Writers , Want Tips on #Reading to Audiences? #amwriting

Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome Tania Hershman, who’s been on this site before, and is one of my idols when it comes to writing short stories. She’s here to talk about one of the things I find most difficult about the writing life: performing your work in front of audiences.

So here’s Tania on writing and performing her work!

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I am writing this while listening to music on my computer, which seems fitting for a piece on performing your own work. Getting out of the house, getting up in front of of an audience, standing (or sometimes sitting) holding a piece of paper, a sheaf of papers, a book, or sometimes empty-handed, and giving yourself directly to a group of people. Does this make it sound as joyous as it is for me? I hope so! I know, though, that it is not a pleasure for many writers, so let’s talk about it.

I’ve been writing seriously for about 20 years, although it really all started in childhood. But a year or so ago, I changed my Twitter profile from “writer” to “writer/performer” as I realised that performing my work, giving readings, was becoming almost as important as the writing itself, or at least as important as being published. A wonderful friend with whom I am developing a two-woman poetry and prose performance sent me a quote recently from American poet Stanley Kunitz in which he talks about a writer reading her work in public as a “secondary act of creation”, and this is how it feels to me. It is not simply a live presentation of what is already on a page; it is connection with others, an intimacy of the shared physical space and time, an experience that – although it may be being recorded – is in fact ephemeral and unrepeatable. You have to be there.

Tania Hershman performing poemsLet’s talk about fear. Many of us are writers precisely because we prefer to communicate through the written word. I know I do. I’m not much of a talker. I am introverted, not comfortable socializing in crowds, preferring one-on-one conversation. I feel I am at my most fluent when I am writing. But, perhaps surprisingly, I love being on stage. This began in my twenties when I did a lot of amateur dramatics and discovered I enjoyed becoming other people, slipping into character. This familiarity with the stage turns out to be immensely helpful when you have a book out – or, nowadays, with the blossoming of the live lit scene, where writers are invited to perform at open mic events.

You might think from this that I slip into a character when I read from my own work, that I become Tania The Performer, different from Tania The Writer (who, perhaps, is different from Tania The Person). But I don’t consciously do this, I don’t put on a mask, I get up in front of people as myself, as much as possible. I don’t want to hide from the audience, I want that connection, that act of co-creation. And this has shifted as I have made the shift from writing short stories to writing poetry. When I read my short fiction, I have to look down at the page quite often, although I try and make eye contact frequently. But poetry is entirely different – I write poems out loud and in the act of editing them, I memorise them, so when I read poetry to an audience, although I have the page open, I rarely need to look at it. Performing my poems, I feel a more intense sense of co-creation: I am reading and being seen by the audience, and I am also seeing them, looking at them, at you.

Terms and Conditions Tania Performing poemsBut what of the practicalities? Well, as with writing, everyone finds their own way to read to an audience. I have been enthralled by readings where the writer hasn’t looked up once from the page. I prefer to stand completely still, but some people like to move around, to pace. I would say that you should do whatever makes you the most comfortable, what fits with your own kind of connection.

What to read? For a long time I thought I “should” only read crowd-pleasers, by which I mean light, funny pieces that make an audience laugh. No-one wants the really dark stuff, I thought. But as my confidence as a performer increased, and as I went to more events, I realised that as an audience member I am happy to be made to cry, to be shaken by a performance as I am by the page. And so now I read whatever I feel I want to read at a particular event, given the nature of the event, who else I am reading with, the length of time I’ve been given. I always make myself a “set-list” in advance, but quite often will adjust the list just before I go on – or in the middle of the performance, especially if another reader has read something that I think chimes with one of my pieces.

