Reading My Own Words: Some Practical Thoughts

Recently my friend Kelli Fitzpatrick, writer of speculative fiction extraordinaire, emailed, paying an unexpected compliment.  She’d won a literary prize and had been asked to do a big public reading, and like all of us in those situations, was feeling the nerves. She noted that she always loved the way I read (I always thought she read well!) and would I offer some suggestions for how to prepare. In her note, this perceptive line struck me: As a teacher, I’m used to giving information fast and efficiently, and as a competitive orator in college, the emphasis was on persuasive technique. I’ve noticed that compelling fiction readings seem to have a different tone and rhythm entirely. Is there an established craft to reading fiction aloud, or is it an organic thing that each writer must figure out for their own work?

Of course, I was flattered, and happy for her success, but her thoughtful question led me to think more deeply about this thing called a “reading.” As in, out loud.  And yeah, how do I prepare to use my voice to communicate what I have written?  I can only speak for myself, my practice, but here’s one possible answer—not to be taken as the final word. I’m sharing my practice, but I’m also curious how other readers prepare and would welcome responses about what others do to create a successful reading.

First, I do practice, but the process is both organic and deliberate. Years ago the theater people taught me that even when one is reading (not acting a role) one needs to think like an actor. That is, our minds need to reproduce the images from the page—we need to see what’s happening in our imaginations, and if we do, our readers do too. A little woowoo perhaps, but I do think, as readers, we need to envision the story deeply enough that our vocal patterns follow the intention, the meaning of the tale rather than any artificially produced inflection. That intention cues the listener to the aural emotions. If it sounds like we mean it, they enter the “movie of the mind” more easily.  It is perhaps the only way that we read each other’s minds. That said, as I practice this internal “seeing,” I also mark my reader’s copy, note the pauses, designate small bits of body language, and underline words to emphasize. Also an actor’s practice. This exercise keeps me in the external world while the mind simultaneously enters the story, a dichotomous act.

It goes without saying we have to mean what we’re reading, and to be authentically fearless (not contrived) about meaning it.  Even if we are quiet readers, we can succeed with sincerely held meaning. I’ve seen soft-spoken, even shy readers hold crowds in thrall with simple, intentional meaning.  How is that done?  I’m not completely sure but here’s one answer: think about the breath of a sentence. Each sentence has its own rhythm and we need to hear it inside our bodies as much as we need the story inside our minds. As one practices, one can feel how each good sentence is not only a mini-story with its own emotional arc, but as the images hit the mind, so the breath enters the body. Reading the arc of breath in the sentence helps those pauses, intonations, the drama of the sentence, become organic, physical in the body.  The thought and the breath of the sentence are married in the body, and they couple to make meaning for our listeners.  And just how do we do that? My only answer is practice.

And practically speaking, I do practice, standing up, projecting, enunciating, and making eye contact. I often pretend I’m on mic. As I practice, I try to hit my designated points of emphasis, but sometimes, when the images in my head take over, and the movie of the mind surfaces, an entirely different inflection rises. It’s usually right and I go with it.  Also, as I practice, I read slowly, artificially slow, so when the tension of being in front of people hits, even if I speed up a little, I won’t race. That’s what throws off so many readers and makes for a less effective reading. You want to touch people so eye contact, vocal empathy, small gestures or expressions, all support that experience. And about that mic; many people don’t use it properly. A reader needs to be close enough that it sounds a little too loud to her, but not so close she pops her P’s or rattles the speaker.  Most people stand too far away, and don’t speak directly into the mic because they are afraid of that thing sticking up in their faces (LOL) and/or they feel the monitor is too loud when in the audience, the sound is fine.

Finally, listeners are giving us their most precious thing, their time, and while we are giving them ours as well, the exchange should be worth their while. That attitude should set a fire in us to do our best. I hear that impulse in Kelli’s question, her very real respect for her listeners.  She wants to do right by the words she made, she’s ambitious for her work, but she also wants her readers to be moved, to receive the richest experience of the tale that she can give them. For that reason I return to my first response, practice is the essence.

Does that help?  Kelli’s is such a good question, and my answer is incomplete. I suspect many of you know all this and may have better suggestions.  Please chime in.