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Performing Your Own Work

Some people hate to perform. I tell them that, while being able to present your work in public is great for building your platform, a lot of performance is actually for your own benefit, to improve the writing in the first place…it seems to make them feel better. In that spirit, I have put together a list of nine things you might learn about your writing when you make that dark walk to the stage.

Stuart Horwitz speaking

  1. Punctuation has a purpose. Periods stop you. Semi-colons give a more sophisticated sense of connection; commas encourage you, etc. Following along in this manner gives you an idea of the flow you have prepared for the reader. Should it be sharper, shorter? Do we need to let a little air into the passage right about here? It’s all in the punctuation.
  2. Your work is scored like a song. Each paragraph contains a range of notes, with the higher ones usually reserved for the most passionate or meaningful passages. Go low, too. Just don’t perform your work with a predetermined, sing-songy voice that nobody actually uses unless they are at a poetry open mic night.
  3. Don’t be afraid to hit the high note. I can’t sing. But I like to when I’m alone. Before I perform my written work, I sing a certain Dylan song behind closed doors. Bb is my high note, and it feels so good when I hit it — like I am entitled to have my say.
  4. Reinvest, When You Feel Your Attention Slipping. The lead singer of a band I was in told me that. I don’t remember what the question was. Maybe something like, “What do you do when you’re up there and you’re bombing and you wish you were dead?” I liked that in his answer he said, “When you feel your attention slipping.” Like if you’re not paying attention, who else would want to?
  5. Don’t Go Interior. Just like in a novel where the character explores their feelings about their feelings without anything actually happening to provoke those feelings, we can tell if you’re only talking to yourself.
  6. Don’t Go Precious. It’s just so great, isn’t it? That line I had in here about how I have played to a diverse group of audiences, from dive bars to ribbon cuttings, to a hundred people and to six people, three of whom were leaving? It’s so cute we’re taking it out. Performing your work can help you track down the lines that make even you wince.
  7. Believe it, or Change it. It’s just that simple. If you don’t believe it, your voice will quaver and your readers/hearers will never believe it.
  8. Repetition without Variation = Repetitive = Boring. Only things that develop are exciting. If it isn’t going to develop, hit it and get out.
  9. There is a triangular effect between one’s Voice, one’s Muse and one’s Audience. This last one is a tricky one.

a. Your Voice is what you sound like. That’s how you should perform your work, in your voice.
b. Your Muse is the person who is looking over your shoulder. Like a secret crush, but someone who won’t stand for your bullshit either.
c. Your Audience is the rest of us who are potentially interested in what you have to say. We’re the folks who you are facing, and we have our own needs that we are looking for you to help us fill.

Performing your own work can be a scary exercise in self-esteem and social ostracism. But remember this, each time you encounter a performance setting and manage to adjust to its reality, you will have attained another level of confidence that will make you increasingly unflappable when it comes to rejection and misunderstanding.

Otherwise known as peace of mind.

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