Friday, February 20, 2009

Performance Readings

Being sick has really taken it out of me, but it's been a good excuse to sit around and watch too much TV.

I've been reading more essays from Sloane Crosley's collection I Was Told There'd Be Cake. Now that I think of it, I'm really impressed that she managed to publish a book with the word "there'd" in the title. It's a commonly used contraction but I don't think I've ever seen it in print.

My next submission for workshop is due on Sunday. I've been working on it on an off all February, but of course, I've left the hardest parts for last and, well, now it's time for them to rear up and bite me in the butt.

This time around I've chosen to submit a piece of nonfiction formatted as an essay, (which is undoubtedly Ms. Crosley's fault).

Tonight there is a reading downtown in a coffee shop/bar/pizza place (they're trying to cash in on all venues where students spend money). The readers are MFA candidates -- my turn comes a month from now -- tonight includes one of the writers I like in my fiction workshop. Hopefully he'll perform his piece instead of just read it off the page.

This next bit goes out to anyone who ever chooses to get up in front of a crowd and speak (I understand if it's not your choice that you might be less inclined to care about what I have to say): don't bore us.

We tend to think of "lecture" as speaking aloud to a group, giving instruction through a speech, something like that, but the word originates as a medieval term meaning to read. Yes, once upon a time education was conducted by the guy up front reading aloud from a book on the lectern. This seems silly to me; why not just read it yourself? The practice probably came from religion where the only person in town who was literate was the guy reading from the book and then the practice carried over to the university. Although why it stayed that way for as long as it did I'll never know (even back in the day people at university were literate).

Thankfully, we live in a different era. If I thought the old fuddy-duddy lecturing on political theory was hard to listen to, I doubt I would have survived him simply reading from the page.

[Side note: AWP's guidelines are that its panelists prepare a written speech and then read directly from that writing. Ug! Thankfully, most of the panelists don't follow that guideline.]

In an age of spoken lectures why would anyone read fiction straight from the page without emotion, inflection, pause or eye contact? Why would a writer hoping to promote himself and his work not do everything in his power to make it easier to consume by a listening audience?

I have no idea, and yet I'm seeing it time and again at these MFA candidate's readings.

At the readings at AWP (with an exception of some of the poets) the writers used inflection, they changed up their pacing, their volume, they looked up from their work and made eye contact with the whole room -- look up, look down, look back corner, back corner, near corner, down -- they create an experience where the audience feels like they're listening to an actor read, not like they feel that they themselves are reading the page.

We are hardwired to understand speech and speech patterns. We listen for tone, inflection, volume, pauses, rhythm to determine things that are underlying in the speaker's words. Does the writer have to do all that with mere words on the flat page? Yes. But that's no reason for the writer to believe that a listening audience will be able to subvert their hardwiring and care only for the nuances of words without tone, inflection, volume, pauses or rhythm.

Highly Recommended