I’m no stranger to the stage. I started singing professionally in 1983 and was on stage several times a week singing for large crowds. It was an exciting time, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The rare bout of nerves would always subside once I was on stage. So why is reading my stories on stage completely different?
I have taught English for 20 years. I stand in front of a class and tell stories all the time, but somehow this is different. Thinking about this has taken me back to 1983 the first time I had to read in public.
It was disastrous. For a course in English diction I had to prepare a ten-minute speech, which was fun actually: the preparation. Once I was standing in front of the class of six students, I felt as if I was going to pass out. My body simply stopped breathing. A phobia was born. But it didn’t matter. I was going to be a singer anyway. I’d never have to read in public again.
In 1991, just after I’d published my first poem, I had the chance to read it at a university poetry slam. I was in graduate school and mentally moving away from my future as a pop star and toward that of the pensive, brooding writer. The night of the poetry slam there were about 100 university kids in attendance—most several years younger than I was. When it was my turn to read, I shoved the poem into the hands of the girl sitting next to me and asked her if she’d read it.
“Sure,” she said and went up to the microphone with my poem, which she’d never seen. She read it beautifully. And of course everyone thought it was her poem. She never said it wasn’t.
In 2009, I read a creative non-fiction piece at a televized reading in Tennessee. I made it through the story, but I was reading it so slowly that I went over the allotted time (and got buzzed two sentences from the end by the timekeeper). Needless to say, this didn’t help my phobia.
Next Saturday night, I have to read for 15 minutes at the KGB Bar in New York City—and I have a tiny case of the jitters. OK, considering my history with reading in public, I could use some advice. I’m marking my pages with breath marks to help me remember where to breathe.
What else do you do to prepare for public readings?