On Wednesday, October 24th, I and a number of other writers will give public readings of our work at the New York Society Library in Manhattan. I tell you this not because I expect all my blog’s readers to show up at the library, but to give context to the search I conducted this week for my notes on the elements of a good reading. I was looking in particular for a lecture I went to three years ago at Southampton College. It was given by Alan Alda, a former student of Frank McCourt’s memoir class, and a professional actor and communicator of considerable notoriety and undeniable skill. The lecture was truly memorable as a live demonstration of Alan Alda’s presentation technique, and I remembered taking notes that seemed essential at the time, though I had no recollection of what was in them or where they had gone.
I’ve given many readings since I started on the quest to rediscover my writing, but most have been for the writers’ workshops at the SUNY Summer Arts Program in Southampton, or my weekly writing group submission of an ongoing novel. Either the change of season or the new venue of this upcoming event required me to pay more attention to its preparation. That’s why I found myself buried under a stack of notes that seemed as alien as someone else’s diary, even though they were all in my own handwriting from years ago. I had some opaque notion Alan Alda’s notes on giving successful readings contained the secret to a winning presentation.
I had little luck initially in identifying anything from the summer 2010 session, probably because my filing system for all my notes lacked any form of classification. I was very successful at throwing most of them out however, and in that backward attempt to find what I sought, Alan Alda’s notes finally rose to the surface. Reading them over again, I not only relived the whole wonderful lecture as if back in the auditorium, but I found I was right about the efficacy of his advice. Yet in all honesty, that advice was not going to be as easily assimilated as I’d hoped. Certainly it lacked the immediacy of last year’s workshop leader, Melissa Bank, who instructed us not to read too long if we wanted to avoid the audience’s undying hatred.
Know your material, don’t read it- tell it; and deliver one thought per breath started me off from Alda’s advice in a panic; a panic that yelled in my head I’d always known all of this and somehow still couldn’t do it. Continuing down the list from project spontaneity to know the point of the sentence in advance, I considered putting off the reading at the library in favor of acting lessons at the 92nd Street Y. Then I came across the pivotal sentence that had me wondering where’d I’d been during that lecture in the summer of 2010, and why I hadn’t remembered the most important thing he’d said. He was discussing what the reader wanted from the audience as opposed to the reverse, and he said, “Listening indicates a willingness to be changed.” The more I’ve looked at that sentence, the more I’ve seen in it.
Listening is something I always thought I knew how to do. I’ve written essays for this blog on the importance of being an active, participatory listener where music is concerned, and I’ve written sales-training manuals in my former business life on the skill of listening (or appearing to); Be a good listener always heads the top of any salespersons cheat sheet. But listening in order to sell something better or offer collaborative support to the passionate outpourings of a musician’s heart and art, are not the same things. It never occurred to me until I reread the notes for Alan Alda’s lecture that listening was a gift of such magnitude. A writer asks a great deal of the audience when a willingness to be changed is one of the conditions of the reading.
I’ve been contemplating the likeliness of that happening during my reading on October 24th, or any other time I have anything to say for that matter. Is that the way I listen when others speak to me? The more I’ve thought it over, the deeper I get into the relationship between the speaker and listener, wondering finally if the roles can, and in fact are reversed whenever a communication takes place. Looking over the lecture’s notes I now realize he was trying to make a point about the reader needing to listen to themselves as they read; really listen; not just for flow and rhythm but also for content. Even though I didn’t have the time to take a note that said the reader must also be willing to be changed by his own presentation, I could see that was inherent in the disparate phrases I’d strung together in no particular order. Obviously I was getting excited about the idea and couldn’t keep up with it by hand.
Reviewing what I want to pay most attention to in the short story I’ll be reading for the ‘Live from the Library’ evening, I’ve set off a ricochet of possibilities in my head that have nothing to do with October 24th. I’ve started watching myself listen to people talk to me and each other, and audiences listening at the theater or in front of Television sets.
The possibilities of expansion around a willingness to be changed are exciting and unlimited, way beyond the reading of a short story to a captive audience. I never expected to find such a universal concept in such a specific context, but then I suppose that’s what writing’s all about.
Thanks for reading, listening, and your willingness to be changed.
The Unblocked! Writer
By Sidney S. Stark