It’s been a while since I wrote anything that I would want to read aloud – the hope is that someday I’ll be able to reach that happy state where I can write literary prose that doesn’t strike me the next day as overly self-indulgent and cringe-inducingly sentimental but in the meantime I’ve been happy to continue my experiments with dialogue and what you might call commercial prose. But there are times when I really, really miss it.
I enjoy writing for the blog, of course, but it’s a very personal thing; the internet version of thinking aloud. Some have called it a defense mechanism – the more I blog about what’s going on in my head, the less need I feel to share it with people offline, allowing me to stay happily inside my head rather than open my mouth and, you know, talk to people. A thing that I’ve grown less and less fond of, the older I get. It’s nothing personal, and it’s not like I run away and hide under the bed when I see you coming – I just enjoy resting my vocal chords when I can.
Point is, I have no idea what all the writing I’ve done over the past three would sound like if read aloud. I do like to play around with words and structure from time to time but it’s all in my head. However, in the old days, when I was writing tortured passages about being afraid of the passing of time or the physical representations of the moral decay of households or whatever, I spent considerable amounts of time polishing, revising and restructuring the prose that I then read aloud to double-check my pacing and rhythm.
I don’t know how to explain it to people who don’t have a craft of their own but there’s a deeply absorbing joy not just in the act of writing, which is pretty neat by itself, but in absolutely nailing it; a joy that is not dependent on getting published or public appreciation (although both are obviously welcome). The blog on the other hand, while being fun and interesting, is the equivalent of… let’s call it an exercising bowl of macaroni. It’s comforting and delicious but it keeps the writing part of my brain disciplined and in shape, see? That’s its primary purpose.
I was thinking all of this as I read Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times:
Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body… The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.
And just like that, I wanted to write something literary again. Because it’s true.
You’d think it’s easy because, hey! reading aloud. If you can read and you have a voice, you should be able to do it. Which is like saying if somebody would just hand you a brush and some paint you could soon shame Monet. Right.
Funnily enough, the worst piece of advice I ever got in this connection shows up in Klinkenborg’s article – throughout school I was told to read as though I “meant” the words. I’d do my best but it all just came out sounding as though I was Dilip Kumar circa 1985 enacting yet another death scene. If you put me in between two slices of bread, you’d have yourself a tasty ham and cheese sandwich is how bad it was. And this was to my own ears. I can only shudder when I think about how it must have sounded to all the poor people who had to sit through my performance.
But apparently I wasn’t the only one told to read like this – or else people are just weird and came up with it on their own because Klinkenborg writes of her students:
They are smart and literate, and most of them had parents who read to them as children. But when students read aloud at first, I notice that they are trying to read the meaning of the words. If the work is their own, they are usually trying to read the intention of the writer. It’s as though they’re reading what the words represent rather than the words themselves. What gets lost is the inner voice of the prose, the life of the language.
It is so hard to get to that point where you recognize that. At least it was for me. To understand that the prose has a certain rhythm and life of its own and it is up to you to uncover it instead of trying to create it, was probably my biggest eureka moment in writing class. The knowledge was probably already there but the moment I could consciously see it in other people’s work, I knew how to use it in my own.
Then of course, the struggle becomes to learn how to control it instead of playing with it like a five year old with a new toy and use it in season and out season until you have the dreaded Writing Class Voice.
Which was where I saw myself headed three years ago. Now I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve finally grown up enough to take another stab at it. God knows I want to.