At the end of each semester, my undergraduate creative writing courses would vote on which classmate should read from their work at the celebratory gathering for the program. Always, I voted for myself. Suffice to say I never won, but I always kept alive the dream of reading my prose to a capitvated audience.
My first public reading was held after I graduated from Princeton University: The riverSedge volume 28 launch party at UTRGV. My short story, "Seventh Man," had co-won the Prose Prize, and as the story of the pack of cross country runners floated through the room, I felt elevated. Reading my story meant more to me than merely sharing a story out-loud; I felt as if I had taken my art to the next level in a meaningful way.
With the publication of The River Runs and El Curso de la Raza earlier this year, I have hosted more book readings. Each one has further developed that sensation I felt at UTRGV and affirmed my undergraduate desires to read in public.
As an English major, my job was to read hundreds of pages a week and synthesize my analyses into verbal thoughts in seminars and written arguments in essays. It was the best job I will ever have. What I gained from four years of immersing myself in literature and the arts went beyond the standard, "I expanded my worldview" or "I learned how to appreciate diverse cultures."
Deep reading enhanced my life. I have written on Princeton healing me, and I attribute that primarily to my daily, hours-long adventures leaping from page to page, book to book. Hyper-focused on stories illuminating human nature and complex societal ills, I detached myself from ruminating thoughts. I learned how to focus. I slowed down. I discovered joy in between the paragraphs and serendipity before I reached the back cover.
Research on deep reading is ever-expanding, but perhaps one of its most relevant benefits is its ability to reclaim our attention. In the 21st-century attention economy, we must reckon with our attention becoming a scarce resource that we must protect from the very society we participate in. When we hone our mind's spotlight on the story before us, we choose to think outside of ourselves and consider other experiences and perspectives. We are actually becoming more human.
When I arrive at a book reading, I am self-aware I am not focused. I am thinking about many different things, from the event's logistics to the technology. Almost always, I slip into my entrepreneurial mindset and discuss sales details with the staff, and then I activate the educator within as I assess the seating arrangement. However, when I begin reading, it all changes.
I am transported to the worlds of my own creation, navigating the scenes flowing into one another, the characters walking alongside me. Articulating every single word redirects my attention to the unit of each sentence, and intonating my voice across my sentences forces me to consider their relationship to one another.
Occasionally lifting my gaze, I see audience members listening, dedicating their mental energy to following the story. It's then that I remember why we read in public in the first place: Art's practicality is community building.
We all carry identities within us that dictate how we consider ourselves, how we act in front of others, and how we participate in our communities. However, I cannot think of a more powerful way of connecting to others than immersing and discovering ourselves through a shared story.
When I take the stage, I reflect briefly on the various life paths that have led these curious readers to attend this specific book reading. I realize by joining together as participants in this intimate experience, if but for one hour, we have the potential to leave this place more whole than before.
Deep reading and deep listening are both restorative and transformative, and if my book readings can offer audience members a brief foray into that world, then I will happily continue for as long as I can.