Performing is always tough for writers. I mean, we’re not typically stage-trained theatre experts amped up on auditory performance steroids when reading our prose. The reality is, most writers are just average Joes like me. We stumble, stutter, are monotone, and really are quite boring when we get up in front of people and open our mouths. I don’t know why this is, and have been guilty of it for years. I’ve droned on like a pontificating robot. I’ve blathered, buzzed, and really was in need of a good oiling of my vocal joints.

Within the last year or so I started to transform my approach to readings. In fact, I’ve been watching two guys for several years now whom I consider reading performance mentors. One is TNB’s own Rich Ferguson (Watch Rich perform with my son Landen Belardes). I have carefully watched Rich’s often-aggressive delivery, his command of the stage, and the booming confidence in his voice. Doesn’t matter that it’s spoken word poetry. His work is often narrative anyway. Imagine him reading excerpts from a novel. I’d be in a trance.

That’s the spirit I want to capture.

Another reading performance mentor is author Tim (TZ) Hernandez of “Breathing In, Dust.” He’s from a little town in the Central Valley near where I live in Bakersfield, Calif. I’ve seen TZ wow an entire auditorium packed with teachers, musicians and vatos. He can memorize long poems, and read with the gusto of a gang thug, screaming to his homies. I so dig it. He can transform into any character, and read so passionately and so forcefully, and dare I say vivaciously, that you just might fall off your chair while listening. (Watch TZ tear it up from his forthcoming novel “Surge” while he’s just sitting around).

All writers can learn from Rich and TZ, whose poet hearts resonate something special from the core of their souls. They pull from an inner place that believes in characters, not just words. In fact, they transform into characters.

Yes. That’s what I want to accomplish as a performer of prose. I want my words to soar into hearts, not just minds. I want to transcend any venue, take listeners into the depth of a story, into the very believable world we writers have the talent, hearts and minds to create.

I want to become my characters.

Slowly I’m doing that. It takes confidence, lots of practice, and an eager heart to want to touch reader’s souls. I often use my kid Landen to accompany me. I’m lucky to have a guitarist in my family who can soothe the savage beast with just some licks on the strings. And he never gets stage fright, which is difficult for a guy like me who grew up shy to understand. Yes, I’m jealous of my own kid (and his brother too who can bust out his violin in front of any crowd and not break a sweat).

Now watch me perform chapter one from my novel Anhinga at a bar in downtown Bakersfield. You might love it. You might not. Either way, blame Rich and TZ for my slow transformation into a performer of prose, rather than just a reader.

You can also click on the below image to view the video.

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NICK BELARDES is illustrator of NYT Best-Selling Novel by Jonathan Evison West of Here (2011), author of Random Obsessions (2009), Lords (2005), and the first literary Twitter novel: Small Places (2010). An author, poet, and screenwriter for Hectic Films, Belardes turned TV/online journalist overnight after blogging his way to success. His articles and essays have appeared on the homepage of CNN.com and other news sites across America. You can find Nick on Facebook and Twitter.

75 responses to “Some Thoughts on Performing Prose”

  1. And here *you* are, Nick! Now it’s a party!

    It’s been awhile since I’ve had to read anything in public, but when I did I always made sure I selected something humorous because if I read anything else in my quiet little voice people would fall asleep. I know my niche — my niche is goofiness.

    You, sir, however have made a fine public-speaking transformation. I can see you conjuring that phenomenal sense of rhythm Rich has. And, wow, I’ve said it before, but your son is super-duper-talented like his pops 😉

  2. Thanks Cynthia. Goofy is good. I’m normally wired on huge doses of self goofiness. You have a way of making goofy look pretty and endearing though. Great talent.

    I was talking to Erika Rae recently and said I needed to get my tail back over here. This isn’t really a homerun kind of storytelling post. But I thought it would be a good encouraging post for those who need read in public and like me, don’t know what they’re doing. I figure if I can transform my prose into spoken word, then anyone can. TZ and Rich are phenomenal.

    Landen was asked to play a song after we performed. He was awesome as usual. Jordan was there kicking himself that he didn’t have his violin with him. I hope to perform with both kids one day. Hasn’t happened yet. 🙁

  3. Connie says:

    Nick,
    Your cadence made me hear the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire as you read.
    Good job.

