In the last year or so, I've had the pleasant opportunity to read my work in public, at various venues (bookstores and dive bars,) to various audiences (lots of friends, welcoming strangers and uninterested strangers,) and to (I think) a generally a positive reaction. However, what's really rewarding about the experience is how it teaches you about your work in general--the way it affects people, the way it sounds in the room, how it can surprise even you who wrote it and edited it 9,000 times, and how, in the end, you have no control whatsoever over the work once it's out in the world.
When you're asked to read something--this goes for me; I don't know how other writers do it--you either read what you're asked to read (in the case of a book release party, or reading on a theme,) or you pick something else. The choosing is where the weirdness starts to occur. I find that you're given a few options: 1) Read something that people will like, 2) Read something that you think will make people like you, 3) Read something popular, or funny, or charming, 4) Read what you want to read.
What's weird about all this is that the only one you have real control over is the last one, though you have to combat all this self-inflicted pressure to do one of the others. You want people to be entertained--there's nothing worse than a writer who's reading badly, not engaged, and not, as I say, recognizing that this is a performative moment! People came out, maybe in the cold, maybe in the rain, when the could be home watching TV, some paid a fee, and so you really need to bring your shit to the table. But also worse is the writer who picks something that's not really what his audience wants to hear--too erudite, wrong for the venue, messy.
Reading in public has taught me something about my work that maybe I already felt a little here and there, but has now been confirmed in a totally awesome and unexpected way. I generally like to read the more introspective, meloncholy, uneventful, detailed pieces. Not the funny stuff--do I even write funny stuff?--not the flashier, pop-culture-filled stuff that I think will get an immediate reaction. What's fascinating me lately is how I don't get much reaction during the reading--I only mean compared to, say, other writers on the same bill--no groans, or grunts of interest, or whatever goofy sounds an audience makes. But I think I'm getting a lot of reaction after.
When people come up to tell me that they enjoyed the reading, or the piece, they are doing it in this totally weird, almost private way. It's as if several things are happening at once. The writing is about a fragile person, and maybe they are projecting that fragility onto me, the writer, and they take an extra kind of care with their physical approach. (Or maybe this is always how you approach a stranger?) They talk quietly. They don't want to shake my hand. They stand a bit away and lean their top half forward to say something personal, or vaguely confessional. I don't know what's going on here--I'm not new to performing in public, but I am still somewhat new to reading in public. Maybe other writers have this same observation.
So I'm learning something new about how all the time and effort I put into making writing that's clear, emotional, and meaningful is making people feel. It's been a lovely opportunity. I'm very grateful.