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In my next life, I will be an opera singer. This is not the first time I’ve made this declaration and it won’t be the last. (Mind you, the next-life gods need to suit me up with a better voice and the ability to read music, at the very least.) It’s not that I believe in next lives, but such a dream–belting out “o mio babbino caro” a la Maria Callas–is more of a this-life mantra. The hot stage lights, the costumes, the adulation–none of this is what appeals. It’s the voice. Our first instrument. When I tilt to strains of a violin, it’s because it reminds me of singing or crying, even keening. Same for the clarinet played in a minor key, like a folk singer’s lament.

Still, my voice is generally reserved for the rote songs of Mass, a little shower-singing, and belting out Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance…” with one of my boys. Fairly private venues; certainly not performance-grade.

As a young adult, I went from one silent art form–ballet–to the next–creative writing. We college-age fiction writers kept fairly quiet–our work was there on the page–until our monthly reading series held at a local art gallery, called Movable Feast (after Hemingway’s memoir and the relocatable series, which featured brie-and-crackers and grocery store sushi, when my friend and I were in charge of said feast).

My friend did–and does–write poetry, an art form more suited to recitation. Mic-ed, there were those poets at our Movable Feast, whose words took flight on the strains of their voices, some breathy and soft, some staccato and sharp, some exotically-accented. Sometimes, the words all but disappeared in the song of those poets’ voices.

Tone. Mood. Interesting language and turns of phrase. Even a surprise rhyme scheme. Moments. These are the elements that shine in recitation and are perhaps more dense and readily-found in poetry than fiction.

How to recite fiction? It’s not an easy task: Plotlines and plot points. Character names and descriptions. Landscapes. These details are easily lost to the ear when recited and best read on the page, in the quiet.

I know now that my success and failure (I don’t remember what I read aloud in grad school, and I’ll bet no one else does, either) when it comes to readings is less about my actual voice than choice.

My actual voice is not breathy and light; I cannot master the soothing monotone of an NPR announcer. My accent might grate on some more gentile listeners. Still, to read our work aloud is an exercise in performance we writers should seize–and so I do.

It’s been a year or so of finding my reading voice. There was the audio feature I recorded of my short story “Recruit,” for Flock literary journal. Then, I read a piece of flash fiction at a literary festival near where I grew up, where I felt at home, where everyone’s voices sounded something like mine. Most recently, I read at Little Patuxent Review‘s issue launch event from my short story, “While Our Grown Men Played.”

I had five minutes. Five minutes–to a fiction writer who trades in thousands of words on the page, sometimes daily. Five minutes for time and place and character and mood and theme and… voice.

As it was when I was a dancer on the stage, the during part is a blur. But I remember the after-the-reading discussions with several fellow readers at that issue launch, including local author and poet, Alan King. Thinking on it further, I have a few takeaways. Here are five ways to deliver a good reading:

  1. Forget the frame of a story; keep it short and tight.
  2. Pick a pivotal scene.
  3. Sensory description lets the audience in.
  4. Humor helps, when appropriate.
  5. Use your own voice (accent be damned).

I’m coming a little late to spoken word, poetry meant to be read aloud– performed really, rather than simply recited. But I think it has a lot to offer, not only in and of itself, but as inspiration for writing–and reading aloud–works of fiction or anything else. Check out spoken word artist “little pi,” who I met at the LPR issue launch event. And many thanks to Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio, for introducing me to Janice A. Lowe, poet and composer of musical theater and opera(!), whose collection Leaving CLE: poems of nomadic dispersal, I’m currently devouring. People, I dare you to “unhear” such compelling voices, even if you only get to read them to yourself on the page.

Do you attend poetry, spoken word, or fiction readings? Listen to podcasts? Is there a poet or author whose voice speaks volumes to you? Have you read your own stories or poems aloud?

39 thoughts on “Aloud: Off the Page, Into the World

    1. Good for you! I love the whole reading/drinks combo! It’s been such fun reading my work a couple times over the last year–and I can’t believe I’m saying that. It still makes me incredibly nervous, but I think all the practice of reading to my boys when they were little has paid off. And I think, with the popularity of spoken word, it’s no longer in vogue to read in the weird monotone. So I guess I just read like I’m reading to kids–which is kinda like reading to adults who’ve had a beer or two! It’s a little dream of mine to one day read at Brews & Prose in Cleveland!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve done it a few times and love it. Poetry esp as its self contained . Novel extracts as you say are more challenging but your take aways are spot on. Why not record yourself on sound cloud and put it up on your blog! I did a couple of short stories that way.

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    1. Don’t know if I’m brave–or tech savvy–enough to put my voice up on the blog, after all this talk! We’ll see. I need to go listen to you read your short stories aloud! I also am really enjoying the journal, Flashback, which generally has the writer reading their work on the site. It’s a great idea–for flash fiction!

