Tag Archives: reading out loud

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: A Few Goodbyes, Reading with a Friend, Writing Some More, Going Home


I’m sitting in the airport in a beat up arm chair looking out over the tarmac through these gigantic windows. I’ve got three hours to kill because the ride from Mt. Holyoke dropped me off early. It’s an ugly, long flight clear across the country, from Hartford, Connecticut to Chicago and then home to Portland. I will get home tonight at 11, but it will feel to me like 1 in the morning. If I can keep from sleeping on planes, I’ll sleep well tonight after a little reunion with my family. As much fun as I’ve had, I miss them very much, my wife and boy. Dogs too. I can’t wait to see the place. It should be freshly painted when I get home, a project going on all through my absence.

I’m struck by how the Writer’s Camp has a way to linger on until the very last minutes. I slept in this morning so, missing breakfast, I was able to say goodbye to only a few of my writer buddies–my departure felt less like a closing and a little bit more like an opening. A little breakfast and coffee with Dave and Dawn, and then a road trip.

David gave me a ride to the airport from the college, and while he drove, for about 40 minutes, I read out loud to him from a novel that I’ve been jonesing to read for several years now, Renata Adler’s Speedboat. So we had ourselves a little experience. I suspected I would dig this novel, as it came with some super duper high recommendations from other writers I love, but I had no real idea what it would be like to read or what it would be about. It turned out to be about the most perfect book for a road-read one could possibly hope for. On every page there seemed to be some key thing that we wanted or needed to stop and discuss. And because the novel, at least in the first section, is broken up into these little vignettes, it lended itself perfectly to interruptions for driving conversations. From the opening epigraph from Evelyn Waugh, to the first chapter title (we couldn’t decide whether the single word title was a noun or a verb, decided it could be both, and then after reading for awhile decided it was indeed both, and that both interpretations worked equally well); each little piece we read, short, punchy, puzzling, enigmatic, surprising and funny, distinguished from the other vignettes by a double space between paragraphs, intrigued us, brought us together trying to puzzle it out, made us hunger for more, made me sorry David wasn’t driving me all the way to Oregon.

Reading out loud to another person, especially a friend, is a heavenly experience. I mean, I think David liked it, at least he said he did, but I loved it. Because the book was awesome, yes, but also because there’s something of constant discovery or surprise in it, and a phenomenal intimacy is forged as these funny shapes on paper turn into words spoken and sentences uttered and those utterances become a shared experience, a common or mutual understanding, constructed in partnership. What’s cooler than that?

So in the car with David I was giving a reading, taking a class, and here, at the airport, with a three hour window of waiting by a big window, I’m writing. I’m still camping. Oozing with gratitude and missing the tribe already. I’m reading, writing, napping, having a meal clear across the continent, getting on a plane again and again, going home.

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The Audio Book Experience: Musings on Being Read To and Reading Out Loud

audible-free-book1

I have never been much of an audiobook kind of guy. I like reading. I’ve always felt a kind of snobbery about the audiobook, as if somehow the actual reading of text on a page and making all of the voices and inflections and imagery happen in one’s head is a more rigorous endeavor, that listening is kind of like cheating. This may or may not be true–and it comes from a guy who loves to read out loud for a listening audience, be they students or readers of my fiction or fellow writers. Maybe it’s the actor in me–but I think reading out loud to an audience or being read to can be a kind of transformative experience.  More on this later.

I recently tried audible.com, and some time ago I finished listening to my first ever unabridged audio book: Robin E. Black​’s  Life Drawing. I loved the experience. The writing, clearly exquisite and wise, but the performance by Cassandra Campbell was pretty phenomenal. And I’m amazed, but not surprised, how the audiobook experience can be so totally shaped by the performance of the reader.  After that first successful round I tried a sample of another book I have been interested for a long time in reading, but the voice of the reader bothered me to such a degree that I could not go through with it.

