Dispatches | October 22, 2014

By Michael Nye

Last week, I was invited down to Missouri State University by my friend Mike Czyzniewjewski to visit with his graduate and undergraduate students for the day. Between his classes and his colleague, writer Jen Murvin, I visited three creative writing classes to talk about writing and publishing. There was also a well-attended late afternoon Q&A, dinner with graduate students, and finally, a reading at 7 pm, for which I was only ten minutes late.

The reading was held in the Robert W. Plaster Student Union Theatre, a gorgeous and gigantic room with rows of seats that rose high above where I was, down far below, in front of a podium, off to the left of an otherwise empty stage. High above, there was a set of glass windows where the electronics for the room were controlled, and directly next to it was a clock, with the time displayed in sharp red LED light that I could see with just a glance up from my pages.

The microphone stem was flexible, so I adjusted it closer so I could mostly keep my eyes down, but look up on occasion for emphasis. More than once, I inadvertently did this on “P” sounds but I don’t think it was awful. Also, I had the microphone a bit too close to my face, so I nudged it with my nose more than once, which made no news but which I definitely felt. Perhaps no listener noticed. I had water, which I only sipped from once, and read for a little under thirty minutes, just enough time to read the first chapter of my recently completed novel.

(and, no, do not ask about my novel…)

To my knowledge, never before have I repeatedly bumped a microphone with my nose. Most of the readings that I’ve given were performed with my teacher voice, a learned ability to project loud (enough) into a good-sized room so that everyone can hear just fine. There were one or two words I stumbled upon, which is normal for me too, but I think all and all it went well. Or at least, people said so afterwards. Not that anyone comes up to you after a reading and says “You were terrible!” but you know what I mean.

Reading in front of a crowd can be a nerve-wracking experience; to this day, despite giving probably two dozen readings, I’m always nervous beforehand, a feeling of dread that what I’m about to read will embarrass me and bore the audience. Yet, giving a reading is nice. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, I hate reading but I like having read.

I’ve long believe that reading your work aloud is the only way to know if it is finished, if it is any good at all. I read scenes aloud, then rework them; I read the whole story, then rework it from there too. It’s a bit stunning what tics I rediscover about my own writing, just from using my voice. No matter that I’ve been writing for years: I still find repetitive phrases, unnecessary verbiage, my own quirks and “tricks” that I use time and time again, clunky transitions, phrases that twist my tongue (“rusted wheel wells” was one, at the end of a complex-compound sentence, and I could not say that for the life of me), and other errors of logic, syntax, and grammar.

It’s a little weird to read your work aloud. But I’m getting used to it. Obviously, if you write in a cafe, you should get used to reading at home. I’d rather not read to nobody, so I read to my dog, who usually just wags her tail and then chews her paw and stares at me expectantly.

(obligatory photo of my puppy? yes!)

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Reading in public is a skill. It’s a performance in a similar way that great teaching is a performance; just knowing the material is not enough to keep your students engaged. When reading, it’s a matter of how and what and when you emphasis just the right thing to keep people listening. There’s nothing wrong with bumping your nose on the microphone. Perhaps it’s just part of showing the audience that you are, in fact, an imperfect person, just like the people you write about in your stories.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

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