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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

How to read your work to an audience: A report of a workshop with Jennifer Macrae

We’d a lovely evening at HighlandLIT last night with Royal Conservatoire trained playwright, poet and performer Jennifer Macrae, who led a workshop on ‘How to read your work to an audience.’

Jennifer shared her personal views on this with honesty and vulnerability and the audience was warmly receptive.

Jennifer’s focus was not so much on the techniques of reading, as on the person doing the reading. ‘Be yourself,’ was her constant refrain. Avoid ‘too much veneer and not enough guts.’ And again ‘Don’t aim for some kind of perfection. Be yourself!’ And, profoundly, she told us ‘Try to be the purest form of you.’

The notes below are drawn both from Jennifer’s presentation, and from her responses to the questions from the audience which followed.

Psychology of writing

Jennifer talked about the psychology of the writer, drawing on Self Determination Theory. She emphasized that each of us needs a community of appreciation, affirming us in what we have done when we’re having a bad attack of ‘imposter syndrome.’ And this concept describes perfectly the key ethos of HighlandLIT.

As writers, many of us have to deal with negative voices from the past – a parent’s voice, for example, or in Jennifer’s case the voice of a teacher who savaged a piece she had written. She advised following mindfulness practice, and letting that voice dissipate in the air above us; or we could imagine the same voice saying positive, affirming things to us. In dealing with these negative voices, it was also helpful to focus on our past successes. ‘This is me! I can do this.’ ‘Have cheerleaders,’ Jennifer advises.

It’s encouraging that creativity and story-telling has been an element of human community since the very beginning, and people aren’t going to stop needing stories in future generations. ‘It’s great that we can write them,’ Jennifer said, smiling.

We need to replenish the inner well of creativity – through reading and reflecting - so that we can draw from it.

Don’t expect to be ‘in bloom’ all the time, producing a constant flow of work. Like flowers, like fields we need ‘down time’ after which creativity will flourish, the well will yield a rich flow. You may well experience a ‘post performance slump’ after a reading, or after completing a piece of work like a novel. We need space to regroup, to replenish our energies after pouring them out on a creative task

And Jennifer encouraged us to be hospitable to a spirit of playfulness in our writing as we express what’s in our creative will, heart, mind.

‘If you like writing, do more of it. Do what keeps you happy.’

Preparing to read

But having written a piece of work, how are we to prepare to ‘be ourselves’ as we read it?

In terms of psychology, Jennifer encouraged us to:

  • · bring our deepest selves to the text. To read not from within the various roles we inhabit – daughter, mother, partner, our ‘side-hustle’ – but from the depths of our own authenticity.

  • · Inhabit the text – visualize it, enter into the world of the text, try to revert to the state of being from which the work sprang.

  • · believe in our work – if we have confidence in it, then the audience will too. ‘Reading your work should be fun,’ Jennifer told us. ‘Bring out what’s in your head, your heart, your soul, and people will appreciate this.’

  • · learn to deal with our anxiety about reading. ‘Work with the anxiety,’ she urged. ‘Embrace it.’ Tell yourself the reason for your anxiety is that the writing is something you really care about. Let yourself off the hook. Yes, I may get really anxious about this, but so what? I’m human!’

And with regard to practical issues, Jennifer advised:

  • · ‘be heard’ - asking ourselves whether we are fully ‘opening up’ each word. She gave the example of two similarly-sounding words placed together ‘bad’ and ‘band’, and showed us how we should give the ‘n’ just enough emphasis that it is heard. If we fail to do that, both words will sound identical.

  • · ‘less is more.’ She’d been asked what the optimum length was for a piece from a longer work to read to an audience. ‘Read the most exciting bit,’ she told us.

  • · ‘don’t listen to video or audio recordings of yourself reading.’ Someone in the audience thought this might be useful in terms of getting rid of nervous tics in speaking, but Jennifer felt this would be inclined to make us self-conscious, and our reading more of a performance. ‘If people know your reading is true and honest then that’s all you need,’ she said, before adding a striking phrase ‘You are a vessel for the writing.’ Someone else asked how you were to get the right nuances in your reading if you didn’t listen to recordings of yourself, and Jennifer said simply ‘Trust it! Speak it in truth! Cut the brain out and go with your gut.’

  • · during the writing process it’s useful to read your work aloud to yourself – this helps you identify anything in your text which doesn’t quite work right.

  • · ‘if a character in your work has a pronounced accent which don’t try to replicate it in your reading,’

  • · ‘slow your reading down if you have a tendency to go too fast. No-one has ever complained about someone reading too slowly. Take a moment, slow down, and lower your voice – that way, it carries better.’

  • · ‘think about whether you might memorise your reading, and move around when you are delivering it – this helps the audience pay attention, and increases their involvement in the text.’

  • · ‘when it’s your own work, you know all the answers.’ Jennifer had been asked about the spectrum stretching from ‘reading’ at one end to ‘performing’ at the other. Her view is that performing is for other people’s work, the result of liaising with the writer over how it should best be read. But when it’s your own work, you are aiming not to perform it, but to read it as you instinctively know it should be read.’

This was a wonderful evening, and we’re so grateful to Jennifer for her presentation, for answering our questions, and for reading her own very moving poem Wait for me. As she was urging us to do, Jennifer was not simply sharing her words with us, but both sharing herself, and being herself.

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