I’m Melting: Thoughts on Reading Your Work in Public

By Jillian Avalon

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           I am not a nervous speaker. I believe it was Seinfeld who said that most funeral guests would prefer to be in the casket rather than give the eulogy. However, I never experienced the paralyzing fear of public speaking so many people suffer, as anyone who knows me will testify.

           I was a performative child, as most children begin and many children outgrow. I danced, sang, acted, and spoke without fear of my audience, no matter the size, age, or setting, and I could not identify with professional performers who admitted to vomiting before every show. What was there to fear?

           It took me twenty-six years to experience stage fright. I signed up for a Friday reading slot at my MFA residency. I selected a reading I felt good about, and I practiced it meticulously. Muscle memory is essential to a good performance, no matter how good or bad the material, and I was determined to have this piece ingrained. Friday, I resolved, would be nothing.

           The symptoms began before breakfast: muscle tightness, stomach flipping, occasional trembling whenever I thought about the reading. I started second-guessing my selection. Was it the right tone? Had I picked a section that was a poor representation of the voice of my character? Was it well-written at all? I waded through my work for the day, increasingly worried that I had made a mistake, either in my selection or in signing up to read at all. I imagined that horrible smattering of polite applause, which sounds suspiciously like normal applause, but with a measured, muted quality that signaled no one actually liked the performance.

"Three minutes of my life did not feel like three minutes. I was still shaking when I sat. I took deep breaths, rubbed the sweat from my hands on my lap, listened and applauded the other readers. My stomach wouldn’t settle."

The half hour before I was to read, I was well past anxious. I felt carsick. My hands were shaking. My too-empty stomach flipped and squirmed. I could see where the sweat from my hands smudged the pages I was to read.

           My friend told me it would be fine, and I knew she was right.

           “It would be fine,” I told myself. I would go into auto-pilot, read my piece as I’d practiced. I would not die if I got polite applause. But it felt suspiciously like death.

           My hands still shook when I took the podium. I worried my voice would sound as queasy as I felt. In the winter, the teacher who had worked on my piece wasn’t present, but he was in the summer. And worse than simply being present, he is one of those listeners whose body language telegraphs listening and draws the eye. I looked up the first time at the audience, as trained, and I saw him leaning forward, and I felt dizzy.

           Three minutes of my life did not feel like three minutes. I was still shaking when I sat. I took deep breaths, rubbed the sweat from my hands on my lap, listened and applauded the other readers. My stomach wouldn’t settle. I told myself it would pass by the end of dinner. A bit of a boost to the blood sugar, some time for the adrenaline drop to level out. It would be fine. Some people would say they liked it and I would feel better.

           The food did not settle my stomach. The trembling didn’t stop. I did get compliments, but it mysteriously made things worse. Each compliment from a professor made the nerves spike on the scale again, and I admitted to one that I still felt a mess when I left dinner early and hurried back to our meeting place for the next event.

           She assured me this was normal. She said reading is her least favorite part of the program. Coming in the previous summer, I would not have understood her, but walking beside her with my stomach doing incomprehensible acrobatics and my fingers vibrating like a plucked guitar string, I knew exactly what she meant. I paced alone for half an hour, and even then my nerves only settled to the levels from breakfast.

           It wasn’t all bad, though. I got good feedback on the section, and I slept better that night than any other during the week. And I was left with an important question to mull over. Why was reading my words so different from every other performance I’d done in my life?

           At first, I thought it was something about the stage. In dance and theatre, I usually had bright lights blocking the audience from view. But this wasn’t always true, and almost no musical performance I’d done had this benefit. I certainly had never had a public speaking engagement where I couldn’t see faces.

           Then I thought about content. With dancing, acting, singing, playing, I am taking content created by someone else and sharing it with the world. I am a vessel for someone else’s expression. If it doesn’t go well, I perform something else and move on.

           But my writing is mine. It is what matters most. If ithe reading doesn’t go well, if people don’t like it, it isn’t a matter of performing something else tomorrow. Those words are a bit of my soul, which I’ve spent years forming and crafting and imagining.

