Writing as a Performance Art

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the concept of oral storytelling.

About a month or two ago, a friend sent me a link to some spoken word poetry.  It was fantastic.  The words themselves were beautiful, but the passion and skill of the performers made it better.  Around the same time, I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Worldbuilders readings of Jabberwocky and Green Eggs and Ham.  Anyone can read those stories, but he took it out of monotonous rhythm and made it interesting.  Plus, the accent.  Then I started on epic poetry.

If you’re at a party and they start passing around the Homer, just say no.

Last week, I found myself with the smudgy draft of a short epic poem, at nearly midnight.  It’s the short story equivalent of a real epic poem, and considering the inherent structure I’ve dissected and essayed upon since then, it’s doesn’t quite fall into all the parameters of epic poetry— but it has the basics.  I wrote a short poem in unrhymed blank verse, set in my current storyworld, about a mythic hero’s last sacrifice.  No, it doesn’t invoke the Muse.  No, it doesn’t begin in medias res.  Unfortunately, I skimped on both allegory and epic simile, because I haven’t created enough of this world to be that academic, and I still had a bit of a purple prose filter on.  But still, I consider it epic.

Probably the biggest reason is this: it’s written to be performed.

They say Homer was most likely illiterate, speaking his poems and embellishing them each time he did.  Eventually they were written down.  Did he write them down?  Did he actually create the stories, or even perfect them?  We know almost nothing about Homer.  He just happens to be the author of two of the greatest epic poems in history.  But those stories weren’t meant to be read.  They were meant to be heard, to be performed.  That’s what appeals to me about epic poetry.

As I come to think of it, this isn’t a recent obsession.  I used to listen to Brian Jacques perform his own audiobooks.  All his books are written in his unique voice, and after hearing him speak you can imagine him reading any of his books— but his audiobooks in particular are spectacular.  He and a cast read all the voices, he narrates, and the group of them perform each of the myriad songs included in each book.  When I was a kid, even before I wanted to be a writer, I remember wanting to perform stories like that.

But what is it about oral storytelling that appeals to me so much?  What’s the difference between writing for publication and writing for speaking?

I’m not exactly sure yet.  All I know is that I tend to find writing for speaking easier than writing for publication.  I write blog posts as if I’m speaking, rarely if ever going back to edit a post I’ve written.  I write things down as I think of them, as if once they’re out of my fingers they’re unchangeable as sound.  I write conversationally.  And I know the words aren’t quite perfect, and the grammar could be improved (the ‘and’ beginning this sentence, for instance, could be adjusted, and if I were really proper I wouldn’t be using these parentheses, and contractions would be taboo for a more academic style), but I like it this way.  I get to write as though I’m speaking, but with the chance to backspace if I start saying the wrong word, or rearrange a sentence without anyone noticing the long pause as I try to figure out how to say it.  It’s a hybrid of oral and written that I enjoy.

And yet, increasing alarmingly over the past few months, the moment I try to write fiction, I freeze up.  I try to write things perfectly the first time, as if I don’t get to go back and edit (probably because I’m afraid of editing, frankly, after some rather heinous mistakes I’ve made in second drafts).  It’s almost too much of a performance art for me, when I try to write fiction, when I feel like I’d rather have everything be a performance art.

Because here I am, improvising on piano and sketching out comics and one-drafting short epic poetry for fun.  I adore creation, and I adore making it a performance.  I want to have an audience for what I do.  (I’ve posted about that recently.)  I love taking something and making more out of it every time I reuse it.  I love performance art.

So… what happens?  When I write, I prefer to one-draft everything.  I’m given two entire weeks to write a 750-word essay for a literature class— I write it in an hour, often just before the deadline, and give it maybe a grammar read-through before handing it in.  Fault?  Probably.  I write a short story and publish it within 24 hours because I don’t like to edit those either.  But with novels…  They’re so big, and so complicated, and no first draft is ever perfect— so I’m scared of it, and I try to write a perfect first draft with everything I know crammed into my fingers, and it never works.  It’s exactly because first drafts are supposed to be bad that I can’t allow myself to write a bad first draft.

I think the word one uses in such a situation is Gah.

I need to get back to a place where I can practice freely.  I need to get back to a place where I can write what I think, instead of thinking hard before I write a word.  Yes, there’s a time for thinking hard about your words.  It just doesn’t work now.  Should I edit a past novel while I work my way back into the swing of things?  No, I don’t think I can.  I’ve obsessed a little too much recently.

So I’ll work on it.  This took quite a turn from the topic of oral storytelling, although I do think there are some interesting things one can learn from that style.  We’ll see how things go a little down the road.


40 thoughts on “Writing as a Performance Art

  1. Have you checked out themoth.org? I enjoy listening to their performances on NPR, but they are also available as podcasts, and they are based in NYC.

