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!
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.
Let’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.
But 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.
Most 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.