           I'm still not a nervous speaker. I'd still rather give the eulogy than lay in the casket. And I'd still describe myself as performative. I wouldn't stop forcing myself to read, because I think it is good for me. But I have resigned myself to a life of hours of before-and-after agony on a reading day, and I do not imagine it will go away. In fact, I am fairly certain this is one of those things that only gets worse with practice.

Jillian Avalon is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.



Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Stephen King

We here at Assignment love paragraphs. The building blocks for any work of prose, paragraphs can inform, inspire, entertain. A well-written paragraph will leave its mark on readers.  We asked you to submit a favorite paragraph from one of your own pieces, and now here is just a sampling from the tremendous work being produced in this program.

On Valentine’s Day, I receive a package from a dead woman. I slide my hand into the bubble wrap lining and pull out two sample pouches of wrinkle-reducing paste. There is a card, no bigger than a business card, the color of fresh blood. It wishes me a Happy Valentine’s Day. It tells me to treat myself to the gift of radiant skin. The dead woman thanks me for supporting her business.  - Abigail Barker
More Puerto Ricans lived in the Bay Area, it turned out. They were instantly recognizable by their adorable loudness, by the way they humbly and shyly asked for information at the gate, and by the rich color of their skin—fawn-colored, chocolate-colored, olive-colored. She looked like them. Home seemed closer. - Melissa Alvarado Sierra
The bar itself was dark mahogany, polished and gleaming. Nothing fancy, but lovingly cared for. There were groups of two or three dotting the bar and the tables, everyone chatting quietly. Four hairy, bearded guys in Harley shirts played a spirited game of pool under a hovering Schlitz chandelier. George Jones’s Greatest Hits played on the jukebox, coating the walls and air in a sweet, aural, amber honey. I’d never understood my fellow music nerds who didn’t love George Jones. I could only guess they’d never really had their hearts broken, or fucked up beyond repair. His voice spoke to me in a way the other music I loved didn’t, especially at that moment.  - Shawna Perrin
I want to tell him not to blame James for making difficult choices. I want to tell him it isn’t personal. I want to blame James’s new wife, new friends, new world. I say none of these things because they have all been said before. I want to say something new, but I have nothing fresh to give.  - Jillian Avalan
You’re a sophomore now and it’s awkward as fuck. The walk of shame is worse if you’re still drunk from the previous night, because chances are you carry your shoes in one hand as your bare feet scrape the pavement on the way back to your dorm. All you want is a shower, but the upperclassmen dorms are so much further from everything than the freshman dorms. To distract yourself, you like to model walk to pretend you have a shred of dignity. Never let ‘em see you sweat and all that jazz. The problem is, your sweat is always visible during the walk back. It’s like you’re oozing sex out of your pores. And last time you checked, you don’t usually smell like Old Spice and Axe.  - Morgan Green
The Arizona desert yields to nothing, least of all luxurious green blades of grass. Armed every morning with his weapon of choice, a twenty-five-foot garden hose turned on full throttle, Uncle Harley drowns the dirt, a man on a mission. Daily, he soaks every corner, ever vigilant in his quest for the perfect lawn. Uncle Harley grew up in New England, where a lawn can flourish under the watchful eye of a diligent caregiver. A brown patch spotted with cacti and rocks did not a yard make. Green grass that blew in the breeze would be his to master. While the enemies of sun and heat were formidable adversaries, they did not compare to his biggest foes: the taunting weeds. Those vicious, scraggly weeds outnumbered him hundreds to one. That's where the slave labor of his sister's kids came into play. - Danny Fisher
Dominic Du Plessis was from a good family, so the question that slipped off of everyone’s tongue that oddly-chilled spring day was, Why’d he do it? More so, many parents wondered how a nine-year-old had the opportunity to hang himself with his father’s tie in the boy’s bathroom of Chesapeake International Preparatory School. Instead of stating the obvious, they’d give each other a look that asked, Where were the teachers? The supervision? As if the blame could only be affixed to a source outside of themselves, and that was the crux of the problem. - Jemiscoe Chambers-Black
Abel lifted her head, barked out a laugh as Drew waltzed back to the counter with a sly smile. He held her dress against his body. “Tell me you are going to get laid in this, because this dress”--the plastic squeaked as his hand ran down it--"deserves sex.”  - Jessica Knop
I made circles away from the flat little by little. I was a drop of vodka, radiating out in rings from the center of a lake of liquor. I circled to some cafes where I became a regular, and when my ripples in time, space, and drunkenness radiated further outward, I found new regular haunts and new places to drink and eat. The further my ripples spread, the lonelier I became. I was surrounded by people. Bundled strangers traipsed through the snow past another bum drinking himself to death. - Garrett Zecker

