You step up to the mike. Stardust in Winter Park, Orlando dangles Christmas lights—red, green, gold, and blue—little globules of color floating in the distance because your eyesight is too poor to see the green lines they hang from. The paper fish are oddly beautiful in the glow. You look out into the crowd and see your cohort, your future professors, and you crack a smile. It’s your first public reading in your new MFA program. You’ve got this.
And then you open your mouth, your legs shake, you step forward and back, forward and back, interjecting “hello” in different volumes, testing the mike. People laugh. They think this is your bit. They think you’re performing the recommended joke that readers often used to put the audience at ease.
Putting your audience at ease is never easy.
Before my dreams of becoming a writer, before the MFA and even undergrad, I dreamt of the stage. Musical theatre—thespian nerd to the core— where roles like the Phantom or Marius would fall into my lap the second I stood center stage, chest up, and ready to sing my ballad or up-tempo piece. It all would have worked out if I weren’t occasionally tone deaf.
Meh, dreams change. They transform. I realized my love of theatre had little to do with acting or singing—though you may find me at the occasional karaoke bar where my horrid singing makes people squirm—but more so about my love of telling stories. About changing someone’s mood based on the words woven upon a page. A place where sound, language, structure, movement, plot, conflict come together.
I thought for sure that my experience and comfort on stage, the skills I’d learned even while horribly singing “One Day More,” would translate to that small stage at Stardust for my first UCF MFA PARCELS reading where UCF’s writers get together once a month and share their works-in-progress. But there is a difference between playing a character and reading as yourself, revealing a part of your past you’ve never shared with anyone let alone your cohort, your future professors, and the occasional strangers. No, reading is a different kind of performance.
I entered the program with a short fiction story, a pesky writing sample I spent months on while chewing the malnutritioned nails off my fingertips with my tea-stained teeth. As luck would have it, I was awarded a spot in the program as a fiction student. Like a drunken gorilla (please don’t give alcohol to animals) I stumbled and danced around my house like I had just won the Tour-de-France. Fiction. I’m in.
So of course, for my first public reading, I chose to read nonfiction.
But that’s the beauty of the MFA program. You are encouraged to take courses outside of your genre, to experiment with your writing and take chances you never thought to take. In my first few weeks in the program, my professor Jocelyn Bartkevicius opened my eyes to the wonder of nonfiction. And my excitement for that new road fueled my desire to perform a piece I titled “How to Gamble With Your Mother.”
It only occurred to me on stage that I had never revised, workshopped, or shown the piece to anyone.
I stumbled and shook onstage, but I pushed forward because that’s all I could do. While I am no professional reader, my reading went fine. I’d even argue my nerves pushed the turmoil in my piece to the surface, heightening the moment. Method acting?
Fast forward to a few months later. I hosted a graduate reading where students who had successfully defended their theses took the stage one last time at Stardust before embarking on new writer destinies.
The nerves, ever present, crawled along the surface of my skin like little caterpillars. Damn nerve-bugs were back, and I started off shaky. My voice had gone up an octave as it always does when nervous, but I continued my introductions of readers.
As I introduced the second reader, I began to feel more at ease. Even after introducing the wrong thesis director. (I am still so sorry, Russ!) Unlike my first reading, the nerves began to settle on their own. As I stood on stage, my posture straightened, and I felt the familiarity of public speaking. I hadn’t always been comfortable on the theatre stage. I had forgotten that it took time and practice like any true art form. Public speaking, I realized, is an art form.
I started deviating from my notes. I started opening up, and my voice steadied. I could speak as slow as I wanted. I could whisper and draw people in. I could use my diaphragm and stretch my voice to the people farthest away. I was in control. Adaptation, ladies and gentleman.
First time readings can be nerve-wracking, but working through those nerves can be rewarding. During my first reading, I had little control over the situation and of myself. By the end of my second reading, I gained a sense of control, a sense of pride, and I felt like I had been reaccepted into the program on new terms.
*chime in music for drunken gorilla dance*
Jonathan Phin is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida. He received his Bachelors of Arts in English at the University of South Florida, and he previously worked as a substitute teacher and currently works for an online website. For now, he resides in a four bedroom townhouse, unfurnished and filled with roommates he does not know.