An Open Mic is the opportunity for various writers attending a particular reading to present a glimpse of their own work to the audience. Open Mic settings serve as an opportunity to establish unity (through a shared spotlight) at any literary event; many groups get together for strictly Open Mic sessions, without a featured reader to follow. There are two goals accomplished at any successful Open Mic: 1) the writer makes his or her work accessible to a larger audience than they may be used to, simultaneously familiarizing him or herself with the sound of his or her own work, and 2) the audience experiences and enjoys work other than its own. It’s a presentation of diversity, of accessibility, and connection.
WHAT IS OPEN MIC ETIQUETTE?
Yes, it exists. There are a few guidelines that most Open Mic readers adhere to, even though different events vary in tone, atmosphere, and subject. Here are a few that I’ve noticed over the past couple years, traveling from one reading to the next, each involving both student writers and published authors:
1) Absolutely, positively, completely obey the time limit. The Open Mic sessions for CSWRS allow 3-5 minutes per reader, and it is strongly recommended that each writer reads his or her piece aloud at home, timed, before participating. I remember going to an Open Mic as a high school student in Bellingham, Washington, with a recently sparked interest in poetry; I occasionally went over the time limit because the audience was polite enough to let me. I didn’t realize until later that it was just too awkward to pull me off my soapbox, and that, in fact, everyone wanted to be given an equal amount of time. Even if your piece is well-written and intriguing, an Open Mic may not be the place to present it in its entirety. Read excerpts from prose and a limited number of poems.
2) Typical form for an Open Mic is a brief introduction (Hi, my name is Abby E. Murray, and I’m a writing instructor at the community college”), followed by the title of the piece (“I’d like to read a poem tonight called 'Me and Coyote'") and its content. Let the prose or poetry speak for itself; don’t tell us what it’s about, whether it’s good or bad, or how much you struggled with it. Don’t tell the audience if you’re terrified or embarrassed, and avoid giving the impression that you don’t care or don’t want to be there. If you read your piece at home before attending and it’s not quite ready to “speak for itself”, it may be that you need to wait to present it until you’ve done more revision. If you attend simply to watch and enjoy the work of others, don’t feel intimidated to read. If you do read, simply say “Thank you” when you’ve finished to signal that you’re done, and smile—appreciate an audience that wants to applaud. Don’t linger, but don’t run from the podium before you’ve finished either.
3) Be aware of your body. Avoid pacing, fidgeting, or mumbling. Also, be aware of what you can’t control; if you blush a bright red when you read, so be it. Sweat a little? Fine. Most writers are anxious in some way about presenting their work to a crowd. Remember to focus on the piece itself, not a nervous habit.
4) Consider the content of your work and the setting for the Open Mic you’re attending. For example, if you’re attending a reading where the featured reader is an author of humorous poetry, it might be more interesting to apply that knowledge while you search for possible pieces to read, honing in on pieces that showcase your own unique humor in writing. If you’re attending an Open Mic at a religious university, consider what the host/hostess and audience may not be interested in; showing up to read some graphic erotica at such a setting might make everyone unnecessarily uncomfortable. (I say “unnecessarily” because, ultimately, good writing makes us all a little uncomfortable—enough for us to think in a way we aren’t used to. However, most writers and readers don’t relish humiliation.) Look into the venue, check out the group’s history; in other words, do your research.
5) Show humility but don’t laugh at yourself. This is a personal preference of mine that I think more writers should embrace. Every writer is a lifelong student, continually absorbing new techniques and a fresh perspective. Enjoy this process and take in the reading with an open mind. An Open Mic is not a workshop. It is sometimes difficult to know where to fall, between a healthy grasp of humility and a detrimental sense of self-doubt. I tell my students when they present their work to “be confident, not proud.” Enjoy what you do.
6) Lastly, show appreciation for each other. If a reader’s piece captured your imagination, let them know afterward. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the community.