where the writers are
Learning to read aloud
Loren emceeing the Morbid Curiosity #8 reading.

In 2006, I attended a one-day seminar on reading in public.  It taught me more about what I didn't need to worry about than what I wanted to address.  My expectations were undoubtedly too high. The workshop promised "tips on vocalization skills that will help you strengthen your voice in many wonderful ways, and advice on how to handle performance anxiety." I needed some of that.

I'd already come a long way on my own. I'm the girl who wouldn't read aloud in class after 8th grade because I'd mispronounced "determine" and couldn't live down the shame. I chose to take a "D" in a university intro class in my major because one-third of the grade was a presentation to the class. In six years of studying French, I NEVER made use of the language lab -- because someone else who was practicing their pronunciation might hear mine. I never raised my hand in a class because my heart would pound so hard I thought I was going to die.

Slowly, painfully, I've gotten from that person to someone who can stand in front of 100 people at a Morbid Curiosity reading and flog the magazine. I convinced myself that it was easier to do because I believe so strongly in the contents of the magazine and the talents of its contributors. When I emcee, all I need to do is present material I love and get out of the way. Nobody's there to see me.

I think I've mastered storytelling, too. That is partially thanks to the public speaking cult I visited briefly before I went to my first convention as a "professional." Most of the touchy-feely weirdness of the cult has degraded from my memory, but I still have the videotape they made of me telling a ghost story and about my first day in the cadaver lab. I learned almost immediately that if I don't tell people how scared I am, it isn't visually apparent.

So I 'd gotten to a point where I could introduce people and tell my own stories, but I still couldn't READ my own work. Oh, I did it -- at City Lights, at LitQuake -- but all my fears that I could survive when I facing the audience swelled up to drown me when I'm held a manuscript in my hand. I felt too tied to the written word, wanting to get it RIGHT when I read.

And this workshop I took in 2006 was no help at all in overcoming that.

We spent the morning staring into each other's eyes and playing the mirror game. The most interesting part of that was that everyone else was more comfortable mirroring each other, while I found it difficult to be creative while being watched like a bug. I kind of liked staring into my partners' eyes, examining eye colors and wrinkles, knowing they were as discomfited by the scrutiny as I was. I'm fine one on one. I always have been.

The problem with the way the "class" was structured was that by the time we got up to read (in the last half-hour of the day), the people we addressed were no longer strangers. We were speaking to a room full of new friends. There's no terror in that.

So what did we do for the other 5-1/2 hours of the day? We learned that making fools of ourselves during warm-ups would make it easier to stand up in public and not be a fool (although I'm entirely confused how to apply that practically). That biting the tip of your finger while you speak will make you enunciate more clearly -- and emphasize the lisp you're already self-conscious about. I got some private instruction on where in my body I should feel my voice coming from. I learned that when I think while being watched, my gaze goes up to a blank wall. I cannot shut out the visual stimulus of an animated face while trying to gather my thoughts -- and that inability drove the teacher nuts. What I learned is that I can't be jammed into the same box, the same style of performance, as everyone else, no matter if the teacher shouts at me. Useful, if scary, to realize.

All the time I'd spent in the morning before class choosing "lots of writing samples" was completely wasted. We worked with one piece all day. When we were finally allowed to read aloud, we each had five minutes. It wasn't in any way enough performance time.

A lot of the practical aspects the instructor focused on -- how to stand in front of an audience, how to move across a stage, how to manage a microphone and podium, how to make eye contact with the audience to make them feel engaged -- in no way addressed real issues I know we'll face when doing a public reading -- how to sit on a stool, how to manage a manuscript, how to get over the fact that your hands are shaking, how to calm yourself down in front of a crowd, how to recover from dropping your pages, how to format a manuscript for ease of reading, how to cope with dry mouth. It was as if the teacher hadn't listened when we introduced ourselves and explained our reasons for taking the workshop.

I know the instructor teaches longer classes in performance skills (variously described by her as 9 weeks and 15 weeks). I couldn't help feeling this was the first time she'd taught the one-day workshop, which is strange because I know it's been offered before. She seemed to have a lot of trouble managing the time (hence, cramming our actual readings into the last half-hour). She seemed to enjoy standing in front of us, performing herself. I'm not sure that was the best use of my time. I knew what someone comfortable in front of a crowd looks like. It didn't look like me.

One of the other students recommended a singing class for help with learning to project my voice. That may have been the most useful tip I got all day.

In the end, I'm glad I attended the workshop. It taught me that there are a whole lot of things I don't need to worry about when I stand in front of an audience. Unfortunately, I felt no closer to being able to read my work in public.

More tomorrow...