Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reading Tips for the Microphone-shy

Photo: +fatman+

Sarah recently posted here on Grout about the benefits of reading one's work for an audience. Like Sarah, I find reading my work aloud for other to be incredibly helpful to my writing process. But unlike Sarah, I utterly dread public speaking and just thinking about reading my own writing for an audience can give me a near panic attack.

However, over time I've discovered a few things that have helped me reign in those panic freak-outs. I'm still not, and probably never will be, one of those dynamic speakers that can enthrall and audience, but at least I don't entirely dread getting up on a stage any more. So for the benefit of all you other microphone-shy writers, here are my top survival tips for giving readings:

1. Become a kinky librarian

OK, so you don’t actually need to become a librarian or be all that kinky, but imagining yourself as another character can do wonders to calm your nerves. And yes, my character happens to be a kinky librarian.
This persona was given to me by Tara Hardy, a Seattle slam poet and writing teacher. At the time that I was studying with Tara, I could barely get keep it together while reading just a few sentences in Tara’s living room surrounded by supportive fellow writers.

“A kinky librarian,” Tara interrupted my painfully uncomfortable reading. “Don't be yourself right now. You’re a kinky librarian, so read like one.” And you know what? It worked. By having a shell to inhabit, I felt less exposed. Also, that particular persona -- the kinky librarian -- gave me a way to own my book-ish awkwardness. So if that fits for you, take it and be your own kind of kinky librarian. Or if that role doesn’t quite make sense, ask a teacher or friend who knows you and your particular hang-ups to give you persona that you can try bringing to the microphone.

2. Find a friendly face

At a recent reading I asked John Medeiros (who happens to be not only a great writer but also an incredibly assured reader) how he became so comfortable reading his work. In addition recommending simply practicing as much as possible, John told me that he always finds a face in the crowd – someone who looks friendly and engaged; someone who smiles or nods and generally seems engaged.

When you have a friendly face to land on, you can relax a bit, feel as if you are simply retelling your story to that one other human being rather than addressing a sea of intimidatingly unreadable faces.

3. Essay your freak-out

Last fall at NonficitoNow, my teacher Barrie Jean Borich asked me to read something written by Lidia Yuknavitch, who at the last minute couldn’t make it to the conference. Sure, I thought, this won’t be a problem to read something written by someone else.

But… then the actual reading came and I managed to work myself into a full panic. It may have had something to do with the enormous cup of coffee I downed right before the session started. Or the fact that I was surrounded by writers whose books I had read and admired greatly (along with Barrie, Ira Sukrungruang, Paul Lisicky, Rigoberto González were on the panel).

As Barrie introduced the panel, I suddenly felt my heart rate skyrocket. My breath grew short and my vision started to collapse into a narrow tunnel of sight. As Ira and Barrie read, I continued my internal freak-out. “Move your fingers,” I mentally told myself. But I was unable to move my hands or feet or anything except for my eyelids which were rapidly blinking.

I imagined that Barrie would momentarily introduce me as reading for Lidia. At that time, I was sure, I would be frozen in place to the chair. Completely unable to move. Unable to speak or explain to Barrie why I was suddenly incapacitated. I would let my mentor down and be completely humiliated in front of a national conference filled with all my nonfiction heroes.

And at that moment, it occurred to me: yes, sure I would not be able to move and yes, this was about to become the most excruciatingly embarrassing moment of my already embarrassment-prone life. And this, I thought to myself, was starting to sound like the beginning of a pretty great essay! I started to write that essay in my mind. With a new clarity I scanned the room for significant details that I would include. I noted my physical sensations carefully and began thinking about other moments and reflections that I could connect this moment to.

Without realizing it, my mind had begun to relax and my heart-rate slow, at least enough to avoid a complete self-implosion. I was almost disappointed when it was my turn to read and I found that in fact I could stand and hold the paper and realized that this moment would not become a great essay. And I did get through the reading. I still had terrible tunnel vision, but I was able to make out the words on the page, keep standing, keep breathing, and that felt like a huge accomplishment.

4. Practice!

OK, everyone says it, but really getting more practice truly is the best way to become more comfortable with reading your own work aloud. Maybe that means starting by reading to your cat, then to one or two supportive friends. But if possible, find and take any opportunities to read in public and see how reading in public might make you to push your work further. Or if you can't find opportunities, make them yourself by getting other writers together and holding a reading in a coffee shop, bar, or some other public setting.

So, these are just a few things that have helped me less neurotic about reading for an audience. If you have any other tips on giving readings – anything that’s worked for you or that you’ve heard work for other people -- let me know. I’d love to steal anyone else’s ideas and share them as well!


  1. Oh Nuria, great essay, and I love the idea of essaying your stage fright! And please know that though you TOLD me how frightened you'd been, I didn't notice at all while you were reading. So my add will be to remember that the audience cannot read your mind! Readings are a great place to practice your ACT AS IF skills. xo bjb

  2. Thanks, Barrie! And it's SO good to know that I didn't let me inner freak show in the reading :)