Reading your own work well is a pivotal part of your identity as an author. It’s also incredibly anxiety-inducing, which is understandable. How do you read well when all you want to do is go hide in the corner?
In honour of the daunting open mic reading opportunities at the Winchester Writers’ Festival, I’ve decided to post the video of my long-promised Litmus launch reading. This reading can be summed up in one sentence: ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’
Let’s talk about why:
- I read way too fast. This is my biggest reading sin. As a speed reader, I find it incredibly difficult to slow down. This has always been a problem for me, and it’s something I need to work on extensively before I make my debut into the published writing world.
- I didn’t make eye contact with the audience often enough. Usually I’m not so bad about this, but the worst part was that I didn’t realise I was doing it until close to the end of the reading. Fortunately, I realised halfway through and tried to rectify the problem – you’ll see me lifting my head more often – but unfortunately it was too little, too late.
- I didn’t practice enough. I thought I did, but boy, was I wrong. I read the excerpt a few times each day of the week leading up to the launch. I thought I had every little thing down pat – the intonation, the timing, the tone. That all fell apart once I stood up to read.
- I didn’t listen well enough. Over the spring semester, I learned a lot about the impact of performance in reading – yet it all seemed to go in one ear and out the other when it came down to brass tacks.
- I knew better. Yes, I absolutely did know better than to read too fast, stare down at my paper, practice too little, forget valuable reading advice, and let my nerves get the best of me. That’s what bothers me most about this reading. I knew better, yet I didn’t do better.
Now let’s talk about what I should’ve done:
- Performed instead of just reading. Public reading is a performance, and it should be treated as such. Each word has a significant weight, and the listeners should feel that weight in their bones when you read.
- Memorised the entire excerpt. Two minutes’ worth of reading material isn’t that much to memorise. Knowing exactly how the work flows, word by word, really helps with engaging with the audience and keeping your eyes off that blasted piece of paper.
- Sang before reading. I’m quite fond of singing, but I’m also a shy singer. On the day of the Litmus launch, I met up with a friend before the event, so I didn’t have a private moment where I would feel comfortable enough singing. Still, singing helps with rhythm and voice stability, so I’ll have to make it a habit before reading.
- Meditated or drank a cup of tea. I should have done something relaxing immediately beforehand to put my anxiety at ease.
But we’re all our own biggest critics, right? Surely I did something right:
- I gave a distinct voice to my work. This is easy to do when you’re the only person with an American Southern accent on an English uni course. This is even easier when you set your work in the American South.
- I stepped outside my comfort zone. Even though I love presenting, I’m not so fond of reading my work, but I went through with it after nearly chickening out. I did something that made me uncomfortable, and I came out a stronger reader and writer because of it.
- I used unique description. I didn’t forget one of the most important tips I learned during my MA: ‘Don’t use parcels of language you’ve heard before to describe something’. Afterward, I was congratulated for snippets like, ‘onyx eyes’ and ‘the strange woman bared her teeth in a smile.’
So there you have it – a breakdown of one of my very first public readings. The fact that I can dissect this video when, just a couple of years ago, I couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice, is an accomplishment in itself.
But there’s one important thing to remember – I wasn’t talking to a jury of my peers. I was among friends who knew me, my work, and my anxiety about the reading. They understood I was a human up there doing my thing, and they supported me because of all that and despite the things I did wrong.
If you’re reading at the festival this weekend, I hope my mistakes serve you well as you’re practicing. And just remember – you can’t overcome your anxiety unless you tackle it head-on.