I come from a long line of storytellers. This probably drew me to writing, the natural progression from orating to authorship. Most of the things I write now have begun as stories I tell at parties. I feel very fortunate that public speaking doesn’t make me want to hide in the nearest crack in the floorboards and I sympathize with people for whom public speaking ranks scarier than death on their list of biggest fears. (A large part of the population feels this way, it seems; Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that most people at a funeral would rather be in the casket than standing at the podium giving the eulogy.) At first glance, writing appears to be a remote activity, one that allows the author to express his or her thoughts without having to leave the comforts of the couch. Passive. Safe.
But reading work aloud makes writing less of a lonely endeavor and more of a collective experience, a connection between the writer/reader and the audience/listener. As someone who has participated in dozens of readings, I have discovered several benefits of reading one’s work aloud, and I encourage anyone who considers herself serious about writing to participate in at least one reading this year. Why?
- You can tell when a joke works--and when it falls flat. I write humor, but even people who wouldn’t consider themselves funny people inject a joke in their writing now and then for comic relief. Hearing someone laugh at a joke you thought yourself clever for having written gives you such a charge and can re-energize you when you hit a wall. And realizing that joke about bean curd doesn’t resonate with other people--while disappointing and even embarrassing--can prevent you from sending a potential dud out into the world.
- You hear how you sound to other people. I have read work aloud and have seen people smiling, and I have read work aloud and been met with puzzled looks. Both have helped me understand some of the comments my readers had given me--”This really works” or “I’m confused by this” are easier to argue with than the physical evidence staring back at you.
- You can tell if your cadence is off or if something is worded awkwardly. If you’re tripping over the sentence and you wrote it, you should probably change it. Reading aloud makes a great exercise in catching awkwardness.
- A little ego-stroking never hurt anyone. This relates back to the jokes, but I have yet to participate in a reading (large or small) where someone didn’t at least say “Good job” afterward. Maybe it’s because everyone understands how difficult reading in public can be, or maybe I’ve just stumbled on the most generous audiences ever, but I always leave a reading feeling recharged and ready to write.
- Readings help create an interest in your work. People can’t get excited about you or what you’ve written if they have no idea who you are. Public readings and open-mic nights provide opportunities for getting your name out there and creating a following, which will only help you when you try to shop that book you’ve just finished writing.
- You never know when you may need to read or speak in public, and practice may not make perfect but it definitely makes you more at ease. Earlier this month I filled in for a contributor at the annual Water~Stone reading. June Melby, whose “Take a Break for a Delicious Sno-Cone!” graces the pages of Water~Stone Vol. 14, arrived to the reading under the weather and asked if I might read her piece for her. If I hadn’t had so much practice and experience reading, I might have passed out at the podium. As it happened, I felt far more nervous than I have felt in a long time, but so many people came up afterward with words of encouragement, and best of all, June Melby loved it. Which goes back to the ego-stroking. And isn’t connecting with the audience, conveying a point or sending a thought out into space one of the reasons we write in the first place?