Almost exactly a year ago, I had a revelation while standing at a podium. It wasn’t the time, the place, or the situation for any new thoughts: I was presenting an art history paper I’d written a year before at an Undergraduate Academic Conference. Everything was supposed to be polished - finished. I was technically prepared, having spent weeks chopping my long sentences into speech-friendly chunks and creating a colorful slideshow so my audience wouldn’t break into a snore-chorus when I really got going on parabolic arches. I was proud of my work. The presentation was simple: all I had to do was hold a paper and prove I could pronounce my own words. But when I stood up and started to read, I was shocked at my inclination to whip out a pen in front of forty people and start re-arranging all my sentences. As I forced myself to keep reading and avoided making any impromptu statements, I thought to myself, I wish I did this all the time.
It wasn’t the confidence boost or the public-speaking practice that had me wishing conference presentations were a part of my weekly schedule. It wasn’t even just reading aloud, exactly, that was giving me so many new ideas about how the paper should be written. I’d read it aloud for myself dozens of times and for my roommates in the kitchen the previous night, wearing high heels with my pajamas to make sure I wouldn’t stumble over a word or a floorboard. In addition, I almost always muttered my papers aloud to myself before submitting them. Other than finding too-long sentences that needed to be broken up or untangled, reading to myself never made that much of a difference. But there was something about this room, something about this cocktail of family, classmates, and strangers in front of me, something about the pairing of my black pumps with the rest of my formal outfit, all coming together to give me a brand new vision of my piece. Thinking only of myself, my arguments, and my words, I had unwittingly stepped into an interactive performance. Here I had a diverse group of real people to deliver my ideas to and only my voice and written words to do it with. It was stressful, but it was also inspiring. By the end of the presentation, the paper I’d read from was covered in notes and ideas. This experience kicked off a slow-but-sure revolution in my personal writing process - and was the reason I now strive to integrate performance into of every project I care about.
No English major can make it through school without hearing about literary readings and academic presentations. We hear about these events from our friends in Creative Writing programs, see posters pasted on office walls, are invited by friends, and bribed by professors into attending them for extra credit. Around Flagstaff, it’s not unusual to stumble into a bookstore, coffeehouse, or bar and find yourself in the middle of one. Readings often seem like the final literary frontier—the prize that waits for a writer on the far side of a hard-earned degree or publication deal. But reading your work for a creative or disciplinary audience can be so much more than just an end goal. It can be an incredibly helpful steppingstone at any point in the writing process.
There are as many reasons to regularly “perform” your pieces - including the unfinished and barely-started ones - as there are ways to do it. First, it’s an incredibly effective way to test the clarity of your writing and your message. A great rule of thumb for anything you write is that if you can’t read it aloud easily, your readers will have trouble reading it to themselves. Performing your writing can turn a “polished” piece into an exciting draft you want to rebuild entirely, without feeling like a failure. You’ll get feedback and constructive criticism (if you want it). The beauty of performing your own work is that you can usually make a reading serve whatever purpose you need it to. Formal academic presentations and scheduled literary events with large groups may have certain rules and time constraints, but you can always talk to your audience members before or after you read to get feedback. The smaller the audience, the more possibilities you have - you can ask an audience of one or two for very specific feedback. Performance is also a confidence boost - every single time. At the end of a major achievement such as a long writing project, award, or publication, getting to present your work is a final, formal honor. However, reading even an outline or a work-in-progress can inspire confidence. I I usually feel proud after making myself get up in front of people and read a rough draft.
For most writers, the daunting aspect of reading for an audience is simply getting up to do it. I would never have stepped up to the podium last year had I not been asked, encouraged, and finally pressured to do so. In my experience, audiences on the whole are usually incredibly welcoming. Many English majors choose to showcase their writing process precisely because of the literary community’s friendliness to people with shy and solitary tendencies. Luckily for students in Flagstaff, there are a number of local groups and regular events where even the shiest writers can bounce their pieces off like-minded people. The following two local readings are wonderful places to get started. Juniper House Readings are weekly, year-round, downtown meetings with time scheduled for both a featured reader and impromptu offerings. This is an ideal event to bring new or even unfinished work to. Juniper House’s one requirement is that material has to be “fresh”: new and unpublished. The Narrow Chimney Reading Series is a great way to regularly hear other writers read their published or soon-to-be-published work. In weekly meetings throughout the school year, Narrow Chimney often features NAU creative writing graduate students as well as authors, poets, and essayists from around Arizona and the country. For those more interested in academic performance than creative readings, there are also a wide variety of local opportunities. NAU annually hosts the Undergraduate Research Symposium and The Peaks Conference, which both cater to undergraduate presenters. These opportunities are just a sampling of the many communities of presenters and performers in the Flagstaff area. The more you attend, the more you discover.
We are all taught to write with our audience in mind, but imagining an abstract group of readers (especially when, as students, the only real reader will be a single professor) can be nearly impossible. When struggling to imagine how readers will react to your piece or don’t know if your argument is convincing or not, my first suggestion is always to take the problem to a live audience for help. The first step up to a podium can feel like a big one, but it gets easier - and more exciting - every time you take it.