When I was about to launch my book tour a few years ago, I was nervous about reading in public—I tend to mumble, and have never been a good storyteller—so I thought it might be a good idea for me to practice. So my wife very kindly organized a reading party! We invited some literary friends, fed them pizza and beer, and I read them some of the book excerpts I planned on reading during the tour. Afterward, our guests wrote mini-critiques, both of my selections and of my delivery.
I received some very good advice that day about the passages I chose (there was an overwhelming consensus regarding which were the ones that hit and which ones missed), and about my delivery (mostly different versions of “SLOW DOWN!”) but the most helpful advice came from my friend Fabrice, who wrote, “You need to be in love with your own words.”
When I talked with him later, he said, “You seem bored. Pretend you’re reading something by an author you love, Like Yeats or Faulkner or Morrison.”
He was right, of course. As an English professor, whenever I read from a work I loved, especially if it was poetry, there was no disguising my feelings for the work. To this day I have been unable to read out loud the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” or Francesca’s story in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno (in the original terza rima, mind you), without crying. Why, when I read my own work, did I sound bored or embarrassed?
Well, I certainly could go on here about how I was trained as a good Catholic to think of others before myself, and to be humble (because vanity is a sin), but that would be a hollow excuse. The truth is, reading my own work in public was quite different from reading the work of others, so like any other new venture, I had to learn how to do it.
Enter Janna Goodwin.
My friend Janna, a writer/actor/director/producer, is an excellent public speaker, and she teaches Communication for a living. So she gave me a private lesson—feel your feet, look up, project out to the last row, mark pauses in my text, wait for laughs, pause for effect, and so on. And at one point, she said something like, “And, you know, feel it, man.”
Ah-ha! I wasn’t feeling it.
But here’s the thing: I do feel it. I do love my words. In fact, I’m completely in love with the stories and novels that I write. I was in love with White Plains for ten years. More lately I’ve been carrying on a four-year love affair with my new book, The Gospel According to Danny. And I’m currently smitten with the rough draft of a new novella—in fact, we can’t wait to start dating regularly.
But I certainly wasn’t conveying any of that in my voice as I read.
I would like to say here that after my friends’ advice and Janna’s coaching, I became an electrifying reader, and hundreds of people showed up to bask in the symphony of my voice. But these things take time. What I can say is that over the course of that 50-stop book tour, I steadily improved my reading skills. Yes, on some evenings, I let my anxieties take over and I read too quickly, or without any confidence whatsoever, to say nothing of love. But on other evenings, I chose a passage I especially liked, I planted my feet firmly behind the podium, I smiled to the audience, and read with patience, tenderness, and faith. And it was fun!
Since then, I have become a better reader, teacher, and writer as a result of Fabrice’s advice. As a reader, I can tell—can’t you?—when a book has been written without love. The words stay flat on the page. When I compose or revise my stories, I try to choose my words with love and to make sure I am in love with my characters, even when—especially when—they are behaving badly. And I don’t consider a work complete until I’ve read it out loud, twice: first to hear any missteps in wording or rhythm, then again to make sure I can read every paragraph with great affection. Because Fabrice was right—if I am not in love with my words, why would anyone else be?