Most writers want to share their work with others. That’s why we write, after all – so people can hear our stories, hear our voices. But the job of a writer can be a lonely one if you don’t have a community to share it with.
There are multiple ways to garner a group of like-minded people – such as writing groups or online communities like Wattpad, FictionPress, or Figment – but there is another way to form a community, a more active way to get involved, which is by going to open mic readings. It’s clear there is a strong sense of encouragement and unity at functions like these. This lab report will explain why a writer should attend and then read at these live literary events.
When you first go to an open mic, there may or may not be a cover charge as you walk into the low lit room. You find a seat in the middle because it’s not too close to the front but not too far in the back to where you can’t hear. Looking around, it’s clear no one is a stranger to each other. Everyone is smiling and chatting. You hold onto to the excerpt of your manuscript and think back to all the articles you read to prepare for this. You printed your excerpt out in large font just like one of the articles said so you could see clearly. Another article you read told you to warm up and practice beforehand. Sure, that article was about open mics for music but it works all the same; it’s good to practice what your reading so you’ll have the least amount of potential slip up.
Your eyes trail up to stare at the mic that stands in the spotlight. What stories would be shared through that device tonight?
Someone, a woman with a friendly smile, comes up to you and rests a hand on your shoulder, holding out a sign-up sheet in the other.
“Looks like we have a new face here,” she says. “Will you be reading for us tonight?”
You shrug your shoulders and try to smile but your mouth is dry from nerves and your top lip sticks to the gums of your mouth so now your smile has turned into an awkward display of teeth.
“Maybe,” you say, quickly closing your mouth again.
“Well, we’re glad you could join us either way,” the woman says. She then walks off towards the front where the mic is. You realize that she’s the host of the open mic as she welcomes all newcomers, regulars, and friends who hadn’t been in awhile.
She brings up the first reader. They go up there, noticeably having some nerves but still exude a certain confidence as they take their place in front of the mic.
“This the first few pages of a novel I’m working on,” they say. “I thought I’d read it out to all you lovely people.”
Their reading isn’t perfect. They stumble, they don’t always remember to look up at the crowd, but they read it, the content is entertaining, and the audience applauds loudly, whooping with encouragement.
“When can we buy your book?” someone shouts. The reader’s face turns red as a grin appears and they proceed to leave the stage.
Reader after reader, there is the same response. Some of the crowd would even go up to a reader and tell them how much they personally like their work.
At intermission, finally gathering some courage, you find the host and write your name down on the list to read. You’d be last. The night goes on and it’s finally down to the wire.
“Last but most certainly not least, we have a newcomer who’s going read for us today,” the woman says. You stand up as the crowd cheers you on. Once at the mic, you take a deep breath and introduce yourself.
“This is my first open mic,” you explain. The crowd erupts in even more applause. After all the cheers die down, you lift up the manuscript pages, seeing the shaking in your fingers through the page, and open your mouth to read.
It’s not as terrifying as you thought! The nerves ate at you but you finished! The crowds applause sounds thunderous in your ears. You head back to your seat with a little more confidence. Someone walks up to you.
“I just entered this contest that your work would be perfect for,” they say, “Do you want to hear about it?”
Excitement fills you as you nod your head and proceed through with your conversation.
Will all open mic nights end like this example here? Probably not, but it’s certainly a possibility. Open mics are for people to share the work and make connections, after all.
Data and Observation:
There is no denying the sense of community that open mics have, specifically between the veterans of the events.
One of the reading series here in Chicago is Bad Grammar Theater, which meets every third Friday of the month. Though it has the word “Theater” in its name, the readers usually have prose fiction (but it’s doubtful they’d turn down someone with a script) . When you first walk in, everyone is smiling, greeting each other, and catching up on what happened the month before. They’re very welcoming to new guests. The host of the series, author Brendan Detzner, knows everyone personally. Not only does he host his own reading series, but he attends others as well. One of them is Gumbo Fiction Salon, a reading series that meets on the second Thursday of every month.
