Public Speaking for Writers 101

If you ever have the opportunity and the privilege to read your work to a live audience, DO IT.

There’s a transformation that occurs when you read your work out loud. The work takes on new dimensions both for the reader and the writer.

Public readings are a good way to make the writing life less solitary, to connect directly with the audience and actually witness the reactions that you could only imagine while writing the piece.

Now that I’ve persuaded you that live readings are wonderful, here are a few distilled tips from Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio to help you prepare.

Think of the reading as a performance. If you’re not engaged by your work and the reading of it, the audience won’t be either.

Time yourself. Less is better than wearing out your welcome.

Practice. Seems obvious, but I mean really practice reading out loud. Don’t just read your poems over and over in your head. Use a mirror, read to some friends or family, or record yourself.

Relax. Most readings or open mics are relatively tame, supportive, and laid back. In these settings, people tend to follow the rule, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” so you probably won’t get booed.

Now take your writing to a new audience and push past your comfort zone.

What other strategies do you have for making the best of public readings? Share your thoughts.

Read Like a Writer: The Importance of Close Reading

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Get your magnifying glasses and microscopes! Your scalpels and fine-tooth combs! It’s time to read like a writer!

Call it a close reading.

Not of my blog, thank goodness, unless you feel so inclined.

You actually get to study your favorite piece of writing.

Keyword: study.

Close reading is more than just reading to understand or reading to enjoy.

A close reading is a study to discover and learn the intricate workings of a piece of writing.

This process is especially important for writers because it’s how we learn more about our craft.

And despite what you may be thinking, examining a piece of writing doesn’t take all the joy out of it.

If the piece is any good, a close reading will only deepen our appreciation for the work and help us see the magic, the dexterity, the surprises, the connections, the truths that lie beneath the many layers that great works are known for.

I think great writing begs close reading, because great writing has depth and doesn’t give away all its wonders in an initial or surface reading.

Although I began reading closely in high school, I wasn’t introduced to the term close reading until the middle of my undergraduate career.

I’ve been hooked ever since.

An interesting piece of writing is like an interesting person. I want to know more. I want to “pick the brain” of the piece, if you will. I want to ask: How do you do it? Where does your strength lie? What else do you have in your bag of tricks to offer the world?

As Kim Addonizio points out in Ordinary Genius, you will also nourish your own creativity for producing your own work.

Chapter 30 of the book is a simple guide for getting intimate with your favorite piece of writing.

First, read, read, and reread.

Second, pay attention to everything. In good writing everything matters, so pay attention. If the piece is long, you may want to focus on excerpts at first.

Third, catch the themes, the “reason-for-being of the piece.” You’ll find that all the parts and decisions the writer has made add up to the whole of the theme(s).

Fourth, notice tone and voice, usually conveyed through diction (word choice) or syntax (sentence structure).

Fifth, uncover the structure or skeleton. How does it begin and end? Where does it turn or change? Where does the tension build or slacken? How is repetition used, if at all? Where are the section breaks, line breaks, or stanza breaks?

These are five steps to get you started, but once you do, you’ll go wherever the writing takes you.

This is how to really read like a writer.

How do you learn from what you read? What other ways do you get close to a good piece of writing?

Writing Emotionally Charged Pieces

Readers don’t care about your feelings.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. What I really mean is that they don’t want to read pages and pages of you pouring out your hurt and pain and love and desire.

That’s as unappealing as melodramatic movies.

In a recent interview with Piers Morgan, Robert Blake described acting out a famous scene from the movie In Cold Blood. The director essentially told Blake to tone down his acting, not to cry because the rain was crying for him. He told Blake just to say the lines, not to try and express any emotion. This became one of the most famous scenes from Hollywood.

A lot of emotionally charged writing is overdone and cheesy.

Writers try too hard to make you cry or gasp or whatever.

Consider this:

The poor, abandoned orphan stood alone in the pouring rain, crying and yelling for the only parents she’d ever known. Her heart wrenched, and her pain was so unbearable that she fell to her tiny, innocent knees, splashing into the muddy gutter . . . etc. etc.

