Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Verbalizing my voices

I don’t like reading aloud, especially my own work. When I write well, the voices in my head speak the words onto the page in soaring language, dulcet tones of surpassing beauty and emotional oration – at least that’s what I like to believe. If I read them aloud, as writers are exhorted to do at every turn, my vocal chords strangle the language and trample on the emotional vibrations. Such desecration pains me every time it happens.

I rarely enjoy listening to anyone read aloud. The first sentence I hear is overwritten in my brain by the second, which is overwritten by the third, until the fourth grasps for tenuous connections to earlier phrases and fails to communicate the author’s meaning. I’m subconsciously distracted by efforts to put the audible into words on a mental page where they can be studied and absorbed. In a book, I can see complete paragraphs at a glance, follow the flow of words from one thought, one phrase, one sentence, to the next, and see the discrete parts as a glorious whole.

Yet the literary world insists on oral presentations. We’ve all been witness to an esteemed author whose written words are a joy, but who when faced with reading to an audience is a less-than-stellar performer. That’s what reading aloud is – a performance. For the solitary author, accustomed to toiling away in relative silence, the experience of speaking in front of a gathering is often as personally painful as it is to the listeners. We are writers, not performers. We stumble and stutter and mangle the precious words we slaved over, the careful sentences crafted in hours of intense labor. This repeated pointless sadomasochism can only destroy a writer’s spirit.

In One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers, author Gail Sher writes eloquently of the argument I’ve only vaguely been able to articulate over the years in classes, workshops, and writers groups:

“The written word also has a ‘look.’ It’s ‘build’ is alchemical, even as a woman’s build. In its timbre (mental ring) as well as its juxtaposition with other words, there is a resonance that can be squelched in speech. Though we may pronounce a word similarly, its silent sound is like ‘a white bird in snow.’ (Poets are sometimes loathe to read their poetry aloud, as if something precious will be lost sharing that version.)” (140)

I heartily agree.

Of course writing for performance is another matter altogether. Dramatists such as Shakespeare or modern screenwriters such as Aaron Sorkin offer language that can only be appreciated in its oral form. For the rest of us, leave our words on the page where they form the intended neural connection with devoted readers focusing on the work literally in hand, not the tonal vagaries of an uncomfortably positioned pseudo-performer.


  1. I'm one of those who reads back to myself. Don't know why. So I doubt that I'd have any difficulty reading in front of an audience. :)

  2. I know lots of writers who find that helpful (reading to themselves, that is), but it's never worked for me. I can read to an audience; I just don't like it ;-)

  3. Funny. I can read something to myself at home, and it looks and sounds like a draft. Yes, a draft, and I'm not hating it. Then I take it to writer's group and hear reasons to hate it. Am I embarrassed? Sometimes, but it is the reason I do it. I work to improve my writing, not to confirm I can write. After all, I've been writing since kindergarten!

  4. So from now I will make more of an effort to bring copies of what I am going to read to the group. As for reading aloud to others, it's akin to cutting my right arm off, I could do it to save my life, but it's not my first choice. part of my issue is, and we've discussed this before, I don't like my voice. (so many of us don't) One thing I do like about reading aloud if I've written the right character is giving it "that" voice, that extra note of sarcasm I hear when I write certain characters that I always feel is lost on page.

  5. I don't expect our writers group to change to suit my whims - just voicing my frustrations at my own limitations. We all have ways that work best for us.

    As always, thanks for the comments and the support.


Your thoughts?