Reading in Public

Next Saturday I’ll be reading a piece of my novel aloud at our inaugural Brave on the Page event! I haven’t read in front of an audience since April 2005–or maybe it was 2006.

Back then I was honored by an invitation to read in Estacada, Oregon, at a reading series curated by Stevan Allred. Stevan and Joanna Rose, who co-teaches at the Pinewood Table with Stevan, were the other two readers. It was amazing to be asked to read with my mentors, and I remember being really nervous, then getting up on stage and just going for it. Projecting. Taking my time. Using periods as pauses to catch my breath.

I loved every single moment of that experience, especially the moment when I looked out at the audience and realized everyone was there to listen to me. Support me. Hear my voice. The nerves disappeared and I took a deep breath and started. My voice, while wobbly for the first few sentence, grew loud and strong.

Back then, I chose to read the first chapter of my recently finished novel, which never had a satisfactory title, although it did earn me an agent. (I usually just call it my first novel, even though it was really my second novel.) I lived on the Oregon coast at the time of the reading and road-tripped to the Portland metro area with my husband and my friend Karen, then we headed out to Estacada, which is east of Portland.

Here’s how that novel starts–the very first paragraphs of what I read aloud that evening:

In a small Oregon town where crows fly around in groups of four, there was a funeral for my laundry friend.

Even the rain came to say goodbye to Josephine Brickel on that Thursday afternoon, thick eggy drops that seemed to hatch from a brood of wet hens hiding in the clouds and bragging about aiming. The drops splatted down on the tops of heads, breaking into smaller drops. Most of the drops hit people with glasses so they couldn’t see.

The rain came to the funeral and so did everyone in Olive, plus four crows across the street pretending to peck for food, but really the crows came because they knew her, too. I wore white. Everyone else, including the crows, wore black. After my mother left, it was Josephine Brickel who taught me how to get stains out of things and how to walk down the street like I don’t care what people know about me.

Saturday’s reading is the official launch event for Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life.

Liz Prato, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin, Duncan Ellis and I will read short selections from our own work. Kristen Forbes, Steve Denniston, Bart King, Nancy Townsley, Gigi Little and Stevan and Joanna will read their flash essays from Brave on the Page. Yes, that’s eleven people! I wanted to showcase as many people as possible, especially Nancy, who copy edited Brave on the Page; Gigi Little, who designed the cover; Kristen Forbes, who wrote the title essay; and Stevan and Joanna, for their roles encouraging so many of the contributors.

And Bart King is amazing! And famous! And Steve Denniston is very, very funny, and I’m excited to feature him too.

It took me a while to decide what I wanted to read, and I’ve chosen a piece of my work-in-progress, the 19th century comic novel Lost Notes. It’s actually an outtake from the novel, rewritten as a short story. Now I just need a title. It begins like this:

The widow Mrs. Percy Mallaby of Albany, New York, wouldn’t have been surprised if one of her neighbors accused her of being a ghost. She rather felt that way herself. When she woke each morning, pushing the covers back too vigorously brought no complaints. Her feet in their slippers made no objectionable sounds. With the mirrors all draped in black, if a spot of porridge congealed on her eyebrow during breakfast, it stayed there until the new cook thought to say something, and sometimes she didn’t.

How interesting that both pieces are about mourning. The piece I’ll read Saturday is definitely comic, though. It features a canary and a Frenchman.

The reading will be here in Portland, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3, at Fulton Park Community Center. If you live nearby, please come! It’s free and there’s plenty of seating and parking. In the meantime, I’ll be practicing my piece. I do read out loud once a month to my writing group, so I feel fairly confident that I can get up there, take a deep breath and go for it, just like I did years ago in Estacada.

Have you ever read in public? What keeps you calm and focused? Any advice for me or some of the other readers who aren’t used to speaking in front of a crowd?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Reading, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Reading in Public

  1. Dear Laura,
    This is so exciting. Your writing is so rich, with such fascinating imagery! I wish you the best of luck on November 3rd. I am sure you will shine!

  2. Lynne Ayers says:

    If it’s ‘break a leg’ for actors, what is it for writers – ? May you not have dry mouth, may you not have to stifle a cough, my your voice not crack, may you not lose your place 😉 … wow ’em.

    • Ooh, the dreaded dry mouth! I am planning to get water ready for everyone to avoid that! And my 5-year-old was sick with a fever and a cough and a hoarse voice this weekend, so I’m crossing my fingers on the coughing front too! Thanks for your encouragement, Lynne.

  3. jmmcdowell says:

    Best wishes for the reading. Both examples sound like very gripping openings!

    • Thanks, jm! It’s so interesting to see the similarities between the two pieces. There was a whole novel between them, and my new book is very, very different from that first novel. And yet these pieces resonate with one another in an interesting way.

  4. Emma says:

    Brave woman. Public readings terrify me.

    • I’m rather terrified myself, Emma! But hopefully looking out at many friendly, familiar faces will help! I remember last time thinking that if I screwed up royally, I’d never get to read anywhere ever again. So I made myself push the nerves all the way down into a tiny knot.

  5. I’ve never done a public reading, but I was a musician for several years, and I’ve done training sessions a work with 50-100 people, so I guess that’s similar.

    Advice? Hmmm…

    Preparation is key. Know your material backwards and forwards (not literally 🙂 ).

    Bring a roadie/TA (someone you can delegate technical problems to).

    Don’t rush (particularly important since the piece is comic — don’t step on the laughs).

    Knock ’em dead. (Only, you know, not literally.)

    • Those skills would certainly translate to reading out loud, Anthony. Your point about not stepping on laughs is great. I read my piece out loud to my writing group last week to hear where the laughs fell so I can leave extra space in those spots. And I’m going to keep practicing, including reading my welcome speech.

      My husband is hereby designated as my roadie!

      • I went through the roadie progression somewhat differently, since my ex-wife started as my band’s roadie, then she progressed to manager, and then to drummer, and then we got married. 🙂

        In any case, the there’s nothing like being up there with somebody you can rely on.

  6. Laura, what a delightful read this will be. I don’t find it particularly hard to speak in public and since it was part of my work, I have developed a good persona. Now, reading our work in public might be a bit more frightening … but much more satisfying. I trust you will enjoy the experience and share with us in a future post. It matters not … the work is good and your great smile will win over the crowd 🙂

  7. 4amWriter says:

    Oh, I’m not great at public reading–of my stuff. But I’m okay announcing someone, or reading someone else’s work. I used to belong to a writing group, but I had to leave it as there wasn’t enough time to fit it in. In that group, we read our stuff aloud, and I remember the first few times that I did it, my voice shook, my hands shook, I get all sweaty, my heart was beating out of control…but eventually as I grew accustomed to my group, then it was easy-peasy. 🙂

    I’m sure you’ll do fine. It’s a lot easier to read in public when we feel confident about our stuff, and judging from the excerpts you posted, you have lots to be confident about. 🙂

  8. I read a whole chapter at my book launch (My Hero) I think that’s the shortest chapter… I was NERVOUS, but a glass of wine calmed me down and I got through it. I messed up a little in two places…oh, well.
    Something tells me you’ll do just fine. All the best!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Maggie! I love “My Hero” and think it would make an excellent reading piece.

      A friend of mine is coming over in a few minutes to listen to me practice. I’m not sure I’m up for it right now–not enough sleep–but doing another run-through can’t hurt! And after the radio interview this week, I realize I am much more comfortable reading than speaking off the cuff! Hopefully the reading will seem like a breeze after that.

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