On Writing For the Ear

April 7, 2009 § 16 Comments

John Bresland talks about recording “Future Ex Buys Pajamas.”

[Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from a presentation John Bresland gave at this year’s AWP Conference in a panel on the radiophonic essay. We’re very pleased to include it here so that neither the audio essay nor the wisdom gleaned from its creation are lost to all except the 80 or so people crammed into a stifling hotel conference room that winter’s morning.]

Some years ago, back when Clinton still presided, I found myself in a Parisian lingerie boutique with my then-girlfriend. And I tried, as all men must, to appear harmless. As though every thought that passed through my head weren’t despicable. As though I didn’t want to roll up every Frenchwomen in sight and all this lingerie de femme into one silky Ding Dong and swallow it whole.

I was in my mid-twenties, then, living in Montmartre near the crypt where the Jesuits took their first vows of chastity. I was going to write fiction, speak French, learn to be a better man — all fantasies, but I tell you this: that lingerie was real. Expensive. And not especially comfortable for Then Girlfriend to wear. So instead of the Aubade Fleurs de Pommier bra-panty-garter ensemble, she bought pajamas. And the relationship never recovered.

When Brevity accepted “Future Ex Buys Pajamas,” an essay about that experience, I emailed the editor to ask if he might like to post the attached audio version. The editor never replied. Either Brevity didn’t take a shine to my monotonic voice — fair enough — or literary magazines, even those born online, don’t yet have a slot for literary multimedia (two exceptions, of course, being Blackbird and Ninth Letter, who issue regular calls for it).1

I wanted “Future Ex” to be experienced as audio because that’s where it belonged. It’s a confession. And I knew while writing it that when we speak of memoir in such a way, when we brand it confessional, we’re effectively shelving it among lesser art forms. But I was nonetheless drawn to the form — it worked for St. Augustine. And really, who would hesitate to lend their ear to a penitent? Part of what makes confessions seductive (and uncomfortable) is their intimacy. To try to bottle that, I wrote the essay orally, speaking the words as I typed. No sentence was set before I could say it in a way that felt whispered in the dark.

This meant, as a practical matter, that I had to write shorter sentences, fewer clauses, less decoration. And I was mindful of using a spoken idiom. A more difficult question, though, was how to create a soundscape, a radiophonic voice and texture that furthered that intimacy.

Here’s where I started. The first paragraph of “Future Ex,” spoken slowly, into a pretty good microphone, an ElectroVoice RE20:

[AUDIO http://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/audio%20files/1-vox-naked.mp3%5D

Nothing special here. I’m no actor, and certainly no vocal performer. I tell myself this is a good thing. Radio personalities, with their practiced vocal modulations, skirt the edge of condescension. No danger of that with my flat vocal.

But how to create a sound that feels close? One way to get there, I thought, was to route the vocal through a telephone speaker. The tinny texture of telephones is, in a way, the aural equivalent of 8mm film, intimate, flawed, private, lo-fi. Here’s that same audio played back through a handset:

Nothing dramatic, but still — a decidedly lower-resolution timbre. A voice transmitted by copper wire. It’s a simple manipulation, maybe even something of a gimmick. But out of this simple distortion a persona, albeit a slightly creepy one, does begin to emerge.

I also wanted to get some music going. Even if music sometimes feels like cheating. I remember Ira Glass mentioning once, several years ago in an interview, that he wanted to stop using music in This American Life. He feared music was a crutch that concealed a story’s rough seams. But when I tuned in last week, he was still playing that same Trainspotting song. And he should. Because it works.

It works because music reaches us in places words cannot, and it reaches us at higher levels of intensity. That’s because music and sound, unlike language, are visceral. English words set in print, no matter how well written, can never be enjoyed by someone outside the language. Music, on the other hand, doesn’t care what language you speak.

Alex Ross writes that music takes a direct route to the senses. Which is why you must like — unless you’re dead inside — the song “Dancing Queen.” Intellectually and aesthetically, you may hate ABBA. But the melody bypasses our coolness filters, our various hipster-defense mechanisms, and floods the cortex with aural cracksmoke. The term “guilty pleasure” was invented to account for this disparity between music we want to like (Weezer) and music we really like (the Rocky theme).

The next step was to beat the bushes in search of a tune. I started by auditioning dozens, and then hundreds, of songs, voicing the text aloud while doing so. It’s fairly easy to find music that sounds decent. But finding music that’s perfect is difficult. Here’s that same vocal paired with a track by Aphex Twin:

I like this. Or thought I did. Until I submitted the project to the Missouri Review’s audio contest. The judges yawned. And I know one reason why. In trying to create an essay that felt intimate or overheard, I was seduced by music that sounded great, but didn’t advance the essay’s central idea. Aphex Twin, while beautifully produced and performed, is, in effect, too musical, too lush, and bends my confession toward Hollywood.

So I turned to music of another sort, a composition by the great composer and accordianist, Pauline Oliveros. Among her specialties is the drone. Here’s a clip of Oliveros and her collaborator, Stuart Dempster, from Deep Listening, a stunning track entitled “Lear”:

Pauline Oliveros makes recordings in hyper-resonant locales — caves, cathedrals, underground cisterns. And she uses all kinds of crazy instrumentation — trashcan lids, lunch boxes, whatever. One peculiar quality to her music is, after a few minutes, you almost cease to hear it. Her compositions fall away until what you hear, or think you hear, is an amplified version of your own consciousness. “Lear” is less a musical performance than an articulation of what it feels like to be alive. Which makes me think my short essay, twined with Oliveros, is moving closer to completion.

