Beyond the Page: Crafting our Writer Identities for Readings

By Vanessa Shields
(This article originally appeared in our Fall 2013 issue of Write: The magazine of The Writers' Union of Canada)

The fine details of grace, poise, clothing, tone of voice, excerpt preparedness, and overall sense of self can make or break our relationship with a reader. It is critical to take care of our physical bodies as much as our mental abilities, and to be aware of how these play a role in whom we are as writers engaging our audience beyond the page. We might not care what readers think of us as human beings, so long as they read our words. But the truth is, most readers don’t make this separation. As a reader, do you?

I paid big bucks to travel and attend a dinner and reading event for two of my favorite writers. Up to that point, my relationship with the writers did not extend beyond the page. To say I was excited is an understatement; I was nervous, star-struck, and inspired before they even took the stage. I did my best not to stare at them as they ate their meal, talked to people or got up to go to the bathroom (no, I didn’t follow them in!). I absolutely looked at what they were wearing, how they did their hair, and I made other judgmental notes in my mind about them. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to help it. I was learning how to do a reading of this magnitude, for certainly one day I would be the guest speaker at a swanky event like this one, right?

The reading was awful.

It turned out a third writer had joined the reading. This writer went first and read a bit of a story that was so dark and depressing the energy in the room went from excitement to shock to bitterness in about two sips of wine. The second writer who had to follow this morbid presentation spared no time in saying out loud “well, thanks for that” in a frustrated and sarcastic tone. This led to a reading with pages that weren’t marked, flubbed words, and general defeated sloppiness by the writer. The other writer, who played the host role, was asleep, chin to chest, at the table.

When it finally ended, there was a literal moment of silence. Perhaps we were all thankful it was over. Perhaps we were all in shock. Perhaps we realized we were drunk as a means to get us through the reading. Despite all of this, the line to purchase books and get them signed stretched out the door.

Yes, I still bought their books. Yes, I still waited in line to get one more, closer look at the writers I’d admired and loved. But I was disappointed. Very disappointed.

At yet another event, this time at a festival, I was so appalled by a writer whose speech was angry, condescending, judgmental and vulgar, I actually could not purchase any books. The wrinkled hoodie the writer wore and the pointer finger he kept shaking at us didn’t help the situation. To this day, I haven’t purchased any books by this author.

These writers I’m referring to are all award-winning, best-selling authors by world standards. One reader not purchasing a book will not make an impact on their careers. But I know if I knew a reader had lost connection with me because of how I was at a reading, I’d be concerned. I’d want to do better next time. I’d pay attention to what I was saying and doing. Personally, I want readers to love me like they love my words, whether I’m selling 100 books or 100,000, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

Some writers build a reputation based on their reading antics. For example, I know that I can be guaranteed a song when I go to a Phil Hall reading. He’s a mighty singer, he is. I can be guaranteed gut-wrenching laughter when I go to a John Wing reading. And I’ve heard that Charles Bukowski was quite the drinker at his readings. We can build whatever reputation we want when it comes to our reading style and attitude.

I tend to get comedic when I’m nervous, and I’m always nervous before a reading. This has become part of my reading ‘style’ or ‘attitude’, if you will. At some point during the reading, I can guarantee an audience jokes with mild swearing and at least one reference to my vagina. This may turn some folks off. But it is also what folks thank me for post-reading. What if certain writers create a style of reading that is purposefully high and mighty or condescending? I’m quite certain it was not the first time hoodie-writer wore a hoodie and yelled at the audience. Perhaps the others in audience expected this. For me, it was my first time so I wasn’t prepared. Do we discount this writer as enjoyable or accept that she’s built that way — and she’s built her reading persona this way as well? Then we go to the reading (secretly) hoping to see these readers do what they do — to see if they’ll keep it up or change things around.

Most writers get it. They arrive prepared in the attire and in the voice that best represents who they are. They are honest and polite, yet passionate and steadfast — even while they sing or make jokes, and yes, even while they point and yell. They are usually willing to listen and share. It is after these writers that I base my own preparation and presentation when I give a reading of my own.

If I take the time to practice reading my excerpts and make sure they are themed for the event, choose clothing that is ‘me’ yet event-specific (sometimes you just gotta ditch the hoodie!), and remember that it’s not enough to picture the audience in their underwear but to picture them reading my book in their underwear, I’m certain I’m going to have a successful reading. I’ll bring my comedy game because I know I’ll be nervous and it helps me calm down. I’ll feel out the crowd and drop in a reference to my body parts when it’s right, and there’s usually a ‘feels right’ moment (at least one) at each reading.

The key to a successful reading is making a strong connection with the audience. Knowing what we know: that the audience is there to see and hear us, that they’re definitely going to judge us and likely have judged us before; we need to come prepared with our words, our attire and, essentially, our ‘style’, whether we read or ‘perform’ our pieces. Everything from what we wear to how we do our hair to what we do when we’re not reading and, of course, what we do when we foster that magical phenomenon that is an audience-connected, successful reading. And you’ll know it’s successful because your audience will tell you. They’ll thank you after. They’ll buy your books. They’ll be in your audience again and again.

Vanessa Shields lives and writes in Windsor, ON. When she’s not being the best (and goofiest) mom she can be, she’s immersed in her writing and in local literary goings-on. Her book, Laughing Through A Second Pregnancy, was published in 2011 by Black Moss Press.