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  2. I have always felt ashamed not about my voice but about my accent. In italy every area has a different dialect and a different accent and mine (from northern-east Italy) is very strong. I could have never had a chance in acting or public speaking because of it! When I moved in the USA, apparently my northern-east Italian accent applied to English sounded very lovely to Americans and daily (at the grocery store, or at the dentist or wherever) someone would ask me “where do I come from” and “please never ever loose your lovely accent”. I don’t believe in a second life, but I guess somehow “accent speaking” I am kinda leaving a new one 😊

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  3. A great post. Not sure if you’ve seen the new Maria Callas documentary but it’s fascinating, and since you may well be her in the next go-round, you might enjoy it now…as for reading aloud, I haven’t done it but have seen those who do, and it is indeed a skill that involves much more than opening your mouth and letting words fall out, which is why I don’t do it

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    1. I’ve got an older Maria Callas documentary, but not a new one, so I’m going to have to check that out–thanks! So interesting that she was teased as a girl and grew into an icon. She was fierce! I’m not great at public speaking, but I’m getting more used to reading my work–so long as I have the words there in front of me!

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  4. I haven’t read any of my work aloud since I competed in a poetry slam at a coffee shop back in high school. I would have to attend one at a brewery like GriffthsKL if I ever get back into it!

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  5. I’ve done some public speaking, and some of it reflects the research I’ve done for my non-fiction books, but not a “reading” per se. Once I read from my journal written at age 14 (this was an open invitation to read from teen journals on stage for prizes). I won first place! I think my teen journals were way more interesting than any I keep now. 😉

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    1. No one would want to hear my journaled thoughts, that’s for sure. I’m so impressed that your 14-year-old writings were first prize-worthy! Public speaking sounds more terrifying to me than a public reading–not sure why. I’m sure your presentations were very interesting; your research surely is!

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  6. 1. I, too, want to sing opera ala Callas 🙂
    2. Your Flock reading is wonderful!
    3. I plan to use your 5 points to deliver a good reading (and share it with my creative writings students, who have to read some of their work the last week in class) — excellent advice!
    Great post,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Deb! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sing opera? I’m not even a “showy” person but to have that kind of sound emanate from a human is just amazing! Thank you for the kudos on the Flock reading. That was fun to do. And I hope your students’ readings go well. I’ve learned nerves can be good–if they make you practice over and over! And guess what, I just received A BINARY HEART in the mail yesterday. Can’t wait to dive in!

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      1. It would be wonderful! I recently found out my cousin’s daughter is studying voice, opera at IU and she has a beautiful soprano — I guess she didn’t inherit it from our side of the family (darn). I’m going to share your reading with my students, tell them, “This is how you do it.” And thank you for picking up ABH! I hope you like some of the stories. And please let me know when you’ve next got something coming out — I’d love to read!

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  7. Hi Rebecca! I promised I’d come by and say hi, so here I am! As I read your piece all I could think of was Charles Dickens, and how he would get crowds of people to attend his literary novel readings because of the way he performed them. Of course, he drove himself to exhaustion doing so, and in a way was probably addicted to the crowd to the point where he neglected his health, so . . . yeah. Everything in moderation, I guess.

    I haven’t reached a point where I have written much of anything that can be read aloud other than my essays. I am way too wordy and undisciplined to be a poet. I think some writing lends itself to reading aloud, and other writing just doesn’t. That’s not a judgement. That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t make one piece of writing better than another; it just makes them different, and that’s good.

    I absolutely cannot listen to many, if any, books read aloud. I think the only one I managed to get through was Ready Player One, and that’s because it was read by Whil Wheaton who has a performer’s voice. I hear one of the Harry Potter books is actually performed by a voice actor; my friends swear by it, but I haven’t had time to listen to that yet.

    I think we can all benefit, though, from cultivating our own storyteller’s voice. Thank you for this post, because it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of my writing and its presentation!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Diane! I actually didn’t know that about Charles Dickens. Yeah, there’s no danger of me burning out–no one is clambering for me to read–but I think it’s a good skill to cultivate. And I think what you say is spot-on: some things are good read aloud, and some aren’t. I do think the whole podcast craze has made readings a little more fashionable–and I think anything that makes poetry and prose fashionable is a plus! I’m very picky about the narrators’ voices on audiobooks–but not as picky as you I guess, ha! A voice can be off-putting, if it’s not one I’d like for the characters. I do listen to a bunch of novels in the car, since I’m always driving my boys around.

