In my next life, I will be an opera singer. This is not the first time I’ve made this declaration and it won’t be the last. (Mind you, the next-life gods need to suit me up with a better voice and the ability to read music, at the very least.) It’s not that I believe in next lives, but such a dream–belting out “o mio babbino caro” a la Maria Callas–is more of a this-life mantra. The hot stage lights, the costumes, the adulation–none of this is what appeals. It’s the voice. Our first instrument. When I tilt to strains of a violin, it’s because it reminds me of singing or crying, even keening. Same for the clarinet played in a minor key, like a folk singer’s lament.
Still, my voice is generally reserved for the rote songs of Mass, a little shower-singing, and belting out Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance…” with one of my boys. Fairly private venues; certainly not performance-grade.
As a young adult, I went from one silent art form–ballet–to the next–creative writing. We college-age fiction writers kept fairly quiet–our work was there on the page–until our monthly reading series held at a local art gallery, called Movable Feast (after Hemingway’s memoir and the relocatable series, which featured brie-and-crackers and grocery store sushi, when my friend and I were in charge of said feast).
My friend did–and does–write poetry, an art form more suited to recitation. Mic-ed, there were those poets at our Movable Feast, whose words took flight on the strains of their voices, some breathy and soft, some staccato and sharp, some exotically-accented. Sometimes, the words all but disappeared in the song of those poets’ voices.
Tone. Mood. Interesting language and turns of phrase. Even a surprise rhyme scheme. Moments. These are the elements that shine in recitation and are perhaps more dense and readily-found in poetry than fiction.
How to recite fiction? It’s not an easy task: Plotlines and plot points. Character names and descriptions. Landscapes. These details are easily lost to the ear when recited and best read on the page, in the quiet.
I know now that my success and failure (I don’t remember what I read aloud in grad school, and I’ll bet no one else does, either) when it comes to readings is less about my actual voice than choice.
My actual voice is not breathy and light; I cannot master the soothing monotone of an NPR announcer. My accent might grate on some more gentile listeners. Still, to read our work aloud is an exercise in performance we writers should seize–and so I do.
It’s been a year or so of finding my reading voice. There was the audio feature I recorded of my short story “Recruit,” for Flock literary journal. Then, I read a piece of flash fiction at a literary festival near where I grew up, where I felt at home, where everyone’s voices sounded something like mine. Most recently, I read at Little Patuxent Review‘s issue launch event from my short story, “While Our Grown Men Played.”
I had five minutes. Five minutes–to a fiction writer who trades in thousands of words on the page, sometimes daily. Five minutes for time and place and character and mood and theme and… voice.
As it was when I was a dancer on the stage, the during part is a blur. But I remember the after-the-reading discussions with several fellow readers at that issue launch, including local author and poet, Alan King. Thinking on it further, I have a few takeaways. Here are five ways to deliver a good reading:
- Forget the frame of a story; keep it short and tight.
- Pick a pivotal scene.
- Sensory description lets the audience in.
- Humor helps, when appropriate.
- Use your own voice (accent be damned).
I’m coming a little late to spoken word, poetry meant to be read aloud– performed really, rather than simply recited. But I think it has a lot to offer, not only in and of itself, but as inspiration for writing–and reading aloud–works of fiction or anything else. Check out spoken word artist “little pi,” who I met at the LPR issue launch event. And many thanks to Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio, for introducing me to Janice A. Lowe, poet and composer of musical theater and opera(!), whose collection Leaving CLE: poems of nomadic dispersal, I’m currently devouring. People, I dare you to “unhear” such compelling voices, even if you only get to read them to yourself on the page.
Do you attend poetry, spoken word, or fiction readings? Listen to podcasts? Is there a poet or author whose voice speaks volumes to you? Have you read your own stories or poems aloud?