  2. Here’s a crazy suggestion coming from a crazy person (but a friend, so it’s well intentioned): Lock your internal editor in a metaphorical closet. When you find yourself freezing up because what you’re writing isn’t perfect, imagine locking your internal editor in a closet for the rest of your writing session. And when you’re done writing, let him out.
    I sound insane…
    Another crazy suggestion is write something that you don’t have to worry about getting perfect.
    A third crazy suggestion is remember that, honestly, no story is perfect. No story has to be perfect. And no author is perfect. We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
    I think… I think it’s better to be okay with a few mistakes than to make oneself insane from trying to be perfect. I have the feeling that if, in 15 years, I pick up a book I wrote in a bookstore, I would still find mistakes.
    Think about all your favorite books. I bet not one of them is perfect. You’ve found problems in books by Brandon Sanderson and by Brian Jacques. But they are still among your favorites.
    I’m not saying don’t do your best. I’m not saying don’t strive for perfection, even. I’m saying don’t stress about it.
    Also, and this just occurred to me (and I realize you will probably protest it), maybe this story isn’t ready to be written. Which sounds really weird, but it’s not unheard of. I think Brandon Sanderson had trouble with this. When he was writing Mistborn. He wrote the part about the failed quest to save the world more than once before he finally combined it with the heist element.
    I had better finish up this comment.

    I’m not sure what to say about performance art… okay, comment is over. Hope it helps. If you want to talk or rant or scream about the annoyances of writing or editing, you know my email address. I’ll listen. And encourage. And maybe scream with you (I’ll be editing soon enough…)

    1. Believe me, I spent a couple days before you wrote this stewing about how I was good enough not to be bogged down with perfectionism in a first draft. Then I spent a few days after reading this in the same mindset. But I’m not nearly as perfect as this blog makes me look, nor as I think of myself in terms of this blog. So yes, this has been a hard lesson to learn— thanks for yelling at me.

  3. I’m seconding Robyn, and adding a quote of…John Green’s, I think: “Give yourself permission to suck.” Everything Robyn said is great advice. And I’ll add my name to the “email in case of editing emergency for screaming and encouragement” list.

    As for oral story telling…I might have an interesting recommendation. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale. Not sure you’re at all interested in getting recommendations, but if you are, you might give it a shot. It’s weird and hilarious and morbid and weird. Imagine Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton partnering up to write about Area 51’s local radio show. It’s hardly poetry, but it’s fun. Basicslly I’m fishing for more Night Vale fans because I know very few…

    1. Also, I had an idea. You said you like writing for an audience. What if you had an alpha reader you could send things to as you wrote the story, and who only gave positive feedback so you wouldn’t get worried about fixing things? Would that help or make things harder?

      1. I’ve thought about it, and it might be a good idea— or I might be too much of a pantser to make it work. But I could always try, and we’d figure it out then.

        Would you like to be that person? I’ve got about 8k of a new draft that I wouldn’t mind having an alpha. If you’re too busy though, say no. I don’t mind, and I wouldn’t want to impose.

      2. Ooh, I’d love to be an alpha. I’ve been wanting to read Tattle to the Dustman since I read the NaNo description in November.

        Now, I will be too busy for the next two weeks. Midterms are at the end of next week, but one of my classes is only half a semester long, and thus ends next week. Starting March 6, I’m down to two classes, and so will have more free time. I’m planning on celebrating the end of midterms by spending that weekend reading and writing.

      1. You’re welcome.

        Start with the pilot, appropriately called Pilot. It sets things up nicely and introduces some of the major characters. Like I was telling Robyn, who just started listening to it, the first year’s worth of episodes feel kind of like a bunch of short stories, but they drop little hints and clues that build up to the big first and second anniversary episodes. You could probably listen to them out of order, but you’d miss some of the set up and running jokes. There are a lot of running jokes.

  4. Liam…about all I can say here is I understand. I think this may be very nearly head-on the problem I’ve been having with writing lately. It all feels like too much pressure, and every single bit of it is from myself, from everything I’ve learned and feel so inept at applying. I know too much about plot–I stress about it, and get stuck trying to figure out what to do with it. You’re right. I need to stop worrying about whether or not I’m properly executing every single thing I’ve ever learned about writing. Robyn’s right, even our favorite books have problems. And I ought to do a little more working on learning by doing rather than by reason something.

    So, yes. I understand. I’m in the middle of this, too. And I third the whole email thing.

    We’ll work on it, right? We can do it.

  5. Gah. My favorite word of all time. And I notice spell-check isn’t underlining it…hmm. Also, fiddlesticks. That’s a good word, too.

    Thinking about it, I’m pretty sure I’m in the exact opposite problem, but that’s all irrelevant, so I won’t mention it. Except I already did. Wait, except for what you were saying about writing conversationally. I do that, too, though I am more lax in my speaking than my writing. Like for example, I will say “dunno”, but I will almost never put that into my writing, unless it particularly fits a character’s way of speaking. I’m notorious for starting sentences with the word “and” or “but”, though, hehe… Oh, and I never put “hehe” into my writing.

    Anyway, I’m apparently late to the party, so really, I don’t have any advice to give or anything, except that I second Robyn’s comment. And if I’m the third person to second it, then does that mean I… No, never mind.

  6. I think every writer goes through a stage where they have a sudden urge to write epic poetry, really. (I started an epic poem about a young woman who went to find the sun for one of my story worlds. It was Beowulf-styled and under-ambitious. *sigh*)

      1. Okay! 😀 But I’m eliminating the part that smacks of influence by “Brave.” Sorry, Disney, but I have more epic things to attend to, such as Horatio Hornblower.

      2. I’m going to quote Brave in my graduation speech, I think. And then deliberately fall off the podium, just to show what I really think of it.
        (College graduation, not high school graduation.)

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