Things to Do and Not Do if You’re the Person Up Front
On Halloween night, I read my story "Dracula Slinks Into the Night" at Skylight Books in Los Angeles after four other authors read their short works. It was sponsored by Skylight, a fabulous independent bookstore, and by USC's Master of Professional Writing Program, where I teach. I found the reading challenging and, in the end, fun, and it occurred to me there are things to do and not do if you're the author reading.
First, in many readings I'd been in with other authors, the other authors often spoke in a dreary monotone and never looked up from their pages. I've found being an audience member at such readings that I couldn't follow the story, and my mind would wander. I didn't want that to happen for my story.
My experience in teaching had moved me away from monotone. After all, as an instructor, I didn't want to be a synthesis of all my worst and boring professors. I wanted to be like my best ones, the kind that made me look forward to going to class.
That perhaps had been one of my biggest challenges of my life. I'd become a writer for a good reason. I was frightened to death of being in front of people, and I could write alone. When I started teaching in 1994, it was because I wanted to help other writers, and I hadn't focused on how it meant being in front of people. As the first class approached, I could hardly breathe. Fear of public speaking rates higher than fear of death.
For my first two years of teaching, I'd have to psyche myself up before walking into the room full of students. At some point, I had become used to it, even looked forward to it. I adore teaching. If I can do it, anyone can.
While I looked forward to my reading on Halloween night, I did something I wouldn't have done fifteen years earlier: I practiced. With practice comes self-assurance. If you're frightened being in front of people, then practice a lot. Read aloud at home into a recording device. Get used to hearing your voice.
In June, actor and director Sally Shore gave my book Months and Seasons a publication party at the Beverly Hills Public Library where four actors each read one of my stories. When an actor reads a story, it becomes a captivating performance. If you want to see what I'm talking about, watch this short YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzGT4hMxh5Q. Actor Rod Maxwell performs the last half of "Dracula Slinks Into the Night."
On Halloween, it was up to me to embrace and create such a performance. Why the heck shouldn't an author be able to emote? What you write should be emotional. You want people to feel things, after all. And if you read it aloud to an audience, learn what actors do: change your voice slightly for each character. If they are surprised, you should be surprised. If a character looks off, you look off for a moment.
Having seen how high the bar was raised by Maxwell, I called an actor friend, C.C. Pulitzer, for help. She met with me. Here were her thoughts and words of advice after hearing me read for about four minutes:
1) My inflection was great, she said. Too many authors read in a monotone. I didn't. She said, however, to slow down. "Relax" was her big note.
2) Allow myself to experience the feelings I had when writing. When I'd become emotional in one part as I read aloud and remembered the truth of the scene, I fought for control to NOT be emotional. She said audiences connect with that emotion. Don't fight it. She also said that's what authors have going for them: those sense memories of the story itself.
3) Make little icons or asterisks in the story so that I could look up to the audience to allow for eye contact. I could then find my place again easily by seeing the icon or asterisk.
4) She also said actors often write short notes in the margin to remind themselves what to do in certain sections, such as to offer a certain gesture, or to become angry or even to mime something.
She had me start over. I took a few deep breaths at her suggestion, then started again more slowly, more relaxed. Her smile and encouraging nods moved me forward. She let me go the whole way through and said, "Perfect. You're an honest reader being yourself, and that's all you have to do. It's a great story and you'll connect."
And I did. Near the end of the story on Halloween night, I could hardly talk because I was wracked with emotion, but this time, I didn't worry about being embarrassed. I knew it was the kind of emotion C.C. had said to allow to happen.
Afterwards, people I didn't know told me it was powerful. A few asked if I was an actor. No-I've never acted. It doesn't matter.
If you want to see me speak a little about my stories and also see C.C. Pulitzer perform a part of another story, go to YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JGhhxgmvPA
By the way, for the next two weeks, I'm taking questions at Library Thing at http://www.librarything.com/topic/48771.
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