A conversation with Judith Lindbergh and Michelle Cameron
In anticipation of our upcoming workshop, “Reading Your Writing for an Audience”, Michelle and I thought we should discuss why we thought such a program was really relevant to writers. Below is the result of an interesting back and forth. We hope you enjoy it and even pick up a tip or two.
Michelle Cameron: My husband has often said that he thinks writers should never read their work aloud. Like so many of us, he’s suffered through some really bad readings. He feels that writers should be confined to the medium where they thrive, mainly the printed page. I’ve tried to convince him otherwise – especially in this market – but to no avail. What do you think?
Judith Lindbergh: He definitely has a point. I’ve suffered through readings, too – some by highly regarded literary icons – and been shocked by the droning or pretentious deliveries. I’ve also attended readings where the writer truly breathes life into their already stunning words. I remember Toni Morrison at the 92nd Street Y. Her presentation sang with dynamism and drama. She truly made her writing leap off the page — a storyteller in every sense of the word.
MC: Indeed. I remember so clearly how Billy Collins read one of my favorite poems – “Litany” – at one of the Dodge Poetry Festivals. We were standing in the shade of some trees listening, and I remembered thinking – how natural and how full of dry wit – some of which only became apparent to me when he did read it.
Yet even good readers can run into problems. Maybe they’ve read their work too often. Their readings can sound overly rehearsed. Then there’s “the poetry voice.” Many poets read in an entirely unnatural style – using rising inflection at the end of lines whether or not they belong, adding ridiculous pauses, a seething tone, oddly drawn-out syllables. Check out this great reading by Taylor Mali that demonstrates that voice with perfect irony:
I have never understood why poets feel this fake, strained, nearly incomprehensible way of reading imbues their work with greater importance. It’s the other side of the stumbling and bumbling – an artificial voice that really grates on their listeners.
JL: The problem is that most writers are not natural performers. Many of us write precisely because we’re more comfortable on the page than out loud. Reading silently is a private act, an exchange of thoughts between writer and reader. But speaking in front of an audience is absolutely public.
MC: You’re right, most writers are the wallflowers in the crowd, the ones who step back and observe what’s going on around us. Most of us are decided introverts. Can you imagine Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson or even the more vibrant Emily Bronte having to perform their work?
JL: The problem is that, these days, all writers must promote their work. Publishers expect it. In this competitive market, if we want our books to get any notice at all, we have to get out there and make a lot of noise. That inevitably means getting up in front of a microphone at some point and reading our work aloud.
MC: So maybe it behooves us to get past our trepidation and learn how to embrace that part of the job. You’re an unusual writer because you’re a former actress. Can you give those of us who aren’t natural performers any words of wisdom?
JL: Reading my work is fun for me because I draw on my stage experience. I still get nervous, of course, but when I read I change hats. I convince myself that I’m not an author presenting my work. I’m my character and I literally try to step into his or her shoes.
When I was on tour promoting The Thrall’s Tale, I always read three passages – one from each of the main characters’ voices. Bringing them to life wasn’t difficult because, even as I wrote the book, I’d often “perform” their passages aloud. It helped me understand my characters’ emotions, experiences and sometimes even their physicality. When I give a reading, I draw on those same voices and emotions. I try to “be” my characters as I read.
Still, I don’t act my readings. Imagine trouncing around in a bookstore gesturing and emoting—ridiculous! But there’s a way to bring musicality to your voice – perhaps a light tone for a young or innocent character, or a deep, gravelly voice for someone old or tired. I practice and play with my rhythms and try to find the right place for pauses and emotional highs and lows. Practice and play are critical to find confidence and to develop vocal control. Finally, I always remind myself to listen to my own words and feel what they are saying. When we’re nervous, we often just read and don’t think about what our words mean. We have to remember that this reading is the first time our listeners have experienced our thoughts. We want them to be as fresh as if we made them up just now.
It truly comes down to confidence and abandon – letting go of our self-awareness and stepping out of our writerly selves to become the narrator of our own adventure.
MC: I like that — confidence and abandon. It’s definitely a skill worth cultivating, especially in the current publishing marketplace. And the nice thing is that even timid readers — and I’m one — can gain that confidence when they learn how to reach and touch their audience. I always read the Talmud burning scene to audiences when I talk about The Fruit of Her Hands — and there’s nothing to match the absolute stillness of an audience when they listen to that heart wrenching passage. That’s when your words really come alive!
JL: Stillness! That’s wonderful. You really have brought them into your world when you get a reaction like that. I think that’s the reason, in the end, that many of us write fiction. We want to express our imaginative visions and try to make them real for others. When we witness someone else who is moved by the worlds and lives of our characters, we know all the hard work of writing has been worth it.
