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Six Ways Reading Series Can Improve Your Writing

My decision not to pursue an MFA felt like a pretty smart idea until the day I finished a short story collection and realized I didn’t have a single writer friend to share it with. The fact that I live in a rural town of eight-hundred people did little to improve my flu-like hallucinations about a world in which I was my only reader. “Courtney,” I said, teeth chattering beneath my Sturm und Drang, “What the hell will you do next?”

Was an MFA program the only way to meet aspiring writers? Or was there was something to be learned in the literary badlands outside of Academia? I gave myself a year to find out. If, within a year, I hadn’t found a community to exchange work with, I would get over myself and get higher education.

To be closer to the pulsing aorta of the glitterati, I accepted a short-term assignment as a corporate namer in Manhattan—131 miles from husband, hearth and home. In order to convince a particular member of the aforementioned trifecta that this was a career move, I vowed to attend three readings a week during my NY exodus and to introduce myself to one person while there. At times, my self-imposed assignment felt daunting and foolish. Many evenings, I just wanted to sit on the flimsy Korean yo in my rabbit hole of a sublet and watch back episodes of “30 Rock.” But I forced myself to go to readings—usually alone—and the more often I went, the easier it got for me to introduce myself to someone, until it wasn’t only easy, it was a hell of a lot of fun.

By my count, I’ve attended and/or participated in nearly two hundred readings since April. I’ve met writers so talented they make your arm hair come to attention with the great weirdness of their words. There have been vibrant conversations. There have been whiskey shots.

Attending reading series with the devotion of a zealot has not only enabled me to construct the supportive network my writing life so lacked, it has also—and I never saw this coming—improved my work. Whether a writer steps behind a microphone to brave a cheapo sound system and a sea of empty chairs, or alights before a standing-room-only crowd; something important happens when a writer shares his work out loud. There are lessons to be learned from attending reading series. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Be vulnerable: Being vulnerable isn’t always the same thing as taking risks. Taking risks, to me at least, hinges on our desire to impress, while vulnerability requires us to force ourselves to do something when we’re feeling our least impressive. At the  “How I Learned” storytelling series in NY, I talked during intermission to a visibly anxious Elissa Schappell, the night’s final reader. “I’ve never done this story telling thing,” she admitted. She’d never, in her own words, “gone off the page.”

The night’s theme was “How I learned to say I’m sorry,” and Schappell shared a lifetime list of apologies she purportedly never made, including such whammies as “I’m sorry for thinking that men are better writers,” and, to her husband, “I’m sorry this is hard.”

As seasoned of a writer as Elissa is, her vulnerability that evening was knife-cuttingly palpable. She didn’t seem to be having a particularly good time under the spotlight; in fact, one had the impression that her litany of apologies was something of an intellectual sacrifice. She read them because she had been asked to read at the series, because “apologies” was the theme, and because Schappell is not just brave, she’s professional. Her insistence on finishing the story she got up there to tell—even though she became emotional while reading—was a gift.

I often think of her performance when I’m writing non-fiction, a genre that I find as challenging (and enjoyable, honestly) as raking leaves. I still haven’t gotten rid of my desire to show off, to impress by taking risks. If I can strip away the artifice to reveal the vulnerable core like Elissa did that evening, I know that both my non-fiction and fiction will improve.

Take yourself seriously: If you want a guaranteed bad time, go to the reading of a self-depreciating writer. Sitting in an uncomfortable chair with a long ago emptied drink, bullied by such dandies as “You’re probably going to hate this,” or “This one kind of sucks, but,” is the literary version of passive aggression, and it’s no fun for the audience, and it’s no fun for you. And it sure as heck doesn’t make me want to buy your book.

I assume that most writers feel like misfits most of the time. I know I do. But when you get up to read your writing, for god’s sake, don’t act ashamed of it. Why sabotage your own work when there are so many other people willing to do it for you?

