For Reading Out Loud

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

One of the requirements of the program from which I got an MFA in writing was that students would have to read their work out loud. The first occasion for doing this was outside the classrooms—on the grass, no lectern, no mic, a little reading among fellow students.

Pam Ruatto

Pam Ruatto reads to a full house during the Great Smokies celebration in May at Malaprop's.

I was puzzled, then, to see the more seasoned students pass around a long piece of carved wood to each person about to read. This was the official reading stick, based on the Native American talking stick that granted the recipient courage. I thought this was pretty silly. Courage to do what? Read a story, to other writers, in this cozy green sward of the Swannanoa Valley? I took the stick and stood up, story in hand, suddenly realizing that a mere stick was not going to help me. I needed a crutch. My voice shook, my hands, my legs—all of me. The more I tried to be cool and calm, the more panicked I became.

I was not alone. When I told my faculty advisor what had happened, he said he refused to do a reading without medication. “A lot of us use it,” he said, describing a little blue pill that he called, with great fondness, End It All. Before I returned to the program for my second semester, I paid a visit to my internist, who readily obliged me with a prescription. He had a trombonist patient, he told me, who used Inderol to keep his vibrato under control. Some people, he said, produce too much adrenaline. Fight or flight. Flight, in my case. The pill works, but it makes me feel like something of a fraud, a superficially calm person who is really trying to get away.

Michael Beadle

Michael Beadle reads his poetry at the Great Smokies Celebration.

Get away from what? A roomful of people kind enough to spend an afternoon in a bookstore instead of at the movies or on a hiking trail? Why fear the opportunity to share our hard won words with others who are doing the same or at least admire those of us who try? After all, unless we’re “journaling,” the act of writing is inseparable from the act of sharing. Eliminate the listener/reader, and the experience is half-complete.

In this issue, Brian Hart begins his reflection, “Why Write,” with this concern: “I often wonder why I bother to write when, more often than not, it will never be appreciated or, at the very least, read. It’s like throwing pebbles in a pond with the hope that one day they will pile up high enough that one is visible to others.” Jim McElduff’s “Optimism as Seen from Sea Level” is an example of moving beyond this concern. He was determined to reach readers with the essence of his experiences although he knew he might not be around to know if the readers were there. (Read more about Jim in Tommy Hays’s “High Stakes: Remembering Jim McElduff.”)

Writing, as all of us writers know, is a lonely business. Reading aloud requires company. Well, yes, it can be done alone, to gauge our tone and rhythm and pace, but only in the presence of others can we get such a clear sense of what our words add up to. There’s hardly anything more gratifying for a writer than to hear the audience burst into laughter at the very point we’d hoped they would. Or to gasp, as one voice, when a dramatic moment hits its mark.

It was with envy then, on May 16 at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, that I watched a group of readers—no stick, no shakes—deliver their readings like pros. We’d chosen eight contributors from the fall and spring issues of The Great Smokies Review to help us celebrate this new publication and the tenth year of its parent, the Great Smokies Writing Program of UNC Asheville. Although I had read these poems, stories, essays, and novel excerpts before—more than once, during the selection and editing process—seeing and hearing the authors gave the writing a greater power. The sad moments were sadder; the funny moments, funnier; the insights more profound. I’d read Joy Boothe’s “Jesse” enough times to recite lines from it, but hearing her read it made it new. The warmth and authenticity of her voice drew me into a deeper place, and the ending was a surprise that surprised me all over again and moved me to tears.

Reading aloud is that transcendent moment when the ultimate writing contract is fulfilled, and unlike only being able to imagine your readers scanning your printed pages, it happens right before our eyes. Fear-inducing? Of course. This moment is also one of truth. You wrote it, you’re reading it; you’re about to see for yourself if it works.

Anyone for a little blue pill?

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