Readings are inspiring in more ways than one. As writers, we often think that writing workshops and classes are the best ways to improve our writing, but we mustn’t overlook the power of listening to words, and their ability to transform us.
In my case, my first poetry reading sparked a life changing event. It was fall of 1994, and I was still at the Art Institute flailing about with my visual artwork, when one afternoon my art history teacher (and fabulous poet), Bill Berkson, mentioned a poetry reading he was participating in at the Cowell Theater. The reading was to celebrate the release of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, edited by Paul Hoover.
I had never been to a poetry reading. I figured, what the heck? I’ll check it out. I went alone and brought my notebook. I was awed by the variety, complexity, beauty, breadth, and humor of the work I heard that night. This was like no poetry I had ever read or heard. I didn’t know poetry could be funny, or visual, or rhythmic without classically rhyming.
Something clicked, something transcendent was happening inside me, and for some reason I thought, “I can do this, I want to do this, I must do this”— and by “this” I meant play with language, explore the possibilities of language and words as filtered through my own mind. From that night, I set out to become a poet.
And every reading I’ve attended since then— while not being as life altering— has made me a better writer. Here are three benefits I’ve discovered from attending readings:
At the first poetry reading I attended, there were a variety of readers who were characters in their own rights: Larry Eigner in his wheelchair, moaning forth his disjunctively odd and sublime poems, then being translated by Jack Foley; Alice Notley and her beautifully insistent lyrics; Ron Padgett with his dry wit and humor; Bob Grenier flipping through his scrawl poems, reading them upside-down in a high-pitched growl. All of this was truly inspiring.
The opportunities to gain insights about character development, dialogue, cadence, and more abound at readings. Attending one can pull you out of writer’s block, help you write that hook you’ve been working on, and inspire you to get more creative with your characters.
Being a writer comes with its challenges, one of which is fear— in multiple shapes and forms. Fear is what causes us writers to back off from our writing, to distract ourselves from doing what we love most. There is fear of rejection, of failure, of being vulnerable, of sharing our personal struggles with the world.
But seeing writer after writer perform readings of their works is a useful reminder that if they can do it, you can do it, too. There is also something about seeing people achieve their goals that makes you want to achieve your own goals. So, if you’re lacking motivation, attending a reading is a great way to get reinvigorated.
As many writers know, perpetual reading is an excellent method for improving your writing skills. Attending a reading has the same effect, but the author is there and available to interact with you. How many times have you read something in a book and wanted to ask the author where they came up with that idea?
Attending a reading gives you access to other writers. Sitting and listening are only part of what happens at a reading. The rest of the time is often filled with discussions about books, writing genres, and methods for improving writing skills. Plus tips and secrets about the publishing industry, if you’re lucky!
Do you have an experience or story to share? Have you ever attended a reading that’s changed your life? What other benefits from attending a reading can you think of? I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts!
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