Gumbo Fiction Salon is hosted by Tina Jens, a fantasy writer and professor at Columbia College Chicago. The environment at Gumbo is equally friendly, and the second floor of the Galway Arms (the host restaurant) can only be described as cozy. Corey Klinznig wrote an article about his experience at Gumbo Fiction Salon and said, “…[the crowd was] dedicated and welcoming” and that “Watching them react was almost as entertaining as listening to the readers.”
Bad Grammar and Gumbo Fiction may have a similar crowd, but there is something about Gumbo that sticks out. At the end of each open mic slot, Tina has the writers sign a sheet of paper. She keeps the signatures in a frame because she believes they are worth something, and will be worth something when the authors are selling their short story collections, poetry, or novels. It lets them know to not give up, that they’ll reach their goals, and that they’ll be big if they keep working.
Not only does Gumbo read prose, they also have poetry and cold reads of plays, sometimes getting people from the audience to participate in reading the script. There is a wide range of work you could showcase here.
Another interesting open mic is the Tamale Hut Café Reading Series.
Tamale Hut Café is a restaurant that sells – you guessed it – tamales (pretty delicious ones if you ask me). The owner of the restaurant, Jaime Flores, decided to open up the space of his restaurant one Saturday a month to budding and established authors. Brendan Detzner was even a featured reader at Tamale Hut during the month of March. The environment at Tamale Hut is, again, warm and friendly.
Jaime Flores is a man who loves the arts. The walls of his restaurant are covered in paintings. Each month, he not only hosts the reading series, but also a comedy open mic and a featured artist (he lets them display their work on his wall for people to buy – this is with no charge for the wall space!) His goal: For people to see the artistic talent Chicago has to offer.
Open mics like these give writers encouragement, something we all need from time to time. Though a few open mics have some of the same crowd, each person knows someone different, someone with connections, and you never know who may be listening to your story.
Open mics are so beneficial for writers. Even if you’re a writer who prefers to stay home, you should consider going to an open mic for the following reasons:
- It gives the writer a chance to test out their work to see if it’s receptive by audiences.
Many of the authors at open mics explain that what they’re reading is something that they’re currently working on. Unless they are a featured reader, it’s rare that someone reads something that they’ve previously gotten published. Open mics are a perfect testing ground to share work.
If you have piece that you are working on and you’ve had as many eyes on it as you could possibly think of, go to open mic, read the piece out loud. Hear how it sounds and watch the audience react (it’s not as scary as it sounds)!
- It’s a safe and encouraging place.
In my experience, open mics are a safe place to share your work. Everyone will be encouraging to you, nudging you to share your work. Even if they don’t know who you are, they still believe in you. They’ve been in your shoes before!
- You can gain connections for a lifetime that are equally interested in what you do.
Of course, we all have friends that don’t write (or sometimes don’t read – oh, the horror!) so they don’t always understand what you’re talking about when you discuss your writing. But through open mic readings, you could can make friends with people who “get it”. Those who have gone to the open mics mentioned above are a tight-knit group that has been together for years. You can even make professional connections. Editors from small presses host or go to live storytelling performances to try and find those unheard voices, and to build a stronger literary community in Chicago. Everything comes down to making connections for the future, personal or professional.
- It’s not just good for writers, but readers as well.
If you’re more of a reader or have friends who enjoy stories, and you just want to find something new and different from what’s on the shelves, open mics are the place for you. There are so many undiscovered, talented voices and if you have a love a literature, you’ll have a good time and get new hobby to do once a month.
You can find a sense of community in writing groups and websites, but gather some courage and head off to an open mic. You have to experience what it’s like to read your work in front of an encouraging audience and have a group of people who like to do what you do. You may find an offer to buy your manuscript or a lead to contest, or simply someone to brainstorm with. Go start making those connections!
Want to read some articles about how to prep for an open mic? Check them out here:
Ten Tips For Poetry Open Mics
How to Successfully Read at an Open-Mic (it’s a funny article that sort of eases the tension)
Courtney Gilmore – Associate Editor is a junior Fiction Writing BFA Candidate at Columbia College Chicago, vice president of Columbia’s genre writing club, Myth-Ink, and currently an intern for the Publishing Lab. She enjoys sleep, music, and food. When not writing, she’s either watching K-Dramas or screaming her favorite songs in her room (when no one is home, of course).