I tried again with a book I have on my shelf, started reading some years ago now and for some reason gave up on, Marilynne Robinson’s Home. I love Marilynne Robinson.  Her novel Housekeeping is still for me one of the greatest American novels of the last half of the 20th century.  So I didn’t give up on Home because of a lack of interest, but rather for the reason I give up on a lot of reading projects these days: I get distracted and I move on to another thing.  It’s not a characteristic for which I am especially proud.  So I downloaded Home from audible.com.  It took me awhile, but I finally, on Father’s Day in fact, listened to the novel’s conclusion–but with this exception: for the last 50 pages or so of the novel, I pulled the book down off of the shelf and I read along with the audio.

I do not own a copy of Robin Black’s novel. I listened to that entire audiobook and, as I’ve said, it was a great experience, but I would find my brain, every now and again, drifting away from the narrative, trying to go somewhere else, and frustrated, I would sometimes have to listen again to entire sections–in the same way, I suppose, we have to reread a paragraph from an actual book when our minds wander away. Not a reflection at all on the quality of the writing or the performance of the reader–it’s all pretty much our fault, the fault of a recalcitrant brain.  But I found, when I picked up Robinson’s novel and read along while I was listening, something really wonderful happened with my level of engagement, my comprehension, and my emotional investment.  I was all over it.

I think I understand the appeal for most folks about audio books.  If you like to read but have to drive a lot and it kills your leisure time for reading, audio books are good.  If you like to work out, are a runner or a gym frequenter, audio books are a good way to exercise the mind WHILE you do the whole body thing.  If you can’t read, or don’t read well, and like the idea of experiencing this thing called a book, audio books may be of some help.  But I think I, as a recent convert to the audio book experience, appreciate the audio book in a different way–and who knows, maybe there are others in the same boat. As I said above, I love to read out loud, to an audience, sure, but often, if I can manage it, alone in the house or lounging in the yard, to myself. Yes, I love to read out loud to myself.  And here’s the key reason I find the audiobook, in particular the audiobook in companionship and in tandem with the actual analog book, to be so rewarding.

The brain wants to go places.  Specifically, the brain wants to go other places while reading. The brain has to have total buy-in and focus for its host human to be able to read well.  Some people are gifted as readers, or rather, they’ve worked really hard in the practice of reading, and this kind of concentration is second nature to them. Most of us, I bet, are not in this boat.  Sometimes as a reader, I’m on fire.  But most of the time, I have difficulty attending for long periods at a stretch, UNLESS, I am reading out loud.  Or, as I’ve discovered recently, I am reading with my eyes while listening to an effective reading performance recorded for my pleasure and edification by some professional voice actor.

Here’s what happens, and it’s what I would argue happens when I read out loud to students most of the time. The eyes are seeing the words and the brain is doing that whole incredible decoding thing, and on top of the decoding, the brain does that whole comprehension thing where squiggly markings become abstract sounds which become words which become concepts and images which strung together with other concepts and images become meaningful sentences that tell a story, prove a point, or a million other things. On top of that already sophisticated brain activity, the ears are hearing the sounds and the words and the sentences and the brain is decoding that as well and ultimately it’s as if the reader is reading twice, two times simultaneously.  Two times the comprehension.  Two times the enjoyment.  It’s like a chorus of understanding and appreciation. So that’s part of it.  I read better when I am seeing, speaking, and listening, or at least two of these three in tandem.

But there’s another aspect to reading out loud or being read out loud to that is not about comprehension but about community, connection, and intimacy.  I think there is something so integral and profound and ancient about the act of oral storytelling, first of all in public or in a public way, e.g., the public reading in classrooms, bookstores, libraries, and theaters, or the public availability and consumption of the audio book, but secondly, and more profoundly, perhaps, the reading out loud in private and in partnership.  I love to read out loud to my son. Before my son was born and we had more time, my wife and I used to take turns reading out loud to each other, a ritual I sorely miss. I don’t even know if I have the words to express what this particular practice has meant to me.  Would it be illegal to close by quoting a William Stafford poem in its entirety?  I’m going to do it, and we’ll see what happens.  It’s that good.  It’s that important.  Good night.  Find somebody who will read out loud with you.