    • Thanks Connie. I felt like a linguistic pistola recently. But that was after I crashed my bike and started cursing at the gash on my leg. hahaha… Thank you for your sweetness.

  4. Matt says:

    I was also a very shy kid, and I get performance anxiety of the worst sort whenever I’m called upon to speak in public. Even competing in a karate tournament, which I’ve done hundreds of times. Public readings? Open mics? Get outta town.

    Then I took an intro to acting class during my undergraduate studies, mostly because I wanted to get a better feel for how spoken dialog should sound, so I could then bring that into my writing. While I wasn’t aware of it, that class was also giving me a few tools (and practice!) to deal with the insecurites I felt about my speaking voice, my presentation, etc. While I still do get the butterflies, once I’m up in front of the mic I’m usually fine.

    …though the rehearsals before hand may have something to do with that, too.

    • Oh man, I have to have some intense practice time usually, though three times now I have been asked to either perform or give a speech on the fly. Drives my stomach crazy. Acting in a friend’s film was super difficult. I’d never done that before.

      I think having these unofficial mentors has really helped me in the same way as acting classes. So has teaching. It’s getting in front of people. That has helped tremendously.

      I always got the butterflies in hockey games. Until the puck dropped. Then I was fine.

  5. Connie says:

    apparently I have forgotten what email addy to use as I have no avatar.. sigh.
    I need to be present at your next reading, do you do readings early in the evenings for old folks who go to bed when the sun goes down?

    • I’m going to be doing some readings associated with a poetry workshop I’ll be teaching at CSU Bakersfield June through August. I’m planning two events that feature Bakersfield, Fresno and L.A. peeps. So stay tuned to my Facebook and Twitter.

  6. Connie says:

    Just rattle my cage to remind me, I get so engrossed in my genealogy research I forget all about the living.

  7. Connie says:

    so much interesting stuff I couldn’t begin to tell. I am awaiting communication from the Southern Cherokee Kentucky tribe, see if I get my membership card like my cousins have.. fingers crossed.

    • Oh I am sure you will get it. I mean, you look just like a native princess.

      Looking forward to hearing more about your family. Turn it into poetry! I’m teaching a poetry class this summer!

  8. gloria says:

    I watched that video last night and absolutely loved it. Not only because of the content, the soft cadence of the delivery, and the melodic background guitar, but because I love watching TNBers become three dimensional.

    Thanks for sharing all of this.

    • You’re so sweet. You’re one of my best Twitter pals too, you know. BTW, I cut out the part where I went streaking across the stage.

      Hopefully the next video will be better and more naked.

  9. James D. Irwin says:

    Weirdly I don’t think I’ve ever had that problem. I’m usually highly nervous just before reading my work anywhere, but once I start I really get into it.

    When we had to read from plays or novels in school I’d do voices etc and generally over perform things.

    Then again I suppose I write with a comic bent which lends itself to performance in a way more serious material might not. And I have an outrageously attention seeking streak that makes me want to provoke praise and admiration from whatever audience I have.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Actually, what is quite strange is that when I do stand up I tend to lose all that and speak in a low, soft voice nervously.

      Then again I’m better at this writing nonsense…

      • James, why do I have this feeling that when you’re in some smoky corner of London, that you’ve got the attention of everyone, especially the hot babes. BTW, can I take a public speaking class from you?? We haven’t talked in a while. How’s your novel and that Belardes character?

        • James D. Irwin says:

          Haha, it’s a nice thought but that rarely happens. I don’t spend much time in London actually…

          I would happily offer my services in exchange for flights, accommodation and, naturally, my fee…

          I am technically rewriting that novel, but I’ve only gone as far as the first chapter. I’ve been kept busy with the demands of university assignments and directing a play. It might take a long time to polish it, but it’s definitely something I want to keep going at. And I have thoroughly missed your namesake…

        • Hahaha, I always forget what town you’re in over there. That’s my fault for not remembering. Now, let me see where I kept that extra treasure chest…

          Directing a play? Wow! Did you write it?

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I did, at TNB 2.0, claim I was based in London. I lived an hour away by train, and the same is true of here really. In fact I’m closer than I used to be.

          I did write it. I’m also acting it, as the actor originally cast in the role has to return to America before the performance.