Learn more at The Writers Circle Speaker Series event, Reading Your Writing for an Audience with Sandra McLaughlin & Leonie Higgins, Sunday, April 1, 2:00-4:00 PM at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ. Register online at www.writerscircleworkshops.com.
These past few weeks have been busy ones for me with several friends launching and promoting their latest works.
First came Marc Aronson’s If Stones Could Speak. Then the joyous hullabaloo shared by all The Writers Circle over Stuart Lutz’s The Last Leaf. You all heard from Susan Barr-Toman yesterday and will hopefully make it to her event next Friday at Words. But there are three other critical events that I cannot fail to mention, given that two are for one of my oldest and dearest writing friends and the third is for one of my newest and dearest.
Don’t miss Stephanie Cowell signing at Watchung Booksellers this Saturday, May 1, from 1:00-2:00 PM and at Words on Thursday, May 13 for a reading at 7:30 PM. The Boston Globe calls her new novel, Claude & Camille, “nothing short of masterful.” Stephanie and I have known each other for over twenty years (scary to write that!) and in several very concrete ways she was instrumental in my ever being able to call myself a professional writer. I’m honored to have such a loyal, generous and talented friend and can’t wait to celebrate her latest novel.
One of my newest dear friends, Marina Budhos, shares a passion for rich, complex writing and the challenging juggle of career and family. So I’m taking my eldest, who is good friends with her son, to the launch of her latest young adult novel, Tell Us We’re Home. She’ll be reading this Sunday, May 2, 2:00 PM, again at Words.
Come and join the celebrations!
I am not a poet. I would never claim to be. If writing were music, I prefer to play conductor to soloist. My fiction would be a symphony, not a piece for solo piano. But the craft of a prose writer also involves cadences, subtle pauses for thought, deeper undercurrents and expressions that run just beneath the written words. There is a great deal that all of us can learn from poetry, particularly brevity (something that obviously escapes me at times in these blog posts!).
Since 1996, the month of April has been National Poetry Month. I was reminded of this when my third grader came home with an assignment to pick and memorize a poem for school.
Almost simultaneously came a scattering of poetry messages to my inbox: yesterday on NPR: ‘Who I Am’: Poetry Not Wasted On The Young from which I discovered “Arithmetic” by Carl Sandburg, a good one for my son, though I’m doing my best to reserve judgment at least until he’s read it.
Poetry is immediate. In just a few short lines, a well-wrought poem can raise the emotions of visceral experience. It can share the commonality of human existence – sorrow or elation, melancholy in the passage of time, humor, guilt, irony. It can draw the shape of an entire character, the journey of a complex life. It is truly amazing that such breadth and complexity can be twisted into such an incredibly compact creation.
When I read poetry, I am always anxious for that heart-tapping “ah-ha” when the message of the poem comes breathlessly clear to me. Inevitably I read a poem once, twice, three times, then return to it again over years.
I remember attending poetry readings at the 92nd Street Y in New York City where the poets read slowly, purposefully without inflection, but always – always read their poems twice as if the repetition would remove any lingering veil from their richly insightful meanings.
And for nearly a decade, I’ve forgone the pleasure of attending The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a biennial event that I recall with much passion for the freedom of my pre-motherhood days, when my husband and I strolled from tent to church to woody grove at Waterloo Village, New Jersey.
This year, The Poetry Festival is moving to Newark. And I think my boys are just old enough that I might risk dragging them along. I remember first discovering the festival from a documentary by Bill Moyers in the early 1990s. In a recent redux, Bill Moyers Journal revisited the festival as I remember it. Check out the wonderful video on PBS’s website, though I wasn’t able to embed the code to post it directly here: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/03062009/watch3.html.
Besides the glory of the greatest works of poetry presented in our own backyard, we in New Jersey have access to countless offerings in New York City. Another great annual event – PEN World Voices – starts next Monday and runs until Sunday, May 2. I have always loved both PEN’s festival and mission to draw attention to the vast body of world literature and to promote freedom of speech in countries where authors are at risk to do what we all do freely every day.
American contemporary literature suffers from chronic naval-gazing, an almost isolationist self-importance that frequently ignores the wider world. PEN’s World Voices Festival includes writers that are unfamiliar to most of us, but whose writings have affected the broader society of global readers and bring a taste and perspective that’s as intriguing as it is unfamiliar.
It reminds me of the scents of cumin, curry and sweet tamarind sauce, the first time ever in my life I smelled or tasted Indian food. It was at the apartment of my friend Swati Dasgupta. We were seven years old and everything about her life was exotic and new – her mother wrapped in silken saris with a red dot on her forehead, their magical appearance in my dull Massachusetts community from someplace halfway around the world. It opened my eyes to new magical possibilities. From that moment I was hooked. Imagine if I’d never tasted anything but hamburgers?
