7 April, 2014
by J. Weintraub
Reading my writing aloud—and I write primarily fiction and personal essays—has always been part of the drill for me. It’s the penultimate or even ultimate stage in my obligatory revision/rewriting sequence: from the initial handwritten drafts; through revisions on screen, with their multiple font and type-size permutations; to several printed versions at the end.I once read somewhere about a writer who hung his manuscripts up on a clothes line, like drying laundry, and then reviewed the pages sequentially through a pair of binoculars. I’ve never gone quite that far to gain distance, but I have been known to print out my hard copies in different colors—red, green, purple—to view each with a fresh eye.
And then I apply a fresh ear since sound, of course, is an important component of most texts, from libretti to exercises in rhetoric. So, I read my prose aloud through several versions, and at least once through nonstop before signing off on it, listening to its rhythm and flow, for the aural sense of it all, as much on the lookout for false notes and discords as for missteps in grammar and usage.
But one day I realized that as long as I was reading my work aloud, particularly at these late stages of the game, I could also seek out a trial listener or two, apply another fresh ear to it and perhaps a fresh critical eye. Certainly, my traditional audience, the four walls of my study, had always been coldly objective and usually nonthreatening, but other than an occasional faint echo during some of my more energetic moments, their feedback was non-existent.
The ideal public for any writer is usually the writer, and with that in mind, I extracted from the depths of my closet an old tape recorder, purchased many years before when Studs Terkel’s books were climbing the charts. After testing it briefly, I grabbed my latest piece and read it slowly and clearly into the microphone. Once finished, I played the tape back; one more chance, I thought, to polish my prose, one more round of auto-criticism.
Perhaps it was the age or the quality of the tape or some failure in the technology, since listening then to my audio was rather like gazing into a mirror the morning after an all-night binge and wondering just who that pathetic, alien creature staring back at me could be. Maybe after multiple listenings, I might have become accustomed to that scratchy, whiney, petulant, unconvincing voice, but that was unlikely, and clearly the better alternative was to destroy both the tape and the recorder. In fact, I was inclined to destroy the manuscript itself (a rather radical form of auto-criticism), but instead secured it in a file drawer where it will remain until the last semblance of the sound of its owner’s voice, like the aroma off a scrap of rotting meat, distills into the atmosphere.
Since my ideal audience was then no longer available, I went in search of other sentient beings who, through feelings of either compassion, sympathy, obligation, or pity, might be willing to listen in polite silence as I read long and hard out to them. The obvious candidates, of course, would be selected from family and friends. Unfortunately, for some time now, I’ve been mining my own experience for both my fiction and essays (Write what you know, right?), and my auditors would often insist on identifying themselves or a loved one in whatever text I was reading, occasionally with good reason. Rather than hearing from them about the integrity of my narrative structure or the elegant lyricism of my prose, I’d get comments like: “Do you really think I’m fat?” or “Mom will never forgive you if that’s ever published” or “I thought you were my friend.” In fact, I attribute the loss of two girlfriends to the process, one of whom identified herself in a particularly predatory and mendacious anti-heroine (although now that I think of it, they were both blondes) and the other who could find absolutely nothing of herself in any of my more sympathetic and attractive characters.
The last time I read to her, she left the room in tears, and I haven’t heard from her since.
It seems that, egos being what they are, some of my listeners were just as disappointed and just as indignant when they could find absolutely nothing of themselves memorialized or even mentioned in the persons or events of my texts. This urge to identify personal representations in my narratives and the contrary reactions when they either did or did not find themselves there soon disqualified most family and friends as a trial audience, with the exception of those who were writers themselves. Most writers, after all, clearly understand an author’s tenuous and often exploitative relationship with reality. Moreover, whereas others reacted in an emotional and personal way, my writer friends felt obliged to respond in an objective and professional manner, no matter how uncomfortable or threatened they might feel by my characterizations. Unfortunately, their commentary was heavily informed by workshops and classes conducted by veteran authors whose practical advice, intended to jump start stalled projects or overcome creative blocks, was converted by my writer-auditors into theoretical constructs for critical analysis. These often emerged as irrelevant critiques that I was not eager to implement or even hear, comments like: “I sort of liked your story, but your narrative arc seemed to flatline at about midway through, don’t you agree?” or “I sort of liked your story, but I couldn’t figure out if what was at stake was anything for anybody anywhere here” or “I sort of liked your story, but frankly I don’t have the slightest idea what your protagonist had for breakfast.”
