In the past five months since the release of my memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I’ve organized nearly twenty events to promote the book. I learned with my first book, Hands at Work, the importance of book readings and signings to introduce readers to my work. As I wrote in Afterthought #67, I took seriously guidance I received about author events, particularly regarding my “costume.”
The more I give readings, I gain stronger appreciation for the advice to think of it as a “performance.” I learned that at the first workshop I attended on the art of the author reading, and again at a workshop by former Washington State Poet Laureate, Elizabeth Austen. Her poetry (Every Dress a Decision, The Girl Who Goes Alone, and Where Currents Meet) is exquisite, and Elizabeth’s work in theater and radio is evident when she “performs” her own poems and those of others. Here’s some of her advice that I believe applies to readings of all genres:
- Select what you’ll read with attention to breaking the ice, developing an arc, and leaving the audience with what you want them to remember.
- Let the audience have a moment or two to breathe between parts you read, especially if you’re making a big transition or you’ve just finished an emotional section [I’ve found this is the perfect time to take a drink of water; it gives me a break, too].
- Practice and time yourself so you can be respectful of the audience and fellow readers.
- Wear shoes that allow you to feel the ground and stay balanced.
- Performing gets easier with practice—read for an audience as often as you can.
- Remind yourself that nervousness is simply the energy required to do this special thing, and that the performance requires you, but it’s not about you.
I’ve found that the Question and Answer segment is always rich, and although I never know what people will ask, I follow Elizabeth’s advice here, too, about how to prepare:
- Think about what I’d do for an interview.
- Ponder what I want to leave someone with.
- Consider the stories I want to tell about the book and my process.
I’ve had some surprises at readings, and so far, they’ve all been a delight. For example, an entire book club came to a recent reading and sat in the front row.
At another event, a woman in the audience told me she’d seen advertising for my memoir at a bookstore where she’d just read. I was thrilled to learn that her book (Crown Jewel Wilderness, conveniently displayed on the shelf behind me), is a history of North Cascades National Park. In March I’ll host Lauren Danner for a reading at Lopez Bookshop.
Another time, a young man around my son’s age claimed a front row seat and jotted notes in a spiral notebook throughout the reading. He asked a thoughtful question about relying on memory when writing memoir, so when he came up for me to sign the book, I asked if he’s a writer. Turns out he’s studying writing, and his instructor assigned students to attend a reading (I LOVE this teacher) and write a report about it. At the same reading, an audience member brought her journal, along with my book, to the table where I was signing. After she had a friend take a photo of her with me, she told me she has journals devoted to author events and asked me to write a note on the page she dedicated to my reading. I’ve also been moved by health care providers telling their own stories of burnout and questions about their work.
I now have my own list of author event do’s and don’ts:
- Always take extra books.
- Always have water.
- Don’t worry about silence when you ask who has a question. As a Quaker, I’m quite comfortable with waiting for people to be ready to speak.
- Remember—if people close their eyes at readings, they’re probably not asleep. That’s just how some people listen.
- Be prepared to learn something about your own journey through the questions from the audience.
- Send a thank you note to the event host.
Perhaps the greatest joy is when I receive comments about my book from people far away. Recently, a friend emailed that while she was on vacation in Mexico and reading Hiking Naked, she met another American from Seattle who knows me but didn’t know about the book—so my friend filled her in. Another email came from a woman I met in Stehekin when she was a teen. Now a midwife, she resonated with my experience of burnout and is planning a sabbatical from that role.
A text message showed up from a friend of my son who had spotted Hiking Naked in a bookstore he visited.
And just the other day I received a photo and Facebook message from a woman who was reading my book in a coffee shop in Great Britain and wondered why she got some funny looks!
Now I offer some suggestions to those of you who attend readings about how to support the author who has not only written the book but has prepared for this performance:
- Buy a book.
- Thank the author after the reading (even if you don’t buy a book).
- Recommend the book to others personally, through social media, and reviews such as on Amazon and Goodreads.
- Thank the venue for hosting the event.
As I plan for more events through 2018, I look forward to more performances.
If you’re an author, what advice would you give to writers preparing for readings?
If you’re a reader, what is it about readings that you enjoy?