Due in part to the recent rash of poetry events in our city, Zakk and Elizabeth dropped some observations on us last week, regarding the poet: here and here. As a result, several of the discussions of late, amongst the We Put Words On Paper crew, have revolved around the writer as performer.
Look, I’m an extrovert through and through. Place me in a party full of people, and I feel energized. I’m loud, and I can keep the conversation going all night. But I’m no performer. Not yet. Like many people, when I’m in front of a crowd, I get nervous. My hands get clammy. I start to feel cold. My once proud voice becomes a subtle rasp projected from a dry chamber, lacking all appeal or authority. Chapped lips and cotton mouth bodes not well for a guy who wants to read his work in public. It’s also not good for a guy who on occasion directs actors. How can one convince someone else to “act a fool,” if said one has trouble with one’s self? Amirite?
While the @WepWoppers* have been discussing the finer points of what it means to be a writer in this day and age, I’ve been studying up in my spare time, watching how other author’s “perform”. [*Follow us on Twitter! Gotta love a shameless plug!]
First, it was listening to one local author’s rehearsed, energetic, and entertaining reading at the Texas Observer Writer’s Festival. She read with enthusiasm and gravitas, riding the pace of the page and changing her voice with each new character as she performed for the crowd. At times, I felt her love for the work, but too often, it seemed as though I were back in Kindergarten and it was just about nap time. She was a seasoned professional, for sure, but something about the whole thing felt cheap, dishonest.
Then the other day, I came across this video of Amber Benson reading a sex scene from the new book in her Calliope Reaper-Jones series:
You might recognize her. Benson is best known for her acting work, and I’ve followed that side of her career since the introduction of her character, Tara, in the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Before I dive into the praise, let me level with you: I am a fan of Amber Benson.
A lot of people might look at the video and think her unprofessional, but naturally I would disagree, because fanboys can’t be objective. Duh! . . . No. I actually haven’t kept up with her blossoming writing career. You see, I disagree, because Benson is an actress. If needed, I’m sure she could have composed herself and performed in much the same way that the “Kindergarten teacher” mentioned earlier did. But she didn’t.
I’m not going to pretend to know what Benson was thinking during the reading; however, I’m confident when saying, and I think you’d agree, that her reading was nothing, if not honest. I’ve been to several readings delivered with wit and a preconceived tone, but none where I felt like I really got to know the author. Through this video, I feel like I’m getting the genuine Amber Benson. Isn’t that why someone would even go to a reading? They want to get to know the author and test them out before they spend hard earned cash on some book that they know nothing about.
Here, Benson is entertaining. She feels real. That makes me want to read the first two installments in her Calliope Reaper-Jones series that have been sitting on my bookshelf for months, waiting for me to reach them in my never-ending stack.
What’s my research taught me? Well, it’s a cliché, but it’s a good one: I’m going to spend less time worrying about how others put on a performance and more time just being myself. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to do the same, because as legendary Life editor, Tom Masson, once said:
“Be yourself” is about the worst advice you can give some people.