Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reading Out Loud

I write to read--not just to myself, but to others. There is something about holding a book in my hands and reading words off the page to others that fills me with a warm sense of communion and connection, of reaching out and touching others. Writing is a lonesome practice. You sit alone in a room, alone with your thoughts, alone with your words. The page doesn't laugh or smile, doesn't gasp or applaud; the computor screen stares at you. Your words echo off walls and ceiling, or fall with a dead thud to the floor. Words live only in the eyes of readers or in the ears of listeners.

With two books coming out I've had plenty of opportunities to read to people, with a dozen readings booked for October and November alone, here in New York City, but also in Westchester, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachussetts.

Last night I read at the only book store in the Bronx, a Barnes & Noble at Baychester Mall, near Coop City. A small but packed audience of mostly black and Hispanic people. I was among four performers, including two poets and a singer-songwriter. When my turn came to read I chose a story about an impoverished Dominican who steals and drives off with a shiny convertible as a means of regaining some of his lost dignity and youth. I read without a microphone, choosing instead to stand in front of the podium, close to my listeners. As I usually do when I read I focused on one audience member, a dark-skinned, middle-aged woman seated with her husband in the second row. Why her? Because her eyes had an intent gleam and she smiled and I knew she would like the story. I read to her: she was my real audience.

When I read, I feel as if I am feeding people, spoonful by spoonful, a special broth that will enrich their lives in a special way. The soup is warm and savory and made of words. I feed them my special soup which they ingest through their ears and digest not in their bellies but with their minds and imaginations. Listen carefully, I say to them: I have a story here to tell you. If I have done my job well, then my words will beckon them like a curled finger to come hither, to listen deeply, to pay attention.

As I read my story about the Dominican and the car the woman's smile grew more and more fixed, and the gleam in her eyes grew brighter, and I knew I had her; that she had left her stiff seat and entered the world of my story, with its hot Dominican sun and sweet brown smoke from the sugar cane factory. The act of listening smoothed the wrinkles from her face, released the tension from her jaw. She left her body. I saw it. When a story works, it makes you forget yourself. You leave the hard world behind and enter the soft world of imaginings.

I try very hard to read slowly, to pronounce each and every word, to enjam certain sentences so that prose turns into poetry, to read the words as if they are poetry. I try to seduce the listener with the sounds of images. It is very much like making love: each word a touch, a caress, a kiss, an embrace. There is but one way to read to people and that is with love. You have to love them with each word, to let each syllable offer its caress. With each sentence you draw them closer to you, until you have drawn them into your heart and your mind, until these become shared organs, until you and your listeners form a single joined entity, like Siamese twins.

If a reading goes well, then an act of surrender occurs. The audience must surrender to the power of your words, must abandon the body's insistence on the evidence provided by one set of sensory data--on the immediate sensory phenomenon of hard chair and fluorescent lighting--and accept instead the sensory phenomenon provided by a story's words. That this secondary set of sensory data can overwhelm the first, that is the miracle of good writing. The hard world melts away; the fictional world takes over; the dream solidifies into something more solid and real than the room, the lights, the chair.

When I read out loud to somebody, when I am able to draw them away from the hard world and into my dreams, this, for me, is the point of writing, of my writing. It is what the writer in me lives for. At bottom I am a sensualist and a flirt, or no, not a flirt: not a flirt because I make no promises that I'm unwilling to fulfil. I sincerely wish to make love to the world through and with words, my words. I want to seduce, but also to carry through on the act of seduction: to love, to connect.

When the story ended and the old Dominican took his death plunge in his Cadillac over a cliff and into the ocean, I heard the woman give a little gasp. The story had done its job. My words had touched at least this one person. For a few minutes she belonged to me and to my story; she was an old Dominican with no teeth driving a stolen car. So was I. She took the plunge over the cliff. So did I. That a stranger could trust me so much, could leave herself in my hands, could accept whatever experiences I put her through with my words . . . This is the beauty of writing, which is really an act of trust, an act of love.

To love someone is to trust them, to trust, and, to a certain extent and by mutual agreement, to surrender to their powers. A mutual surrender. When I read to an audience, I put myself at the mercy of their willingness to open themselves to my words and understand me. Maybe they won't understand; maybe they will refuse the world I offer to them as a temporary alternative to their own world. Maybe they will sit there with arms locked and jaws jutting defiantly, and they will refuse to be moved. There is that risk writers  take.

But if they do listen, if they do let themselves be moved, then that is the greatest of all rewards and author can get for his work.

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