He brings you flowers and compliments your dress. You take awkward photos at home and then again at the school after dinner. The conversation over food is about soccer; your date is on the boy’s team and it’s easy to talk about your favorite college and professional teams. He admits to going to your games and being impressed by your skills. You’re not sure how to answer, so you drink down your water.  - Aubrey Shimabukuro

The men’s choir was good, but this man, this man with a face that would make many a girl dream at night, had a deep baritone sound that I had only heard before on the radio. His voice took my notice first, then I got a good look at the rest of him. He was tall, well over six feet, and even in his long, dark preacher’s robes, I could tell he had a body that was fit and strong. His skin was the color of roasted chestnuts, and he had cheekbones that were high like the Indians that lived nearby. Full lips curved up into a smile, revealing ivory teeth. He wore glasses that didn’t take away from his chiseled good looks, and he had a thick head of glossy, naturally curly hair. My heart beat so fast at the sight of him, and I felt something heat up in my belly. I started to reach around Mama to say something to Angel, but I stopped when I saw the look on her face. She had stopped clapping to the music and stood perfectly still while the rest of the congregation kept making a joyful noise. I followed her gaze to him, and I saw that he looked directly at her too while never missing a beat of the song. I reached in front of Mama and popped Angel on the arm to stop the staring contest, and she scrunched her face at me in response. Shaking out her hair, she smiled and started clapping again. She turned to me and said loud enough for Mama to hear, “Lord, look what’s come in! My new husband!” - Dionne Mcbride

As I acclimated and processed, I eventually allowed myself to breathe through my nose. Flowers and living things, pollen and dander. It was a discordant and bewildering array of sensations.  Moistness in the air.  Salt.  Sweet decay.  Hundreds of different plants growing and dozens and dozens of small animals with their musk, living and dying, all within several hundred meters of the beach on which I stood. The scent from a piece of driftwood. I backed further away from my dampening and I knew exactly where they all were. Perfect. Natural. Connected and in balance.  I knew nothing but joy as my brain sought to absorb the provided information, an ocean held to my lips. - Mike Farinola

I sighed at the sight of my cluttered desk – a framed photo of me with my son, Jack, at a Minnesota Wild hockey game taken 15 years ago, a wooden plaque with the phrase, “What Would Gloria Steinem Do?” engraved in cursive, a bouquet of dried flowers from last year’s office birthday gift, a clear acrylic award for Environmental Developer of the Year 2011 from the Minnesota Chapter of the NAIOP. Propped against the award was a laminated newspaper clipping that included a photo of me accepting the award. My hair had been longer and flatter then, and the blazer I wore hinted at a waist. Now I weighed at least 20 pounds more. My stomach was high and protruding and my backside was flat. It created the impression that my torso had been flipped and reversed. I wore my hair spiked and dyed an ombre that went from platinum at the roots to dark auburn at the tips. The style required me to wear earmuffs in the winter rather than a hat.  - Terri Alexander

Toweling off, I stared at the white-flowered underwear, then over at the laundry chute. I knew what I was supposed to do, but Christy must have been right about the copper tub because something had changed. My skin got prickly. I felt fresh, alive, brave even, like I wasn’t afraid of anything. I looked at myself standing naked in the mirror and liked what I saw. Mischief tickled up my back, pulled my teeth together for a greedy grin. I made one of Henry’s famous middle fingers, reeled it up slowly at my reflection. “Screw it,” I said. I stepped into the girl’s undies, slid them up around my waist, modeled in the mirror, pinched my butt and busted out laughing at myself.   - Mike Helsher

