Reading at Vroman’s

This is a guest blog post from Eric Olsen, co-author (along with Glenn Schaeffer) of We Wanted To Be Writers, the story of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop of the mid-1970s. Eric and Glenn are in the midst of a blog tour promoting their new book,  contributing to a variety of creative writing sites and blogs with tidbits of advice, and relating their experiences as professional authors. Feel free to check out the book (linked above) or their writing blog, which is updated regularly. They’ve also created a group here on Protagonize to answer questions from the community.

Do you have something to say that might be of interest to our members? Feel free to contact us with blog ideas and share your passion for writing with our readers.

I’m told by our publisher that readings don’t do much for book sales, but that they can be good for a writer’s ego. Of course if you happen to be a big-name writer with mega-sales, you probably don’t need much help in the ego department, but if you’re collecting rejection slips right and left like most of us, then I’d say try to give as many readings as you can. But there are other reasons to do readings, beyond a potential ego-boost.

We Wanted To Be WritersA couple weeks ago we gave a reading from We Wanted to be Writers at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA (a terrific indy bookstore). I was joined “on stage” by my co-author Glenn Schaeffer, and by Michelle Huneven, who’s in our book and whose most recent novel is Blame. Both are old hands at playing to an audience. Not me. It had been years since I’d last done a reading, and like most writers, I’m much more comfortable hunkered alone over a keyboard. My wife sensed looming disaster. She made me rehearse, and rehearse again, and while I rehearsed, she played the audience. And a very critical audience, at that. “You’re mumbling,” she’d say. “Look up! Engage with the audience! Slow down! And would you please stop mumbling!”

It was a good exercise. First lesson? If you’re planning a reading, rehearse. Assemble an audience of friends or neighbors who can give helpful advice. Or a hyper-critical spouse if one is handy. You might even videotape the “reading,” so you can see what others are seeing, in all its horrendous detail.

Our reading went well. I didn’t mumble too much. I slowed down, looked up, engaged with the audience. True, there wasn’t much of an audience with whom to engage; it was a hot Friday night in Pasadena, the first week of the new school year, and a horrendous multi-car accident on the 110 led to another of LA’s monumental gridlocks.

But a small audience was quite OK, which brings me back to why readings are a good idea even if they don’t do much for sales. I think the thought — or looming threat — of exposing one’s work to an audience tends to sharpen a writer’s eye and ear. Lots of writers I know read their own work aloud to themselves while they’re writing. I do, too. It’s a good way of catching glitches, awkward phrasing or boring scenes, stuff you might not catch if you’re reading silently. But reading aloud to yourself isn’t quite the same as reading aloud to others. Nothing sharpens the eye more than the potential for embarrassment. So even if you don’t have a reading coming up, now and then, assemble some friends and read to them from a work in progress. And you know what? That’s a reading!

True, by the time we read at Vroman’s, We Wanted to Be Writers had been released. So reading it aloud and finding a few little squeaks here and there in the prose came a bit too late. But I noted these for future reference, which I hope will improve the second edition. Meanwhile, it reminded me, as I think all writers need to be reminded from time to time, to pay closer attention to the work, which can only help with my new projects.

Rather than read straight from the book, I developed a script, which we all read from. What’s printed on the page might be fine when read to oneself, but a listening audience might need something that moves along more quickly, so I did a bit of editing, for pacing. Of course, We Wanted to Be Writers is nonfiction; it can be harder if not impossible to edit a passage from a novel, or especially a tightly written short story, in the interests of pacing. Still, it can’t hurt to look for opportunities, for excerpts that work well together.

We kept the reading portion of the evening’s event to 30 minutes. When it comes to readings, I think less is more. I learned this from going to a reading of Blame, in fact. Michelle read for about 20 minutes, then opened it up to questions and discussion, leaving at least this member of the audience wanting more. So, of course, I bought the book.

Finally, I think it’s helpful to remember our roots, that we are storytellers first and foremost, that before a Sumerian poked a sharp stick into a clump of wet clay and invented writing some 6,000 years ago, storytellers had already been giving readings for tens of thousands of years, probably most often around a fire, maybe also with the haunch of some now-extinct mammal turning on a spit, probably with plenty of beer (invented a couple thousand years earlier), and maybe even a hyper-critical spouse or two.

So while a reading may not do much for sales, a reading can reconnect us with our story-telling heritage. A reading energizes. It connects a writer and community.

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5 Responses to Reading at Vroman’s

  1. Elorithryn says:

    I completely sympathize with being a nervous reader. I know I am, despite the fact that I participated on the Speech and Debate team. I never debated, but I did read kid’s stories out loud (like “Leo the Lop”). It must help because when I read on Sundays at Church I get complements.

    As to reading my works to an audience… I’ve actually done that too, if you count my two little kids. They may not be critical listeners, when they listen, but it does help to spot the errors I might not normally. I’ve read to my mom too. She listens, but rarely criticizes. I haven’t tried the critical spouse yet. My ego is fragile, sometimes. *grin*

    :} Cathryn Leigh (aka Elorithryn)

  2. Eric Olsen says:

    Thanks for your comment. I think to be a writer is to have a fragile ego. Comes with the territory, I suppose. Sandra Cisneros (“House on Mango Street” and much more), talks about refining one’s work to the point that even one’s worst enemy can’t find anything to criticize. Of course, that’s easier said than done. And someone will always find something to beef about. But putting your best stuff “out there” can certainly provide some protection for a fragile ego.

  3. Thanks for the insight. I’m not particular one of those budding writers that has a fragile ego, but I’ll take any potential ego-boost I can get regardless!

    As a stop-gap before jumping into reading to real people that can hurl real tomatoes at your real face, recording a reading and posting it in a public forum like youtube can help in a much a similar way I imagine,, especially if you can garner an audience from communities such as the one here on protagonize or elsewhere..

  4. Ciel says:

    This was a great post, I am an “experienced” reader, well, with young audiences. I volunteer for Reading to Kids whenever I can, and oh boy, it was terrifying at first! They aren’t critical audiences, however you have to keep their attention focused to you since they’re kids and most of them have the attention span of a butterfly. Before that, I read to my niece and nephew and other younger children I babysat for.
    Also, are you offering any other readings? If I had known, I would’ve drive to Pasadena and be there, it’s just a 20 minutes drive from where I live. :)

  5. Eric Olsen says:

    Ciel, thanks for your comments. As for next reading, we’ll be at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Oct. 20, 2011. Not sure a time has been set yet, but I assume it’ll be around 7 or 8 pm. Maybe we’ll see you there!

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