On reading aloud to an audience

I’m reading tomorrow, so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about reading strategies.  I’ve been thinking of how the way I read aloud has changed over the years.  When I first started doing it, folks told me that often people speed up when nervous. They explained the importance of rehearsing thoroughly, and timing the reading a number of times, not just once.  Rehearsing gives the writer a chance to find the rough spots and smooth them over.  Sometimes I’d find mistakes or places where words were awkward for me to pronounce together.  I’d find places where there was no place to take a breath comfortably because the sentence was too long.

And then there is the dreaded page-turn problem.  A page turn in the middle of a very emotionally-charged sentence can spell trouble.  If the writer’s hands have the least bit of a tremble, turning pages can get cumbersome.   If the lighting is dim, one might consider printing in 14-point font and perhaps boldface as well, but this means more pages to turn.  And of course, at the last minute it’s essential to make sure all the pages are in the printout, and stapled in correct order.  Lastly, don’t leave it at home!

I love lecterns.  I feel so important standing at one. It’s security for me.  I’ve got something to hold onto, like a hand to hold in tough times.  I feel that it protects me and sets me comfortably apart from my audience, and at the same time, standing behind a lectern gives me a feeling of authority, like an assurance that what I’m about to read is worthy of listening ears.  And here’s my secret, which isn’t really a secret anymore: if I’m nervous and my hands tremble, a lectern hides the tremor very nicely.  Otherwise, the pages tremble when I hold them or turn a page, a dead giveaway.

I had an embarrassing experience when I was younger that I’d like to share.  Of course, after a while most writers have their share of reading-aloud embarrassments.  I think the worst was when I was on so much medication that the hand tremors I had were evident even to a casual viewer.  Lithium was the main culprit, but the antipsychotics made it worse, giving me a coarse tremor along with the fine tremor from the Lithium.

This particular reading was for a contest.  I had won prizes in this contest both times I entered, and was invited to read my winning pieces in front of a relatively large audience, I’m guessing maybe over 50, in an auditorium.  It was an academic setting.  Winning the contest was a delightful surprise.  Both times, I won in both categories, poetry and prose.  The first year wasn’t too bad.  My prose piece, about the joys of smoking cigarettes (yeah, yeah) was a humor piece, or so I found out when I heard the audience’s reaction.  In my writing at the time, I had this almost involuntary habit of doing this little round-up at the end of paragraphs, and it was these little temporary resting points that my audience burst into laughter.  This was convenient, due to the natural pause at the end of a paragraph, which allowed time for the laughter to settle.

I admit, the prose piece wasn’t very good.  The poem was much, much better, that is, for me.   It was strange because the poetry reading came after my prose reading. The poem, too, was about cigarettes, and as soon as the audience realized this they chuckled.  Then they realized this was a serious work.   It came off fine and I went home feeling halfway decent about myself.

Next year of the contest went badly.  I believe the hand tremor was far worse.  My skin was badly broken out, a problem I hadn’t had in my teens but was now occurring as a side effect of Lithium.  I wasn’t embarrassed about the pimples, not being one to fuss over such things, but I believe at that point folks looked down on me because it was known that I had a mental illness.  They saw the teenager-style pimples and this further lowered their opinion of me.  (Note that this was the 1980’s, before the ADA was enacted.)  At the time, the eating disorder was not foremost in my life, thanks to Lithium.  Otherwise, I was a sick, pimply, shaky mess, drank gallons of water every day due to constant thirst from Lithium, and had very few friends.

So after finding out I’d won in both categories, this time second prize, I believe, in both, not first like the year previously, I went up to read my poem.  I must have looked awful physically even though I remember I read fine.  Turned out everyone felt sorry for me standing up there.  Then they had the prose readings second.  The first prize winner read.  Then, to my shock, the event ended.

What?  I didn’t get to read?  I was mortified.  Was there some mistake?  Not long after, within a day or two, I revealed my feelings to my friend who was on the faculty of the college.  He was on my side.  With my permission, he met with me and the person on the English faculty who ran the contest and had made the decision not to include me in the reading  This was someone I’d worked with at a menial temp job, by the way, until she found the job at the college…at the temp job folks didn’t like her because she had an obnoxious voice, among other reasons, but that’s neither here nor there…or maybe all this history had something to do with her decision, whether she was aware of it or not.

Her excuse for not including me was a complete lie.  She said, “I didn’t think you wanted to read because you shake so much.”  My faculty friend and I agreed that more likely, it was a case of discrimination.  We were glad that he and I had pointed out how shitty her exclusion of me made me feel, and that if she really cared about how I felt, she would have consulted me and asked if I would like to bow out of the reading.  I went home and felt embarrassed and defeated.  I didn’t enter next year’s contest because I had moved out of town.

So now I’m off all those chemicals and I have no tremor, no dry mouth, no extreme thirst, no stutter, and to my delight, my speech is no longer slurred.  I think I speak clearer now than I ever did.  I still have that strange vocal tic, though. It does affect my speech, but not when I read.  I think the tic developed originally due to the fact that I am so frequently dehydrated.

