This last Friday I flew into NYC and after a wonderful hour long shuttle ride (no joke, I love the long shuttle trips through the neighborhoods) to my hotel, I went to see my friend Claire O’Conner and meet some new friends at the Happy Ending Lounge for some readings. Already a little behind schedule, I put on my speed walk and with directions from the desk clerk I took off. During the two mile walk from the Flat Iron District, my phone died, and I passed the entrance of the place three times as the sign hanging above the entrance was from its former incarnation as a Chinese Health Club. Inside I heard one of the greatest short stories I’ve heard in awhile. Miracle Joe read while a keyboardist and violinist played a soundtrack to his words. I have been lucky enough to read as musicians improvised to my words, but this was exemplary. His words spilled out and blended with the notes and chords so that it was all music.
This brings to mind the adage of reading your work aloud to hear how the language works in your piece and helps create the tone and rhythm. It smooths your sentences and awkward word choices stick out like broken cobblestones. Richard Ford reads all his work to his wife, but cautions, “The liability to it is that you will sometimes — or that I will sometimes reduce a word — rather a sentence — to something slightly less complex than it needs to be. I expect readers who read books of mine to read them silently to themselves and their mind can put up with complex syntax…But when I submit everything to my own spoken voice, sometimes I think I simplify them in ways that perhaps I don’t need to do. So that when I come to a complex passage, I look at it really hard and think to myself, am I going to do harm to this passage if I bring it down to just what I can say aloud?”
And there’s the rub. In writing it is never as prescriptive as “do this thing” or as proscriptive as to say “don’t this thing,” to write successfully. Reading aloud is a valuable tool, but like looking for an address in the city, sometimes you got to slow down to consider the small card in the corner of the window to let you know you’re in the right place under the gaudy pink and yellow sign. As for Miracle Joe, he took us on a wondrous journey through the city and brought the place down.