That’s an example of trying too hard.

The remedy I’m presenting to you:

Distance.

In Ordinary Genius, Kim Addonizio actually calls it coldness.

Don’t think cold as in cruel, think cold as in distant like an outside observer or reporter or doctor or scientist or comedian.

Here’s a better way to think about it:

“As satisfying as it was to write in my journal, I could see that something besides deep feeling was required. I needed craft.” -Addonizio

That lame example about the orphan is overly concerned about emotion with no regard for craft.

But isn’t writing about emotion?

Of course. Readers want emotion.

But without craft, you can’t effectively deliver emotion.

Here are four ways Addonizio suggests we maintain focus on craft when writing emotionally charged pieces. The explanations are my own.

Imagery

Show, don’t tell. Focus on the tangible details of the moment instead of explaining emotions. Write the entire piece without naming the emotion.

Restraint

Don’t give too many details. Avoid adverbs and adjectives with strong emotional connotations, like desolate or grudgingly.

Hyperbole, Humor, Irony

This is the reason I like the term distance rather than coldness. Because humor and hyperbole can seem quite warm, but they require distance.

If done well, you can ignore the first two suggestions when using hyperbole, humor, or irony. But make sure you exaggerate enough that the exaggeration is obvious. If it’s not blatant to the reader that the speaker is being facetious, the writing will be just another bad piece of writing.

Form

Focusing on form helps you not focus on the emotion. It also requires that you be concise and focus on language. Form is like a leash that keeps you from trampling all over your readers’ emotional flowerbed.

I encourage you to go ahead and write about cancer, war, death, divorce, and abuse. But gain some distance. Focus on the imagery, practice restraint, infuse some humor, or stick to a form.

What do you think? What are the most effective ways to get strong emotion on paper without making your readers roll their eyes?

Make ’em laugh, make ’em think.

You’ve been that person.

A crowd of people are doubling over in laughter and you’re still trying to figure out the joke.

You didn’t get it.

You’re confused, replaying the lines over and over in your head, trying to figure out the twist, the connection, the disconnection.

What does it mean to get a joke anyway?

Contrary to popular belief, laughing at jokes requires thought.

To get a joke, you have to understand it.

Anyone who’s ever tried to write jokes knows how hard it is. You have to be clever. You have to see things in ways other people usually don’t. You have to notice hidden contradictions and parallels. You have to craft language so that other people can notice what you notice.

This is the subject of chapter 19 in Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio. She quotes Billy Collins as saying humor is, “not simply . . . a source of amusement, but . . . a way of seeing, a mode of perception.”

Addonizio says bad humor is easy, boring, and one-dimensional. The humor people truly crave has layers.

The poems she uses as examples in this chapter (“Wishes for Sons” by Lucille Clifton and “No Time” by Billy Collins) prove that humor isn’t necessarily the same as telling jokes.

Jokes stand alone. They’re autonomous and have a single or foremost purpose of eliciting laughter.

Humor, rather than standing alone, is a sort of vein that pumps a bit of laughter through your writing. Maybe it just pumps a grin or two. Humor is like a thickening agent that’s part of a gumbo filled with other tasty substances. Really, you can use any number of analogies.

What Addonizio also demonstrates by using Billy Collins as an example is that we can weave humor into our writing without turning it into a funny piece. The poem, essay, or story can have moments of comedy or an undercurrent of wit, yet maintain its general affect of sorrow or melancholy or anger or fear.

The humor acts like a pressure release valve.

So, have you been trying to write funny stuff? Maybe your approach is wrong. Instead of reducing the amount that readers have to think, try showing them a different way of thinking about everyday life. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking new theory, but merely your unique perspective on the world.

As always, Addonizio shares some wonderful strategies for approaching humor and incorporating that element of funny into any kind of writing. I can’t lay them all out here, but you can read them for yourself.

What do you think? Are jokes any different from other types of literature that use humor?