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I finally did it. Last Friday, at Book Passage in the ferry building, I, along with a dozen other recent students of the San Francisco Writers Grotto, stood in front of a podium to read three minutes of new work produced from our classes. (Earlier this summer, I’d taken, How to (Profoundly) Move Your Readers: The Craft of Developing Dramatic Emotions, a graduate-level writing class taught by Junse Kim, a former MFA professor of mine.)  I read from the latest story in my short story collection. My voice shook and broke, although later I was told it wasn’t noticeable. The audience was utterly quiet. I was aware of the paper rustling in my hands, the shifting of my weight from one foot to the other, and my voice clearing before a particular set of word acrobatics. I’d look up, surprised to find I hadn’t lost their attention. No one was looking at a smart phone, or staring out the window or leafing through a book. The audience stayed with me all the way, and I even think they would’ve stuck with me if I’d read more.

I’m still amazed that I didn’t canceled out at the last minute. I really wanted to. Getting up in front of an audience is high on my least-favorite-things-to-do list. But I realized the Writers Grotto’s Three-Minute Reads would be good practice for a longer reading that I’ll be doing during Litcrawl in October (more on that soon!).

One thing about reading aloud, it adds another dimension to your writing process. There’s certainly an art to it. A good reading by an author can compel me to buy the book right there and then. It’s an important skill for a writer develop, not just for promoting your work, but also in revising. Reading aloud can help you identify grammatical errors or awkward phrasing, and it can help you hone in on areas that need further development, such as voice, diction, language. In his article, How to Read Out Loud, travel writer, Josh Washington states that “reading out loud can imbue the text with the music of the human voice, creating an ancient communion between storyteller and listener.” He also has some helpful tips on reading and public speaking.

I’ve had a few opportunities to read in the past, including my graduate reading, which I passed on. Back then, I didn’t think my stories were ready for primetime, which no longer seems a valid reason now, since I just read from “The Vanity Set,” a new story that I’m still in the process of revising. Three minutes sounds short, but for me, it was a terrifying three minutes. I’ve taken speech classes and even joined Toastmasters for a time, but I’ve never been able to shake my fear of public speaking completely. As I stood up there, I imagined channeling a dear friend of mine, Chet Holmes, who recently passed away. Public speaking came naturally for him. Whether it was a hundred or a thousand people in the audience, he could make you feel that what he saying was important, interesting and special.

Chet was my spiritual older brother; a kindred soul. He’d written a book and articles on sales and marketing, and had a successful, thriving business. He lived all those maxims: he loved life and lived it to the fullest; he worked hard and played hard.

I knew a more personal, creative side of Chet, and I’ll miss our conversations on life, writing and pursuing our dreams. He had written several scripts; one became a play (musical) he produced last year,which he hoped to do again for the big screen.

The thing is, none of it came easy for him. None of his business or creative accomplishments simply fell into his lap. He wasn’t  so much lucky as he was persistent and determined. (In his business, he talked and wrote about his process, referring to “PHD” or “pig-headed determination.”) Either by his example or his advice, below are principles I learned from Chet that I now apply to my creative life:

  1. Pursue your dreams; even if it requires you at times to get out of your comfort zone.
  2.  If the road isn’t there, pave your own way if necessary.
  3.  Challenge the status quo; create something that’s never been done before or take something old and remake it into something entirely new.
  4.  Don’t take no for an answer; use rejections to improve your work and hone your skills.
  5.  Understand the business side of your art and pay attention to the details.
  6.  Stay positive, keeping in mind that being positive isn’t just about thinking positive; it’s about positive action. Take action, no matter how small, which will move you closer to achieving your creative goals.
  7. Live and create with integrity

What have you done in your creative life that forced you out of your comfort zone? How did you get through it and how did you feel after? What helps you continue to pursue your dreams despite the rejections? What are some positive actions you are doing now to help you achieve your creative goals?

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