When, like me, you are a writer of very short things – short short stories and poems – I feel that it’s important to allow the audience to breathe in between, not to go straight from one to another. To say something in between, not necessarily (as I have noticed many poets do) explaining either what you have just read or are just about to read, sometimes in great detail. But you can tell the audience, perhaps, where you were when you wrote the piece, or a little detail about your day, or you can even ask the audience a question! A lot of my work is inspired by science and I like to mention if a particular story or poem was inspired by an article and then ask if other people in the audience read New Scientist, say, or take inspiration from science. This breaks that “fourth wall” between performer and audience. I should say that this is something I’ve only found the confidence to do very recently, after around 7 years of readings, and you shouldn’t feel pressure to do this.

If there is one thing I would strongly caution everyone not to do it is this: disclaimers. Do not apologise, either for your work, or for yourself and your performance. You may be trying to be funny, but this kind of self-deprecating humour, especially if the audience don’t yet know you or your work, is very difficult to pull off and it sets the audience up to expect to be disappointed. I see this again and again. “Oh, this poem is silly but I thought I’d read it to you anyway”. Be kind to yourself and be kind enough to your audience to allow them to receive your work and make up their own minds, as we do when we send written work out into the world.

Tania Performing poemsMost of all: good luck! Public speaking of any kind is acknowledged as one of the most terrifying things any of us might be asked to do. You don’t have to do it. You never have to do it. But if you think you’d like to, if you want to push yourself, it can be one of the most rewarding and elating experiences and it breathes new life into your own work and it may even change the way you write. Break a leg!

Writers, what is your experience of performing your work?

As a reader or writer have you attended poetry or prose readings? Do you have a memorable experience to share?

Do you have questions for Tania Hershman about her performances, the writing life, or do you need any writing advice?

Tania Hershman is currently to be found somewhere in the UK, reading from/performing her two new books – her debut poetry collection, Terms and Conditions (Nine Arches Press, 2017) and her third short story collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others (Unthank Books, 2017). You can hear her read from her own work on Soundcloud and watch videos of her performing her poems and prose at her site , where there is also more information about her writings.

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I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

30 comments

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  1. inducares

    This is a new development-I believe.Must be difficult for those who are reserved and only like to communicate through their writings.

    • Tania Hershman (@taniahershman)

      Definitely, and no-one should ever feel pressure to have to perform. So many of us are writers because we prefer to make contact with other people through the written word not the spoken word, this is just an option, if someone wanted to take their work into another sphere. Nerves are normal, always, each writer needs to choose whether they fancy this extra challenge!

  2. cindamackinnon

    People tell me I’m good at readings – but I hate it. Plus I have voice problems that make me nervous my voice will crack or go away entirely. I prefer small venues like book clubs but have only been able to do one.

  3. MPax (@mpax1)

    I practiced reading in public for awhile until I got good at it and learned to enjoy it. I haven’t had the opportunity lately, but I use the skill in lots of places.

  4. Alana Mautone (@RamblinGarden)

    I took a public speaking course in college and have had to make speeches from time to time at work. Would I enjoy being a performer of my works? I haven’t even gotten as far as trying to get them published. I won’t say “never” because life has taught me never to say never, but I think this is not something I would personally enjoy enough to pursue.

    • Tania Hershman

      Hi Alana, thanks for stopping by – and it’s definitely just an option, not something anyone should ever feel they have to do. The writing is the thing, right?

  5. datmama4

    This makes me want to attend events like this, though they’re rare to nonexistent in my area. I like the tips on what to do and what not to do, but I also like that Tania approaches each type of presentation in a different way. Great post!

  6. D. Wallace Peach

    Excellent guest post with some wonderful suggestions and insights. It does seem that entering the persona of performer is very helpful and I can sense the shift it must create. I also like the flexibility in content, and presentation. Informative!

  7. Jemima Pett

    Thanks for inviting Tania today, Damyanti! I’ve done a lot of presentations to my peers and business partners for work, but I’m just about to have my first author event at a school – and I’m terrified. Thanks for those reminders and tips – especially about not being self-deprecating. I was really bad with that in my writing group!

