Do you remember how important bedtime stories used to be? Maybe I’m alone in this (or perhaps just getting old) but every night before my sisters and I were shut into our shared attic bedroom until the sun came back, my mother would read to us. We took turns picking out our favorites–Chrissie loved Skunk at Hemlock Circle, Kaitlin had the entire Muppet Babies collection near-memorized, and I was more than partial to French offerings about orphans and certain controversial elephants, as well as everything ever written by Beatrix Potter. What was read may have been negotiable, but reading aloud was not.
Which is why it is so troubling to me that reading aloud happens rarely, if ever, in my adult life (and no, my boss reading the bullets on a Powerpoint slide during our monthly sales meeting does not count). As a writer, I am chiefly concerned with telling stories. And the sound of a story is just as important as the way it lives on the page, if not more important. Many of the greats are described as having well-trained “ears”–and what does that mean, except that their sentences and dialogue just sound right?
Nine times out of ten, if I’m having trouble unraveling a problem in a piece, be it prose or poem, reading the bit aloud will point me in the right direction for revision. Stories have a music that must be served, a music that simply won’t be heard if the words never leave the page.
The other night, during dinner, my partner and I took turns reading Don DeLillo’s Americana aloud to one another, and I was struck by how right it seemed. So much of the dialogue seemed too clever for its own good flat on the page. But when made audible, there was a playfulness I wouldn’t have found without recitation. In this way, every piece of writing is a poem. The sound of language when it rises off the page is the core of its vitality. The stories we tell aloud are the ones that stay.
Emily O’Neill is a sucker for anything acoustic. She edits poetry for Side B Magazine.