A reading is a great way to get noticed and to build an audience. Spoken word artists rely heavily on the reception by an audience--it's in the title of "spoken word" artist that their work is crafted to be performed. And while there is material that is meant to be performed such as music and spoken word there's more subtle poetry, non-fiction, and fiction read aloud. My friend Kim and her friend Kia and I recently discussed bad readings we'd been to. Ones where the reader was monotone in the way they spoke, not changing inflection or diction at all for the piece. And when you have dense material this is very, very hard to listen to let alone get excited about. There are also those who tend to drag on and keep talking and talking because they have people there to listen. And when all these things combine it makes for a perfect storm in terms of the listening experience.
I've experienced the powerful and the painful. I've heard authors read large portions of work where only one sentence stuck with me after twenty minutes or more of listening to them. I've heard authors, published and non, ramble on about life coming to open mics with nothing prepared just hoping it'd flow, it didn't. I've also seen spoken word artists so in tune with their craft that they'll have a standing ovation and fiction/non-fiction authors arouse so much passion and sympathy from listeners that they just sold a good dozen or more copies of their books in the time they read.
Now, I'm not saying everything that is read should be humorous or fleeting and not necessarily be deep or have a connection. What I am saying is that a reader (author in this case) should consider their audience or potential and establish readers (those who do read the book). I think sometimes authors choose material that is the most interesting to them, but again that doesn't necessarily translate aloud.
My first experience reading aloud was in junior high and I was reading a portion from The Fear Street series by R. L. Stine. My mistake was that I read too long and without much oomph. When my classmates heard me rustle a page I heard groans in the audience, they were disgruntled at the fact that I kept going and didn't know when to stop. I went on so long that I bumped someone else out of a reading spot. In my sophomore year of high school I had written a poem for Black History Month and read it so stagnantly that no one paid attention to the words, no matter how 'deep' I thought they were in my adolescence.
By college I had learned a bit more, by grad school I was getting better and more animated, and now--while I don't know everything--I feel much more confident when I go to the mic to read my work. Am I nervous? Heck yeah I am! My hands shake the paper I'm holding so that I'm glad when I have a podium to hide my trembling. But because I believe in my work and the brevity and impact of it I know that even if it doesn't get a good response, it'll be over quickly enough.
My conference experiences attest to most of my recent experience in reading material I was confident in. Most if not all writing conferences with workshops as a focus will have an opportunity for participants to read from their work so that we're not only hearing faculty but the potential future of literature.
My first time at VCFA I read a heart-rendering piece from my Collection that was really sad. It got shocked moans from the audience in places because they felt for the husband at the funeral. The piece has changed dramatically since then, but I knew the impact was there.
At Napa I had two minutes, and went a bit over, to reveal a scene about two men talking about infertility and insecurity, a tete a tete between two brothers. I chose the scene that revealed the most tension through dialogue. My workshop mates enjoyed it and Forrest Gander said he liked the opposition I presented in such a short amount of time.
At the Glen I read the last few pages of another story that my workshop mates and Sara Zarr had read. So I already had partial invested interest from people at the conference. The end was a fight scene. I got laughs in places I hadn't expected to and a nice round of applause. The next day at our farewell party several people came up to me and said they remembered my piece because of the power and tension and clear goal of the character in that portion. I picked it because I knew it was short and contained a moment that may resonate for readers and moved quickly, yet ended with heart for an edgy character.
I could've chosen the pieces that sounded pretty and I had been told 'moved' people and such but if the portion wasn't contained or wouldn't draw interest or couldn't succinctly tell a portion in an engaging way I more than likely won't read it out loud because I don't know if it'll hit the mark or if listeners will enjoy it enough to focus on what I'm saying.
Something else I've learned and gained control in is how I read. Like I said I started off very monotone with no inflection years ago. With my own writing I know the voices and the characters I have lived with for years, sometimes less. So I aim to capture those moments I want to convey. I can read pissed and lower my voice to a manly bravado.
My friend Ennis has done readings for pieces he's published. He's a former actor and really captures the range in the characters and moments. He's been complimented heavily for this and when he tells listeners he was an actor they aren't surprised.
Is it necessary, changing tones? No, but I think it helps to further show your range and understanding. I think going overboard with accents you cannot master may distract the listener rather than intrigue them. So I don't do southern accents for characters that have them, however I do alter tones when necessary and emphasize where necessary and get into the spirit like an actor would a part. These are your characters. This is your narrator. You know them best.
I have to say that length and timing matter. Do practice reading if you have a time limit and the shorter the better at times. Jennifer Egan tends to read the same story, her first, from The Good Squad. I've seen her read a handful of times since it was released and she often reads that story because it does pack a punch, have interaction within it, and is one of the shorter ones in the collection. On top of that she reads it well. She knows Sasha and she does the voices of Sasha versus everyone and captures all the moments in the story so that after reading it yourself hearing her read it sounds completely new. And that's the effect you want to have on listeners.
I've read my flash fiction at conferences, open mics, and residencies and some pieces hit harder than others and required my audience for the few minutes I was in front of them to not have to pay attention for more than a few minutes. I appreciate the five minute limit because it does allow me to focus on a single moment to draw the reader in without going overboard with background and other instances that may not be of interest to listeners in that moment.
So these are my suggestions if you choose to read your work aloud:
1. Make sure the material will resonate with the reader and is conducive to being read aloud. If it's very convoluted and has a lot of twists and turns it may not be right for an audience to hear, especially if many are not used to listening to work.
2. Try to differentiate how you speak if you have dialogue and try to not sound too professional if the text doesn't require it. Junot Diaz writes in a voice that is similar to his own so that when he reads it's not as though he's reaching. Tayari Jones also is very good at capturing her characters when she reads. She knows them and hearing her read Silver Sparrow going from mother to daughter to father was amazing and put me in the moment. Like the writing the oral voice should be your own but reading it in one way every time may not give readers of your work a new experience.
3. Try to keep it short. Yeah, featured artists don't have that worry so much because they get a good amount of time. Usually twenty minutes or so, sometimes longer. But many people are not used to long periods of listening to something that is not accompanied by visuals and/or music. So if you're going to read for awhile make sure it works in that space of time as well, see 1 & 2 above.
I think these three things can help any artist whether it's doing a presentation or reading creatively. It's nice to hear your own voice but give the audience the respect of being entertained by it. It's not so much about you once you're at the mic but about those who graced you with their presence.