        • Is there a TNB post, a blog, a video a website, somewhere I can read/see something about your play? Would love to peer inward. Always so proud of you, kid. You’re always doing what I should have done at your age.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I don’t think I’ve really written about it for TNB. I started one a while back, but I’m holding out until I can write about it from conception to performance.

          There is a press release— which I also wrote— on the website for the festival where it is being performed. http://www.ejectorseat.co.uk/spokenword.html

          It’s about half way down the page, I beleive. The great thing about this festival is that I know about a quarter of the acts performing and a few of those got the gig directly from my invitation to the organizers to attend the comedy night I run.

          Thanks. I sometimes forget what a fortunate position I’m in, and I don’t always take the best advantage of it. I’m trying to focus and work harder from this point forward and accept my childhood is over…

        • My personal rule #1 in life: childhood is never over.

        • Which one is you? Dude, that looks fun!

        • James D. Irwin says:

          Mine is ‘Charlie Gheery’s Vanilla Life in Hell.’

          I agree with the sentiment, but at some point I need to stop watching sitcoms all day and write more frequently…

    • James, would it be OK if I just copy and paste your original comment? Because ditto. Word. Innit.

      Actually I have a lot more to say on the subject and I’d like to hear what Nick and everyone else thinks. I’ll be back later with a proper comment.

  10. Zara Potts says:

    I love the evolution of Nick Belardes!
    Long may it continue.

    • It’s really interesting and fun to see the evolution of all of us connected to TNB. I got a really sad email from a poet the other day who gave up on writing. He wrote: “It is difficult writing this but I must, regrettably, inform you I am opting out… In large part, due to some personal difficulties I and my family have experienced (and continue to), I’ve come to the realization I no longer have the will, that je ne sais quoi, the mojoe, whatever you want to call it, to write…”

      If there is one thing we writers at TNB who truly have the heart to do is not to give up, no matter what. And so we continue on, evolve, and who knows what the future holds.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Never give up. It’s writing that saved me.

        I love seeing what you are up to next, Nick. You always have such energy and enthusiasm and I love seeing what you are doing. Keep it up!

  11. Greg Olear says:

    N. L. Belardes 2.0. Love it!

    • Thank you, Greg. I used to write a Nick 2.0 blog at ABC. Now I’m writing a Nick 4.0 blog at Kern Radio. But in my own personal evolution I think you are more correct. I am somewhere between 1.8 and 2.5. I hope one day to get to version 7.0.

  12. Paula Austin says:

    …..Nick: you serve up one worthy platter…the words, the video, the presentation, your thoughts. “always,”
    leaves me going back for seconds. Should I beg for more?

    I am so looking forward to the naked release….

    one fan in waiting!
    paula

    • Paula, you just made me laugh. I really would perform naked, if only I didn’t have the body of a penguin missing half its feathers.

      No need to beg, I am going to continue to strive to perform better and better, as well as to beg for comments as I always do for my posts here at TNB.

      Were there any words in particular that struck you?

      • Paula Austin says:

        Nick: I hear it’s terribly fashionable for penguins to have laser feather removal. You could fit right in, while sporting the latest style. Combined with the talent I’m sure it would be a spectacular performance.

        I think you know the words that struck me, knocked me down, but only the heart that sees would know this….

        one penguin fan
        paula

        • “Laser feather removal” sounds really painful. I hope there’s anesthetics for that. I imagine each little pluck would feel like a toe getting pulled off. Ouch.

          Oh crud, you’re going to make me guess. Was it the last part? I’m guessing the last part.

          I’m probably wrong. Crud.

        • Paula Austin says:

          …ahhh, sweet Nicky, don’t play birdbrained. We both know you are too smart for that, even if you happen to claim to be a penguin. I’m not believing a word of it…

          Feel your heart Nicky, it’s ethereal longing, your heart has become that bird, searching through the sky….

          Believe me?

          one awestruck fan
          paula

        • Yeah. That part. Feel your heart. Wait until you read the end of the book. That scene has huge significance, and not just that scene, but those words.

          I am a penguin. Bad eating habits. Getting fat. Looking like a pear. But it’s ok as long as my pants still fit!

        • Paula Austin says:

          ….silly penguin!