ritual

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Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Reading What’s Not On The Page

 

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I arrived at Mt. Holyoke College last night right in the middle of dinner after a long day of traveling. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning in order to get to the Portland airport by 5 to catch a plan by 6 to arrive in Chicago to hang out for a couple of hours and have lunch with my friend Annie, then to get on a plane to Hartford and from there to share a shuttle with Annie to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass, to arrive just in time for dinner and to enjoy the first readings of the conference and afterwards a drink with Wally buddies. We call ourselves Wallies. I’m not sure why we do that. My guess has always been that Wally must be short or a nickname for the fellow our writing college was named after: Warren Wilson. I cannot, however, at this time, verify the truth or accuracy of my guess. I’ll look into this and get back to you.

Today’s schedule is light. Workshops are the only thing happening during the day. Nothing else formally scheduled until this evening’s readings. So if attendees are not workshopping, they are freee with an extra e. I have been choosing not to workshop so that I can spend my energies writing writing writing. Today, I have not been writing, but rather, I’ve been reading my writing, which is all part of the same thing, ultimately. As I am working on a longer piece, time spent reading my writing is necessary in order for me to immerse myself, to get back into that other world, that world that I left behind many, many months ago now. There’s always a fear that when I come back to something I haven’t worked on for awhile that I will be unhappy with it, that I won’t like it, that I will no longer be interested. That rarely happens to me, happily, but that doesn’t prevent me from worrying about it, nevertheless. I read to myself and I rediscover usually what it was that hooked me to begin with.

I read to myself out loud—so I have to be alone in a room, not in a library or a bookshop or a coffee house–people would think I was nuts—I can’t write in public places because I can’t read out loud. So I’m here in this conference room all alone in the science building reading out loud to myself and I’ve stumbled upon a problem or a dilemma. An opportunity.

I am writing a first person narrative that is set in Oregon—Portland to be exact, my hometown, and on the coast of Oregon—Newport precisely.

For some reason I cannot explain, my narrator has a southern accent. Ultimately, I know I have to understand why that is. Right now, I can’t do it. I only know that this is how he speaks or how I hear him speaking. I have not written in dialect. In fact, I think that if I were to give pages of this thing to someone to read out loud or to themselves, there is no reason to suspect that this reader could discern or would interpret this speaker as being a southerner. And the narrator does not identify himself that way, at least not explicitly, not yet anyway. So when I read it, I am reading something that is not on the page. This interests me.

And so I have this burning question. Must it be on the page? My gut tells me that it should. If I understand the voice of my narrator correctly, his southern-ness is an important trait, something that I cannot leave up to the fates to help my reader understand. My gut tells me that I have to know how he came to be in the Northwest, and that somehow in his narration he must reveal his origins to the reader. But there is a counter-gut feeling telling me that maybe after all the fates should decide. I hear his southern drawl. Someone else may not. Is the story he tells dependent upon his regional identity? Could it be that he just doesn’t identify himself that way, at least consciously or overtly? Unless the character believes his southern-ness is central to his identity or to the story he is trying to tell, why should he mention it? If I read the piece in a particular voice, and somebody reads the piece in a distinctly different voice, is the second voice less valid because it is different from the one I hear? And does the piece suffer with this kind of ambiguity or openness to interpretation? Here’s the question—or the real problem. The problem of how the piece is read out loud, by the writer or anyone else, is moot. It matters little or not at all. What matters is this: Does the thing work on the page? Is it engaging? Is it good? Is the character in question believable, interesting, sufficiently complex? This other stuff is a question of ORAL interpretation, which is a different animal altogether from the writing of effective, meaningful, artful fiction—and that’s what I am hoping to do.

But I still wonder. I’m waffling. I want to understand, still, why I’m reading what’s not on the page and what it says about this character and this book, and what it says about the writer.

