The Shared Experience: Tips for Reading from Your Work

My latest guilty pleasure is watching people on YouTube react to their first time hearing a song. I can’t quite figure out why I love doing this so much, but I suspect it has something to do with the pleasure I get from seeing someone share my experience. When someone feels the emotional impact of a song like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “Memory,” it validates my own response, and it gives me hope. In what can often seem like a cruel or unfeeling world, I’ve found a kindred spirit. If there are enough people who are unashamed to be moved by a song, there might just be a chance we can collectively move to an increased level of empathy and love.

Last week, I was in my native southeastern Illinois to do an event at the Olney Public Library. On the morning of the event, I stopped by the local radio station to do an interview. I read a very short section of my novel, The Glassmaker’s Wife, and when I was finished the interviewer said, “Could you please read every book on tape that I listen to?” That’s exactly the effect I want for my listeners whenever I read from one of my books. I want to draw them into the world of the book, so they feel what my characters feel. To do that, I first have to feel my characters’ emotions and their complicated lives as I put them on the page. I have to feel, for instance, the love the fifteen-year-old Eveline Deal has for her employer, Betsey Reed, in The Glassmaker’s Wife. When Eveline feels that Betsey has wounded her with a sharp or dismissive word, I have to feel that hurt within my own heart. If we’re writing without feeling, something’s wrong.

When I read from a novel, I keep in mind the fact that the words, even in passages of description or summation, are coming from a world in which my characters feel strong emotions. It’s my job to express those emotions in the writing as well as the reading. At any given point, a character speaks and feels through me. A good reading requires the writer to take their time. No rushing through a scene, no flattening out the tone, no refusal to engage with the characters and their situations. A good reader interprets the work, so the audience members feel as if they’re present in the scenes they’re hearing from the book. Ideally, the audience isn’t just hearing; they’re immersed in the action as it unfolds, and they’re feeling what the characters feel.

Here are some things to keep in mind while reading from your work. Varying the pace of your delivery can be effective. Consider what you want to emphasize in a given sentence or passage. A brief pause before that point of emphasis puts your listeners on alert. They’re about to hear something that matters greatly. A longer pause after you’ve delivered the important point lets it resonate in the silence. Remember to make eye contact with your audience members. That’s a technique for drawing them into the worlds you’re portraying. It’s especially effective if you make eye contact with a particular audience member when delivering a point of emphasis. Choose different audience members during the time of your reading. Your objective is to make as many people as you can feel as if you’re reading only to them. Work on capturing the essence of your characters’ voices without exaggerating them. When reading a scene of dialogue, look toward a distinct part of the audience just before a character speaks. If you look to your left for one character and to your right for another character, your audience will have an easier time following the scene. This is especially important when there are no dialogue tags for the characters—no “he said” or “she said” or “they said.” Finally, remember to vary the inflection of your voice to emphasize emotional shifts in the scene. Knowing when to let your voice soften, for instance, or when to harden, or when to increase in volume, or become pensive or elegiac can take your listeners through a myriad of emotions. Every choice you make while reading from your work should be made to enhance your audience’s listening experience.

When I read at the Olney Public Library, there were people present from so many parts of my life. There were high school classmates, family members, friends, professional colleagues, and even a man who’d been my mother’s grade school pupil. Of course, there were also people I didn’t know. Such a disparate crowd. My job, through the presentation of my words, was to make everyone feel they were part of a single group. It was my hope that my reading would make everyone a part of the 1844 story of the novel—a story of a woman accused of poisoning her husband, and a story of betrayal and redemption. That shared experience. Those shared emotions. For the roughly thirty minutes that I read, I hoped I’d make everyone feel just a bit more human, a bit more humane, a bit more alive.


  1. Jolene McIlwain on May 22, 2023 at 9:18 am

    Thanks so much for this, Lee. Your readings are always beautiful and meaningful.

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