How to overcome THE FEAR and learn to love public reading

Ever at Story Shop 2012
Post-Story Shop, and I didn’t get my head chopped off. Always a bonus.
Photo by Cinnamon Curtis

A cold sweat, wobbly legs, increased heart-rate, croaking voice. No, this isn’t a reaction to the popularity of 50 Shades, it’s THE FEAR. Not the humdrum serial killer in the house kinda fear, it’s the Public Reading Fear. I’m a big horror fan, delighting in the gore of Re-animator, Feast, and Braindead, as well as shivering at the creeping unease of Shirley Jackson’s The Witch, and the collected works of MR James. But the nausea-inducing fear of public reading leaves me a gibbering wreck.

So, just to be masochistic I applied for Story Shop 2012, an opportunity provided by the lovely creatures at Edinburgh City of Literature to read in the Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. When I was accepted my first reaction was possibly maybe “Oh, shit”, followed by chanting “A challenge is good for you. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. A challenge is good for you. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” before promptly flying into a dizzying panic. “Right,” I said, trying to snap myself out of it in a scene reminiscent of Fight Club, (though, not quite as bloody – you ever tried hitting yourself ? It’s funny how easy it is to miss when you should know exactly where your face is). I stared at my foolish self in the mirror and said: “It’s Public Reading Bootcamp for you.” And here’s where the horrors began, though more for my long-suffering friends than for me.

Collage by CherryB
In Training for the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Collage by CherryB

I had grown pretty sick of the constant “Oh, the more you do it, the easier it’ll be,” bollocks I was hearing all the time. Especially when each time I gave it a go I was shaking, croaking, and delivering the story like a mousey school girl. I hated you smug extroverted bastards who made public reading look like a walk in the park and not the hideous torture I always found it to be. But I was also taking notes. How you delivered. How well you breathed. Where you paused. How you put emphasis on certain words, and the way you teased laughs and exclamations from your worshipping audience who listened to your voice like you were delivering a word-based equivalent of heroin.

Armed with these observations I then practiced in front of the mirror, my muppety face contorting into all kinds of disturbing expressions as I attempted to embody my slightly unhinged protagonist. It was then I discovered I didn’t know how to wink without it looking like I had some sort of nervous twitch. Who would have thought public reading practice would involve winking at yourself in the mirror a hundred billion times?

Next step was cornering my friends. If they invited me for dinner, or coffee, or drinks, or even made the mistake of a passing hello, I tied them to a chair and practiced until their ears bled. My partner bore the brunt of it, along with a bookcase, a wilting plant, and my cat who skulked away in disgust. And it worked brilliantly. Have you ever practiced like this in front of your mates? It’s embarrassing. More embarrassing than in front of a big crowd of strangers. Talking to the bookshelf and making silly expressions in the mirror is embarrassing too, even if no one else is there to witness it (but I swear that bookshelf was laughing at me). So the more I put myself through this, the more confident I got. My friends gave me feedback, telling me where my strengths were, and what I needed to improve, and back to the mirror I would go until my next victim came along. I also signed up for an Inky Fingers open-mic night to get used to reading in front of an audience not consisting of my mates, and it went well. I was still a bit too nervous, but that just meant more practice.

Ever at the Book Fest
Lurking outside the Spiegeltent

Then there was the masterclass provided by Edinburgh City of Literature. If I thought I knew fear before the masterclass, I was clearly mistaken, having lived a sheltered life unaware of the existence of voice coach high priestess of darkness, Alex Gillon. Four sacrificial offerings were made, and they emerged from their trial as public reading aficionados. Never again will we hear the word ‘breathe’ and not whimper like little children. Gillon worked her magic, and I wrote screeds of notes. Finally I had someone who wasn’t feeding me the usual “It’ll get easier the more you do it” line, but instead was offering practical, useful advice.
I went home and practiced some more. I emphasised certain words and gave them colour, I chose beats where I would look at the audience, I paid strict attention to my breathing, and I practiced hand gestures that would help bring the story to life. And I started to have fun.

One of the last things Gillon said to us was “Enjoy it!” and I looked at her like she was mad. I wondered if that day would ever come for this shy kid. And then it did. Wednesday 22nd August 3.55pm, and the Spiegeltent was full of friends, family, and unsuspecting members of the public. I was wide-eyed with fear, but I wasn’t shaking, and a big part of that fear was delicious anticipation. When I took to the stage I delivered The Company Report in exactly the way I had practiced and there was no fear at all. I made eye contact with the audience, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed every minute. Suddenly I was one of those smug bastards, and off to the authors’ yurt I went with my guests for a celebratory glass of wine.

Ever reading at Story Shop 2012
never let me read to your children
Ever reading at Story Shop 2012
looking superchuffed that I didn’t fall over or throw up

So ends my tale of masochistic self-improvement. Many thanks go to the brilliantly effective Alex, and to Peggy and Ali, the wondrous and supportive creatures at Edinburgh City of Literature for this great opportunity. For the first time I loved being on stage, and it felt amazing being a part of the Edinburgh Book Festival. You can read all the Story Shop stories over on the Edinburgh City of Literature website.

Just to shake things up a bit, I shall leave you with the question of whether writers should have to be performers in the first place – The Performing Writer: Who Wants to be a Writer Now?, was an event at the Book Festival that looked at whether things have gone too far, when writers are expected to be excellent performers and social media savvy. What do you think?

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