So, I’ve switched to pets.
As an experiment, I first tried my goldfish. Although they swim around constantly, usually in wide circles, their tank is stationery, so they had no choice but to stick around for as long as I chose to read to them. But when I received not even the slightest reaction, I concluded that they probably had trouble hearing me through all that water, so I began to raise my voice. But the louder I raised it, the faster they began to swim until I was shouting and they were frantically speeding around the tank as if my prose were, rather than words, a succession of depth charges following them in their wake. The next morning I found a pair of them floating on the surface, and although I didn’t take that personally, I decided for both of our sakes not to read to my goldfish any more.
A poet friend recommended that I get a parrot, but just because he taught his pet to recite his own poetry at all hours doesn’t mean that I want to hear parts of my work repeated back to me nonstop by some vacuous bird in a voice recognizably my own but probably alien and shrill enough to make my miscarriage of a tape recording appear to be as consoling as a lullaby.
Dogs, on the other hand, might offer a reliable audience, particularly for someone in need of sympathy and unquestioned support. But they do get restless and usually prefer something other than words tossed in their direction. Nor would I expect much constructive criticism, since, as suggested above, dogs—unless they are rabid or have been trained for combat—are accommodating to a fault and full of blind loyalty. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to be reassured on occasion, and they’ll stick by you when all those rejections come pouring in. As a matter of fact, during one particularly low point in my life, I took a sack of soup bones and several draft chapters of a new novel into a back alley in search of strays; unfortunately, on that occasion all I attracted were a couple of rats, and the less said about them the better.
My landlord, however, is a cat lover and doesn’t allow canines in the building, and so, since I, too, have a cat, I read aloud to her.
Despite what you might think, cats listen. They may not make eye contact, they may turn their back on you and walk away down the hall, sprawl across the floor, and kick up their leg to lick their behind, but believe me, they are listening and aware. They are particularly attentive if they are a single cat and unconcerned about maintaining what I’m sure they would consider to be a superior relationship with a peer.
They are also very patient creatures, and will sit through what to them may be an excruciatingly boring experience if they think a payoff is somewhere down the line. Remember, the cat is a close relative of the lion, and lions have been known to crouch low in the veldt for days, waiting for a calf to wander from the herd with all the fierce and bloody patience of a copyeditor on the lookout for a dangling participle. Moreover, if you want to be assured of full attention, you can also schedule your reading so that its conclusion will coincide with your auditor’s dinnertime.
Dogs have been known to jump up and howl if your reading excites them, or leap onto your lap and slobber all over your face if they sense discouragement, as if to say, “Don’t worry, you’ll take care of everything in the next rewrite. I have faith in you!” But don’t expect much positive or negative feedback from your cat. Sometimes, mine will flick and sweep her tail usually in reaction to one of my more emotive passages, and during my erotic sequences (in which I take considerable pride) she will often slump down and, for some reason, begin cleaning herself. Once, though, she reared up, hunched her back, and actually hissed at what I think she took to be an egregious cliché, although I swear it was meant ironically (an effect often lost on both felines and inattentive readers).
As soon as I finish, I always ask, “Well, what did you think?” She will invariably approach and circle me several times, rubbing against my ankles and calves, which I take to be a sign of approval. Although as she turns her tail skyward and leads me into the kitchen, towards the refrigerator, I think I know exactly what she’d tell me if she could talk. “I suppose it’s all right,” she’d say, “but if I were writing it, I’d have a lot more sudden movement in it, and would it kill you to throw in a mouse or two?”
Which brings me to the moral of my tale: If literature were all about sudden movement and mice, cats would be terrific literary critics.
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