Last night the six Arts Council ACES writers took to the road for the first in a number of reading dates across Northern Ireland. We began our adventures in Newry Library, reading to a small, but distinguished crowd of friends and strangers. We also got to meet their lovely, and very hospitable librarian, Lillian and were allowed to sit on their much-photographed sofa of books. It was a great opportunity to give Malcolm Orange his first public outing and I think he went down reasonably well though it’s hard to tell when most people’s listening faces are reasonably similar to their constipated faces. After checking my diary and realising I have almost 2 dozen readings booked over the next few months, I really relish every chance to practice reading in front of a live audience. Like most things in life, the more you read aloud the less terrifying it seems and, hopefully, the more adept you become at it.
Lately I have become a terrible one for reading aloud. Halfway through the edits of Malcolm Orange Disappears I realised that the best way to get an accurate understanding of how a passage flowed was to read it aloud to myself. It was hardly a ground-breaking discovery but it had a massive impact of how I’m now writing and, more importantly editing. Clunky phrasing, bad grammar and over punctuation, (my personal literary sin of choice), becomes frighteningly apparent when the words skip loose of the page and try to make their mark in an empty space.
I like to write in bustling places. I’m a coffee shop writer, crippled by the silence of my own kitchen table. I require a little bit of movement, a small amount of background noise to keep myself motivated. However, public spaces have not put me off reading aloud. If you encounter me in one of the many Belfast-based coffee emporiums which I frequent in the next few months you are likely to notice that I am head-phoned, muttering into a cupped hand and, more often than not, frowning in a fashion I inherited from my father, (who looks, when worried, exactly like the little sad-faced monkey in a river who features in the National Geographic television ad). Do not worry about me. I am not sad or even worried. This is how I look when I am writing. Reading aloud, even when no one’s listening, is now an essential part of my creative process. Sorry about that.
Reading aloud to other people does not come so easily to me. I’m fine reading other people’s work but as soon as I launch into the first sentence of my own material I develop, (in no particular order), a leg twitch, a throat lump, an inability to focus on the printed words, (though alongside the Carson scowl, I have also inherited from my father, 20:20 vision), and perhaps most embarrassingly of all a creeping flush which, if not curtailed by scarf or polo neck, will rush due North with unbelievable speed, making me look positively menopausal. People often tell me they cannot read in public and I say, up until about 4 years ago, I too could not read in public. I couldn’t even say my name without stuttering when called upon at business meetings and other situations requiring introductions and, for a brief period around 1996, even found it impossible to answer the telephone. I was of a terribly nervous disposition and wished for all the world that writing, as it was a hundred years ago or more, was a sport requiring solitude, a certain amount of anonymity and very little public speaking. Gone are those days. I soon discovered that a writer must now be a PR person, a social media whizz, a tremendous personality and, unfortunately for me, a public speaker.
So, like a woman possessed, I bit the bullet and signed up for every opportunity to speak in public which came my way: tour guiding, radio presenting, telephone talking, teaching, preaching and presenting all manner of interactive power-points. Some of these early episodes were mortifying, involving all of the above symptoms, simultaneously manifest over a short period of time. However, and with this I encourage my fellow fumble-tongued writers, things improved with practice and I learnt some cheats. I learnt that a glass of wine before reading will make you more inclined to hot flushing under the spotlights, whilst a high-necked blouse will cover a multitude of splotchy sins. A lectern will give you something to lean on when your legs start shaking and something to set your papers on when your hands turn to jelly. A joke of some sort before reading will get the audience on your side and make it feel less like your reading to Hitler and all his evil-faced friends. Big print, spread out, will help you to focus when the words begin to muddle and blur into alphabet soup. Finally, and absolutely essentially, a good friend planted in the front row and advised to “grin like a half-wit” throughout proceedings even if not a word spoken makes any human sense, can often be the difference between a car crash and coming across all “Kevin Barry confident” when reading in public.
I’m not quite fixed yet but I haven’t fled the room mid-speech in at least four years and I’m going to call that progress.