If you have time, take a taste at one of these incredible festivals. You never know where your imagination, your writing or your life might take you.
How lovely! As I’ve been taking a bit of time off from teaching and therefore from blogging, the virtual world nonetheless seems interested in what I have to say! My blog-post from late May, The Storyteller’s Fire, is today’s featured post on Backspace’s terrific new blog, STET!
Backspace is a vibrant online writing community that also holds great conferences like the one I was privileged to speak at this spring in NYC. If you’re not already a member, definitely check them out. The people I met at the conference were talented, committed and fascinating.
Poetry can feel, at times, as rarified as air, precious for its purity, its essentialness, its glittering, fluid, whimsical magnificence. It gives weight to simplicity and simplicity to weight, nourishing on levels more ephemeral and yet more visceral than prose.
As I write my novels, I have often pondered the poetry in my words. All writers work with rhythms, whether they intend to or not. There’s an inherent flow that makes a sentence or paragraph just right, or that forces us to half-consciously cut out a word or add one, that lets us know that there’s something missing right there – not necessarily a bit of action or a detail’s flourish, but a sound, a sensibility, a feeling. We search for it, hoping and trusting that our more prosaic muse will eventually find the perfect mix of meaning and form.
Poetry can teach us how to sift out that pure perfection. It’s like crystal. Like diamond. Dazzling, but hard to come by. Can we dig down that far inside ourselves to uncover those flawless jewels?
Since I first heard Jane Hirshfield read years ago at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I’ve been fascinated with her work. Her free verse moves with cadence and deep meaning, rather than following a prescribed meter or rhyme. Yet somehow she encapsulates the essence of her thoughts – of some of life’s deepest thoughts – in a few carefully chosen words. I often listen or read her work in wonder, longing to distill my own to such purity.
Ms. Hirshfield read again at the Poetry Festival last September. And though I wasn’t able to attend, we can all hear her now, thanks to YouTube. I particularly love her very brief poem, “A Cedary Fragrance.” In an expression so pure, she aims her words with a embroiderer’s delicate needle. As she speaks the closing line, I feel the precision of her thought piercing directly to my wisest mind.
Listen to her words. Enjoy them for their essence. And try to apply their lessons to your own work – embrace that semi-conscious awareness that each word effects your work profoundly, and that rhythms and careful phrasing aren’t merely troublesome necessities, but the most powerful tools of your craft.
As our Writers Circle prepares for its Creative Arts Showcase next week, I can’t help but be fully aware of the challenge of reading aloud, both from a perspective of performance and as a tool for the writer.
My classes and groups have almost always worked orally. We sit around our table and learn to listen carefully. We rarely pass around copies to mark up or follow along. Sometimes new writers are surprised by this approach. “Isn’t this about READING?” But I say, no. It’s really about listening. You are telling a story, and if the story doesn’t hold up when read aloud, it’s probably missing something on the page.
Certainly, at some point, someone has to do the nitty-gritty editing that takes paper and a big red pen in hand. But before that moment, in the midst of the creative flow, I find it’s reading aloud and listening that are key to discovering a story’s truth – its voice, its pace, its action, its intensity. I often read my work aloud even as I’m writing. Perhaps that’s a bit weird, or maybe it’s because I used to be an actress, but for me, it’s often the only way to know if what I’ve written has any grace or truth at all.
In the days before books were readily available, before people knew how to read, before writing even existed, people listened to stories. It is one of the most primal arts, along with dance, drumming and song. The greatest storytellers had power. They were literally imbued with a mystical connection that held sway over life and death and the fortunes of people’s lives.
Perhaps our writing today has lost that sort of magic, but the mission of the storyteller remains the same. Delivery can be as important as content – cadences, the subtle distinction of voices, the florid verbal canvas that draws images, characters, and action in the listener’s mind.
Verlyn Klinkenborg’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, Some Thoughts on the lost Art of Reading Aloud, reminds us that until recently, reading aloud was a routine experience that created community and enriched family, that was an activity of choice, not a boring homework assignment (as it is for my 8-year-old son) or a nerve-wracking proposition as it so often is for many authors. Whether amateur or professional, as we step onto the literary “stage”, it is critical to remember what Klinkenborg writes: “Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body…. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.”
As writers, we are not only the person reading, but the person whose soul – obvious or obscured – is coming to life through those words on those pages. Slightly different from raconteuring, which has also gained new prominence recently, we writers frame our experience and imagination in concrete sentences carefully honed. For these sentences to speak, they must be lived – first in their creation, then in the reader/listener’s mind. When we read them aloud, they become vital and alive, crackling like the storyteller’s fire, rich with sparks dancing before our eyes.