Facing the Dragons
I sat with a page-long extract from one of my stories one morning recently and inserted little upward pointing arrows like this - ↑ -into the text. I was preparing for my appearance that night at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Edinburgh UNESCO City Literature ran Dragon’s Pen, which had emerging writers reading and pitching their work to Francis Bickmore from Canongate, agent Lucy Luck and arts journalist Charlotte Higgins. Congratulations to worthy winner Anna Stewart who delighted all three of these very demanding judges. They might not have actually breathed fire but they were pretty scary.
I don’t look at writers when I’m in the audience at a reading. My eyes zone out, I stare at a bit of floor or wall and listen. So when thinking about performing myself I never used to give a great deal of thought to how I looked. That changed thanks to voice coach Alex Gillon.
I attended a workshop with her organised by the Scottish Book Trust last year, and had a second session in advance of the Dragon’s Pen event.
Much of Alex’s advice flows from the findings of Albert Mehrabian's studies into communication. He has shown that when someone speaks to us the way we react is 55% determined by body language and expression, 38% by voice, and only 7% by the actual words. This comes as a bit of a shock to writers. We have a thing about words and don’t like them downplayed. Out loud though, this is what happens to the poor things. They get knocked into third place.
Alex gives detailed advice to help improve how a performer comes across. Things like breathing, how you stand, the speed you read at, and eye contact all come into play. That’s why I was sticking in those arrows, to remind myself to look up at the audience and the dragons now and again.
When you begin trying to read smoothly, breathe properly, look up, find your place again, avoid fidgeting, give different voices to different characters, turn the page without breaking the flow, stand up straight, look up again… well you begin to think it would be easier flying a helicopter.
But Alex’s advice works. When we met up for a run-through with her I’d say at least half of us were not great readers. But we all went away with tailored advice ringing in our ears. On the night I think everyone read very well – something the dragons acknowledged regardless of what they thought of the writing.
You can judge for yourself how I got on. There is a clip on Youtube. I am pretty fidgety. I forgot to give some set-up information and just breenged into the extract. My statement up front before introducing myself didn’t really come off. I moved about too much. I even put my hand on my hip like a teapot at one point! These are all things Alex would regard as distractions. But I am better than I used to be and I continue to work on applying her advice.
All the writers who took part in Dragon’s Pen came from creative writing courses at various Universities. From what I gather, none of us were given this kind of coaching in our classes. At Glasgow we were encouraged to get as much experience reading as possible, but we were never given pointers on technique. That seems a bit of an omission given that performing live is a fairly important practical skill for anyone hoping to make it as a professional writer these days. Hats off to Scottish Book Trust and Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature for plugging the gap. Universities with creative writing courses could do worse than put Alex on tour.
I’d be interested to hear people’s thougths though. Do you agree that readings are more often than not a disappointment? Great writers can do bad readings, but can a bad writer do a great reading? What are your best and worst experiences of readings?