Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Some Tips for Students on Giving Readings

(Pictured: Cal State San Marcos Professor Sandra Doller (in blue) talking with now former Cal State San Marcos students Kevin Colpean (with backpack) and Jason Scheinheit after a reading)

Students in my creative writing classes are asked to read their work out loud to each other. My more advanced classes have more formal (though still relatively informal) in-class readings in which students not only stand and read in front of everyone, but also write an introduction for another student (we break into reasonably chosen pairs) and read that before the other student presents work.

These days, learning to give readings is a crucial part of being a writer for many people, and a key part of thinking of oneself as writing in the context of a community of others, however big or small the community in question might be. Some writers never give readings, of course, but beginning writers can often make better decisions about whether readings are for them if they have some experience of them. Classrooms are hardly perfect mini-representations of more public writing communities, yet as an approximation for learning, they’re not bad.

Some of my students, even advanced ones, have never read to a group of people before and are nervous about it, sometimes extremely. So this year I developed for the first time a series of basic tips about things to do and not do when giving readings. And I do mean basics. This list isn’t about how to be a virtuoso of the stage, but about how to think about being on stage in a way that might minimize stage fright or at least give the beginning reader some guideposts to focus on even when frightened (or not frightened, as the case may be).

This list is no more than the set of ideas I myself have used at various times. Some of them will be more applicable than others to any given individual. Some might seem idiosyncratic. Quite a few of them come from my reading of Erving Goffman and his ideas about the socially constructed and performative nature of the self. And the language here is maybe a bit more blunt than I would use in class, but not by much.

If you have other suggestions about how writers can give better readings, or stories or questions about how to read, I hope you’ll add them here, since they might be helpful not only to my students but to others.


Remember that giving a reading is really just playing a role, a kind of acting. Think of it as a game even. Nothing requires that you have to “act like yourself” (whatever “acting like yourself” might mean, which is maybe not much).

It might help to imagine yourself as imitating someone who is giving a reading.

If you realize that you’re playing a role, you may also realize that you’re not in a situation in which your innermost soul (whatever you imagine that to be) is about to be exposed to a bunch of strangers.

Your innermost soul is in fact not about to be exposed to a bunch of strangers. People are actually going to learn less about you from your reading than you think. Most people listening are sitting there more worried about themselves than about anything you’re doing or not. When the reading is over, they’re going to go back to thinking about themselves.

In fact, almost everyone listening wants you to do well, because they’re sitting there thinking about how they would feel if they were in your situation.

If you don’t feel confident, try to fake being confident, or to act out a role of someone who’s confident. The difference between faking confidence and having confidence won’t be clear to anyone. In fact, having confidence often may be no more than faking confidence and having done it often enough that it feels comfortable.

Try to read your work as if you like your work. If you don’t like your work, pretend to be someone who does like it.

Don’t apologize for your work or for reading it, and try to avoid putting yourself down.

It’s okay to acknowledge that something you’re reading may still be in process and unfinished.

It’s often a good idea, at the start of a reading, to give a brief advanced description of what you plan to read. That will help your listeners follow along with the order or shape of what you’re reading, and it will help them know how the reading is progressing.

It might help to think of yourself as being in a conversation with others rather than as performing for them. Think of yourself as speaking with others, not as lecturing to them.

In the same way, try not to talk simply to yourself. That often happens because nerves make you want to pretend that no one is there. Again, remind yourself that you’re talking with people.

Fairly standard suggestions for readings and public talks include things like looking around the room and making eye contact with people. Those are good tips but I don’t think there’s too much need to worry about them. Still, try to look up from the pages you’re reading now and then if you can.


rodney k said...

Loved these, Mark!

"If you don’t like your work, pretend to be someone who does like it"
"It might help to imagine yourself as imitating someone who is giving a reading"

esp. cracked me up. If I could add a suggestion that's worked for me: It might be helpful to bring a ventroloquist's dummy with you out on stage, and have it read your poems instead.

(Not really, but I'd love to see it happen. Be the change you want to see ...)

Martha said...

Mark, this is a great idea.
The one thing I'd add--because I've seen it happen, felt it happen myself--is to remind people to be ready for the unexpected. Putting breath behind your words in a public place can be unexpectedly moving.*

*I once saw Joyce Carol Oates weep at one of her own stories, after how many readings???? Or maybe it was just a performative thing, but gosh, it would not be one I'd pick, as it made me feel there was no need for me to respond to the piece since Joyce had done all that for everyone in the audience!