latter. And I didn’t do my first public reading until I was well into my professional career as a rock music journalist and author. It was terrifying, but also gratifying. I guarantee this: do a public reading and you’ll gain insights into your work that you’d never attain otherwise. You’ll grow as a writer; and maybe you’ll even sell a few extra copies of your book.

Owing to the weird and mysterious workings of the publishing trade, in 2012 I found myself with two new books on the market, Green Day: The Ultimate Unauthorized History and Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits. Wishing to bolster sales, and emboldened by other rock scribes who’d recently turned public readings into a sort of performance art, I set up a reading/signing at Phoenix’s beloved indie bookstore Changing Hands. What the hell, right? I’d done a bit of public speaking, teaching and radio interviews, I’d sung in rock bands and done solo acoustic gigs. How hard could it be to stand at a lectern and pretend you’re C.S. Lewis?

Still, I was apprehensive. Writing is a solitary pursuit. Sure, we write for an audience. But it’s a theoretical audience. A hypothetical audience. An imagined ideal audience. They aren’t there in the room with us. And let’s be honest, sometimes we’re just writing for ourselves, even in works intended for publication. So how does one put all that across to a flesh-and-blood audience fidgeting in folding chairs, their eyes trained expectantly on you?

Well, you should definitely rehearse the passages you plan to read—just as you’d rehearse performing a song or a part in a play. You’ll instantly learn a lot about the structures and rhythms of your writing. As you stumble over the delivery of some convoluted Jamesean sentence, you’ll suddenly realize how a reader might stumble. Don’t worry, though; just figure out where to pause and breathe. You’ll be fine.

Then there’s the whole conundrum of tone. The beauty of written language is that it is multivalent: a word or phrase can be simultaneously tragic and comedic. But how to convey all that when it’s read out loud? How to convert your written voice to a speaking voice? And, oh, there’s also the ever present danger of getting verklempt as you read some personal or poignant passage aloud. (A danger for me, anyway.) But as you rehearse your reading, negotiating the emotional terrain of your work, you’ll start to gain a perspective that should enable you to stand up in front of a crowd and own those words—the big ones, the bad ones, the rude ones, the sad ones.

On the night itself, I was wound up like a two dollar watch—more nervous, in a way, than I’d been before getting up onstage at CBGB and the Mudd Club, or facing my first classroom-full of undergrads. But I got through introductory remarks and read the evening’s first passage tolerably well. When I finished, I was afraid to look up. There was an interval of silence that seemed like ages but was probably only a few seconds . . . then a wave of enthusiastic, genuine applause. Even a rock and roll whoop or two. Hey, it helps to seed the audience with your friends and family.

But generally speaking, people only turn up at a book signing/reading if they’re interested in (a.) you, (b.) your work or (c.) the subject you write about. So you’re among friends. They tend to be a cultured, well behaved lot. And a reading is a great way to connect with them.