Sunday, February 5, 2012

Reading silently, reading aloud

I've heard it said that the real test of writing is reading it aloud, that writing (especially poetry) is meant to be read aloud, and that reading aloud is a good step during revision. And while I agree that sound can be an important part of the words we choose, I'm finally admitting that I don't fully agree with these oft-repeated pronouncements.

Writing may have evolved from oral story-telling traditions, but at the moment, the way most of us interact with text is by viewing it on a page or a screen. There is something about that silence, about the shape of the letters, about the white space, that is special to the visual sense. There are forms of wordplay involving words that sound alike but are spelled differently, which only work when you see them instead of hear them. And for all that poetry is said to be an oral form, concrete poetry and acrostics make the most sense when viewed. 

As a reader, I also like being able to go at my own pace, to stop and think about certain sentences, to reread a line. I like being able to choose the inflections and decide how a character's voice sounds. This is all more difficult to do when listening to someone else read a text aloud.

I won't argue that picture books, plays, and screenplays are meant to be read aloud. And I won't argue that reading aloud any piece of writing can bring something extra to the table (an example that springs instantly to mind: David Sedaris reading his own essays). But I think visual silent reading is its own experience and no less valuable, and that some writing can actually cater to that experience.

I've been thinking about all this as I prepare to give a reading at the New York Public Library this week. I've decided on a scene with dialogue in it, because when I practiced the two scenes I was considering, this one just seemed a better choice for reading to an audience. (The other one I was considering was quieter, more descriptive.) It's like my experience as a concertgoer: for listening to something alone in my room, I may like a quiet, dark, or slow piece of music, but if I'm out there in a room full of people, I want something louder, faster, more upbeat.

4 comments:

  1. My only comment is this: Why aloud and not outloud? Why does out loud insist on being two words?

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    1. I don't know, but at some point since my childhood, "all right" became the single word "alright." I think it has something to do with solar flares, or maybe 17-year locusts.

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  2. Good luck with the reading this week. That must be very exciting (nerve-wracking?) for you.

    I read my work out loud sometimes, especially when I feel a sentence is not working. Someone once told me that it would help me with my comma placements.

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    1. It just might, since commas often serve as those "take a breath" spots.

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