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Reading my writing to strangers helped me find my voice

Words by Gaynor Jones

‘Well I’m never doing that again.’ Ah, famous last words after my shaky spoken word debut a mere 13 months ago.

But since then I’ve performed multiple times and have really come to enjoy it as part of my overall writing process. So what happened to turn me into such a champion of spoken word events?

Quite simply, I realised that performing my writing made it better.

Firstly, it has added another voice to my work. My print work tends to be a bit stark and sinister, but I’ve often found myself writing much more comic and layered work for performances.

And this has in turn influenced my writing generally. I’ve realised that the voice I use when performing is the voice I want to use in all my writing – namely Northern, a bit lighter and certainly a lot funnier.

At an open mic night, you get instant feedback, and this has helped me see what’s missing. That piece you thought was hilarious? If you read it to a stoic audience and they remain unmoved, it’s clearly not quite working.

Sometimes the audience seems puzzled – as when I read a story about Hillsborough recently without directly referencing the event. I had to explain the story once I’d finished my reading and was faced with a room of confused expressions. The story was fine, but clearly part of the narrative needed to be more obvious.

This lends itself to another aspect of how speaking my work has improved it: it has made me a better editor. Sometimes, when I read a piece out loud, I stumble on certain words.

That may be because they sound clunky, or they don’t quite match the tone of the rest of the piece. On one occasion, with a story about grooming gangs, it was the content itself that I stumbled on. Before sending it out on submission, I was sure to give it a heavy edit.

It’s allowed me to take more risks. Unlike print or online publications, there’s no record of what you say at a spoken word night so it can be much more freeing.

I tend to swear quite a lot or be a bit ruder when I’m performing. In fact, my very rude story The Thing Between Your Legs received such a rapturous response at my local spoken word night that it gave me the push to enter it into a competition, where it won.

To this end, performing my writing has increased my confidence. I am definitely a nervous writer, plagued with self doubt and imposter syndrome as soon as I hit the submit button on a competition or submission. And yet I have been able to stand up and read my own words to a variety of audiences (albeit with very shaky legs throughout).

If I’m ever feeling that writing is impossible and I just can’t do it, I look at photos of me performing and tell myself – come on, if you can do that, you can do anything!

It’s led me to a network of supportive, local writers. Writing is so often a solitary pursuit. I do sometimes go to writing workshops or events but they can be quite formal, or you can feel like you’re being assessed.

Spoken word events are a much more chilled atmosphere and you tend to see the same faces in the audience, if not on the stage. I’ve met some lovely people at spoken word events with whom I have since swapped work for edit suggestions.

If you think that you might like to have a go, practice, but don’t over rehearse – it’s fine to to read from paper or a device. Don’t worry if it doesn’t get the response you wanted, either: different audiences react differently.

Finally, squeeze your toes together to stop your legs from shaking.

Read more of Gaynor's work here and follow her on Twitter here.

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