Reading out loud, Nietzsche, and Morgan Freeman


That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts.

I think I first read Nietzsche’s comment in a Harold Bloom book, years ago.  My first thought was “Well, you found words for that, didn’t you?”  And then I thought, was that joke dead in my heart before I said it?  No, it wasn’t.  (Maybe it’s dead now, since I’ve written it down.)

But it’s a powerful idea anyway: that the act of finding words for something means that we’ve already distanced ourselves from the act of experiencing it, from the truth of experience itself.  More from Nietzsche in the same vein:

Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier and simpler.

Kind of the anti-Ayn Rand, he was.  Rand was always suspicious of feelings, of the subconscious (I think I remember reading that she once used the word “cesspool” to describe the subconscious).  Nietzsche takes the view that there’s a natural disconnect between our internal experience and the act of articulating that experience.  But there’s more to it than that, I think — we confound the experience with the words we’ve chosen to represent it.

Of course if you’re a writer, you’re kind of stuck with trying to represent experience with words.  And Nietzsche’s idea discounts the power that language has to shape how we experience the world, not just how we reflect on our own experiences.  When I look up at a certain kind of sky, for example, I’m looking at Dahlgren, even thirty years after I read the book.  Words (crazy words, unsettling words) inform emotion, just as much as the other way around.

I was thinking about all this because I recorded the audio version of my poem “A History.”  And I had a few thoughts:

1) Recording anything more than a few sentences without stumbling, breathing weird, or having a goofy inflection is very difficult.

2) I was right that it’s not a good poem to read out loud, unless the person doing the reading is Morgan Freeman.  I am not Morgan Freeman.  My voice isn’t terrible, but: I’m not Morgan Freeman.  No matter how much I try to be.

But there’s another part to it, which is where Nietzsche comes in.  Writing is intensely solitary, not only because it’s done alone but because the words are read alone, they develop their shape and their sound inside the reader’s head.  And that head might be a crazy place, not suitable at all for the words you wrote, but it’s still a kind of theatre, isolated from everything else, with perfect acoustics.

Say the words aloud, and the theatre is gone.  It’s another medium, but it’s like a completely different venue, too.  The words are just out there, frozen, helpless, screaming.  And not always in a good way.

Read something out loud and you’ll find out very quickly if it’s stupid.  Because no one will be kinder with your words than you.

As an editor I always listen for the sound of a piece of writing.  If I can’t hear it, if it doesn’t sound genuine, then I won’t fall into the story.  Probably my one real piece of advice for any writer would be: read your story (or poem) out loud.  (Actually two pieces of advice: wait at least a month; then read it out loud.)  Maybe you won’t be the best reader, but it can only help — not only with that particular piece, but with your ability to imagine how the work sounds inside someone else’s head.

My verdict on “A History” — I did a passable job.  I didn’t wince.  Several takes, each one lasting more than four minutes, and I think I screwed something up every single time.  Not the best poem for the medium, but a fun (and instructive) thing to try.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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