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  • The Talking Blues
  • Jeffrey Hammond (bio)

I'm wedged into a tiny recording booth in our campus studio, peering past a microphone hovering so close that my eyes keep crossing as I read from some large-font pages spread out on a music stand. A faculty colleague has asked me to record one of my essays to post as a sound file on a college webpage, and it has been very slow going. In the playbacks my breathing is shockingly audible, each sentence punctuated by the frantic wheeze of a drowning person. Indeed, I sound as if I'm already under water: the words don't flow so much as gurgle, the occasional click of a glottis cutting through a series of high-fidelity gasps and gulps. It's as if my viscera—esophagus, lungs, stomach—are exposed for all to hear.

After two hours of takes and retakes, we finally make it through the five-page piece. Desperate to get out of the booth, I've long since stopped caring what I sound like. Although my colleague has tried to be patient, she cannot mask her exasperation. "It'll probably be OK," she says with a sigh. "I think I can clean it up." Grateful that the ordeal has ended, I leave the studio with no way of knowing that several months later she will ask me to do this all over again. She will tell me, quite rightly, that the piece sounded "too read."

That recording session confirmed what I already knew: I am no good at reading my work aloud. The sad reality, which the tape captured perfectly, is a strained voice and a stiff delivery. A preferable fiction—the one that my colleague was seeking—would be the relaxed voice of a person who is not reading at all, but talking. I like my colleague and have already promised to give it another try, but the artifice of the enterprise disturbs me. For one thing, if our second session makes my speech sound eloquent and melodious, the recording will be utterly false. For another, an essay that is being [End Page 115] read as if it were not being read but spoken off the top of one's head is not really an essay at all, but something else.

I'm not sure what to call it. It would present itself, I suppose, as the usual talk of an unusually smooth talker. But any essayist can tell you that written prose, however conversational it seems, can never really be a person talking, smoothly or otherwise. Despite the surprise of Molière's Monsieur Jourdain at learning that he had been speaking "prose" his entire life, writing offers only a faint approximation—a vastly improved one, the writer hopes—of ordinary speech. To read an essay aloud is, on some level, an attempt to claim for it an orality that it has already eschewed by virtue of being written in the first place. Add a microphone in a sound booth, and the ostensible progression from mouth to ear, already suspect when applied to a written essay, becomes patently false because no hearer is actually present.

Then again, I feel uncomfortable reading my essays aloud even when an audience is present. Although this is mostly because I am a poor reader, I suspect that it also reflects a writer's defensiveness—my resistance to the widespread assumption that nonfiction prose is simply transcribed speech, unmediated by art and craft. Doesn't "talking" an essay reinforce this misconception? And what if a reasonably good writer also happens to be a bumbling, semiarticulate talker? I love to write in part because it lets me compensate for being such a banal talker in real life. Acutely aware of the gap between how I want to write a thing and the flat form that I would give it in ordinary conversation, I am an unusually deliberate writer, carefully cladding my thoughts in a full armor of writerly choices. When I read my work aloud and thus force it into an oral dimension from which it was written to flee, I feel this armor falling off in loud, mortifying clangs.

This is an...


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pp. 115-124
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