If You Read It, They Will Listen

If You Read It, They Will Listen

Ruth E. Walker

A recent invitation to read my work at Tall Pine Tales in Haliburton set me off on a complicated journey. Tall Pine Tales is a collaborative reading series shared by writer organizations in two of Ontario’s cottage communities: Haliburton and Muskoka. Running successfully for the past 5 summers, there are expectations from the audience for this 6th season: plenty of laughter and smiles, along with thoughtful nudges about life’s twists and turns.

For me, an invite to a public reading is an ego-boost (especially useful when my muse opts to dance just out of reach.) It’s an opportunity to share my work with an audience, to feel my words slip among listeners and tempt their interest.

But when I looked at the writing I had on hand, I panicked a bit. I have a rather dark and serious muse, so this was a real challenge. Then I remembered The Perfect Beauty of Yvon Torville, an in-progress manuscript that I plan to return to in 2019.

Choose the right piece
  • think first; read later
    • there’s a big difference between reading your work to a group of colleague writers and reading aloud to an audience that is mostly readers. You need to consider the purpose of the event, the location and the likely audience:
      • indoors or outdoors
      • a library auditorium or a noisy local pub
      • elementary or high school students or adult audience
      • consider the people and the place, then choose: humour, pathos or high-tension drama?
  • pay attention to the tone of the organizers/event
    • I knew that Tall Pine Tales is a charming mix of memoir, humour, children’s authors and local content, so I chose accordingly: Yvon Torville is a revisionist take on an old Breton fairy tale with irony and magic at its heart
Get comfortable
  • practise
    • the more your practise, the more familiar you are with your own work. During readings, you need audience connection…and that means not keeping your eyes fixed firmly on your words. Look up as you read and move your attention throughout the room: help your listeners feel that you are reading to them and not to the podium.
    • the more familiar your are with your reading, the more easily you can govern your pacing. No matter how many times I’ve read publicly, I’m still a bundle of nerves. I channel that nervous energy into my readings and work hard at not rushing through, slowing down and giving emphasis to parts that need it (a lot of character names or unusual settings or a fast-paced scene.)
    • video or record your practice readings to help you hear your intonation, pauses and occasional stumbles. If you don’t want to record yourself, at the least listen carefully as you practise again and again to ensure a smooth and confident delivery
  • reconaissance/research
    • if you aren’t familiar with the location, do what you can to get familiar. Many out-of-town locations can be viewed online (check out the website for the reading event and a list of past readers)
    • ask the organizers: will there be a podium? Does it have a reading light? Is there a microphone? And here’s a really important question: How long do I have to read? (see “Deliver” for more on this one.)
Deliver
  • listen to the other readers
    • not only is it respectful to give your colleagues your full attention, it helps you to gauge the audience. And that helps to prepare you to deliver your work. Even if the audience is not overly receptive, you’ll know you’ll have to step up your game to get their attention.
  • engage your audience
    • if you have practised then you will read clearly and with some variety in your tone and you will be able to at least glance up in their direction. That’s all part of engagement.
  • stick to the time limit.
    • I have been in the audience when readers have gone over their time limit and it’s disrespectful to the organizers, to your colleague writers who keep to their time limit and most especially, to the listeners. No matter how “rivetting” your piece is, don’t do it.
    • At Tall Pine Tales, I cut my reading off at the requested 7-minute mark and then got to hear more than one person call out “No! What happens next?” I won’t have trouble selling them that book, will I?

Accept criticism

  • take stock of success and what still needs work
    • if possible, have someone in the audience you can quietly ask about what worked and what didn’t. At Tall Pine Tales I asked my husband, “So, what do I need to do better next time?” “Nothing,” he replied. But I’m not fooled by that. “C’mon, give it to me.” He let me know that the reading was great but “…next time, give a bit more time to the set up before you read. Tell them a bit about the original fairy tale first.” Bingo. He was right. It was a good reading but would have been even better if they knew why I am compelled to revise this old tale.
    • I like to read my work aloud to an audience, and I’m pretty good at it. But even so, it’s a never-ending journey to refine and improve each time. If I’m lucky, the invitations will continue to arrive and give my muse a kick in the pants just when I need it the most.

      Ruth reads from “Living Underground” in 2012