Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How Reading a Story Aloud Changes the Story

I discovered William S. Burroughs sometime in college. It probably started when I read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," and then I made my way through his literary friends, the kingpins of the Beat writers: Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs. I liked Burroughs the most. His stories were so raw and grotesque, so otherworldly yet still somehow derived from the fears and shortcomings of man alone.

Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and ...
Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart celebrating the reissue of JUNKY, NYC, 1977. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For a time, I devoured Burroughs's work like it was the black meat,* soaking up his macabre monstrosities of sex and death. I bought up all of his spoken-word albums and listened to them until I had his words memorized. I loved his raspy voice, like he was dragging his words through the gravel. It was always so dark, so grimy.

But then something happened.

I heard a recording of Burroughs reading in front of a real audience. It was the first time I had experienced anyone's reactions besides my own, and their reactions surprised me: As Burroughs read through his grotesque story, the audience was laughing.

Take a listen, for example, to "Twilight's Last Gleamings," a story about a supremely botched appendectomy aboard a sinking ship:

The laughter didn't seem out of place in his reading, but it was somehow a new experience for me. I don't know if he had intended the story to be funny when he wrote it. And I suppose it doesn't matter.

I was reminded of this Monday night when I got the chance to read one of my own stories at the Indy WordLab meetup. (The story will show up here eventually, but I want to submit it a few places first.)

So I stood up in front of these people, all writers of varying experience, and read the story. I thought I was building a realistically horrible background of a man trying to be a good son to his dying mother, a selfish, short-sighted, abusive, and bitter old woman who longed only for a life of movie-like drama.

But while I was reading, the audience reacted. They chuckled. They laughed. And I noticed, while I was reading, that yes, that really was kind of funny. Right up to when the main character set the house on fire.

I wasn't expecting their reaction. But their reaction was true, and I appreciate it.

The larger point, though, is the different life that words can take on when they leave the page.Certainly some of it has to do with the delivery. The world's greatest essay will fall flat if it's delivered in a fast, quiet monotone; it won't stir anyone to introspection, laughter, or fear. And the simplest story can become a masterpiece if it's delivered with character and emotion.

But there's more to it than that. There's a whole context to reading a work aloud that isn't present on the written page, and listeners' reactions feed off both that context and your spoken words. They will hear inflections in your voice that you didn't put there. They will interpret subtle physical motions — shifting in your seat, clearing your throat, making eye contact with the audience — as a part of your story and interpret the two together.

They'll even hear jokes that you didn't write. Not intentionally, anyway.

A common self-editing trick is to read your work aloud to yourself, which somehow shines a light on otherwise hidden errors and other shortcomings. Further along in the writing process, having someone else read your work to you can be even more helpful by placing your words into a new context. (If you don't have someone to read to you, try recording your own reading and listening to it without the manuscript in front of you.)

If nothing else, it can give you a better idea of what the narrator in your story might sound like in someone else's mind.

*"The black meat is like a tainted cheese, overpoweringly delicious and nauseating, so that the eaters eat and vomit and eat again until they fall, exhausted." From Naked Lunch

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