I am a semi-retired stage actor and have also produced and performed several audiobooks over the past few years, one of which received the Earphones Award for Exceptional Audio Performance from AudioFile Magazine.
Stories for the ear
Great stories have a distinct voice. This is not to be confused with the “narrative voice,” which is the perspective from which the story is told. When a writer finds “their voice” it means they have melded the story with a unique and personally nuanced humanity, the gut from which the story emanates and feels like truth. Ever notice how different a story feels when it is told than when you read it silently? There are dynamics which can only be conveyed by a living voice.
In Letters of Ted Hughes, the English poet and children’s writer, husband of Sylvia Plath, offered advice to his daughter Frieda in a letter about the importance of reading aloud – “Read every sentence as a separate music speech unit – advice which he subsequently explains he himself received from T.S. Eliot:
“T.S. Eliot said to me ‘There’s only one way a poet can develop his actual writing – apart from self-criticism & continual practice. And that is by reading other poetry aloud – and it doesn’t matter whether he understands it or not (i.e. even if it’s in another language.) What matters above all, is educating the ear.'”
Then Hughes continues, “What matters, is to connect your own voice with an infinite range of verbal cadences & sequences – and only endless actual experience of your ear can store all that in your nervous system. The rest can be left to your life & your character.”
Although he was referring to poetry, Hughes was also a “supremely original writer of imaginative and critical prose.” Is it reasonable then that the same is true for the writer of narrative prose? Does reading aloud also help develop a writer’s storytelling skill? And if the experience of the writer’s ear, as they read aloud, contributes to the development of their skill as a writer, then is this where the oral and literary traditions intersect, there in the nervous system of the writer? Is it that “infinite range of verbal cadences & sequences” that culminates in a “voice,” the sound of which the writer imagines and feels and embeds in the written word, committing it to consumption by the eye? And does the reader then imagine they hear something like this same voice experiencing, enveloping, flavoring, giving emotional depth to the story? Is part of the reader’s satisfaction directly related to the fluency and clarity of this voice? And then does it follow that when a story is read/told aloud, the listener’s enjoyment and satisfaction is enhanced by the storyteller’s ability to find and channel this “voice?” Who might answer these questions? J.K. Rowling? George R. R. Martin? Hemingway? Shakespeare? The New York Times book critics? Writers and audiobook narrators want to know. My money is on yes. Silent reading is okay too.
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