I was sitting in the acupuncture waiting room after my last treatment and writing in my journal, waiting for the sedated feeling (inside nickname: acu-stoned) to wear off, and the vocal tic started up.  When I am alone, which is almost all of the time, I make no attempt to stop the tic because no one is around to hear.   But there I was in the waiting room with one person seated not far from me, and I couldn’t stop the darned thing.  No, he was not immersed in a cell phone or ipod as these are required to be turned off there.  This was the only time the vocal tic has reared its head in public. Only one person has commented on my speech, actually several times, sorry to say a negative criticism, something about taking a breath frequently and therefore appearing breathless or anxious.  I hated that criticism and next time she says that, I’ll tell her to butt off.  Politely, I hope.  At least my speech is clearly pronounced.

For tomorrow’s reading, I have perhaps rehearsed more than I ever have.  My reading is as good or better than it ever has been.  I have always enjoyed reading aloud and never was overly nervous because it is so much like playing music in front of an audience.  I got over that type of stage fright in early college as a music major.  Almost all of us did.  We had gigs all the time and it was a matter of getting acclimated to stage performance.  The occasional paid gig further helped my confidence.  I figure I’m proud of what I have written and my delight in sharing it overrides whatever self-consciousness I feel.

I’d say one reading I did that came off well but was extremely difficult was my graduation reading in July 2009.  Many writers experience throat tightening while reading.  It’s not so much nervousness but the fact that we’re speaking continuously.  That’s why the throat problem has occurred even while rehearsing at home.  I’d discussed this with faculty on a number of occasions and was glad I was not the only one that went through this.

So there I was, up in front of a huge audience full of fellow grads and students, a bunch of alums, the entire faculty, and a whole lot of guests such as family, friends, and admirers of the graduates.  It was the largest graduating class so far at Goddard’s Port Townsend campus.  I believe there were ten of us.

I began my piece.  It didn’t take long for my throat to close off, this time worse than ever.  I could barely choke the words out.  Finally, I told myself I would have to stop, apologize, and step down.  I didn’t even think that this might disqualify me from graduating.  I only wanted to get the hell off the podium cuz reading was nearly impossible.

But something changed.  I went on autopilot.  I pushed through the tightness and kept going.  I don’t generally like the autopilot mode while I am reading.  I prefer to be entirely present and engaged.  But now, my need to survive was in the lead.  Not long afterward, I awoke from autopilot and began to read with all my heart.  I began to feel tears form, a reaction to what I was reading, but this, too, I pushed through.

I absolutely loved the conclusion to the piece because it read so well aloud.  So when I finished, quite emotional, it was obvious to the audience that I had concluded and after a split-second silent moment, they broke into applause.  It was over. I was done.  I felt wicked decent about it.

It seems that for whatever reason, the last few times I have read, I have not had the throat closure problem.  I seem to enjoy reading aloud more and more each time.  Perhaps this is a factor.  Perhaps through practice I’ve trained my throat to relax and stay open.

What I’m working on now for tomorrow right now is my reading speed.  This piece reads slowly, or at least I read it slowly.  My challenge is to remember to speed up at certain times.  I tend to have difficulty sustaining the faster pace, or I just plain forget.  Of course many folks have the opposite problem of reading too fast. I was told that if in doubt, read slower.

Absolutely the slowest speaker I ever hear was Robert J. Lurtsema who did the radio show, “Morning Pro Musica.”  Here’s the link to the wikipedia.org article on Robert J:


Note that right away in the beginning of the article, his slowness of speech and frequent “dead air” pauses are mentioned as something folks loved or hated.   It was his intention to be soothing, but I believe it was in his nature to speak slowly and deliberately.  He thought before he spoke.  Slowing down gives us that freedom, especially when we need to think extra before we speak.

No, I’m not that slow when I read.  I have always read relatively slowly.  Some people are able to read aloud quickly but still be very effective.  I am thinking of Goddard faculty member Michael Klein.  He writes both poetry and prose, and I can’t remember how he reads his poetry, but when he reads prose the words seem to fly by.  It’s absolutely wonderful to hear him read because he has the ability to come across clearly and take us off our feet.   The rapid reading speed can often accentuate his humor, or drive a point home quite effectively.  He also has a bit of cynicism in his voice, and in his writing, he’s direct and tells it like it is.  We’re at the edge of our seats and am with him the whole way, so engaged that we don’t miss a thing.  Not only that, but Michael is a singer with a big, big speaking voice.  He has complete command over his audience.

I think everyone, all writers, need to have this big voice.  You can speak or read any way you’d like, even softly, but if you have a big soul and believe in what you’ve written, then your voice will be big and will shine through.  Try having a big voice today, and if you’re not a writer, pick up your pencil and start right now.  I challenge anyone, especially those who have been silenced by society, such as us folks with eating disorders who are known to speak in whispers, to write, speak, and dream big.  We are worth it and need to feel proud once again.


Michael’s latest work is a poetry collection called Then, we were still living.  I’m not sure which link of his would be the best to send you to, but here he is writing for the Ploughshares online site:


I was highly influenced by his memoir, Track Conditions.   Though from a distance, I have always felt a kinship toward him, because both of us were music majors at Bennington College in previous lives, and we knew the same faculty members.  After an interruption, I took up my pen and wrote, and I guess that’s exactly what he did, too.

See ya later, alligators.


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