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Reading to an Audience

The third online workshop in which I participated over the past several weeks was under the auspices of the Clarion West people. For those that are unfamiliar with Clarion, they have been organizing immersive writing workshops for decades, specifically but not exclusively focussed on writing science fiction and fantasy. The Clarion Workshops were a going concern when I was still a student, in the 1980s (they were founded in 1968 and were held first in Pennsylvania, but then moved to California). However, to participate in those days, one had to commit to a six-week residency, and both as a student, and later as a full time professor, I was never able to reserve that much time. The Clarion West organisation is distinct from Clarion, but follows the same principles. It was founded in 1971 by Vonda McIntyre in Seattle, Washington. The Clarion West folk still run their 6 week residency program, but they have developed a diverse range of shorter workshops, and were in the process of setting these up online when the COVID-19 crisis hit.

Signing up was a bit crazy. The workshop signup sheet went live at a set time, and five minutes later, they were all gone. I had picked out one that interested me more than the others, one called "Performance for Writers" led by Andy Duncan. The workshop was one of the longer ones announced, taking place across four weeks, and it dealt with an issue I have rarely seen addressed, that is how to read one's own work aloud to an audience. As writers we are often called upon to do this. In fact, it is part of the job of promoting our work. So I was thrilled when my application was accepted. By the time I turned around and applied for the others I had picked out, they were gone, however. No complaints, this one workshop was super! And it was totally free, to boot!

There were about 16 people registered. The first session covered introductions and some thoughts from Mr. Duncan about the process of reading aloud. For homework, we were asked to pick out an excerpt from our writing that we would read aloud in class, for a total length of up to 7 minutes. It could be one excerpt or two shorter ones, up to us. He also sent us a handout after the first class with some pointers. His information covered several points : preparation, handling the introduction, the reading itself, concluding remarks, and lifelong habits. In the second session, he went through his notes, providing additional anecdotes to illustrate his points. Among the things I learned at this point was the idea that the text, when read, didn't have to be strictly faithful to what was written. One can elide text that may be inappropriate or that involves points that are difficult to explain. I had always read faithfully, so this was a freedom I found useful. He also highlighted the idea that the text is read to "sell" the work to an audience that knows nothing about it. Therefore, the excerpt doesn't need to be completely representative of the larger work. He suggested one tries to read passages that are humorous, have conflict or action, or have suspense. I was planning to read from Plenum. There are some action sequences in Plenum, but they are not particularly representative of the whole. So I ended up reading two selections, a short one from the very beginning, and a second one that recounts the action sequence on the Machine Platform. There was also lots of information about how to adapt to a variety of possible reading venues, how to control the stage and make contact with the audience, how to use one's body to enhance the reading, pacing and pausing, and so forth. All useful information.

Weeks 3 and 4 were devoted to the readings themselves, half the participants on each occasion. I volunteered to go in week 3 - I'm always ready to trail blaze! I was still of two minds about reading the two excerpts. I had practiced the second, which I thought could probably stand on its own, but I was still stuck on the idea that it didn't represent the novel in the same way the more sedate first excerpt did. So at the last minute I included the first excerpt, after working out that I could still do both excerpts in the allotted time. The results reinforced my own, earlier assessment. The first excerpt was viewed as less interesting than the second, and perhaps even extraneous. However, Mr. Duncan did appreciate the chapter heading ("How Big is God?"), so maybe the lesson was to find a way to include that aspect while skipping to the action piece, for which I got a lot of positive feedback. Mr. Duncan suggested I might want to use more gestures when reading, more body language, but liked the emphasis on intonation and the pacing that I gave to the reading. In a way, however, I learned as much if not more from listening to the others read. One woman had training as an actor - her reading went really well as one might expect. Some were more spontaneous, or even read pieces that were less polished, and it still worked, which was its own lesson.

As for the other workshops, the networking was almost as valuable as the class itself. Someone took on the job of creating a chatspace for the group on Discord, and now almost the whole group is active on Discord, exchanging texts, announcements and ideas. I imagine the dynamism may eventually drop off, but right now, during lockdown, the chatter is wonderful.

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