Notes on Giving a Live Reading: How an Essay Comes to Life

Notes on Giving a Live Reading: How an Essay Comes to Life

September 01, 2016

A student in one of my essay classes recently invited me to be a guest worship leader at her church, the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut. Janet Luongo, a writer and artist, had read an essay of mine and thought its message would be a welcome one for the congregation. The essay, “Why I Must Dance Like Tony Manero,” appears in Ruminate’s Issue 33 and speaks of my quest for life experiences that ignite the joy and energy of a spiritual existence.

I’d never been to a Unitarian service before, but after attending one as a visitor and sensing an open willingness among the people in the stunning, glass-walled venue, I realized here was a chance to do something different.

More than simply reading the essay, I could “present” the essay and have everyone experience the piece both in terms of their physical participation and in witness to what I discuss in the work: me doing my thing of showing up in the world sharing my gifts. I didn’t have to stand there reading the essay and hoping they would “get it.” I could have them feel it.

What’s the difference between reading an essay and presenting it?

Well, I have to think about being a speaker and not just a reader of pages. An essay makes no bones about the fact that it’s basically the writer sitting alone in a room wrestling with thoughts and seeking to make sense of an idea. The reader deciphering the sentences is along for the ride. A conversation is happening, but it’s an intimate one.

In speaking I must engage multiple people and in a more direct way than a long-form essay can do. I knew I needed to simplify, not just shorten, my message. In twenty minutes, I had to offer the WHAT, WHY, and HOW:
  • What am I talking about?
  • Why is it important?
  • How can you bring it into your own life?
In addition, I would make it clear I would offer examples in three specific areas, and ask questions for the audience to consider.

It’s not all that different from a TED talk, only I didn’t go so far as to memorize the whole thing as TED speakers do. I did, however, know my words deeply so I didn’t have to glue my eyes to the page on the podium. If you read the essay and then watch the video you’ll notice these changes especially:
  • The WHY section is new and includes thoughts on why my subject is important, about how finding joy and energy in our lives brings us closer to God. I also wanted to mention a wonderful book I read last month, The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer, which has an excellent chapter on making this connection.
  • In the talk, I spoke more of gifts in general and not, as I did in the written essay, the work of learning how to take risks in my writing. This allowed me to use a broader range of examples and bring in the concept of what it looks like when we don’t honor our God-given talents.
  • The ending is different because I wanted a more proactive experience for the people in the room, and I also wanted to relate a more recent experience of mine that tied in with the theme of the talk. I like to end my talks with something akin to a benediction.
The results? See the video here. Fair warning: You will indeed see a room full of people dancing to music from Saturday Night Fever!

The best part—I could feed off their energy, all of them. This included the young woman sitting moist-eyed near the windows when I spoke of the endeavor to please God; the dark-haired beauty who blew kisses to me as she boogied down the aisle to the front of the room. She later told me she was a dancer who was the first to bring dance into that space nearly 50 years ago despite the fear and consternation of her fellow parishioners. There was the man in the wheelchair who nodded appreciatively when I spoke of holding a melting snowball and the healing scent of chocolate chip cookies baking.

Is the spoken version of my essay better than the written one? If I had to do it all again would I rewrite the essay to be more like my talk? No.  

In the written rendering I was able to tell more stories in more detail. I was also able to take the readers with me on a journey as my thought process expanded before them. The spoken version worked well in a live room, but it would look a little flat on the page, like something was missing. After reading it, you might feel you’d eaten an appetizer but not an entrée.

This doesn’t mean you have to edit your essays every time you do a reading. In fact, I like reading my work. You can view a straight reading of my Ruminate post “For Roxane Gay: Notes From a Forgiving Heart” here. But I do encourage you to recognize when there’s an opportunity to do something more and go for it.

If you fear reading your work, as many writers do, I offer this challenge: think of all the energy you put into your writing. Now think of reading it as your chance to get that energy back for yourself and for the audience and have it expand forever outward. With this precious alchemy your writing can be reborn.

Think of all this and remember: now is the time to dance.





Sophfronia Scott is author of the novels All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press) and Unforgivable Love (William Morrow) and the essay collection Love's Long Line (The Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books). Sophfronia holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing, fiction and creative nonfiction, from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Currently she is working on her next novel as well as a nonfiction book about her virtual mentorship with the monk Thomas Merton. Her website is

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