In August, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ conference, I witnessed a reading by a young poet named Rickey Laurentiis, there on a “waitership.”After serving two meals a day in the cafeteria, attending classes, lectures, and his colleagues’ readings, I imagine the young man was pretty strung out. But when he got up to that microphone, he read every single word of his poetry like it was the first—and last—reading of his life. There was a pride in his reading, to be sure, but it wasn’t hubris—it was a reverent acknowledgement that he had sacrificed some things to devote his life to words, and these were the words he had chosen, and you had better listen up. It certainly helped that he’s a brilliant poet, but the authority of his delivery was such that he could have read the same lines in pig Latin and we would have been enthralled. He took his work seriously, so we did, too.

Be funny often, but not always: The most memorable readings I’ve attended are the ones that combine humor with the pathos of the human condition. At a Kugelmass Magazine reading at KGB, the writer Simon Rich read a piece about going to a party where his ex-girlfriend showed up with her new boyfriend, who happened to be Hitler. Absurdist, provocative, his piece was all these things, but mostly it was about how awful it feels to want someone who’s moved on. And there is nothing funny about unrequited love.

Back at the “How I Learned Series,” funny man Andy Ross told a hilarious story about his experience working at the beverage stand at the Cincinnati zoo, a place where drinks are served strawless because of the instruments’ tendency to end up in the animal’s pens, and then, their throats. It was a safe and fuzzy story until he got to the part where he adamantly refused a straw to a middle-aged woman for reasons already mentioned, only to watch her retreat to the other end of the food court and struggle to drink her supersized Pepsi. The woman suffered from multiple sclerosis but had been too proud to mention her illness when she was refused a straw. And when Andy saw her shaking hands fail to grasp her beverage, he was too embarrassed to do something about it. Yeah. Not very funny. Not funny at all.

Keep them wanting more: One of the best things about readings is fire and brimstone, scratch-your-eyes-out boredom. But you have to pay attention to it. Why are you tuning out? Nine times out of ten, if you can identify why and where you started to lost interest in a story, you can take the lesson home and apply it to your work. Personally, I disconnect when the writing becomes tangential and the story goes off-track. This, unfortunately, is the mistake I make the most often in my own writing. Going to readings reminds me to avoid doing so at all costs.

Say thank you: It’s a fairly uncomfortable experience to watch a well-known author reluctantly take the stage in front of an audience that is about fifty people smaller than he or she expected. But worse still is watching a writer—any writer—pull off a game-changing reading only to slink back to his booth to spend the rest of the evening with an exhausted publicist while his fans stand on the other side of the room fumbling with their cell phones, caving into sheepishness, deciding to go home.

I think writers have big egos. I think that we have to. After all, most of us will spend our writing lives co-habiting with rejection. In order to reside peacefully with this most daunting of roommates, we have to like ourselves. A lot. And when we’re not up to it, when we’re sick of the look or the sound of our own words, we need other people to step in and say they like us.

If you’ve ever been to a reading of a writer who moved you and you didn’t tell the author because you assumed that he or she would be inundated with compliments after the show, you probably assumed wrong. I went to a reading of Jhumpa Lahiri’s at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn last spring and there were thirteen people there, tops. Lahiri—Pulitzer Prize winner—spent most of her time after the show browsing bookshelves, alone. I didn’t go up to her because I was horrified that no one else was talking to this brilliant writer. Far worse, I know now, is to imagine Lahiri traveling home wondering whether she’d actually read, or just imagined it, because no one in the audience acted as if they were there.

If you like something, say something. And if you really like it, buy it. Nothing says “thank you” quite like the purchase of a book.

