A conversation with Judith Lindbergh and Michelle Cameron
In anticipation of our upcoming workshop, “Reading Your Writing for an Audience”, Michelle and I thought we should discuss why we thought such a program was really relevant to writers. Below is the result of an interesting back and forth. We hope you enjoy it and even pick up a tip or two.
Michelle Cameron: My husband has often said that he thinks writers should never read their work aloud. Like so many of us, he’s suffered through some really bad readings. He feels that writers should be confined to the medium where they thrive, mainly the printed page. I’ve tried to convince him otherwise – especially in this market – but to no avail. What do you think?
Judith Lindbergh: He definitely has a point. I’ve suffered through readings, too – some by highly regarded literary icons – and been shocked by the droning or pretentious deliveries. I’ve also attended readings where the writer truly breathes life into their already stunning words. I remember Toni Morrison at the 92nd Street Y. Her presentation sang with dynamism and drama. She truly made her writing leap off the page — a storyteller in every sense of the word.
MC: Indeed. I remember so clearly how Billy Collins read one of my favorite poems – “Litany” – at one of the Dodge Poetry Festivals. We were standing in the shade of some trees listening, and I remembered thinking – how natural and how full of dry wit – some of which only became apparent to me when he did read it.
Yet even good readers can run into problems. Maybe they’ve read their work too often. Their readings can sound overly rehearsed. Then there’s “the poetry voice.” Many poets read in an entirely unnatural style – using rising inflection at the end of lines whether or not they belong, adding ridiculous pauses, a seething tone, oddly drawn-out syllables. Check out this great reading by Taylor Mali that demonstrates that voice with perfect irony:
I have never understood why poets feel this fake, strained, nearly incomprehensible way of reading imbues their work with greater importance. It’s the other side of the stumbling and bumbling – an artificial voice that really grates on their listeners.
JL: The problem is that most writers are not natural performers. Many of us write precisely because we’re more comfortable on the page than out loud. Reading silently is a private act, an exchange of thoughts between writer and reader. But speaking in front of an audience is absolutely public.
MC: You’re right, most writers are the wallflowers in the crowd, the ones who step back and observe what’s going on around us. Most of us are decided introverts. Can you imagine Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson or even the more vibrant Emily Bronte having to perform their work?
JL: The problem is that, these days, all writers must promote their work. Publishers expect it. In this competitive market, if we want our books to get any notice at all, we have to get out there and make a lot of noise. That inevitably means getting up in front of a microphone at some point and reading our work aloud.
MC: So maybe it behooves us to get past our trepidation and learn how to embrace that part of the job. You’re an unusual writer because you’re a former actress. Can you give those of us who aren’t natural performers any words of wisdom?
JL: Reading my work is fun for me because I draw on my stage experience. I still get nervous, of course, but when I read I change hats. I convince myself that I’m not an author presenting my work. I’m my character and I literally try to step into his or her shoes.
When I was on tour promoting The Thrall’s Tale, I always read three passages – one from each of the main characters’ voices. Bringing them to life wasn’t difficult because, even as I wrote the book, I’d often “perform” their passages aloud. It helped me understand my characters’ emotions, experiences and sometimes even their physicality. When I give a reading, I draw on those same voices and emotions. I try to “be” my characters as I read.
Still, I don’t act my readings. Imagine trouncing around in a bookstore gesturing and emoting—ridiculous! But there’s a way to bring musicality to your voice – perhaps a light tone for a young or innocent character, or a deep, gravelly voice for someone old or tired. I practice and play with my rhythms and try to find the right place for pauses and emotional highs and lows. Practice and play are critical to find confidence and to develop vocal control. Finally, I always remind myself to listen to my own words and feel what they are saying. When we’re nervous, we often just read and don’t think about what our words mean. We have to remember that this reading is the first time our listeners have experienced our thoughts. We want them to be as fresh as if we made them up just now.
It truly comes down to confidence and abandon – letting go of our self-awareness and stepping out of our writerly selves to become the narrator of our own adventure.
MC: I like that — confidence and abandon. It’s definitely a skill worth cultivating, especially in the current publishing marketplace. And the nice thing is that even timid readers — and I’m one — can gain that confidence when they learn how to reach and touch their audience. I always read the Talmud burning scene to audiences when I talk about The Fruit of Her Hands — and there’s nothing to match the absolute stillness of an audience when they listen to that heart wrenching passage. That’s when your words really come alive!
JL: Stillness! That’s wonderful. You really have brought them into your world when you get a reaction like that. I think that’s the reason, in the end, that many of us write fiction. We want to express our imaginative visions and try to make them real for others. When we witness someone else who is moved by the worlds and lives of our characters, we know all the hard work of writing has been worth it.
Learn more at The Writers Circle Speaker Series event, Reading Your Writing for an Audience with Sandra McLaughlin & Leonie Higgins, Sunday, April 1, 2:00-4:00 PM at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ. Register online at www.writerscircleworkshops.com.