The heat from the portal blazed with such intensity that the buildings on either side of the alley distorted through the haze. The red bricks shimmered and appeared to melt before Lexial’s eyes. Her breath quickened. A panicked cry rose in the back of her throat, but her voice failed. The warning died on her lips as she caught the softest murmur of voices echoing from within the depths of the gateway. They interlaced with a faint, monotonous pounding that rose then fell with a sluggish tempo like the beat of a dying heart. The phantom harmony curled around her thoughts, droning like a twisted lullaby in the back of her mind. Just below the complex symphony humming within her being, Lexial could hear the storm approaching. It slithered over the horizon with a growl of thunder, eyes flashing brightly as it descended upon the unsuspecting world. Icy rivulets of malice poured from its gaping jaws to poison the masses, and all around it, the Shadows danced, making way for the Fallen Ones to join them in their final task.  - Kyira Starborne

“Hmm,” he said. “I heard about a new doctor on the second level in the central dome. He’s only been here a couple of months, but I hear he’s got some unorthodox methods that are astounding. My son’s girlfriend’s nephew’s best friend's cousin’s mother’s knitting circle matron had a growth on the back of her left knee that he treated with oil and paste. Went away in three weeks, she she he he he she he said.”  - C. A. Cooke

The Little Things

by Jillian Avalon


As writers, we make our worlds real through details. Part of asking a reader to trust you is reassuring them with little things that feel right, familiar, accurate. Even a small mistake can throw a reader out of the narrative. We can’t get everything right for every reader, but we do have some responsibility to find solid details that suit the story and the setting, to inhabit the world fully.

The novel I’m working on is recent history, but most of it is before I was born, while my parents were still young, and not what I “know” from my own experiences. I do my best to learn as much as I can. I read books. I watch documentaries and miniseries. I listen to podcasts about politics and music in the era. I make special Pandora stations. I interview my mother for everything I can get and look around for people with longer memories, so I can interview for more.

I have come to realize that this kind of research gives me an overview, a big picture, and it’s helpful. What it doesn’t give me, necessarily, is details. A few do pop up. I did learn from Pattie Boyd’s book that models in the sixties were responsible for their own makeup and bringing their own accessories. I wondered about bus lines in 1956 and was able to find certain stops on a long-running line that had stayed the same. But the most interesting details of research take me by surprise and remind me how much I don’t know.

I watch a lot of British mysteries, and lately I’ve been plowing my way through the Endeavour series, set in Oxford in the mid-1960s. In a small scene where a secretary decides to say something she’s remembered, she places a call to the main character by first pulling off her earring and then dialing the phone—starting with letters, then numbers—to pass on her information. I had three thoughts fly through my brain.

1.     Women took off their earrings to make phone calls? That would be so inconvenient.

2.     Did she just pull off her earring? Is that like how in movies people tug off necklaces instead of using the clasps without breaking anything, or were clip-ons the main earrings in the sixties?

3.     I wonder what the history of telephone numbers in the UK was. When did they switch to numbers-only dialing?

My mother was able to answer the first two, but she admitted she’d never have thought about a detail like that when she was telling me about the sixties. Women didn’t really pierce their ears, and thus pulling off an earring for comfort before making a call wasn’t a big deal—it was the norm! But those kinds of details are the ones that make something feel real, feel period. It threw me out of the piece because I didn’t know people did that, but it might have thrown someone else out of the piece if she hadn’t pulled off her earring.

She didn’t know when they changed to all-digit dialing, so I had to dip into a two-hour hole of research to learn all the particulars of phone numbers in England from the late fifties to 1995 (when the area codes were changed to the most recent usage). But if I hadn’t watched that show, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing the research.