      I loved what you had to say in your comments for “When God Winks” and I’m intrigued by your studies of the Holy Spirit–a wonderful way to enhance your Lent. A friend of mine is trying to get together a group to do the Walking With Purpose series of Catholic women’s group readings and discussions–and I think now might be the right time for me to take part. I’m sorta the stereotypical Catholic, loathe to actually sit down with the Bible. My husband, a convert, on the other hand… puts me to shame. I do feel challenged to combine my faith and my writing. I sneak in a hymn title or a quick verse into a short story here and there, but I feel there’s so much resistance in the writing world to religious themes. And, I don’t want to put people off. I should get over that! Recently read Marilynne Robinson’s _Gilead_–not Catholic, but Calvinist, I guess. So overtly religious, like all of that author’s novels, and yet so very universal (I think)–and it won the Pulitzer Prize, so obviously not off-putting to major literary arbiters!

      This has been so nice for me–connecting like this. Truly the wonderful thing about blogging! Here’s wishing for many more “winks” from God for you and your family this Lent and beyond. You’ve told a wonderful story, so gracefully (in more ways than one), on The Gloria Sirens! I can imagine your house is full of music right now–truly a blessing.

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      1. I got so busy I didn’t even see this comment until now! I only post on the Sirens once a month, and foolishly didn’t think to check comments in between posts.

        I agree that anything that makes people more invested in books and ideas is a good thing, and I love that we have ways, now, to share words even with those that have little time to read. I drive A LOT, as do many of my friends with children, and so I really wish I could get into audiobooks. It would definitely help me get my reading list whittled down faster. I think I have about 500 books I want to read on Goodreads now. It’s ridiculous.

        And yes, what is it with Catholics and the Bible? It’s ridiculous, really, how little we’re encouraged to read it on our own. I keep wanting to change that, and find myself reading more ABOUT the Bible than reading the actual thing. It’s silly, really, but every time I pull the book out I start to drift asleep.

        As for writing about faith–it’s knotty, isn’t it–because so many people feel that religion and deep thought are divorced. It’s that religion-reason divide, when in actuality if we study religious writers we can see that they spend a LOT of time writing philosophy and ethics and all the things that we would think of as using the height of reason, only they have God in there, too. The “unquestioning faith” myth is something I really try to address with my kids, as I believe that the only way to develop faith is to question, and to use reason to help answer those questions.

        I think what puts people off about religion is how judgmental religious people all seem, or is based on bad experiences people have had with folks who tout themselves as “religious.” I think anyone who has met someone who has condemned them for something they’ve done has not met with a truly spiritual person. I think they’ve met with a flawed person who is exploring a religion and using that religion to tear others down in an attempt to make themselves feel better. That is the exact opposite of what I believe religion is supposed to do. The main tenet of pretty much every faith I’ve ever learned about is “love.” So I feel that as long as I write and live with love, and even meet resistance with love, then I’m doing what my faith calls me to do.

        I enjoy connecting with other writers as well, and I can only again apologize for taking so long to respond to you! There have, actually, been a few more “winks,”–some that show us on a good path, some that show us we need a slight course correction–but all in all it was a very lovely and spiritual Lent. Not gonna lie, though–I’m really happy I get to eat chocolate again!

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    2. In reply to your last message, today… Diane, I have to say that THIS, RIGHT HERE, is what I adore about blogging and bloggers. Life is so busy, and yet bloggers read and think and consider and respond to each other in such thoughtful ways. Thank you. Life is busy–absolutely no apologies necessary. I love your thoughts on religious study and questioning and writing about faith and digging into philosophy and ethics. So much to mine there! Sometimes I wonder how in the world I would write a thing if I didn’t have that second “language.” And I love what you said about some using religion to tear down instead of lift up and love. I love the Sirens and pop in when I can. The rest of the time, life is happening. Hope you’re having a nice Easter season. And thanks again for entertaining my posts and long-winded comments! (If you’re ever bored–ha!–I have a slightly spiritual/mythical/mysterious (with a capital M maybe?) new story in Barren Magazine.) All best! ~Rebecca


    1. Thanks, Kim! Reading in front of people is a little terrifying–but that’s what keeps us growing, right? Definitely some kinds of writing are better read aloud that others, but that’s part of what makes it an interesting challenge, too. I appreciate you stopping by the blog!


  8. I am a frequent presenter at my job, so I am comfortable speaking to a crowd. But reading my own work–particularly fiction–might be a totally different story. I love to tell stories when I’m speaking, but your post got me thinking about things I might need to practice. Good for you that you have,quite literally, found your voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, it’s definitely a work in progress. It’s fun to figure out the parts of a story and the kinds of story that work well read aloud. Now, talking off the cuff in a work situation–that scares the life out of me. Good for you that you’ve developed that skill! Public speaking is one big reason I became a writer!

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