Have fun: A writer once said to me that writing shouldn’t be torturous. That was news to me. There was a time in my life when I thought writing was about shutting myself away from the world in order to write about it—that a piece was meaningful only if the writing came hard. Writing is hard, but here is the fun thing about it: there are a lot of people doing it, and a lot of them aren’t doing it at night. Reading series provide an excellent way for writers to commingle, commiserate, or just gawk at one another over a pint of tepid beer. If you’re having a shitty day, there’s nothing quite like a stranger’s kick-ass reading to shake that I-want-to-make-it feeling back into existence. Simply put, reading series make you want to write.

If you live in the New York area, New York Magazine’s online book section, The Vulture, curates a great selection of literary events searchable by the day or week.

Here are a few of my favorite reading series in (and around) the Big Apple:
Fiction Addiction (run by Christine Vines)
Franklin Park (Penina Roth),
Freerange Nonfiction (Mira Ptacin)
Frequency North: The Visiting Writers Reading Series at the College of Saint Rose (Daniel Nester),
Happy Ending Music and Reading Series (Amanda Stern)
How I Learned (Blaise Allysen Kearsley)
Hudson River Loft Series (Chloe Caldwell)
Literary Death Match (Todd Zuniga)
Real Characters (Andy Ross)
Steamboat (Bob Powers)
Sunday Salon (Sarah Lippmann, Nita Noveno)

Courtney Maum is a fiction writer based in between the Berkshires of Massachusetts and New York City. A humor columnist for Electric Literature, her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, The Rumpus, Vol.1 “Sunday Stories”, Anderbo and others. She is a frequent reader at NY-based series and a Literary Death Match champion. Courtney is currently working on a collection of comic fiction entitled “Funny You Should Say That.” Find her on Twitter at @cmaum

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Comments: 31

(13) Comments

  1. Kindred spirit! Two years ago, I lost a teaching job and set out to attend 90 literary events in 90 days to see if I could charge up my creative life. Six months later, my blog (stormingbohemia.com) was mentioned in the NY Times. Since then, I’ve become a staff writer for litseen.com, where I and my colleagues have amassed 3,000+ videos of live readings. I’ve also joined the Board of Directors of the reading series Quiet Lightning, and started a new blog, “TheatreStorm” where I write on local theatre several times a month. My writing life has never been so good.

    Reading series and the community engendered can certainly provide many of the benefits of an MFA program. Which is not to say that MFA programs don’t have their place. They can and do provide benefits not found elsewhere. But to each his own.

  2. rose says:

    What do you do if people respond positively with your reading (dramatist at heart) but, keep saying ‘I wonder if it reads on the page?’ Huh???? Help.

  3. Polly Dugan says:

    Thank you Courtney, this is so great. I too am sans MFA and have a dearth of writer buddies to share work and opinions with, in person anyway, I do it a lot virtually with Tin House alum. This are good tips I’ll put to use here in Portland.

  4. Hey Courtney, I stumbled upon your article through a FB post. Thank YOU for your engaging account of attending readings. I would love to hear about your experiences becoming a reader at readings. Here in the little apple, Appleton, Wisconsin, that is, there are fewer venues to choose from. Perhaps a bit of an understatement. But I think I will now make an effort to get out there. And I will follow you on Twitter.
    A writer with a terminal case of whimsy.
    hppt://terminalcaseofwhimsy.blogspot.com

  5. Jessamine says:

    I love it! Two years ago, I quit my job and devoted myself to my own “un-MFA,” as you’re doing, but finding a community of writers was the hard part–so hard that I gave in and entered an MFA program this fall. Your readings plan is awesome and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t think of it. I like the MFA route, but there are other ways to get the same things if you’re gutsy and have a good plan. Rock on!

  6. Carol motley says:

    There’s nothing worse than desperately asking a bad reader to edit/help you with our work. People who hand it back and say, ‘It’s ok -but I don’t think it could really happen.” -IT’S FICTION, dummy! When you need great feedback, time to really seek out a WRITER, a backsplash to help you keep the story clean and flowing!
    Great words here -great words!

