Recently a friend was writing an essay on the relationship between authors and public readings. “Why,” he asked, “is it important for writers to read their work?”
It is an interesting question because writing—unlike the performing arts—doesn’t really need to be performed to be enjoyed by others. For dancers, actors, singers, and musicians, the expression of their work is in the performative aspects, their craft lies in the execution and application of their talents before others. For them, there is a public creation that happens anew each time their art as performed.
Writers (and most visual artists), however, “perform” their work in private. No one needs to see the words being put down and then scratched out and then fiddled with in order to appreciate the finished product. Painters don’t rely on how they look when painting, sculptors don’t need to make certain their hands and knees are aligned in beautiful or thought-provoking ways while they are molding a piece of clay.
For most of my writing career, this privacy was something I took solace in. I didn’t like reading my work in public. I left that to performance poets. “My work was meant to be read on the page,” I would say over and over. I’m not sure when my opinion on reading changed, but it did. Now I value giving public readings as essential to my personal development and relationship to myself as a writer.
For me, reading my work aloud to an audience is another way of engaging with my craft. And as artists, I believe the more we engage with our work, the more aware we are of its nuances and abilities. I no longer look at reading my work as performing. I don’t practice reading, choosing certain inflections or tones, sculpting different facial expressions for pivotal moments in the text. I leave the performing to the performers. I simply read, trying my best to be mentally present and to speak slowly and clearly, pausing only to look up to connect with the audience before turning my eyes back to the page.
I have discovered many things while reading in front of an audience.
I have discovered when the rhythms of description and dialogue are off. I don’t have the patience to read my work aloud at home, alone. When I’m reading silently to myself and editing my work, my crafty mind can make sense of almost any twist of phrase that I’ve invented. But the mind that listens as I read it aloud in public knows immediately—no, honey, that’s wrong. She doesn’t think that way. He would never say that. When I read my work, the truth of the characters and the narrative is laid bare before me easily and completely.
I have discovered what it feels like to be heard. It is something that performing artists feel, I assume. They understand what it’s like to be seen or heard—and ultimately what it’s like to be FELT. I imagine in that pause after a musician has finished the last note and the audience is still hanging there, caught in the web of the experience, there must be a swell of tenderness and pride in the musician—knowing she has got them in her world, on her vibrations. I say this not in an egotistical sense—though audience rapture certainly strokes the ego quite nicely—I say it in a healing sense, I say it in a sense of being connected in a deep and mystical way to other human beings.
I have discovered and re-discovered my identity as a writer. Unless you’re making a living as a writer, it’s easy to have many moments in which you aren’t alive to your identity as a writer. Though I almost always identify as a writer, I’m not always functioning as a writer. But, whenever I have a reading, all I am, in the audience’s eyes, is a writer. I’m not a mother or a drone or a cynic or whatever else I am at any other hour of the day. And that’s immensely empowering and rewarding. I think we writers (and artists) need moments when we can be full of ourselves as artists. Aware of the power of the pen (or the brush, or the horn, or the flexed foot), aware that who we are is creative and magical and noteworthy. I always leave readings reconnected with my inner writer and it causes me to engage with my work in new ways.
I have also discovered the beauty of my own work. It’s one thing to intellectually or instinctively “know” when you’ve executed a passage in a practically perfect way. It’s quite another to hear your voice reading it, and find yourself slipping smoothly over the words, find yourself seduced by your own rhythms. When I’m reading my work, and I allow myself to be IN THE WORK—and not mentally off somewhere else figuring out problems or paying attention to what someone else is doing—I sometimes get carried away by certain passages, and I can FEEL what’s good about it and what’s valuable about it, and that feeling adds to my power and validation as a writer.
I now look at readings as opportunities to lay myself bare. Having finally figured out how not to bury my head in the page, or tremble uncontrollably, or be afraid of the looking eyes, or to run all my words together at a speed that renders my work undecipherable, I can now stand and say, “This is it, this is what I made, here it is.” Not, look how good it is, or look how wonderful I am—but simply “here it is.” And when I stand before others plainly and speak plainly and offer my gifts—unembellished and unadorned—and these gifts are accepted gently with generosity and appreciation, reading becomes an essential ritual in which the audience gifts me with a true mirror in which to view who I am.
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : September 2002 – present : : :
Last month, I discussed a journal that wanted the contributors to subscribe in order to be published in the journal. I noted my own disinterest in paying to be published (So many publications don’t pay anyway, saying “here, use this for free” is a contribution to the publication). Well, in an unrelated conversation, my father—who operates from the perspective of a community activist—was noting how there are fewer and fewer places for writers to publish. It’s exceedingly difficult to keep publications afloat. For that reason, he opined, every writer should support at least one publication. “Would you have a problem paying to be published?” I asked him. “If I wanted to be included in the publication I wouldn’t,” he replied. “Otherwise, who’s going to keep the publications alive?” “The readers,” I said. “Ohhh” he said sounding disgusted with my let-someone-else-do-it attitude. “Where are you going to publish if all the publications close down?” he asked. “How are you going to get your work to the public if you don’t support publications?” I thought his perspective was extremely valuable, so I’m sharing it here with you.
Every once in a while, I think about how much money I could make if I was on the nonfiction hustle. “Oh, I could write cute little essays about anything,” I say to myself. And I come up with ideas, and I pretend to consult different magazines that I could publish the essays in, and then I pretty much forget about it. A few months ago, when I had that thought, I wrote a 600-word column on some tough times I had in the Dominican Republic. I may have sent it to the one magazine editor I have a relationship with, then I promptly forgot about it. Then recently I saw a call for a book on race, hair, and body politics, and I thought, hey, that’s my essay! Well, I sent it on, and it’s been accepted for publication. I’ll have to lengthen the essay considerably. And considering my schedule these days, it may mean I don’t get included in the anthology. I’ll include it on the meter when (or if) I get the actual contract. It’s a nice reminder that if I write, the opportunities to publish will come.
Finally, I got my annual rejection letter from NYFA yesterday. The NYFA continues to elude me (and thousands of others artists). Another year, another application.
No acceptances this month, and one rejection.
Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4