          Feel your heart. I knew it. My kinda’ words. I love it…

          And you Nicky, please…don’t leave me in anticipation too long!

          one ravenous, “begging for more” fan
          paula

        • Well then. Keep praying for me to officially get an agent, and when I do that they sell my work. Then I can share with everyone! That’s the end goal anyway. I don’t pray much for myself. I usually reserve that for other people. You’re the only person I am asking cause I know you as a prayer warrior of sorts.

  13. Jessica Blau says:

    “I want to become my characters.” So great, Nick. I can’t wait to see you read one day!

  14. Wonderful piece, Nick. So inspiring. And thanks for the nod, my friend. Yes indeed, here’s to the strength, music and inspiration in all our voices. Even if we’re only reading words off a cereal box, let our voices be so strong and true that it sounds like we’re reading Proust.

    • You see, Rich? This is why I look up to your incredible performance abilities. I learn so much just from you busting out a tiny comment. I want to take your instructions and post them all over my home, as well as practice from cereal boxes.

  15. Jane says:

    I’ve seen you perform this piece a couple of times and each time it gets more powerful. Nick–you’re so unafraid to tackle all of these deep issues (dual ethnicity, history, family, religion) and you do it with so much humor and tenderness. My favorite part (besides the conversation with Uncle Alfonso) is the end where Paul “throws his arms out like Jesus on the cross” and sinks. Something about sinking, about submersion.

    It’s awesome to get to enjoy the beauty of the sound of words, which doesn’t get to happen a lot for writers. The peformance was definitely a full sensory experience (thanks to Landen too! I can’t wait until Jordan gets up there with you…).

    • I hope Jordan performs with me. He says he will only perform with Landen AND me, but not just me. Maybe I intimidate my own kid. lol. Not likely.

      On a side note, been having lots of great conversations lately with Jordan about my memoir. We are sharing memories that aren’t part of the storyline. It’s amazing what each other remember from the summer of 1996, when he was six years old and part of a counterculture adventure!

      With that said, I was just thinking today about how I can enrich the memoir with fattening up scenes that would transform well into performance material.

  16. Tom Hansen says:

    For some reason I’ve always been pretty good at reading in public. It does terrify the hell out of me but I have never had the usual issues you mention, reading too fast, monotone, etc, and I’m not sure why. Sometimes I practice reading as slow as I possibly can, like if the Melvins were an author. The big problem I DO have, and it’s one I have to figure out, as my forthcoming novel has a lot of it, is reading passages of dialogue, conversations between two characters–because I very much do become the character when reading, which is easy for me when I’m reading a memoir or a first person novel, but when I’m reading a third person novel that has different characters and as the reader have to become the voice of a female character say, I don’t know how to make that as compelling, or even if it’s possible. I may have to accept that readings for this book simply won’t be as gripping as the readings I did for American Junkie. But I don’t want to.

    • Tom, I bet you will do fine. Is there a video where I can see you perform? I would love to check it out and see if I can steal any of your techniques. I’m always trying to learn and grow as a reader.

  17. Jane says:

    What do you think makes great performance material?

    • Jane: Did you read what Rich wrote?

      “Even if we’re only reading words off a cereal box, let our voices be so strong and true that it sounds like we’re reading Proust.”

      Getting into that transformation of self is what’s needed. I tend to read too soft and delicate when I’m with the Random Writers Workshop. I know that’s not a performance. But seriously, I need to get into it more. The problem is that Russo’s Books isn’t a good place for that. Bakersfield needs venues and reading areas where people are not only paying attention to each other, but where people can feel comfortable enough to transform. Know what I mean?

      • Jane says:

        Yeah. That comment was great. I’ll have to practice every day at breakfast now!

        I agree with the Russo’s Books thing. You saw how much I had to censor my reading last week… They’re great to let us have a space, but it’s difficult to worry about putting off any of their customers. Doesn’t really allow for the kind of artistic freedom necessary to do great things.

        Someday it would be great to have something like The Nuyorican Poets Cafe (I found out that that just started in some professor’s living room originally). Now if I could only get my grandfather to will me his old mansion…

        • Ayn Rand’s group: living room. It happens. Eventually the workshop will be no more. I do it because I need the money and I enjoy serving the local community for now. Soon, I may get too busy for it. Your old mansion is so awesome.

  18. zoe zolbrod says:

    Gorgeous video, Nick. You’re offering a total experience.

