At the weekend, I gave my first public reading. Of my actual work. In front of actual people, who were not related to me. Well, one was related to me by marriage, but you know what I mean.
This all came about because I was asked to read at a book fair (which was extremely generous of the organisers) a few weeks ago; my instinct, when the email came through, was to run a mile in the opposite direction. Thankfully, though, my husband and other family members calmed me down and got me to see sense.
‘Take every opportunity that comes,’ they said. ‘You big eejit,’ they may have added.
After a few moments’ panicked thinking, I realised they were right.
I still felt a flutter of nerves as I replied to the organisers’ email, though, and I quivered a bit as I chose the piece I was going to read, and as I read it over and over in preparation. It was a familiar story, one of my own favourites, and one which I thought would suit the audience and occasion. I made myself as ready as I could get, and then I did my best to forget about it and stop worrying.
That worked for a while.
As the time drew nearer, the nerves grew stronger. I saw the stage, and the microphone, and the other performers and readers and how excellent they were. My little story, far from being the reasonable piece of work I’d been happy to share, started to look like a jumble of words which had no meaning. The person who read before me was animated, entertaining, eccentric and extremely memorable – and I was just a gal with stage-fright and a few sheets of stapled-together paper, blinking.
I did it, though. Nobody died. I got a small ripple of applause and some polite smiles. I only made one flub that I can remember (mixing up the word ‘eyes’ with ‘ears’, which – in the context – turned a very profound moment into a hilarious one) and I didn’t babble. In fact, I may have gone too slowly, which is definitely a first. When I get nervous I tend to suffer from verbal and mental diahorrea (apologies for the image) and I’ve been told, all through my life, to keep things slow when I’m speaking in public.
For this reading, of course, wasn’t my first public speaking engagement – I used to be a college lecturer, if you recall. So why was getting up and reading one of my own short stories – ten or fifteen minutes, max. – so much scarier than lecturing a couple of hundred college kids for nearly an hour?
Well. When you’re lecturing, the audience sort of has to be there. Not that a university takes attendance, but the students have a reason for coming to the lectures – i.e., to pass the course. The people who came to hear me read didn’t have to be there. They were coming to hear me out of kindness, or interest, or possibly because they had no other plans for those few moments. That immediately makes you feel a burden of responsibility. I owe these people a few minutes’ entertainment, you can’t help telling yourself. They’ve made the effort to come and sit here, listening to me – the least I‘ve got to do is make it worth their while. So, not the most relaxing way to think.
Not that my audience was anything like Statler and Waldorf, of course – they were lovely. But when you’re the one behind the microphone, your mind tends to go to funny places.
Also, when you’re lecturing, the audience has a sort of grudging respect for you, most of the time. I know I did, when I was a student – I always felt that the lecturer knew more than I did about whatever topic was under discussion, and even if they weren’t able to tie their shoelaces or put their clothes on the right way out in real life (both of these things did happen to lecturers of mine), they were still an authority figure in the lecture theatre. It cuts down on the nerves a little when you know that the people listening to you are going to assume you’re worth listening to; it makes you believe it, too.
And, finally, there’s a huge difference in performing a lecture – even when it’s something you wrote and sweated over and rehearsed, and into which you really worked to include anecdotes and interesting details and attention-grabbing facts – and in reading a story which came from your heart. A lecture tells the listeners about the stuff you love; a story tells your audience who you are.
Anyway. I stood up there, and I gave it all my might. I made my husband proud, and that’s enough for me. I did accents for my various characters (or tried to, at least); I put some effort into making my fictional people sound different, and unique, and real. Reading the story aloud gave me a new appreciation for it, and that in itself made the whole thing worthwhile.
And the organisers have asked me back to read next year, so I can’t have been that bad.