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My very first public reading was an impromptu open mic sort of thing in the town where I live. I’d been informally invited by the organiser to read from my first novel, Esperanza Street, the advance copies of which I’d just received. It was a few weeks prior to the official release date and, with launch readings already planned, I thought it might be a good idea to rehearse.
I duly turned up, book in hand. It was a casual gathering in a bar at the local theatre. There was a medium sized crowd, most of whom were fellow writers. I bought a drink and found a seat with a clear view from which I could watch how each writer delivered their readings. One by one, people stood up, walked to the front, and read calmly and with aplomb. They made it look easy. I fiddled with my book, waited for the nerves to dissipate. Instead the nerves grew more intense until, inevitably, the point arrived when I felt I had to take my turn. After all I’d come this far. I stood up and walked to the front, my palms already sweaty. Now I would love to say that it was easier than I’d expected and that I’d been worried about nothing. But it wasn’t. It was terrifying and I literally shook with fright all the way through my reading. My eyes glued to the page I read too quickly, rushing back to my seat the instant I’d finished. I felt so disheartened by this experience that I wondered how I was ever going to read live again. My first launch reading was only three weeks away. I seriously considered cancelling, feigning illness, paying an actor to read for me.
I asked other authors how they dealt with performance anxiety. Know your stuff really well, they said. Script your banter and practise it beforehand, they said. And whereas this is all very good advice, none of it helped. The problem I had didn’t feel like an issue about the logistics of delivering a reading. There was some other, more fundamental, block. I felt physically sick at the thought of reading aloud again to strangers.
Thankfully no-one trotted out the hackneyed suggestion to ‘imagine the audience naked/in their underwear’. As if a room full of naked people staring at you could ever be an antidote to anxiety. Never mind that this strategy is based on creating a spurious power differential, the underlying premise being that one becomes more powerful only if others are rendered powerless, a point of view I simply don’t subscribe to.
I phoned my cousin, Minneapolis-based jazz-pop singer songwriter, Ameet Kamath, and asked him how he dealt with anxiety prior to performing. I confessed to him that my anxiety about reading live was by now stopping me sleeping. What he said turned it around for me. He told me he had grown to love performing. ‘Remember that people have come just to see you’, he said. ‘They’ve made time in their day to come and hear what you have to say. They’re not going to be hostile. They’re not testing you. They want it to go well for you because they want to enjoy their evening. What you have to share with them is part of that.’ He told me that when he was due to perform, he sat in the wings and watched the audience come in. He watched them take their seats and as they settled in he said, internally, privately, ‘Welcome darlings’. I absolutely loved the spirit of this.
At my first launch in Sheffield Waterstones I introduced myself, confessed to being nervous and told the audience about my jazz-singing cousin and what he’d said. I told them that I liked his way of doing things so much that I was actually going to say it out loud. And I did. ‘Welcome darlings,’ I said. It broke the ice immediately. Everyone laughed and I relaxed. The evening became a pleasure not an ordeal. Yes, I was still nervous and my voice still shook as I read. But I read clearly and slowly and when I sat down to sign copies of my book I took a few minutes to chat to each person who came up. I was reminded once again how gratifying meeting new people can be. There were, to my great delight, many other writers there as well as other creative folk. There were people who had come because they’d spent time in the Philippines, or because, like me, they just loved books.
I understand now that, at its best, a reading is about communality. It is a shared experience. So an author does not have to feel as if they are on display, as if they are being judged. I have started to think of readings as being akin to a party where everyone has similar or at least compatible interests. And so, provided one can find a way to break the ice, conversation is likely to flow and one is likely to have a good time.