Reading and Pausing and Reading Again

Filed under: Creative Process — joy at 3:03 pm on Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I’ve been reading my work in front of audiences a lot this year. It’s a skill, you know, reading in front of people. I’m still learning to do it well.

The way to get an audience’s attention at a literary reading is to write something that’s not boring. Don’t be self-indulgent, have a strong beginning, keep it short, and write a good story.

But there’s something to be said for basic performing skills too: read clearly, with a varied voice, not too fast, and with pauses so the words can sink in.

I learned to read writing aloud in college. I had this English professor who made us read poems in front of the class. Part of the grade was based on paying attention to the white spaces on the page. If there were a space       between words, we had to pause. We had to take a, breath, at, every, comma. And when there was a break

between stanzas, we had to take a longer pause. The idea was that the negative space is as much a part of the poem as the words.

Even though I don’t write poetry, I’ve been applying the rules when reading in front of audiences. When I see a punctuation mark, I make sure to pause appropriately.

This may sound obvious, but it’s not. People at readings tend to read their work in a ceaseless drone. Pausing allows the audience to absorb what you said and engage with your work. A comma is a breath. Every stop brings in silence that, combined with the sound of the words, creates a rhythm that propels the story along.

A story or a poem should be like a song without music.

Sometimes, anyway.

This morning, Ani Difranco made a similar observation about developing her style of guitar playing when she was starting out:

With finger picking, it’s note, silence, note, silence, and patterns, rhythmic patterns. So I learned some folk picking patterns and then tightened them up and made them harder and was delving farther into the juxtaposition of Bam! And silence.

And that’s when you’re solo in the bar, surrounded by people who don’t know who you are and don’t care … if someone is talking really loudly over sound, and then suddenly there’s no sound, their voice stands out and they shut themselves up. Then you have three seconds when they’re turning around to see what just did that. And you have three seconds to interest them in what comes next. And that was my whole mission, trying to connect with people in unlikely circumstances who had no interest in doing that.

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