This is Part 14 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-13 can be found here.
Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain.
I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.
“Unless you’re a household name as an author, you need to think carefully about how you’ll structure your reading or event. What will be instructive, entertaining, or delightful for those who turn out? Readings have a tendency to be dreadfully boring, with audience members wondering when they will end..” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 214)
In my work as a disaster relief volunteer, we have the end user of our aid always in mind. The end user in our case are the families receiving our aid, so everything we do must in some way contribute to a good result for them. This kind of thinking–asking ourselves who we ultimately serve–makes everything easier, by way of allowing us to benchmark: Does this course of action serve the families who receive our aid? No? Then let’s pursue another solution. Yes? Okay, let’s follow this road and see where it takes us.
I think folks who hold readings must also consider carefully who their end user is. Often, writers run into the question of why they’re having a reading or event, and the answer isn’t always, “oh, to sell more books.” Your experiences may vary, but for me, the end user is always the reader, and the reason I make appearances is to win people over, to keep them reading me.
The why of being a writer is about the readership; the why of why I choose to put pen to paper is about the readership. For me, then, the why of readings and events is also the end user.
Years ago, when I was involved in marketing for the MFA program I graduated from, I was asked to produce an event at AWP, the biggest writer’s conference of the MFA’s year. As part of our sponsorship of the conference, we had access to a space that we could use for a cocktail party. We wanted people to socialize, but we also wanted them to get something out of the event. My only tenet going into the planning of the event was that I wanted to make it an event that people–our end user, the attendees of the party–would have fun at, would get something out of. I wanted them to be impressed with our graduates and walk away with a bright, warm spot that they would associate with our MFA.
We had readings, sure. But they were pop-up readings. Our meetings at the MFA were called to order with a big ship’s bell, so we used that to “ding” the room into order whenever a reading was to start. That kept people on their toes. And after every reading—thirty seconds max, I think it was—the person who was reading drew from a big hat of raffle tickets and someone would win a prize.
There were very short speeches. But mostly, it was a packed, rowdy room full of people who hadn’t seen each other in awhile, and people who had wandered in to see exactly what the hell all the dinging and laughing and cheering and ruckus was about. Members of the board of directors for the conference stopped by. They said they had never seen such a turnout for these value-added events before
It remains, by far, one of my most memorable and happy professional experiences, and it was all down to making sure we kept the end user in mind.
When my book was published and I started to plan readings and events, I remembered how well that event had worked, but I don’t think I saw much in the way of possibility to recreate that kind of event. The closest I came was helping to put together a panel discussion between myself and two other writers at a New York City bookstore. We all read from our works, very briefly, and then we had a robust conversation about the state of diversity in literature. It was a great evening. I really enjoyed myself, but I was pretty clear that was because I felt like the audience was walking away with some solid information under their belts, stuff they could feel happier about having learned. I recently participated in a similar event that had the same structure, and I was so happy to be asked to join in.
I love events with other writers. Two or three or four heads are always better than one, and the energy in a room is so much better when you can bounce off of someone else. But even if you’re doing a solo event, there are ways to make it feel like someone else is up there with you, and ways to promote other writers: One writer I know, Kaitlin Solimine, buys copies of books by people she knows, and raffles them off at the end of her events. She also printed pre-stamped postcards with her book’s cover on them, so that we would almost inadvertently spread the word.
Probably, for me, the best thing ever is getting a chance to promote someone else’s work. I love the sensation you get of using your success, however limited it might be, to bolster someone else’s work. We see this in our opening event for the invitation-only (for now) twice-yearly writer’s retreat, too. Twice now we’ve given the faculty members the option of just doing a reading or opting into a discussion with one of our retreat’s staff members as moderator, and both times they’ve opted for the moderator.
This might be for the simple reason that three people makes for better dissemination of nervous energy. Or that it’s just easier to talk to a moderator whose job it is to see the connection between two vastly different pieces of work. In any case, it’s preferable.
You may not come to the same conclusion as I did about who my end user is. That’s okay. But you should know, at least, who you’re aiming to reach, and build your strategy around that.
And now, your tips!
- Each event may be different. Ask yourself who’s likely to be there, and what they may expect out of it.
- Don’t be afraid to show your personality. I’m loud, so when even me at the mic couldn’t make the room hush up during the big event I mention above, I started to sing The Carpenters’ “Close to You.” Pretty soon, the whole room was singing, and it’s easier to make everyone stop singing than it is to make them stop talking to people they really like. And at the very first reading I ever went to, the author only read for a little bit before he said that he didn’t really like long readings, and he pulled out his steel guitar and started playing for us instead. I don’t know how many instant fans he made that night. I was one of them.
- Do ask other writers to join in. This is one thing that never, ever fails. I love spending time with other writers, and this is such a great way to support each other. Share the love!
What were the best readings or literary events you’ve participated in or attended? Tell me in the comments below.