Advice

'I Just Wrote This Last Night'

Brian Taylor

August 02, 2009

Yesterday I got up in the morning and I ran 87 miles. Then I cleaned my entire house with a toothbrush. Then I went into the woods, sawed down a bunch of trees, lugged them out, and built a barn. Then I prepared a nine-course meal for 23 people and drank, by myself, four cases of wine. But before I went to bed, I wrote this column.

I've known for months that it was due today. But, as you can see, I was too busy doing other things to spend much time on it. I dashed it off last night so I can present it here before you today. I don't know if it's any good or not.

Yeah, right.

I go to a lot of readings. At creative-writing conferences, creative writers read their work, and at academic conferences, academics read theirs. The faculty here invites poets, fiction writers, and nonfictioneers to come to the campus. Our graduate students in creative writing have a monthly reading series. The university brings biologists, historians, and philosophers to speak. And Spokane has an annual literary festival—a weeklong series of, yes, more readings.

The truth is, I hate being read to. Well, that's not actually the truth. I love audio books. I look forward to long drives on which I can settle in and listen to either the author or, more typically, an actor, for hours. A well-trained reader can change the experience of a book: If the prose is good, it sings. (On the other hand, for some plot-driven mysteries, which are more suitable to skimming than savoring, every clumsy sentence clangs.) There are rare authors whose performative abilities can turn you into a groupie. (Do you hear me, Sherman Alexie? Groupie!)

But for the most part, those of us who write for a living are more comfortable camped out behind a computer screen than prancing around in front of a live audience. And maybe it's just me, but being able to follow by ear a portion of a short story, a section of a novel, a part of an essay, or even whole poems is often too taxing. To the outside world I may seem to be listening, but really I'm making a list of the things I need to pack for my next trip, trying to figure out how to rearrange the furniture in my living room, or destroying my cuticles.

More often than I can believe, someone will preface a reading by saying, "I just wrote this last night." Why on earth, I wonder, would you read something that raw? Generally public readings are set up months in advance. It's not like the speakers don't know they're going to have to have something ready. I don't get it. Maybe it's because I tend toward the neurotic. Maybe it's because I know that my own work needs lots of time to settle and be picked over before it's inflicted on others. If I have to read something, I polish it until it's shiny. The idea of presenting something that's not fully formed seems as disrespectful as it is arrogant. It puts me in mind of little children who are proud of their poop: Because it comes out of them, it has to be worthy of interest.

When I shared with a friend my wonderment at those who read a piece they'd dashed off the night before, she looked at me as if I had just told her I'd bought a time share in a swamp. She said: "They're lying."

That had never occurred to me. But then I remembered that arrogance is often the conjoined twin of insecurity. What those writers wanted us to know, perhaps, was that this new work was the result of pure talent: Just think, audience, how good this would be if it were coupled with labor? If the piece stinks, it's simply a matter of timing. It's not my fault. I could do better, really, I could. I just didn't have the time.

Graduate students are frequent offenders on that count, but they aren't the only ones. I've seen name-brand, best-selling authors pull the same trick. I guess they think they can get away with not having to work too hard, enjoying an adoring and captive audience and all. But authors who are good and successful readers know that people have gone out of their way to see them. Like all performers, they know better than to risk disappointing the fans.

Most academics don't present hastily written papers. But they do something almost as bad. They read their papers aloud. Some professors read their lectures. It's common practice, I know, but frankly, it bugs me. It's hard enough for an audience to follow a short story, where, presumably, some attention is being paid to crafting narrative tension. Having to track audibly an argument written in long, convoluted sentences and leaden, jargon-ridden prose can feel like a forced drowning.

There's a hard balance between making oneself clear and understandable while presenting a complicated and nuanced argument, and not boring the audience to cuticle-picking distraction. The better talks are ones in which the author says, Here's what I wrote in the paper, and then summarizes and, well, presents. I can always read the paper myself later.

PowerPoint has made things better and worse. It can be a tool that does wonders for orienting the audience, with each slide providing a jumping-off point for an explanation. But too often I've watched people read their slides off the screen—the same slides we are all reading.

I want explication. I do not want to be read to. I always wonder if it's just me, but when I check with others—more attentive people—they say the same thing. They listen for the gist, and know that they'll get the details, if they care enough, later.

Reading instead of presenting is, I think, the academic equivalent of "I just dashed this off last night." It's an act borne out of (choose as many as apply): fear, insecurity, arrogance, procrastination, habit, poor training, or lack of regard for the audience. It's also just plain lazy. It's a lot of work to think something through and then write it out as a conference paper. Taking the next step—understanding what you've done and figuring out how to summarize it extemporaneously—seems to be one that many are willing to forsake.

Stanley Fish is one of the few people I know who can speak in paragraphs that spring like Athena—beautiful, fully formed as well as armed—from his head. Most of us can't. But does that mean we shouldn't even try? Or teach graduate students that this is a skill they might need when giving job talks or conference papers? The most memorable academic talks I've seen—and I've seen a lot—were all delivered and not read.

Why can't we aspire to that? What does it really entail? An understanding that if you want to be effective as a public speaker, you have to care about what the audience wants and needs. You need to master your material so completely that you are confident that you will get it right. And you must be willing to follow the directions on how to get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice.

Think about the academics you know who have become public intellectuals. You may not like them. You may dismiss them as "popularizers" (gasp!). You may, in fact, be intensely jealous of them. But no matter. Ask yourself: How many of them read their talks?

What is at stake here is not just doing our (teaching) jobs more effectively, but being part of a national conversation, and not ceding the ground to professional politicians and sophists. If we can't learn how to communicate complicated and important ideas in appealing and convincing ways, how can we hope to ever reach beyond academe? How, indeed, can we even reach our students and academic peers?

It's always tempting to try to make a pre-emptive excuse for not doing a better job at something. Indeed, if I'd only had more time, this column could have been great.


Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Her newest book is "Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running," and her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.