AWP Dispatch: A Reading by David Wroblewski (or: How to Give a Great Reading)

This one comes from the lovely, talented, and nattily outfitted (we wear the same sport sandals every year to Grand Lake) Laurie Sleeper. She's also a heck of a reader and short story writer:

[caption id="attachment_1202" align="alignleft" width="232" caption="Wroblewski puts on "how to read awesomely" clinic"][/caption]

Okay, so the official title of this event was “A Reading by David Wroblewski,” who (if you don’t know by now) is the author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  But I thought he did such a great job at giving an engaging and informative reading/talk (especially as one of the last official AWP events late on a Saturday afternoon, when energy levels were sagging) that I wanted to share what Wroblewski did especially well during his time and reflect on what we can learn about giving readings from his excellent example.

Before giving any reading, by the way, spend many years writing an amazing and beautiful book.  Then…

1.  Choose your passage(s) wisely.  You would think that all great writing should sound good read out loud, but that’s not necessarily true.  I think any audience member can become temporarily distracted by interior thoughts or exterior stimuli, or be tired from three days of conference (or the Lighthouse party the night before!), or whatever, so the selection needs to be very engaging and readily re-engageable (is that a word? MSWord says not!) by the listener.  Wroblewski read two passages, one from the POV of a dog trying to understand changes in the household when Edgar is born, and the other when Edgar and two dogs are trapped in a cave by a giant waterspout on a lake.  The first passage was engaging because a dog’s POV is unusual, and in this case unusually rendered (Wroblewski didn’t give in to the “talking dog” syndrome he admitted he feared, so there’s a refreshing distance in the telling, almost as if it’s about the dog’s POV instead of in the dog’s POV—in a good kind of way!).  The second passage is dramatic not only for the physical danger and uncertainty it describes (what will happen to Essay??), but for the importance it has as a turning point in the book.  It won’t ruin your reading, or your reader’s experience of your book, if you read an important part (well, maybe don’t read the end) and it will help keep your audience’s attention.

2.  Practice reading your passage(s) before you give a reading.  Nothing personal, but just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you can read it without practicing.  As you can imagine, Wroblewski has probably read these and other passages hundreds of times by now, and it showed—his reading was smooth and confident.  Most of us won’t have the opportunity to read our work quite this often, but reading out loud to yourself or someone else at least a couple of times before going on stage will help you identify those words or sentences you inevitably will stumble on.  And don’t be afraid to edit a piece so it’s easier to read—there’s no rule that you have to read word for word what you wrote.  

3.  Know how long it takes to read your piece.  Please time yourself ahead of time when you practice your reading.  Many of us “emerging” writers often have five minutes (or ten at the most) to read, often with several other “emerging” writers.  Five minutes is not a long time.  Even during the AWP conference, when most panelists had about ten minutes to present, there were a couple people who were not able to stay within those parameters.  Wroblewski’s presentation was a little over an hour, and he knew that each reading passage would be about 10 minutes, and he knew about how long his discussion in-between would be.  While he bemoaned the fact that he didn’t end up with as much Q&A time as he had wished (claiming to be rusty in judging the length of time his total presentation would take), I thought the balance was just right between reading and talk and Q&A.  If you’re lucky enough to have a long time to read (like at a book signing), remember that while five minutes is not a long time, a half hour is a very long time, especially if you’re reading word for word from your book the entire time—break it up like Wroblewski did.

4.  Read slowly.  Think of where you might pause for emphasis or to take a breath (musicians often write breath marks on their music so they’ll know when to breathe and not have to think about it).  Wroblewski read in a slow, deliberate manner that was a perfect storytelling voice—he wasn’t reading words from a page, he was telling a story.  During the “talk” part, his presentation was much more conversational and free form, which also contributed to the overall flow.

5.  Make it fresh, even if you have read it a hundred times.  I don’t know quite how he did it, but I think it’s related to Wroblewski’s generous attitude towards his audience.  It wasn’t about him, the author, having done this all before, it was about serving and entertaining the audience in front of him.  When you’re writing something, I totally believe you should write for yourself first (or you’re not going to care about your writing, and it’ll show), but by the time you’re reading your work for an audience, it’s got to be about the audience’s experience. 

6.  Know your audience.  Again, this may seem obvious but having a couple of different prepared pieces or discussion topics will give you the flexibility to meet different audiences’ needs.  In this case, Wroblewski knew his audience was mostly comprised of fellow writers, and therefore he spoke about why he loves the novel as an art form, what he thinks a novel is, how he came to understand the structuring of a novel.  I saw him speak a year ago at a library benefit, and while there may have been a little overlap, I remember that event as being quite different, with a different focus (lots more about dogs!).  Clearly Wroblewski thought about and then accommodated each of his different audiences.

7.  Have a sign language interpreter.  Okay, just kidding, but I have to share what happened during Wroblewski’s talk, when what he said and what the interpreter signed meshed together in an amazing synergy.  I don’t know much about sign language (other than I can tell (I think!) when an interpreter is spelling a word rather than having a symbol for it) so when an interpreter is at an event, I might glance at the signing for a moment but otherwise ignore it.  But while Wroblewski explained his understanding of a novel’s structure, about how small bits and pieces are braided together to create a more complete whole, the interpreter was plucking small bits and pieces from the air and literally braiding them in front of us, and for a time, instead of the interpreter providing understanding for the people who couldn’t hear Wroblewski’s words, it was as if Wroblewski was providing me with the auditory subtitles I needed to understand the language the interpreter was signing.  So I’d love to tell you more about the braiding, but because I took it in through the interpreter (with Wroblewski’s help), it went into a different part of my brain, hopefully to re-emerge fully formed the next time I tackle a large structurally complicated writing project! 

8.  Finally, here’s another cool thing Wroblewski talked about (which this time did go into the words part of my brain).  He said he loves the novel as an art form above all other art forms because of the lengthy engagement it requires of the reader.  No other art requires hours, days, even weeks of the person encountering the art.  The time it takes to read a novel necessitates that the reader will have to leave the art (to eat, to sleep, to work) and return to it, and yet during that time of disengagement, the reader continues to engage with it until he or she can return to reading again.  So it becomes enmeshed in the reader’s life, with the book entering into the reader’s life as well as the reader’s life informing the reading of the book (Hey David, sorry for mangling that so completely—you said it so much better!).  I have to say, for this diehard short story writer, it’s made me think that maybe, someday, I might want to write a novel, too.  How nice to have a great example, both in the writing and the writer!

--Laurie Sleeper

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