On many a list of terrible fears, among the snakes, spiders, drowning accidents, and bees (in my case), one non-lethal standout is speaking in front of a crowd. For new writers, this terror is compounded by concerns that our creations might not be good enough. Sharing our stories in workshop is tough enough, but reading it in front of a group is the stuff of next-level anxiety attacks.
Reading from one’s thesis is a requirement of most MFA programs and a reality for many professional writers to promote their work, but it’s rarely included in the curriculum. I huddled with classmates around the hotel pool in the days before our scheduled readings for the students and faculty. We were mostly concerned with staying within the boundaries of our time limit as the previous cohort included a disastrous reading that seemed to go on forever in spite of the frantic hand-wavings of the academic leadership. We’d been sternly warned not to repeat that debacle and assured that any straying past our ten minutes would result in our swift and public removal from the podium. So we were terrified of time. We gave little thought to engaging our audience.
Cija Jefferson, author of Sonic Memories, had a similar experience during her MFA program at the University of Baltimore. “My stomach was totally churning, my face was hot, and my hands were shaking but as I walked to that podium I took deep breaths and took a sip of water (I like to keep water around to help with dry mouth). The theater has about 200 seats and the place was jam-packed. Before that I’d been reading my work in class in front of like 10 people. You’re up there worried about how people will receive your work. Especially as a non-fiction writer, I’m reading information that is personal so I want the audience to connect.”
When I was eight years old, I won the lead role of Raggedy Ann in my school play, not because I had any acting talent, but because I was the loudest. In my twenties, I worked in a theme park and I learned to “spiel,” reciting all kinds of information from identifying the parking lots where guests had left their cars, to safety information before boarding a flight simulator, to tour information about movies and how they are made. For a time, I even participated in a show as a gangster or bank robber so that I could terrify guests without getting fired. I learned to deliver the words in a way that engaged my audience. Though I was never an actor, I remember thinking that the strategies I’d employed to learn shows like running lines or recording myself reading might improve my ability to write and revise dialogue. I included the suggestion that we bring in some theater majors one afternoon during residency to help us workshop reading our stories in my post-residency survey, but no such curricular adjustment happened during my program.
Cija had similar ideas. “Throughout the program we were encouraged to attend readings and to read our work, but we didn’t have a formal class where we practiced and were critiqued. I ended up taking a storytelling class as an elective, which definitely helped me to feel more comfortable when I later read my work for graduation. Storytelling meant telling a story from memory with a full narrative arc and conclusion in 3 minutes. That class was so crucial for me. I even challenged myself to tell a story for the local Baltimore storytelling series, The Stoop. These experiences served as my preparation for reading my work publicly.”
Chelsea Catherine, a fellow MFA grad was invited back to the University of Tampa to read an excerpt of her work as part of the Lectores series. These events are not only required for MFA students, but open to the public. She called the experience “nerve-wracking.”
“I felt a lot of pressure going back to my alma mater and reading in front of the faculty,” she said. “I was excited to see old friends and share my work with them, but the dread of being a young woman without a published book reading in front of faculty was… daunting. Even though I had done so much, I still felt like I needed to do more to earn the right to read up there.”
MFA students become accustomed to reading their words in small working groups as part of the process for workshop or critique and they are regularly exposed to professional writers reading, but rarely do these paths cross in the curriculum. Cija took an improve class with The Groundlings in Los Angeles which taught her “listening and not trying to be funny,” which she credits for improving her public speaking and reading her work “in more of an animated fashion.”
Cija gets “queasy and sweaty” in advance of public appearances, but loves to read her work as a means to connect with her audience. Chelsea still doesn’t enjoy large audiences, preferring to interact with smaller groups; a “more invested audience that has thoughts and feedback to share.”
MFA programs can’t rely upon students to have a theme park background or prior classes with The Groundlings. And while these avenues may help, you can do a lot more on your own to prepare for your readings in advance and head off those anxiety wrestling tournaments in your stomach.
Select a story, excerpt, or group of poems that fits the timeframe and the audience.
I wrote a novel for my thesis and I didn’t want to read the beginning. I chose a suspenseful chapter, but I had to edit it mercilessly so that it could stand on its own and build enough tension in ten minutes.
Practice and record or time yourself
Are you reading too slowly or do you sound like an auctioneer? Will your audience be able to make out your words or are you mumbling? I’ve been to more than one reading where the speaker kept their head down and droned through the entire thing as if they were in pain. The audience certainly was.
How to read dialogue so your audience can follow multiple characters.
When I go on long road trips, I enjoy listening to audiobooks. What a great masterclass on reading fiction or nonfiction! I recently read a spooky story in which my narrator was not immediately apparent. My challenge was to be animated enough with the action and other character dialogue so that when I revealed my narrator, it would be a surprise, but one that made sense. Even slight inflections in voice can help your audience follow conversations without dialogue tags. No need to go all Sesame Street, but pay attention to who you are voicing as you go and the audience will too.
How to convey dramatic tension without sounding like a soap opera star.
I am not a good actor. Nor do I think one has to be to be a good reader, but it’s useful to be able to commit yourself to a work. You went to the trouble to build dramatic tension, so don’t throw it away by not reading the story the way you’d tell it to your friend in a bar. Own it. It’s not like you have to memorize the lines – they’re right there on the page. Give them life.
Do some reconnaissance and logistic planning. And have a backup plan.
In 2016, I was invited to attend an event where I would read my story beside the “ghost story firepit.” When I arrived, I found said firepit in the parking lot behind the library and adjacent to the event’s band. It was dark, and there was nothing to stand behind or to sit on or to hold my pages. I watched my fellow readers struggle though holding a microphone, enunciating over the band, while turning pages. A staffer held a flashlight over their shoulders so the words would be visible. Ugh. Every other instance has been WAY EASIER than this, with plenty of light, good audio, a place to place my pages, and water available. Even if you don’t think you need the water, have it ready. If nothing else, it’s a great way to insert a dramatic pause and a cheeky glance up at your audience.
Breathe and enjoy the experience!
When you practice, make sure that you account for the occasional glance up at your audience. Don’t block out that they are there. The audience is the reason that you are reading out loud! Imagine them as friends who want you to do well. Allow them to fall in love with your words. People don’t attend readings in the hopes that the writers will suck, even the students who are required to attend. Your audience wants you to succeed. Give the audience what they want and kill it. You’ve got this.
Carolyn Eichhorn completed her MFA at the University of Tampa where she won the Plant Hall Spooky Story contest in 2015. Since then she’s published short fiction and nonfiction with Oscillate Wildly Press, ScrawlBrawl, the Foundation for the Baltimore County Library, and Gimmick Press. Carolyn teaches and writes in Baltimore, Maryland.
Chelsea Catherine is a queer writer living in Vermont. She is a PEN Short Story Prize Nominee, winner of the Raymond Carver Fiction contest in 2016, a Sterling Watson fellow, and an Ann McKee grant recipient. Her short story collection ISABEL was a finalist for the 2018 Katherine Ann Porter prize. Her novella, “Blindsided” won the Clay Reynolds novella competition and will be published in the fall of 2018.
Cija (pronounced Kia) Jefferson is an education advocate by day, a writer by night, and host of Writers & Words, a Baltimore reading series. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore and is the author of Sonic Memories, a collection of personal essays. Her work has appeared in Yellow Arrow Journal, Baltimore Style, and HelloGiggles. You can follow her blog at cijasquips.com.