It was Ashtanga yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) who reportedly declared that yoga was “99% practice and 1% theory,” and encouraged his students to “practice, practice, all is coming!” I had a small lesson in the value of practice recently–I had to read part of my master’s thesis in public. Now I loathe public speaking, and this was a big event, because it is the final required event for graduating writers in my program and frequently, friends and relatives attend. My mom and my childhood physical therapist wanted to come, so I knew I had to go through with it. Luckily, I passed my defense a few days before my scheduled reading, so this was really the Last Big Thing Before Graduation.
Now, imagine me in the middle of a ‘mondo freakout,’ if you will. Many creative writing workshops ask an author–or a volunteer– to read a section of their writing at the beginning of the class; during workshop discussion the author is traditionally silent. For me, reading aloud in workshop usually goes like this: a good steady start, then as I grow aware of eyes watching me, my voice cracks, creeps higher, squeaks, breaks. I run out of oxygen, only I don’t stop to breathe, because the squeaking has made me feel more self-conscious. So, I rush ahead in a verbal dash, blurring my words together just to get all those eyes off of me right now. I have more than a little phobia about reading aloud. In fact, I’d avoided all the public MFA readings in the last three years because I was afraid.*
But a funny thing happened while I was busy being afraid. I got the job I have now, as a writing tutor, and we are encouraged to ask our students to read aloud as a proof-reading technique. It is actually a really wonderful technique for correcting typos and errors, as well as refining your prose. To craft a beautiful sentence, you really need to hear it move. So, for the past two years I have been sitting in tutoring rooms with students, either listening to them read or reading with them. Within the context of work, my relationship to reading aloud changed, became something different: a daily practice, not a public display of awkwardness. I started reading my own work aloud, at home, to copy edit my MFA exams as well as sections of my thesis.
When the week of my MFA reading arrived, I knew what I had to do: “practice, practice, all is coming!”
I began by deciding what thesis section I wanted to read. Our program’s Publishing Lab designs broadsides–small brochures with an image and a section of thesis-text–for each person’s MFA reading. They are really wonderful things, and are given out to the audience at the reading. My colleague and friend Sarah, the loveliest graphic designer anyone could ask for, worked hard to get permission from Columbia/Sony to use an image of Rita Hayworth from The Lady from Shanghai to accompany a section of my thesis where I discuss Hayworth’s haircut in the film. When I saw her broadside design, I knew I had to read from that section for the reading itself. The opportunity was too good to pass up.
But how to condense an entire chapter into a 10-minute narrative without losing the story arc?
The answer was simple: I read the chapter aloud. I listened for the best parts, the ones that resonated with emotion, personality, the ones that capture Hayworth’s own voice. I cut, I pasted, and I read. Aloud. At home, sitting at my computer. Once, I had a good draft–about six pages–I kept reading. And reading. I polished the prose. I thought about the places where I wanted to pause, to stress. I practiced using a slightly different voice for each quote. Louella Parsons became sharper, Rita Hayworth sadder. I even read aloud for my dogs. I took the draft to work with me and read it to three different coworkers.
All that practice held me up on the big night, when I stood up in front of that audience and my voice didn’t crack or squeak. Not once. I even wrangled a water bottle without spilling. And it was fun!
If you’d like to see the utterly-gorgeous Rita Hayworth broadside, click here: The Broadside
*Which is utterly silly. I wish I hadn’t now. Bad, bad Hope!