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On Reading Aloud, in Public

Thursday, May 14, 2009
This is another of the little pieces that had been on the old version of this site... but didn't quite have a place on the new site. Since some of the visitors to this site might be writers, I thought that another take on the whole reading-aloud-in-public issue might deserve a little more attention. So, here 'tis, reborn in blogosphere:



Last night, I read some of my food writing to a meeting of the board of trustees of a local library. While I was talking, and looking out at the audience, I remembered the first time I attended a poetry reading. I was eighteen, a freshman in college, and the poet was Louis Simpson.

I remember very little of what he read, but the Q & A will remain in my memory forever.

Summoning the courage to speak -- for the first time, to a real, live, published writer -- I asked, in all innocence, "I know what we get out these readings, but what do you get out of them?"

I suppose I could have phrased it better, perhaps something like, "Thank you. We get a great deal out these readings, but what artistic benefits do you gain from them?" It never occurred to me that before writers can create, they must eat -- and that poets, making very little on their books, do readings to stay alive. I was somewhat taken aback when he snapped, "I get a lot of questions I don't like!"

Needless to say, I never got the chance for a follow-up question.

Now that I've walked several proverbial miles in Simpson's shoes, I think I can answer the question a bit more thoughtfully than he was able do when he felt threatened by it.

Giving readings in public helps a writer in several ways, not all of them financial.

First, there is usually a small check involved. Checks are good for writers.

Second, when you read in public, you help expand the market for your books. Exposing librarians to one's writing is especially good, as they buy books and recommend books to new readers. These, too, are good for writers.

Third, and I believe most important, when you read aloud to strangers you actually get to see and hear responses that readers usually have only in private. Ultimately, what writers do is communicate -- and communication is always about the receiver of the message, not the sender. When you see people's reactions to your work -- whether it's fear, compassion, laughter, puzzlement, or merely boredom -- you get to find out what works and what doesn't. This is absolutely invaluable to a writer.

I like to read works in progress. It gives the audience a sense of being insiders, getting to experience something new before anyone else. It also gives me a chance to fine-tune my writing before I send it out for publication. I choose short pieces, never longer than ten minutes each, with little amusing segues between them to set the stage. I always save the funniest, or most touching, for last -- because that's what they'll remember when it's over.

You'll probably discover that not everything that works well in print, works when read aloud. However, virtually everything that works well aloud is also successful in print. I almost always rewrite parts of my work after these public readings.

Now that I think of it, I do remember part of one of Simpson's poems from that night -- and while it seems oddly appropriate now, I doubt that it was what he had in mind when he wrote it: "Everyone gets it in the end. In the end."

First published in Food-Writing Digest, Number 72, 14 December 2005

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