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How to not give a public reading

I just got an e-mail from the admin in my graduate program. Apparently, I agreed to participate in their student/faculty reading series, as long as he scheduled me in the spring rather than in the fall, since my fall was similar to that of Humpty Dumpty’s in that it was great but my crown still hasn’t quite recovered.

I think I had hoped that he would forget or misplace my name at some point. I sort of really very much a lot hate to read my writing aloud. I know. It’s ridiculous. I have a background in drama. From my first step onto the stage to play the Virgin Mary in my Sunday school Christmas pageant at age 4, I’ve spent a huge amount of time working in theatre. I was in so many plays during my childhood and early adolescence that I can’t even remember the names of all of them. I was the president of the damned drama club in high school. At one point during my senior year, I was in four plays at one time, which involved a death by fire equivalent of time management and I think may have introduced my addiction to schedules which are packed to the balls. Some schedules apparently have testicles. Mine do, anyway.

But the main difference here is that when you are acting in a play, you are usually not emotionally invested in the work. You want the play to succeed. You want to do well. You want everyone to fall in love with you and with drama, maybe just a little bit. But the very fact that actors regularly change the wording of the piece tells me that they are not as engaged in the work as they would be if they had written it. The writer chose those words specifically. If they are like me, they rewrote that line probably a dozen times, changing the words, playing with syntax. If they are a little bit of a drama queen, they might say that they bled a little onto the page. I would not say that, personally because my god, then I’d have to hide in shame forever.

I know what to do to make something sound good. I know how to have dramatic presence, how to play to the back row and sell it like the rent is due. But as soon as it’s my stuff, my hands turn to ice, my voice starts to shake and I start feeling like I’m taking too much time and so I start rushing, tumbling over words in a monotone because I don’t want to grandstand or make more of the writing than it is, and then wishing like anything that I could just skip ahead to the last paragraph and be done. And while I can be fearless about almost anything, reading my own work is exposing something very vulnerable, like chewing ice with an exposed nerve ending.
That having been said, it’s a good thing for me to do. If I can think of something to read and then practice it (instead of going in cold and not thinking about it ahead of time, then being waylaid by the ishy feelings as soon as I opened my mouth) and maybe desensitize myself, it will be ok.

I think the crux of the issue is something I was discussing with Doug earlier this year. I think that writers have two modes of operation: either they are attempting to quell something in their brain or they are trying to expose it. Are you writing with the door closed or wide open? I am stuck firmly in the latter category. There are things in my fiction that I would never say to anyone, and yet, there I must stand, at a podium and say them to an expectant audience. Fucking hell. No wonder writers become alcoholics and drug addicts.
I have marginal success with the stuff that is more comedic, so I might wimp out and pick one of the funny stories. Or maybe I will have written something really great and not scary and that is so good that everyone who hears it achieves the highest peak of Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs and therefore experiences self-actualization and therefore forgets that my voice was shaking.

Either way, if you’re in the Milwaukee area on March 2, I will be reading at Von Trier’s. Reading, out loud, to people. If it starts to go badly, I may stash a dagger so that I have an out, but there it is. Either some marginal fiction along with great stuff (my classmate’s and the faculty member’s) or a little seppuku. Good times.