By Jill Hartmann
“What’s a ‘Read-In’?”
Newcomers to our monthly Athens Writers Association social gatherings often ask this question when our president and founder, Katherine Cerulean, mentions that I host monthly “Read-Ins” at Barnes and Noble Cafe in Athens, Georgia.
Katherine asked me to write this guest blog post for the website – feel free to contact me if you are interested in experiencing a “Read-In” with us. Please email me through my website, jillhartmanneditor.com, or contact Katherine at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Read-In” is a term that I coined in October 2015, as a spin-off to the “Write-Ins” that Katherine started with the AWA from the beginning.
(Katherine currently hosts a weekly “Wild Wednesday Write-In at Jittery Joe’s on Epps Bridge Parkway from 2-4 pm every week for those of you who, like me, thrive on writing with other authors. Let’s be honest – there’s power – and inspiration – in working together).
Back in the “old days” (circa 2013-2014), the Athens Writers Association held our meetings, events, and most of our public readings at The Coffee Shop of Athens (sadly, they closed for business in November 2014). It was the perfect venue for “write-ins,” our workshops (they had a private meeting room upstairs), critique groups, guest speakers (e.g. Philip Lee Williams, Bobby Nash, Lacey Wolfe, and other local authors), and best of all, performing public readings in front of a live audience.
(We also performed in a few other Athens venues in 2013-14, including The Globe, UGA and Cine, but The Coffee Shop of Athens was our “home base.” ).
Luckily, we have found a new home for our public readings at the fabulous Normal Books on Prince Avenue. Although we hosted a successful reading for our anthology, Laughin’ in Athens at the Athens-Clarke County Library in September 2016, and we are grateful for the ACC library’s ongoing support of our organization, we are thrilled to have formed a new partnership with this local gem in Athens).
However – there was a void, so to speak, in our programming, after The Coffee Shop of Athens closed. Throughout 2015, I remember missing reading in front of the live audience – it is important to be able to bring our writing to life by reading it aloud, in voice and character, for there is a difference in hearing the words performed that makes the stories and poems come alive, in a way that reading it on a piece of paper alone cannot compare to.
Breathing life into the words we write has its own power – not only to entice people to want to read more of our work, but to teach us how to become the best public speakers and self-promoters we can be. All of us, if we’re lucky, will one day be standing at a podium in front of a large group in a bookstore, at a book fair, on a stage…telling a crowd of strangers about ourselves, as writers, and about our amazing book that we want them to buy (otherwise known as the book tour).
I wanted to bring that back to the Athens Writers Association. I missed it, and many people asked us, “When are you guys going to do another public reading?”
For a while, we didn’t have an answer. Until, I came up with the idea of a “Read-In.”
We had our first “Read-In” at Jittery Joe’s, but it didn’t take long to find a permanent home at Barnes and Noble Cafe. As I’ve always told people, what could be more inspiring than reading our stories and poems in a bookstore?
I never expected the “Read-Ins” to become as popular as they have. (We recently celebrated our 3-year anniversary). Katherine tells me that she frequently hears people rave about the “Read-Ins” – how much fun they are having, how positive of an experience it is, and how good it feels to get support from their peers when they read. I hear some people are even getting over their fears of reading in public. All the things I hoped for when I came up with the idea. I am so glad that people keep coming back, and for me, personally, I look forward to it every month.
We have a handful of regular participants, and we always welcome new people – I keep it light and positive and upbeat and informal (people can come late and leave early), we keep the meetings to 2 hours, we always meet on a Thursday night, and best of all, if people do not bring something to read to the group, we are happy to have them participate by listening and giving feedback (which also is not required, but in 3 years, I’ve only had one author tell us she did not want feedback. Most of our writers come to hear both the accolades and the constructive suggestions from their peers).
We do have a few guidelines to keep the “Read-Ins” running smoothly: 20 minutes per person, for reading and feedback, no cell phones at the meeting (not at the table, that is), treat people with respect – i.e. when you give feedback, be honest, but be encouraging and helpful, not derogatory – which is not a problem. Our writers are the most supportive group of people you could hope to read for – or so I’m told by many of our participants.
Because we read in an open cafe in a bookstore where children are sometimes present, unfortunately, we have to keep our material “PG-13,” but it’s a small sacrifice in order to be able to come to Barnes and Noble every month. They are very accommodating and supportive of our group’s monthly gatherings.