I should add, here, that the idea of drones underpinning and extending the reach of language is nothing new. The great radio artist, Joe Frank, has been layering his works with masterful drones and loops for decades, to great effect.

This is “Future Ex Buys Pajamas.”

Excerpt of ‘Lear’ courtesy of the Deep Listening Band, New Albion Records.

1 Imagine my chagrin, sitting in that hotel room between a cute girl and a wise-looking professor-type with elbow patches on his sport coat, everyone chuckling at Brevity‘s possible folly! Many thanks to John for allowing us to remedy such an oversight. Hmm, blog as penance: I got dibs on that essay. —M.E.


§ 16 Responses to On Writing For the Ear

  • Emma H. says:

    Were you naked and squatting in a closet when you recorded your essay? Because that’s what it sounds like. this isn’t at ALL how I read your essay.

  • Gary Presley says:

    Long ago and far away — during the race to the moon, actually — I wrote radio commercials. A station engineer came up with the idea of recording via telephone to give the effect of a man on the moon for a commercial.

    I like the effect here. I like the pacing of the voice. And the final line ties the essay in the perfect knot.

    Gary http://www.garypresley.com

  • Robin Mizell says:

    Normally, I pay little attention to audio recordings, but this one was fun. (RED)WIRE, an online music magazine still in beta, originally planned to offer short stories as audio downloads, but I don’t see that it has come to pass. Too bad, because it’s a good idea.

  • V. A. W. says:

    While I find this explanation interesting, I find the music very distracting as do I the altered voice. It seems too formidable for the simplicity of the story. And I think I would prefer it just straightly delivered in your natural voice without the extraneous stuff.

    I do enjoy your story though.

    Thanks, V.A.Worthy

  • J.D. Anderson says:

    While this is well-written, the delivery of the reading is far too self-concious for my tastes. My twenty years of audio production expereince tells me this is overly-produced. The whispered delivery is pretentious. The narrator is taking himself and his writing much too seriously. All the subtly is gone and everything has become intentional (read: gimicky). It smacks of naval gazing on steroids, which is not what this piece is about as a stand-alone without the audio. My suggestion: tell me this story like I’m your neighbor listening to you over the fence in the backyard. I don’t want to be read to. But I do want to hear a story that touches me.

  • hfreeman17 says:

    This is what I got from this piece: in audio version–a process of your arriving at I found quite fascinating–it is bleak and nihilistic. The written words have a humor and winsomeness of their own, which win over the reader. So, either I find myself isolated from the storyteller (and even from others around me; it can be so engrossing) in the audio version–but fascinated by the process–or engaged and laughing along with the writer of a normal if well-written essay.

  • […] and exposure.  The excellently maintained Brevity blog is one reason for this.  There’s an interesting post there today adapted from a presentation by John Bresland about memoir as confession and the need […]

  • Lisa says:

    Fascinating. Although I much prefer to read (versus listening to audio essays), I can appreciate the nuances you used to invoke just the correct tone and mood for your piece. The end result is truly a work of art!

    By the way, what IS up with all those lingerie stores in Paris? Perhaps it is for the ultra wealthy there? None of the Parisian women go out and buy from those boutiques–or, if they do they won’t admit it.

  • Mary Akers says:

    Really interesting to compare the experience of reading this essay vs listening to it read. The audio version gave it a totally different feel than my head-reading of it. Fascinating.

  • miette49 says:

    I happen to have learned a thing or two about reading aloud (if you’ll excuse the sleazy self-promotional crap) over the past several years. I’ve been reading short fiction aloud, then listening to it, and find that it allows me to go far deeper into a story than I do on the page. And I agree that some genres and formats just demand to be delivered from mouth-to-ear and not page-to-eyeball.

    But I agree with others… if you’re going to do so for the sake of intimacy (and what other sake is there?), I’d keep it simple, cozy up to a microphone, keep the effects out. It’s a great memoir– to continue the experiment, I’d love to read it and compare the output.

  • maryanne stahl says:

    this reading/music is much too self-important. turns me completely off a smart and readable essay.

  • I think all work should be read aloud… since most people read it silently in their head anyway. An admitted audiophile myself, to me hearing work aloud, especially they rhythms and intonations the writer intended, allows me to experience the work in a very different way. Listening takes practice.

  • Kim Groninga says:

    Agreed: the music and voice manipulation is distracting. But–to be fair–this setting calls attention to the production process and, of course, to the music selection and voicing choices. I wonder if the response would be different had the listeners here encountered the audio essay on its own. What do you think? (Might be interesting to post the audio essay without the explanation and see if comments are made about the effect choices.)

    And from a different angle, I find the discussion here very interesting and thank JB for sharing his process in this way.

  • Verna Wilder says:

    Interesting article about the nuances of reading/music, and I tried to keep an open mind, but there I was at the final piece, feeling invaded by music that keeps me from appreciating the story. I listen to a lot of audio-books and am always annoyed when the intro music continues as the narrative begins. No no no! I say aloud to the cat. Give me the narrative, the voice, the story to drift into. I like my music and my narrative pure, not overlapping. And I also like a good reader whose voice and style let me drop into the story; this voice/style calls attention to itself and I couldn’t listen to the whole piece.

    Even so, I do appreciate the discussion.

  • Wildworder says:

    Steven Hill, host of NPR’s “Hearts of Space”, meets comedian Steven Wright…on top of the Parisian suicide tower…following a lingerie shop visit. Sorry, I couldn’t get past the rediculous delivery. Thumbs down on this one.

  • […] post up at the Brevity blog dated Feburary 17.  A few weeks ago, John Bresland’s Brevity post got us talking about nonfiction and fiction as confession.  Kyle’s post gets at something […]

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