by Jayla Rae Ardelean, Colorado Review editorial assistant
Reading a story, essay, or poem on the page and feeling my eyes trail line by line is a revered act, almost as much as the construction of those lines by the writer themselves. I contract a certain commitment with the page, and if it’s good, I keep going. Though I imagine scenes as I read them, the process occurs by listening to my own voice inside my head.But hearing written work spoken aloud, such as at an MFA/MA reading, is an entirely different experience. Not only does the story unfold in either aural magic or fall flat, but it allows contemplation of the voice that is reading the piece.
Do the reader change pitch? Do they read monotonously, even when the content is rich? Do they stutter with verbosity or puncture the air with too much emphasis? Or, is their voice so sinuous that you feel mesmerized by the author as a person, in addition to the carefully crafted words they speak aloud?
While attending a reading, the people sitting closest to you will reveal something about themselves, perhaps unknowingly. You can watch them dart their eyes when the reader mentions an idiosyncrasy they too possess; laugh at a dark joke; maybe a few tears form when they hear about something dear to them; or maybe they have the get-me-out-of-here face of boredom.
Does the reader notice individuals reacting to the story? Or do they see us all as one collective being—a moonfaced audience? We are people there to hear an unveiling of story, but essentially are revealing things about ourselves in the process. Perhaps how you react to something you hear strengthens the community around you, linking together shared experiences. This linkage may occur in the form of a conversation between audience members post reading, expressing a general thumbs up or thumbs down, but also bringing to light what shocked them, what moved them, and what content resonated. What you bring to the reading may, by the end, have left with someone else.
I fall in love with writing all over again whenever I attend an inspiring reading. As a first year creative nonfiction student, I am now a part of this culture of people who want to hear a piece, perhaps to dabble in some magic.
And now I understand it’s not just about the auditory experience. It’s about a community of people supporting one another when it’s each of our turns to read aloud. It’s not as simple as exchanging attendances (I’ll go to yours if you go to mine) because how much less can we learn from each other when we exercise limitations? Hearing a piece out loud often sparks ideas about my own writing, or even dives into a topic I’ve been curious about; and how could I learn those things if I didn’t attend? I will take my own turn quite soon and though I am terrified, I am also ecstatic to share the stage with others from MFA or MA programs, and those alumni or guest readers who have joined us this year.
This time, I will move from my position of listener and walk toward the stage to read aloud my own work. That being said, I will adjoin with the audience when I return to my seat—my departure from the MFA/MA group brief.
Though my upcoming appearance with the microphone will not be my first public reading, it is the first among a group of people dedicated to writing. Twice a poem or two slipped out into a crowd when I was an undergraduate. I declared intimate details about myself in the name of women’s studies at an event called That Takes Ovaries, associated with the Vagina Monologues. I essentially liberated the writer inside of me into open air for the first time, and it was my own bit of magic.
There is something about hearing your own voice projected through a microphone that can be entirely validating or just surreal. At readings, I take in the kind of reader I do not want to be—the monotonously toned, the one who trips over words frequently—and somehow I forgot all this when I was on the stage, fumbling or missing the emphasis on words so meticulously written. Reading work aloud feels vulnerable, whether it be fiction or nonfiction.
The location I will soon read in may be packed or empty with a collection of peers, locals and friends, and they may all love or dislike my work, but I will look at the reading as an initiation into a community of people who are listeners and speakers, the type who engage in both written and spoken word.
For more on attending the Creative Writing Reading Series read my colleague, Josh Randall’s, blog post. #