Doing a public reading of another author’s work is an honor and a responsibility, and definitely feels different from doing a reading of your own stuff. With your own, you’re protective and vulnerable. Nervous. (See my post from 10/15/15 called “What is it about a literary reading?”) When reading another’s work, you want to do the piece justice and be true to the author’s intent, much as a director, when mounting a play, wants to be true to the intent of the playwright.
Sharing your own work makes for a high sense of risk. These are your words, ideas, thoughts, and feelings. You wonder if people are liking what they hear. You wonder if it’s bombing like an Off-Broadway flop. Feelings of euphoria or defeat are close at hand. But let’s face it, as writers we want to be read and heard. Hopefully, those hearing your work will want to read more and buy your books.
Reading someone else’s story at a literary event has a different feel. I recently was the reader for the first place short story in a local writing contest. I felt a big responsibility even though I didn’t know who the author was. The author’s name was announced by the emcee after the reading.
In preparing for the reading, I did my homework. I made sure I understood the story and its intent. What was the author saying about the characters, about life? I looked at the structure to see what the writer was doing craft wise to help me understand the highs, the lows, and the rhythm. I noted where the author was close to his characters and when he was in exposition.
And as a reader I had to be sure of word pronunciations. In this particular story, the author used Hawaiian words and several sentences in Hawaiian which were integral to the story and couldn’t be skipped over or just immediately given in translation. My prep involved a call to the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Oahu. I spoke with an Hawaiian woman who patiently took me through the words and sentences (which I wrote in my own phonetic code), told me which syllables to accent, and gave me the cadence.
You may love the piece you’re sharing with the audience, like it, or be apathetic. But your opinion really doesn’t matter. The judges have chosen. A reader’s responsibility to another author’s work is to be as true to the piece as possible and do that author’s work justice. You’re holding someone else’s baby. It’s delicate and important and deserving of care. What happens when the words hit the airwaves is in fate’s hands. Of course, you hope the audience enjoys the piece.
Then there’s the nuts and bolts. If the reading is not from a book, I print out the story, double-spaced, in a larger font than the traditional 12 point. I put the “script” in a notebook and fold up the bottom right corner on each page. This prevents turning two pages at once which would really put the story in a spin or standing there trying to peel two pages apart. I add any cues about pacing or pronunciation or volume or anything else I’ve discovered during practice sessions.
Time is the biggest factor in prep. It gives a reader the opportunity to understand the piece, catch the nuances, subtleties, and subtext. Time allows for practice runs. Sometimes, a reader has to change a word or two or eliminate or add one to help with the flow. Whatever the circumstance, you give the piece your best shot. You’ve been given temporary custody of another’s work. Honor the trust. And enjoy.