It took two strippers and a dominatrix to convince me that there was merit to reading my work aloud to strangers.
When I first started writing and publishing stories and essays in the 90s, I refused to read my work. I had good reason to avoid the stage. Whenever I read, I would keep my head shoved down plowed through sentences at a mind-numbing speed. At the end, the audiences applauded me pity and support than literary appreciation.
In 1997, I participated in my first round of book promotions for the anthology Men We Cherish. There was a book party, a book signing, bookstore appearances, and finally a promotional appearance on a radio show. At that point I had a few successful readings under my belt. I’d learned to psyche myself up before reading, by chanting to myself: read slowly, read slowly, read slowly. So I thought I had the problem licked. On the show, the radio host interviewed us about our essays and then turned the mic over to us so we read. I don’t remember the actual experience of reading, I just remember getting the tape from the show afterwards. When I listened to it, I was shocked. I had been recorded skimming over my words with a mumbling quickness. Then I got angry. It wasn’t a live show. Why didn’t someone stop me and let me start over?
Soon after the radio fiasco, I started a writing group with a friend of mine. We set a unique requirement: whenever we presented work for critique, we had to read it aloud. Even within the safety of that circle of writers, I was nervous—hands shaking, quaky-voiced, speeding through each story, barely pausing to allow the plot to sink into the listeners’ ears. But repetition is an excellent teacher. Over time, I found my reading rhythm and comfort so that when the group dissolved, I was left with the ability to read slowly and clearly in public.
From that point on, I promised myself that EVERY time someone asked me to read, I would—which is how I found myself agreeing to read at an erotic event on Valentine’s Day. When I arrived at the event, I discovered there was also a dominatrix, a masseuse, and two strippers on the bill! I freaked out. Who—I thought—would want to hear a story after naked people have been traipsing around? The masseuse was the first to perform. Then came the strippers. The male stripper took over the space, popping his butt, picking women up in their chairs, and pushing his face into their breasts. The female stripper removed every stitch of her red patent leather outfit, and was showered in dollar bills before lying down on the floor, opening her legs, pouring hot candle wax from her throat down to (and into) her vulva. When the stripper had scurried off, the event planner turned to me and said, “You’re next!”
I have a thing about taking my medicine. Which means when I’m avoiding a task because I’m afraid or unsure or I don’t think people are going to like me, I do it anyway. So I stood up and read my story (a little too quickly). Halfway through, I realized the room was completely silent. Even through my tortured certainty that this was the wrong venue for my work, I knew that the audience was with me for every word. I had spent so many years thinking about what my writing is to me, I never considered what my writing was to others. Even though I knew my work had value, I never imagined that when I show up to read, I give people pleasure, I feed imaginations, I share beauty.
It has taken me a long time to become comfortable with sharing the spotlight with my work. I have always wanted to step to the side and let my work “speak for itself,” but I have come to understand that reading publicly is not about self-gratification, it’s about representing the work. It’s about staking a claim for the value of my writing. It’s about clearing a space in which my creativity can be heard. When I move forward with the understanding that self-promotion is not about me, I am freed to commit to the act of giving my work the opportunity to find it’s readers. Ultimately, I am responsible for letting the world know about my work. What happens next, is up to the readers. Each individual within earshot, can choose whether or not to interact with my writing, but if I don’t announce it, if I don’t share it, if I don’t put it out there, then no one even has the opportunity to engage with it.
I know that when I hold back and don’t share my insights as a writer, I am blocking my own expression and progress. Hiding away from promotions almost ensures that all the hard work I put into my craft will go unnoticed and unappreciated. I have too much respect for my efforts to squander away the possibilities of building a future for my writing. I now consider audience building as a component of my work as a writer. As long as I am writing, I will also be reading in support of my words, of my literary development, and of expanding the possibilities for my work.