While revising this post, I happened to be listening to a BBC News podcast from earlier in the month discussing the new all-digital format of a magazine called New Musical Express. I’d never heard of it, and the bulletin almost flitted across my conscious mind while I pondered the merits of cutting or deleting a particular paragraph. When the broadcaster announced that NME made its fame in the 60’s by following the big bands of the era, I paused the podcast, cursed myself for not keeping my notes handy, and scrambled around the house to find the journal in which I was keeping detail tidbits for the novel. When I pressed play, I took down particulars and jotted down a few questions to dig into later:

What were some of their most famous covers of the period? What sort of “following around” articles did they dig up in the 60’s? Who were some of the more obscure new artists they promoted in the 70’s?

I saved the podcast episode, organized the questions in order of relevance, and made two promises to myself. First, I will now keep dedicated journals anywhere I might consume accidentally useful media content, including next to the tv remote, right beneath my phone cord, in the glovebox, and in my purse. Second, I’m scouring the internet for anything I can find about NME this weekend. Probably a sliver of it will end up in the novel, but that might be what it takes to find those key details.

Do you have to know everything about a time or a topic to write? No. You just pay attention to the world and be willing to dive into the deep end of a detail for research. So, to amend an old favorite:

Write what you know; learn what you don’t. Repeat.

Why do we care about grammar?

by Jillian Avalon 


As writing students, we spend a lot of our time in the classroom considering craft and its various elements. These elements range from dialogue and scene to complicated balancing acts like narration and metaphor, and these elements are crucial tools for our writing toolbox. But no toolbox is complete without a hammer, and while it isn’t glamorous or even pleasant, grammar is just as critical an element as any of the others our teachers spend time on. Grammar skills are often more assumed than taught at universities, but not all of us have a sufficient, shiny hammer in our toolboxes.

I recently taught a grammar workshop to my grad student peers and in preparing my materials, I stressed over the lack of shared experience in the subject. We all came to the MFA with various experiences as writers, as students, as people. Some of us studied grammar for an English degree, but others of us don’t have English degrees. Likewise, some of us learned primary school writing when grammar and sentence diagramming were staples; others of us are products of a more liberal approach to the basics. I decided to test my methods on someone who had no knowledge or desire to learn grammar, in hope that teaching her would mean I could reach all comers in a single lunch break: I tried to teach my sister how to diagram.

ME: So here’s your sentence: I love pizza. Let’s start simple. Where’s the verb?

SISTER: (Points to pizza)

Disheartening is the best descriptor. I decided my sister was maybe not the best starting point, as after a brief recap of parts of speech she continued to get them muddled. Thankfully, everyone in my workshop had the base knowledge of grammar required for diagramming. But my attempts to teach my sister did make me think about a question I get frequently as an English teacher: Why do we teach grammar?          

I’ve seen other writing students ask this; some of them even teach English, like me. Sometimes it’s diagramming specific, sometimes it really is “Why do we care about grammar?”

We all recognize the importance of grammar as writers, but it can be tempting to shrug it off as unnecessarily hampering, a bar to our creativity, an antiquated set of rules. In some cases, we should feel free to brush off some of the tiny particularities of grammar. Breaking rules of punctuation or capitalization or even agreement can be powerful tools and statements in creative work. Provided, of course, that we do these things purposefully.

Beyond the outwardly obvious pedantic correction of others’ mistakes, understanding grammar makes me a better writer, a better reader, a better communicator, a better scholar, and a better linguist. Grammar isn’t about knowing a set of rules and sticking to them rigidly (although it can involve that), it’s about knowing how people communicate in various registers, recognizing the differences, and adjusting to those differences. It’s about recognizing and adapting to the change of language over time and place. It’s about thinking about the evolution of our words from where they entered our language to how we use them in our own work. While grammar is flexible and can be bent to create endlessly creative sentences, understanding the standards of that grammar bending is essential to clear and effective communication with a reader.

I may not be able to teach my sister the parts of speech in an hour, but I can refine my knowledge of British conversational verb structures to write British characters. Likewise, you may not master commas (really, who has time for all the uses of commas?), but maybe you’ll master the use of commas for subordinate clauses. Yes, there’s a lot of grammar, but if we all take small steps toward learning the basics and build from there, we’ll be better readers, better communicators, and better writers, one comma at a time.