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#93: The Resident Eight Year Old Questions the Literary Merits of Finnegans Wake

What the hell is wrong with that book,
he asks, listening to Dad attempt a reading
out loud of the third paragraph of Finnegans Wake.
What the hell is wrong with that book, Dad?
Well, for starters, there’s a word in the paragraph
in question, the third word in the first sentence,
in parentheses, that’s 100 letters strong and ends
in an exclamation mark, of course.
The boy hears the word
bababadalgharaghtakamminarrounn-
tonnerrontuonnthunntrovarrhounawn-
skawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!
and understandably wonders about
the novel’s literary merits,
clearly does not understand the word
as a possible metaphor for the origin
of everything, eventually spewing out
Finnegan at short notice,
sending any unquiring ones
in quest of his tumptytomtoes.
See? As plain as the day is long.

 

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#92: On Reading The Wake Out Loud

Me and the Wake

I’ve written before
how it’s been impossible
for me to finish Moby Dick
and now I’ve once again
picked up another formidable
tome, Finnegans Wake.
This one, too, I’ve tried
many times before and failed
but nevertheless keep
coming back to it,
a glutton for punishment.
But with neither Moby Dick
or the Wake do I feel punished.
Something there is that
doesn’t care for an easy
read, that takes great
pleasure in the difficulty,
that has fun, especially
in the case of Joyce,
with the pure playfulness
despite enormous, near
insurmountable obstacles
to comprehension. And,
maybe, too, it’s a way for me
to get in touch with how
my students feel
sometimes when asked
to read Shakespeare
or Heaney or Morrison.
Although, it’s true that they may be
crying while I am laughing,
unable to get themselves
into the space of really
loving what seems nigh
impossible to understand,
allowing all that difficulty
to pass over their tongues
and out into the space
of the room, listening
to the voice of Joyce
coming out of their mouths.

 

 

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#78: The American English Teacher Wonders About the Effectiveness of Reading To His Students

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My students love it when I read out loud to them.
Well, that might be putting it on a bit thick.
Let’s say instead that they prefer that to reading independently.
I read out loud well and this guarantees at the end
at least some level of certainty that every kid in the room
has in some way engaged with the text, or, if they
did nothing but listen the whole time, they will have
understood a large part of the material we are
supposedly dealing with today. Only a few of them
will nod off to my mellifluous delivery.
But I worry that I’m not doing them any favors
when I read out loud; I worry that I am only making it
easier for them, that I’m doing most of the heavy lifting,
and perhaps it’s not helping them to improve
their own abilities to grapple with difficult material.
Deep down I know these worries are valid, and maybe true.
So I tell these kids, recently introduced to Romanticism
in American Literature—here’s a fun piece by Washington Irving
to read on your own and here are some big questions
to wrestle with along the way and we’ll write and
we’ll talk about it all when you get done reading.

They can’t do it. Or they won’t do it. In small groups,
reading out loud, or independently and in silence,
most of them throw in the towel after two or three
pages, they give up on the reading altogether as soon as they get
to an unknown word or a difficult sentence. They try then to guess
at answers to the questions. Their work deteriorates
into social stuff or they become buried in their smart phones.
Some resourceful ones have found audio versions
of “Rip Van Winkle” on youtube, and instead of listening
to me, they’re  listening to some other fool read out loud.
They don’t understand the sentences, let alone the jokes,
and I push and prod and encourage and cajole but
it all comes to naught, falls mostly on deaf ears,
and they blame the material for being stupid, uninteresting,
or (my favorite) boring.  It’s not the material, I say,
and out of decorum or professionalism, I don’t finish the sentence.

And this comes back again to the problem
of tracked classrooms, even student-selected ones.
In my regular English classes
there are very few students rising to the occasion and
those students do not want to stand out in a crowd
where ineptitude and apathy run amok,
where aversion to difficulty is the norm.
And I am stuck between a rock and another rock
trying to decide between Mr. Jarmer Story Time
or one failed lesson after another because students
cannot or will not read IN CLASS. Of course
there’s a happy medium, but today it was entirely
unhappy and most kids spent 87 minutes not reading
while I wrung my hands and gnashed my teeth.

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