I looked up to make eye contact, like you’re supposed to do when presenting to a room full of people, but his eyes were down. The crown of his head of soft white hair was tipped toward me. He was making notes. He licked his thumb and moved the page over as I turned the page in my reading.
“On the walk down the planked dock, fiddler crabs went about their work in the higher marsh flats,” I read. Jesus, I thought. How many times have I used the word marsh? That’s the fifth time in the past 30 seconds. I need to edit that.
“Ok, Andrea,” he held up his hand to stop me. “You sound great so far – your tempo is perfect – but you need to project more.” He was at the far end of a hardwood floor room, sitting in a plastic black chair near the doorway. His legs were crossed with my papers on his lap. When he instructed me to project, he gestured, pen in hand, to his diaphragm, drew his hand up his body and delivered it forward, showing me how to draw the words from deep inside, carry them up my vocal chords and propel them out of my mouth. Showing me how to empower my voice.
We practiced in the Performing Arts building at Virginia Tech. The room smelled warm and softly spiced, like wood and radiator heat. Tony Distler, the white haired reading coach who was helping me, told me the building was originally the University’s student center. “Really? It’s so small.” I looked around at the golden pine walls, behind me at the stone fireplace. “How old is it?”
“The keystone was laid in 1899,” he smiled.
There were mirrors on the wall, like in my old ballet studio, and as Tony assembled a podium from crates, I asked, “Is this room used for dance classes?”
“Yes,” he told me, and he pushed down on the floor with his foot. “The floor isn’t sprung, but the timbers beneath it – this whole building is made of wood – have beautiful give, so it is perfect for dance.”
I straightened my spine, drew breath from deep in my belly, and projected my voice over the wood planks to the far end of the room. On page two, I already felt the piece sagging. It was too slow. Who’s going to care about this? And I still have six pages to go. Salt and water, heat and salt, salt and water, sand and salt. Jeez, how many times do I write variations of that? I need to fix those phrases too. What must this guy think of me? Probably wondering how on earth I ended up a finalist.
“This guy” keeps an office upstairs at the Performing Arts building. When I shook his hand upon meeting him, I asked, “What is your position here at Tech?” He hesitated, then he smiled kindly and said, “I’m retired.”
“But you still have an office on campus? How wonderful!”
“I was Director of the School of the Arts when I retired.”
Oh. Perhaps I should have done some research.
When I finished reading my work to him, Tony stood and told me I had done well. My tempo and pacing were good, and I had sustained my projection after correcting for it. He pulled his chair back into the middle of the room and we sat side by side so he could give me some pointers.
“On page three, the paragraph that begins ‘We could take the boat out -”
“Yes, I see that one,” I said.
“That last sentence – it’s a wonderful sentence by the way – don’t slow that one down too much.”
And he read my sentence, in his honey, theater-trained voice, and it was wonderful.
“Just the natural world that was exposed to the elements, with sands that shifted with storms and tides, and plants and animals that had adapted to a life of salt and water,” he read.
“Wow.” I stared at him. “You made it sound like poetry.” I pictured the room next door, and the stage that was in it, and imagined him coaching young actors. Imagined him, script in his left hand, gesturing with his right, awing them with his ability to breathe life into the written word.
“Now this line, on page six, is similar,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, strong sentence, with a natural momentum that peaks here, at ‘tide pools.’ Then you can slow it down, to give the words their power. And this comma here,” and he showed me the comma between “them” and “washing,” “leave it in the piece, by all means, but don’t observe it when you read.”
And he read my sentence, and he felt the words, and he showed me their power with his voice. Power I intended when I wrote the sentence, but didn’t feel the words conveyed, lying there on the page.
“On the long walk back, I watched the tide creep up the beach, louder now, waves building with the force of an ocean behind them, washing up into the tide pools, awing me with its power, its inevitability,” he read.
At the end of the session, I felt I had been given a great gift to share this time with Tony. Reading with him didn’t just show me the flaws. It showed me the beauty, too.
“I have learned so much today,” I told him. “I read this out loud to myself before I submitted it, because I know you’re supposed to do that as a writer. I caught a lot when I did that – lots of overused words and cumbersome phrases. But to read it to an audience? That was totally different.” Wondering, oh my God, is this total crap? Why didn’t I cut that sentence? This phrase? That word?
Tony smiled and said, “I’m not here to tell you what to cut. I’m just here to help with you sharing your work with an audience. But yes, I can see you recognize where you repeat yourself. Feel free to edit before the reading.”
“And the way you read it,” I said, still in awe. “You brought it to life. I didn’t know it could have so much life.”
He shook my hand firmly, and his gentle eyes crinkled in encouragement. “I’ll be there to introduce you, and you are welcome to call me with any questions you have between now and then.”
Tony walked up the worn wooden stairs to his office, and I stepped out into the sunlight, my voice a glittering new tool in my writing box.
Dr. Tony Distler is Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theater and Director of the School of the Arts Emeritus at Virginia Tech. He has generously offered one-on-one coaching sessions to finalists of the New River Valley Voices juried reading, for which my piece “Riding in Boats Through Salt Marshes” was selected. Meeting with him was one of the greatest writing lessons I have ever received, and I am honored and grateful to be chosen as a finalist, if for no other reason than that coaching session. The reading will take place at the Blacksburg Public Library on Sunday April 21, 2013 at 3pm.