    A couple times when reading from CURRENCY I had plan for something or other to liven things up. In my head, I was ready to go for a full on performance, all revved up. But when I got up there—no. gone. Especially in bookstores where the atmosphere is, well, bookish. Mostly I would end up feeling like I should shorten my selection and not impose upon the audience, even the most appreciative of which is going to start to squirm when there’s three or four people on the bill.

    Gina and I did a number of readings with Davis Schneiderman, who is a true showman. (Check him out if he’s ever around.) I can’t say I felt inspired to model him–it just seemed impossible. If anything, I felt more accepting of my own style–like no way, that is totally awesome and that is just not me, at least when reading my own work.

    • Thank you, Zoe. I appreciate that you recognize I’m attempting to give the reader/listener an immersive experience of sorts.

      I hear you about planning versus reality. There have been times I have practiced pieces in thick Chicano riffs, or even other accents: British/Southern. And then, like you said: gone. Especially when I am reading on the fly at the workshop here at a local bookstore. Doesn’t happen. I get all monotone and drony and fall back into what I feel is a trap.

      I’m going to look up Mr. Schneiderman. Maybe I can learn a few more tricks.

      I really loved when you and Gina came to town. You’re both top notch authors/readers and I can’t wait to one day chill with you both again.

  19. Richard Cox says:

    This is great, Nick. It’s interesting to see the way artists affect each other, whether emulating turns of phrase or personality or even a performance like this. It’s easy to hear Rich in your rhythm and cadence, and I’ll be curious to see how it evolves and you continue on this journey.

    Well done, man. Keep us posted.

    • Thanks Richard. I’m glad you can hear Rich in me. I sure hope he doesn’t mind. He’s got a great voice for rhythm. Confident rhythm at that. And I need more of it.

  20. Way to rock the mic, Mr. Belardes!

    I second what RC had to say – it’s great that there’s such a thing as learning from one another, and picking up traits we may have otherwise gone unaware of, especially as it doesn’t look to me as if it’s taken anything away from your own stylings.

    Good to see you on TNB again. You’ve been missed!

    • Thanks Simon. I’ve been trying to stay really busy. It’s nice to start writing less about Las Vegas and to take my creative nonfiction into other directions. I think I was caught in a rut. Either way, it’s been nice writing and reading poetry, emulating poets I love, and transferring that energy into more powerful prose reading.

  21. Erika Rae says:

    Nick is here! Woohoo! Off to watch you perform now.

  22. Erika Rae says:

    Nicely done, to the both of you! You should come to Colorado and perform this together (yes yes!).

  23. Joe Daly says:

    Way to rock it, Nick. Good confidence with a little of that Rich Ferguson swagger thrown in for good measure. Must be a blast to play up there with Landen.

    You’re so right about the conflict for many writers who can pull of passion and bravado in their words but who stumble when reading them in pulbic. Isn’t that why so many of us write, anyway- we’re introverts on a basic level- some more drastically so than others.

    Still, seeing an author breathe life into their words can be a rewarding experience all around. Well done and keep up the great work.

    • Ha, yes! “Rich Ferguson swaggar!” That’s exactly what it is.

      You know what, though? I really really really wish I had his memorization skills. That is amazing. How do people memorize? I can’t at all.

      God, bro, yes, introverts is what we are for sure. At least me anyway.

      And thank you for such nice words, Joe.

  24. Hey man, you’ve been woodshedding all this time! Way to bring the heavy stage presence. I think of it as devolving. Get rid of the encrusted attitude. You’ve gone into an inner Nick that doesn’t give a crap about how he’s perceived. Or at least gives less of one. And how excellent to be on stage with your son. Bring the Belardes tour up to Seattle and show the no-emotion grunge crowd how Bakersfield rolls.

  25. […] (accompanied by his son Landen on guitar) – and the audience talks. A lot. Here’s Nick’s piece, Some Thoughts on Performing Prose. Elsewhere on TNB, Matt Baldwin observes that there’s no shortage of cinemagoers quite happy to […]

  26. […] (accompanied by his son Landen on guitar) – and the audience talks. A lot. Here’s Nick’s piece, Some Thoughts on Performing Prose. Elsewhere on TNB, Matt Baldwin observes that there’s no shortage of cinemagoers quite happy to […]

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