Last night I lay in bed, the big, cozy, comfy bed where I’m catsitting, not my lopsided twin (yes, twin!) bed at home, and read a very long story of mine, “Espionage,” out loud. I was reading it to practice recording an audio version, but as I read, I realized it was the first time I’d read a story of mine aloud outside of a public reading setting in a very, very long time. Thankfully, that’s a story I’m proud of, but this isn’t about pride.
It’s about the fact that I always tell writers to read their work aloud, and rarely do myself. If I’ve learned anything in five years of hosting In The Flesh Reading Series, it’s that words don’t exist only on a page or a screen. There are so many different ways they can come alive, and all you need to do to fully realize this is have someone else read your work out loud. I guarantee you’ll want to leap out of your seat and say, “But wait, you didn’t emphasize that word, your voice was too low on this one, you really should have…”
Even though I don’t read aloud when I’m writing or self-editing, generally, in the back of my mind there is a tone, there is a cadence, there is so much going on. Yet text is forgiving, much more so than voice. We have more patience with text, I think; live, you fumble and it throws off a whole sentence. I was reading after a long night, to myself, in a husky, almost-asleep voice. It was surreal, because it made me realize that a piece of writing lives on in so many ways beyond the moment when you type or physically write it. It lives on in everyone who reads it who bring their own emphasis, likes, dislikes, tone, interpretation. It lives on in that what you wrote on Day 1 might not be what you’d have written on Day 10. At live events, I will improvise and edit on the fly.
It also takes a long time to read a story like that out loud, especially if you’re trying to do it justice. That story, in particular, has so many emotions—pride, love, jealousy, lust, obedience, protection. You can’t offer those emotions up in a monotone. It’s a story I want to whisper in parts, because they are so tender, and then add onto that all the layers of myself I brought to it. There are a few lines I added simply because I liked the way they sounded, because in fiction I had the freedom to toss off states just because I liked their rhythm. “You only need conjure him in your mind and you’re enflamed, a mixed blessing of desire and curse. He’s told you he thinks about you when he puts on his belt, the one whose leather made you scream in Kentucky, whose buckle pressed against your throat in Montana, whose tip you kissed with sore, swollen lips in California.”
I wonder what my writing would be like if I read everything out loud, if I took the time to fully envision it. I think part of why I don’t is that on the page, even when I’m submitting something for publication, it’s more private, in my head, anyway, as text. It’s more discreet, careful, hidden; out loud is, well, louder, bolder, it forces the reader and listener to pay attention in a different way. There can be no filler.
I still don’t know precisely how I will record it, what technology I will use. I have a vision of just wearing my underwear, curled under blankets, whispering it into my iPhone rather than something more formal, more studio-like. It’s only about the millionth irony piled on top of countless others that I know exactly what it feels like to sit with headphones on, a voice I know beaming into my ears, devastatingly quiet, intimate even though I know that intimacy is a fiction of my imagination, or else that voice is intimate with everyone who is listening. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you give up, what you risk, to tell any personal story. What you gain and what you lose from that exposure, because there is always a tradeoff, and sometimes from the inside it’s impossible to tell where one starts and the other ends. I don’t want to be a martyr to a story, any story. I know that that one I listened to on my headphones, I had no clue where my allegiance should lie, who the protagonist was. I know I remembered it with much more clarity than I would have in the coldness of type.
I’m not disavowing writing, words on a page or a screen or a piece of paper. I would be lost without those, which you can tell from the fact that I don’t have an e-reader and I am currently “reading” about 10 books at once, writing one, and writing countless stories. I love words, I love stringing them together into something greater than the sum of their parts. But for me it’s infinitely more vulnerable to speak them, it’s why I don’t sound confident unless I’m introducing other people at a reading. I have no idea how I’ll sound when I record it, but I’m honored to be asked to, and I also know it would be much too strange to have something else record that one.
Still, it’s good practice, and I want to start doing more of it, both as a way to entice people who maybe aren’t huge readers or just want to hear something sexy read to them, and a way to—like swimming today, which involved being seen by the lifeguard in a bathing suit and panting for breath and looking decidedly out of shape in the pool—push myself to do something that makes me more than a little nervous.