    • Tania Hershman (@taniahershman)

      Hi Jemima,
      good luck! It is so easy to slip into self-deprecation, if you can try and have fun, and also think about what a treat it is for the students to have a bit of time out from their regular lessons, and how much it might mean to one or two of them who might want to be an author and who get to see that Real People can do this too, just you being there is already a special thing for them. Enjoy!

  8. Elizabeth Foster

    Thanks for the great tips. I’m just starting to think about this with the launch of my book imminent. I like what you say about not apologising or using self deprecating humour. I will be grappling with nerves, I think! I heard somewhere that the audience are more interested in the experience you are giving them (in my case the story I have written) which helps. I guess it sort of takes ‘me’ out of the equation and makes me a conduit rather than a focus point.

    • Tania Hershman (@taniahershman)

      Hi Elizabeth, it is SCARY! Especially the first, well, twenty times. But it does get easier. And especially at your book launch, everyone will be there to give you support and celebrate you! Good luck and congratulations on your forthcoming book!

  9. Heidi

    Great points. I have read/performed my work a few times. The questions I struggle with are around triggering content. To be specific some of my work deals with violence and rape. There are those who have been silenced as sexual assault survivors who believe it is important to hear these stories. There are others who feel there needs to be disclosure…yet that changes the listeners openness. I have tended to leave out possible triggering content yet I’m not sure it really does the work justice. In general I try not to use broad-based literary events as political platforms yet I often wonder how far to go with words and concepts that may be uncomfortable. Any thoughts out there or experience with this??

    • Tania Hershman (@taniahershman)

      Hi Heidi, great to hear from you. This is a very interesting question indeed. I don’t shy away from dark content, I have stories and poems about war, for example. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this, but I think you should read what you want to read, if you are comfortable reading it. You could discuss it with the organisers – in a similar way, I have friends whose work has a lot of sexual content so they would find out what the age of the audience might be, if there might be children there, for example. But then again, they may be squeamish and put you off reading something that in fact the audience would want to hear. It may be more about the kind of audience, but it is also about your readiness to receive a reaction that may not be positive and welcoming. Also, I have seen a friend of mine, a poet, who writes very graphically and honestly about mental illness be thanked profusely by several audience members for talking about subjects that are rarely talked about openly. Perhaps prepare two set-lists for an event and guage the audience on the night, see what you feel you want to read. Good luck!

      • Heidi

        Thanks Tania. That helps. I’m very comfortable with the topic and with discussions. The place that is hard for me occurs when I’ll see a women in the audience and from watching her face it appears that my content has triggered her. I feel bad about it. It wasn’t that many years ago when I was sitting where she is. Just using the “r” word has been so taboo in our culture. You response gives me more to think about.

  10. hilarymb

    Hi Damyanti and Tania – I don’t perform in public, but have on occasions given talks … or read to my terminally ill mother about her beloved Cornwall. By having an ill mother and an old uncle from my father’s side – both needed conversing with. I learnt to talk slowly and project my voice … and I do get frustrated when people don’t do that, or put any intonation into their words … so essential for the essence of one’s talk, or writing to get over to the audience – however small. Embarrassment causes us to apologise doesn’t it … not so easy to stop – but can be done … Congratulations on your work and performances … they sound lovely … cheers Hilary

    • Tania Hershman

      Thanks, Alex! And I think the disclaimers are nerves, it happens so so often, it’s a bit like when you compliment someone on a new piece of clothing and they feel compelled to say, “Oh, this old thing?”. Maybe it’s a British trait!

  11. Frances Gapper

    Hi Tania – I enjoyed reading this very much, thank you! I wonder if you find audiences vary, i.e. can some be easier/nicer than others?

    • Tania Hershman

      Hi Frances, lovely to see you here! Audiences do vary, yes, some are much quieter than others but I have found that this can mean they are listening very closely rather than that they are bored. I hope so anyway! I’ve never had a heckler, will keep you posted!