You might ask, what is it specifically about a “Read-In” that makes it so special?
Well, I will tell you that you might hear a different answer depending on whom you ask.
For me, it’s a toss-up between the people who come and their amazing writing – which, let’s face it, go hand in hand.
There have been so many incredible people who have been part of the “Read-Ins” and their writing has never ceased to impress and entertain me, but here are a few of my memories that have made our AWA “Read-Ins” so unique and meaningful:
One of our veterans, Jay, is a “renaissance” writer: he writes in a unique voice that showcases his talent for humor, dialogue, character and creativity. He writes science fiction, scary stories, memoirs, travel essays, fiction (one of his short stories was published in a literary journal), humorous anecdotes about his personal adventures…he’s done it all. Everyone loves his writing – he always entertains us, and he also is very helpful and encouraging to others – whether they be other veterans or brand new to the group.
An editing client of mine, Eric, works full time, and began writing in his spare time a while back. He has his own website, wrote a book of Christmas stories, and has been working on another science fiction/adventure book that is fantastic. But, he had not read any of his writing in front of other people and was not sure, at first, if he felt comfortable doing so. (Often we writers feel shy about public speaking, that’s one reason we express our thoughts in writing instead). When Eric first came, he waited for everyone else to read first before deciding if he wanted to read his own writing. From what I recall, his impression of the others’ positivity and moral support inspired him to get his feet wet and take a chance on reading his own prose. He told me afterward that it was such a positive experience for him, that it eliminated his fears of reading aloud, and he was eager to come back again. I was touched that we made his first try at a public reading such a great experience for him – and – that it made him want to come back for more!
Two of our regular participants, Chris and Sharon, often bring their poetry (Sharon also writes prose). Their poems are honest, raw, lyrical and have moved me, deeply, as well as doing so for many others. I appreciate that they trust our group to be a place of safety and appreciation for their very personal and beautiful poems. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, no doubt, but I do not take for granted that they both are open to sharing their poems aloud, with us, publicly, nonetheless.
My colleague and co-founder, Elsa, has shared many excerpts from books she has written, or is writing, and her voice is powerfully unique and strong and creative. She creates complex characters with humor and fire who make you think. My favorite, so far, is “Connie.” Elsa laughs whenever I bug her, “When are you going to read us another chapter about ‘Connie?’” It’s almost like a private joke between the two of us now (she has read two or three chapters from the book, which may be a series, I’m not sure), but I get a rise out of her every time I bring up “Connie.” It’s fun, but seriously, we all have found “Connie” to be brash and funny, and the story is a shocker at times, but in the best way!
A few months ago, one of our newer members brought her 11-year old granddaughter, Ella, to read (Yes, young writers are always welcome!) and being a former teacher, I took special delight in hearing her read her poem about her horse. Ella has a gift, and a voice that is pure and authentic, as most young writers do, before the world of publishers and editors, and school, period, for that matter, edits it for them. That experience took me back to my days as a teacher. I often don’t think about how much I miss teaching, and especially, how much I miss working with the kids – it is a labor of love that is truly worth it.
We host writers that come a few times, and then life happens, and we don’t see them again. They have enriched our “Read-Ins” as much as the regulars and I treasure all the prose and poetry they have graced us with over the years.
One of my favorites was Jamie. He came a couple of times to read from his fan fiction, based on the movie, “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Oh my gosh! Jamie’s dialogue was mind-blowing! I didn’t see the film, but I felt as if I walked right into the middle of it. (Fan fiction is a genre where people take the characters from a favorite book or TV series or movie and create new plots to continue where the original piece left off. It’s very popular with the Twilight and Harry Potter books). We were all struck by the powerful scenes that Jamie wrote, and by his fearless performance. I’ve seen Jamie at the ACC library a couple of times and I hope he will come back someday.
That’s just a taste of what we do at “Read-Ins,” and why they are so important to our writers in the AWA (or so I’m told:) I hope that we continue to welcome new writers, new readers, fresh voices, and their fiction, essays, non-fiction and poetry for years to come. We’ve been going strong so far, and I am so happy that the monthly “Read-Ins” have become such an integral part of the Athens Writers Association’s mission to bring writers together in a circle of mutual support and professional growth through collaboration, cooperation and camaraderie.