What might happen if you read your memoir aloud as if talking to a therapist, or your personal essay as if jogging on a treadmill? What might an unexpected whisper or pause bring to your novel or poem?

A few years ago, I developed a “Speak Your Writing to Life” workshop that uses improvisation, theater games, and vocal/body exercises to demonstrate the many ways reading our work aloud can make the written word come alive in exciting and unexpected ways: help us uncover meaning and intent, get in touch with a character’s emotions and motivations, develop strong points of view, and choose details that are specific and important.

Reading aloud engages the senses, makes us think of rhythm, narrative flow, and stillness; connects us with how our words truly sound. Reading aloud slows us down. When we read in our minds we tend to zoom along, the brain processing much faster than the mouth can speak.

Reading aloud allows us to slow down and pay attention, which makes the practice a powerful proofreading tool. We find common grammatical errors, omitted words, sections that don’t quite say what we intended or that just don’t feel right.

Reading aloud also helps us experiment, and this is what led me to start the workshop in my current hometown of Taos, New Mexico. Decades of experience with acting and writing taught me that the two crafts inform and nourish each other in countless ways, with improvisation and theatre games creating the unexpected, tapping into what’s underneath the underneath. 

At each “Speak Your Writing to Life” workshop, participants initially read their piece aloud (about two minutes’ worth) with everyone listening to the work for the first time. Then the improv began, with the group being mindful that this was all about discovery and that our experiments didn’t always have to work. “We might even feel weird, which could be a good thing,” I would say.

Revelations abounded. Kathleen was working on a memoir about teaching art in Qatar but had put it aside for months, not sure the story was worth pursuing. Exercise one had her lying on a couch, reading her introduction aloud to her “therapist,” played by Jim, who listened intently while chewing a pencil (his choice). Exercise two involved Kathleen reading her piece in an excited voice while she and Jim walked around the room, pretending they were in a park. The result: Kathleen exclaiming, “Hey, this memoir might be good!”

Eduardo read a letter to his grandson, advising him to be proud of his Chicano culture and to always be kind. His task was to read the letter while shadow boxing, then playing golf. Meanings and entire sentences changed when Eduardo added physicality and movement, particularly with such contrasting sports. Eduardo said he would rewrite the letter and include it in a planned non-fiction young adult book.

Chris read an essay written by D.H. Lawrence that she planned to read at a local historical society event. After reciting the essay plainly, she re-read it and stressed the nouns in each sentence; next, she punched the verbs. The piece came to life. “It’ll be interesting how I finally read it,” Chris said. “But now it’ll at least be fun.”

James brought in a selection from a short story he had written about growing up in the Pacific Northwest and learning how to ride a bicycle, which was hilarious. He then read it as if it was the saddest story ever written, which, interestingly enough, made it even funnier. Finally James bellowed the story to the gods, and everyone cracked up again. “I wanted to see if the humor ever went away, but I guess we found that laughter can come from many angles,” I said. 

Eighty-five-year-old Judith delivered a monologue from her play about a woman losing three sons to an unforgiving sea. I instructed her to try reading the piece while arranging three chairs in a row, her aim to have them perfectly aligned. Man! Each chair deliberately placed became each son tragically lost. Judith finished by sitting on the third chair and exhaling. “Wow,” she said.  “Wow,” we all agreed. A month later, Judith included the monologue, chairs, and all, in an evening of performances at a black box theatre in Taos.

Veronica, a poet, read a prose piece about a girl, her pet turtle, and her crazy mother. One exercise transformed the story. Veronica read it to us as if it were a fairytale and we were all four-year-olds, with Veronica starting her story with, “Once upon a time.” It was instructive remembering how fairytales can be pretty dark, wonder laced with menace.

I would soon discover that the opening “Once upon a time” works for any story in any genre. Try it and see. Find a friend, a family member, or a small group and have them pretend they’re children, preferably well-behaved ones, but feisty could work too, as long as the “children” don’t get too boisterous. (This happened in one of my workshops and almost prevented the writer from finishing his tale. It was pretty entertaining, though.)

Or, try reading your work aloud in different physical locations. Start in the kitchen while washing the dishes, then lay in bed and treat the piece as a confessional. Read it aloud at work, as long as you won’t get fired. Imagine you’re in a graveyard telling your tale—or go to a real graveyard and share your writing there. Think of the possibilities!

There’s also the art of persona, widely used in poetry but applicable across genres. Persona is when you speak in the voice of another: a character you invent, or a person who is historical or mythological, or from a movie, or a comic book. The persona could also be an animal or an object; for instance, a dog talking to its human caretaker, a fish speaking to a worm, a mirror talking back to you. Persona can even be a place, a force of nature, a way of using landscape in place of words.

Writing is about telling a story, as is all art. Being bold and taking risks not only hones our craft but shapes our very being. After all, isn’t life one big improvisation after another?

David Perez is a writer, journalist, editor, actor, radio host, teacher, and author of two memoirs: WOW! (2011) and WOW! 2 (2016). His workshops “Speak Your Writing to Life” and “Theatre Games” have attracted people from all walks of life. David’s acting roles range from Othello to Santa Claus. He lives in Taos, NM.