The Writer's Life - Thinking About: How Do You Know If You've Had a Good Reading?

I read this weekend at Elliott Bay Book Company, my favorite all-service bookstore on the planet. This was my second reading in Seattle for The Alchemist's Kitchen and so understandably it was a more intimate crowd than my Open Books book launch last April. Although I am nervous and excited before each reading, it is the questions that arise after the reading that I want to address.

This year at AWP I went to a session called "Shameless Self Promotion" which wasn't shameless at all. The group from the Twin Cities called Squad 365 presented. They are a group of writer friends -- poets, fiction writers, and non-fiction writers who have come together to share ideas on book promotion with a very humane approach. (Todd Boss and Margaret Hasse are the poets of the group.) And one of many smart things they said was, "you need a way to judge success other than book sales when doing a reading." Interestingly, it was the non-fiction writer who said this -- and of course non-fiction sells better than poetry or fiction as a genre.

Here are my thoughts "the morning after" the reading.

1. There were no catastrophes. No hecklers. And I only tripped over one word. Be thankful for the small things.

2. The dinner beforehand with friends at Oddfellows was wonderful. Whenever possible I schedule a dinner with a good friend before or after the reading. I need to make sure I plan to include good food and friendship as part of the evening.

3. What I remember from my readings are the unscripted parts -- like walking off the stage to hand-out the photographs I brought of Myra Albert Wiggin's work so the audience could see the image that inspired the poem. It felt good to move into the audience, if only for a moment.

4. Somewhere in the first third of my reading I heard the audience all laughing together at something I said. I have no idea what I said (or I would  write it down right now) but I do know that their laughter relaxed me. Once I hear genuine laughter from the group, I know they are with me.

5. Although the room was very dark, I could see people's faces. I always pick out a few faces in the crowd, men or women, that look especially attentive and their eyes tell me that they are with me. I keep those faces the next day as markers that someone was listening. If I touch a few people in the audience, that is enough.

6. When I attend readings I am always paying attention to the set-up for the poems as much as the poems themselves. Set-up is tricky, but I know it is key to welcoming the audience into the poem, especially audiences that are new to poetry readings. Make notes on which set-ups worked and which still need some revising.

7. OK. So book sales aren't the be all of readings, but they can't be completely ignored either. Yes, I did sell some books, even to strangers. Selling books feels good. Hannah, the bookseller, asked me to sign books for Elliott Bay to have on hand, this means I get "autographed" stickers. Always sign books for the store to keep on hand --

8. Fan mail. Again, not something to count on, but so cool when it happens! I received an email from a friend's husband saying that he was 57 and this was his first poetry reading. He was so taken that he bought all of my books. Cool. Another person (who I had just met)  used her Facebook update to say she'd had a good time. Bask in the concrete evidence that your words matter... to some.

9. Ignore the downers. OK. Just so you know, three people walked out of my reading. One couple (whom I don't know) and one young woman (also random) and it hurt. I told myself they must have to get to the hospital because their (collective) appendix just ruptured, but how likely is that? Perhaps they were just in the store and had a few moments before their bus left for Timbuktu? In any case, many more people stayed until the end. You can't hold on to the minor negatives, life is just too short.

10. This is being a writer in the world. Putting yourself out there. Connecting with an audience. It's scary, exhilarating, and always uncertain. The poet's equivalent to scaling a mountain. Thank god I get a chance to be a poet in this life. Do you take this love, poetry, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Say, yes!


  1. These are excellent tips for any writer who does readings ... we've all been there, with the attentive listeners, the wonderful book buyers, and of course, the inevitable walk-outs. Thanks for the reminders about what's important, and what's worth letting go of...

  2. All good advice. I like your second idea a lot; I'll try to add more food and friendship into my events.

  3. Good practical points, such as looking to those who are truly listening. I also like very much how you take care of you the poet and know what's worth letting go when your night of reading is done.

  4. Once someone walked out on a reading I was giving and I felt very bad. When I saw that person at another event we were both attending, she came up to me and said my poems inspired her so much she had to go get writing immediately. Maybe those three went off to create. We often think the worst of ourselves when people walk out but it is right to think it is something in them that needs to move at the moment and not something wrong in us.

  5. Thank you, everyone! Lana -- a wonderful, wonderful story.

  6. These are great reminders and excellent ways to find the joy, the real human connections in the experience.

  7. Thanks, Elizabeth ~
    I think of you as a great reader so it's even nicer that you find a connection with these ...

  8. Doing my first reading this week. Thanks for the great tips!


Post a Comment