  7. Nancy says:

    Thanks for addressing the isolation problem, Courtney. Enjoyed your article, sources, and your drive is admirable.
    I’ve learned that participating in an MFA program does not necessarily assure the writer a short or long-term cadre of motivated, appropriate and qualified readers in one’s genre. Rather, the impetus to enroll in MFA programs should go along the lines of self-development and to gain credentials for teaching. To those considering it: You might get lucky but don’t rely on finding savvy readers/editors among your peers and in a time-pressured academic environment.

  8. Maria M. says:

    Thanks for this, Courtney. It’s good to share the awkwardness of writing.

  9. Courtney says:

    “Pursuing publication has always seemed to me like approval-seeking behavior…”So true, Thaddeus. And everyone else– these are really inspiring comments. Thanks for reading. Now get out and read out loud!

  10. MH Westgate says:

    Beautifully written. Honest. (Almost) always funny. Thanks for writing.

  11. Thaddeus Gunn says:

    Thanks for this, Courtney. You hit on something that I’ve been wrestling with lately: to MFA or not to MFA. But I’ve taken it a step further. To wit: why the hell should I even try to get published? Here’s my deal:

    I spent 15 years doing radio. I had to get up every morning at 3AM and have a show written (and be funny, original and informative and all that shit) by 6AM. It became an intractable habit. I still get up at 3AM with my brain on fire.

    So I like reading. I like preparing everything I write as though I’m going to read it, even if I don’t. But is there a place in the world for writers who don’t want to get published? Who only like to read? Other than radio, of course. Pursuing publication has always seemed to me like approval-seeking behavior, and I’m pretty sure I paid some therapist along the way a whole lotta dough to get over that very thing.

    I went to hear Annie Proulx read once at Benaroya Hall. I like Annie Proulx. Plenty. But hearing her read was like… Well I came up just short of shouting, “Christ Jesus STOP! You’re fucking killing it! Killing something I LOVE!” Her work is awesome, but she can’t read it. My work is ragingly mediocre, but I have an ass-load of performance experience that gets me through. “I don’t remember what he said, but his delivery is fantastic!”

    I could see myself getting published only if I got known as a performer first (or reader, whatever). I know that’s kinda the route David Sedaris took. He was a performance artist first, writer second. And now he has like, what, umpty-seven books in print? And no MFA in creative writing.

    Thanks again. I guess there’s more than one way to skin a career in writing, huh.

  12. Scott McClanahan says:

    This is GREAT.

  13. G.M. Palmer says:

    This is an excellent pallet of advice, Courtney. I cut my teeth on the weekly readings at Gainesville, Florida’s Civic Media Center; I was changed forever as a reader when one of the local stars grabbed the poem I’d just finished reading out of my hands, marched up on stage, and blew us all to bits with his interpretation.

    When I ran a reading series in Jacksonville, I could see the value of that comingling and commiseration for the first time in others.

    And going to reading series at conferences is how I met everyone who has opened the right doors for me–the folks I didn’t meet in my MFA (note: they were important, and got me at the conferences, so love to them, too).

    Schooling is one thing (and not to be discounted)–but if we’re not out in the trenches then neither is our writing.

(18) Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. [...] doing ‘writerly’ advice columns for Tin House for almost three years now, among them “6 Ways Reading Series Can Improve Your Writing” and “How Not To Hate Your Friends,” examples of her sensible approach to uprightness [...]

  2. [...] in, reapply the next year and work to improve until then. Or, move on and do not take the degree. And find your cohort in life. Go big and go without a net, in other words, and see where it gets you. Share [...]

  3. [...] piece about the importance of going to and participating in readings. It’s published here on Tinhouse. Courtney is a woman of her word because she came to a reading of mine and we met and talked. In her [...]

  4. [...] Sunday Stories alumnus Courtney Maum has an essay in Tin House on the importance of readings. [...]

  5. [...] read from a fiction writer here. (via Dave Bonta). Attending reading series with the devotion of a zealot has not only enabled me [...]

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