Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Bucket O’ Literary Oration Advice

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At a reading I attended once, a writer brought what appeared to be an entire manuscript with him to the stage. Then he told a joke about how he was going to read the whole thing to us, haha! It was not a funny joke, though we laughed out of anxious politeness. Then he started reading, and reading, and reading…and we began to feel afraid. As he made his way through his enormous pile (which he didn’t read all of, but still far too much of), he would fling each page away with a disdainful flick of his wrist. Paper fluttered down around him, drifting on the breeze of our quiet sighs of desperation before coming to rest in a new pile, which he left for the next reader to deal with.

Another time, a writer gave a great reading, and we all applauded enthusiastically when she was done. Then she smiled…and kept reading. She was not done after all—she had only sounded as if she were done. And yet all of us had heard the clear note of finality in that last paragraph she’d read—hadn’t we? Then she did it again! Her voice slowed and lowered in the universally recognized “wrapping up” way, and we raised our hands to smack them together…but she wasn’t finished then, either. This I’m-done-no-I’m-not! psych-out went on for what seemed like forever, though it was maybe only ten more minutes. When she at last finished for real, we were very angry, and had completely forgotten the good stuff from the beginning.

Then there was the out-of-town writer who, after we had clapped courteously but not uproariously for his performance, surveyed the crowd with a look of disgust. He cocked his head at us and sneered into the mic, “You Toronto audiences. You’re so f**king boring.” And we gasped, reared up and morphed into one united, sharp-toothed amoeba, and ate him.

Andrew Pyper wrote an excellent set of guidelines for the National Post’s Afterword, called “The do’s and don’t’s of public readings.” Lynn Coady also wrote a brilliant blog post on the subject, titled, “QUESTION: Why Do Literary Readings Always Make Me Want to Kill Myself?”

With a wee bit of overlap, here are a few more suggestions on the art of giving a good reading:

Choose wisely. Try to pick a story or excerpt that is mostly self-explanatory. The less preamble, the better. If you need to take five minutes to set up the scene, you will most likely lose your audience anyway. Make it easy for them to follow along, and they will be more easily entertained. If necessary, you can edit and splice and omit—nobody will know that you’re not reading exactly what’s printed on the page. The reading copies of my books are full of pencil slashes, boxes, and arrows, to tell me what to read and what to skip. (Ask your host ahead of time how long you should read for, then amend your piece appropriately.) Sometimes it helps to have two different pieces prepared—that way you can tailor the reading to the audience (especially if you’re not up first, and can observe how they react to the readers before you). Are they a quiet and serious-seeming bunch? Then go with your quieter, more serious section. Are they slapping their knees at every opportunity? Humorous section ahoy!

Practise—but not too much. You want to be comfortable enough with the material to look up from your page every so often to make eye contact with the audience (and even smile a little), but not so comfortable that you zone out. I learned a valuable piece of advice from Gale Zoë Garnett in her Writers’ Trust “First Novelists’ Workshop” a few years ago. She told us how important it was to be present when we were giving a reading of our work. Be in the scene, and your listeners are more likely to be there with you. If you’re just up there rushing through and rattling off, you will zombify your audience. How can you expect other people to get excited about your writing if you’re not excited yourself? I recently had the pleasure of reading on the same bill as Iain Reid, and part of my delight in his performance came from watching his face light up at seeing what he was about to read to us next.

Show up early. This is a good idea for numerous reasons. You can meet your host (and thus kindly reassure him or her that you’ve arrived). You can get a seat, and order a beer. You can get a feeling for the space if it’s your first time there. You can ask your host to let you practise adjusting the microphone, and do a quick sound-check. A good host will adjust the mic to the ideal height for each reader, but even the most well-intentioned MCs can forget to do this—in which case you are fully entitled to politely ask for help with the mic before you get rolling. Better to endure those slightly awkward first few moments than having to crouch, troll-like, over a too-low mic, or stand on tiptoes with a too-high mic dangling in front of your face for the duration.

Hydrate. Bring a drink up with you, in case your throat gets dry. Don’t be shy about pausing to take a gulp if you need to. Try to smile when you’re doing this, and, depending on the crowd and your material, you may or may not wish to emit a hearty and exaggerated, “Ahhhh!” before returning to your reading.

Don’t over-read. Most people in the world are good people, and most reading audiences are made up of good, book-loving folks who want you, the reader, to do well. But there is a limit to their generosity, and a sure way to overstay your welcome is read for too long. Even The Best Reading Ever will spoil once it passes its best-before date—er, time. Heads will drop, throats will be cleared, seats will be shuffled, and mobile devices will be checked. This shift in attention may be subtle at first, but the longer you read past your allotted timeslot, it will grow proportionately less stealthy and more insistent. If you really want an audience to love you, read under your allotted time (including any opening and/or closing remarks). Leave them wanting more, instead of forcing them to do the Holy-Crap-Please-Just-Get-Off-The-Stage-Already dance.

Stick around for your fellow featured readers. Listen attentively. Introduce yourself to them at the end, and if you enjoyed their reading, let them know. If there is an open mic afterward, it’s a nice gesture to stay for it, but not necessary—especially if it promises to be a long one. Ideally, you want to make your exit gracefully and with a vaguely concerned expression that says, Hmm, I think I may be late for something…I should probably get going… Many of those open-mic’ers will one day be featured readers too, and even if not, it’s bad manners to yell within their earshot, “Dear God let’s get the hell out of here now before the open mic starts, MOVE!” (If you are an open mic’er, stick around for your fellow open-mic’ers, and keep your piece to two or three minutes MAX. Do not, as a friend told me happened at a recent open-mic horror-show, shriek at the host, “I’m not done!!” when he actually comes on stage to block you after you’ve ignored his earlier and gentler pleas to cease and desist.)

Be gracious. People could be doing a kajillion other things than attending a literary reading. It is nice of them to be there. Before you begin, take a moment to thank the audience for coming (and thank the host for inviting you—as a bonus, these thank-you’s can also help to calm any pre-reading jitters). Then reward them with the best reading you can possibly give.

Have fun up there. Enough said.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Jessica Westhead

Jessica Westhead's short stories have appeared in major literary journals in Canada and the United States. "Unique and Life-Changing Items," which appears in And Also Sharks, was shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards. Her first novel, Pulpy & Midge, was nominated for the ReLit Award. Westhead lives in Toronto.

Go to Jessica Westhead’s Author Page