How I Learned to Read


I had a tremendous time reading for the Men Undressed anthology at San Francisco’s Lit Crawl this past weekend.

But before the reading I had to learn to read.[1]

This was not my first reading; however I’m not, historically speaking, a good reader. In fact, one of my trusted Famous Writer mentors told me this past summer, “That’s awful! You can’t read like that,” before turning to the rest of the group and adding, “C’mon guys. You gotta learn to read better. Who else is going to speak for your work?” For serious. He said it because he knew I could take it from him, and because I’d take his advice and use it to improve.

I decided to become a good reader.

So I practiced reading my excerpt. And I practiced some more. I read it aloud. I videotaped myself reading aloud. I watched myself on video (gah). I made myself read as slowly as I could. I asked a good friend (who happens to be a storyteller) for her feedback. She offered some kind but focused words. I was reading in that measured slow way like poets do, she said. The speed was good, she said. I got it. I worked on inflection. I practiced reading again. And I practiced some more. My husband gave me feedback. Modeled what he thought might be better to me. I was impressed; he was way better than I at reading my own piece.

At this point, I wished that I had taken some voice acting classes, or taken drama in junior high school. (Omg! James Earl Jones, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson, Holly Hunter, and Kathleen Turner are genius)! I was also inspired by Kathleen Chalfant reading alongside Jessica Hagedorn at Hagedorn’s book launch party for Toxicology. Chalfant showed me what writers can achieve when manuscripts are read with flair and power. (And also, what we writers often miss in our own readings). I was enraptured when she read aloud from Toxicology.

Writing and stellar voice performance are mutually exclusive, but I’m a strong believer in hard work. So I practiced some more. I marked up my manuscript with cues; symbols and underlines and exclamation points and stars for where I should slowly crescendo (arrow up), or decrescendo (arrow down) my voice, where I wanted to sound light and airy (dots) or gravelly (squiggly lines) or read more slowly (underlines), or pause (vertical line breaks). Or paaaauuuuuse. (double vertical line breaks).

I watched myself read on video. Gah. I practiced some more.

I watched the time. We each were allowed eight minutes to read. I cut and cut my piece down to six minutes, because as an audience member, I can’t stand when readers go over the time limit. It’s *rarely* an enjoyable experience listening/watching a writer read on and on and on. I cut paragraphs throughout, paragraphs in the middle, toward the end, all the ones that didn’t translate well to being read aloud.

I thought about my excerpt and what I wanted to convey. About being in the scene with my character. Made more tweaks as to relay the mood of the scene, of the actions involved.

I thought about memorizing as much as I could so that I could lift my head and make eye contact with the audience. And I made an executive decision: I wouldn’t be doing that. I didn’t have time to memorize, and it was lower priority. I’d just read it heads down. I’ve seen lots of great literary readers do just that, and it didn’t bother me at all that they never looked up.

And then I practiced reading aloud, again. On video. In front of my husband. Alone. I sighed. It was, I thought, the best I could do. And at least it was better than before. And then it was time.

I’d packed a summer dress for my reading. I get hot when I’m nervous. Not hawt. I’m talking sweaty hot flash, hot. You’ll never see me in a sweater for an event at which I know I’ll be nervous. (On the other hand, there are people who get colllld when they get nervous, in which case, they should wear sweaters and not summer dresses).

I don’t know about you, but a nice outfit can change my whole perspective on self. So I packed my favorite summer dress.

I had a cocktail beforehand–unplanned, but there was a bit of a wait before the doors opened, and I thought I’d have a drink. Which chilled me out. Which was good.

I had written notes to myself with cues for the reading on a post-it, and I’d stuck it on my manuscript. Notes about how to introduce my piece. Notes reminding me to introduce the next reader out of the Men Undressed anthology. I knew I’d forget otherwise. And I was glad I did, because the readers who went before I did, forgot to introduce the next reader.

And then I read. In a dark room in the Mission during Lit Crawl, where the night was lit up with literary energy, and where I knew a few good friends lingered in the audience. And then it felt magical, and I found myself improvising pitch while up on stage, inspiration that would not have come had I not practiced.

Moral of story:

  1. Practice reading.
  2. Get feedback.
  3. Practice some more.
  4. Make notes on your manuscript.
  5. Practice some more.
  6. Get into your story/scene/poem.
  7. Wear what makes you feel good.
  8. Get a posse together, if you can.
  9. And then–have fun. If you need a drink, go for it. If you don’t drink, that’s fine, too–but figure out a way to loosen up beforehand. And then, have as much fun as you can.

[1] And I’m sharing with you how I learned to read, because the advice out there is generic and not as practical or specific (e.g., “Read slow” or “Look up every once in awhile”) as I needed when I needed tips.


Filed under Reading, Writing

7 responses to “How I Learned to Read

  1. Great article, love the information, thank you.

  2. What a perfect blog entry, Christine! Personal yet really practical. I wish I could have been at the reading.

  3. Pingback: What I do when my writing isn’t going well (aka spice organization!) | 80,000 words

  4. This is great. Mind if I share it with my CW kids?

    In fact, you should make a YouTube video of you READING this piece, using the exact skills you’re describing…that would be an awesome resource.

    • @Naomi: thank you. And thank you for wanting to be at the reading–but I know Davis is quite the distance from SF!

      @teri: of course you can share this post with anyone you think might find it helpful. oh, and no to the youtube video. i did post a couple of videos of me practicing (and they were very bad practices that warranted feedback and a lot more practice), but they were only for my friend to view/critique. i hate looking at myself. 😉

  5. I love what your mentor said: “Who else is going to speak for your work?” It’s what i had to learn the hard way too, back when I was doing a lot more readings. With poetry it becomes even trickier, because there is a tendency to fall into a false singing-tone so easily. I had some theater training, so that did come in handy. I used to get myself into character before a reading, like trying to imagine what it would be like if Sharon Stone, or Meryl Streep were to read my poems. It helped with the nerves….
    And talking of nerves, I am with you on taking less than the given time. I always felt that it’s better to leave the audience wanting to hear more than to leave them wanting you to leave already.

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