Reading Aloud: The Awkwardness and the Ecstasy

by Eric Morris-Pusey

Like receiving constructive criticism or allowing (or forcing) oneself to be emotionally honest, reading aloud can be deeply uncomfortable—but it’s also, at least for me, a vital part of the writing process.

Performing poems or stories publicly, whenever you get the chance to do so, is obviously an important way of getting them into the world. But beyond that, the act of reading aloud privately a piece you wrote or something you love is a different way of connecting with it, as opposed to reading it on the page or hearing it in another’s voice.

Reading aloud is an essential part of my revision process for my own poems (and prose, when I write it). It’s also becoming more and more important to my work on Nimrod’s editorial board. While that means I get odd glances when reading submissions at the local coffee shop, it makes me a better editor.

The act of shaping a poem’s words with my own mouth allows me a deeper understanding of it than does reading with my eyes alone, or even listening to the poet. It’s something I can’t quite explain, something about feeling the rhythm of the words, the ways the vowels resonate with one another and the consonants bounce against each other.

In revision, I look for places where the reading is hard, where I stumble or get out of breath. When reading others’ poems, whether already published or under consideration here, I look for the ways the words work together, the poem’s music and machinery. While I can find this sort of thing with pages or screen or headphones, I find it best by speaking the words aloud.

A nearly empty rock quarry, like a nearly empty laundry room, is a perfect place to read aloud.

I’m focused on poetry here for the most part, because that’s what I most often write and what I read for Nimrod, but there’s something to be said for reading prose aloud too. In addition to the rhythms, the assonance and consonance, all the infinite patterns and slight deviations from those patterns that can arise when we snap or weld or clumsily tape words together, reading prose aloud can give you a more precise idea of the length of your sentences—this one, for example, is starting to run a bit long—and a better ear (mouth?) for dialogue. It can make your writing sound more human (or less so, if that’s what you’re after).

I’m slated to read a story soon for another journal’s audio archives. I’m desperately excited, but also terrified—because I’m terrified of everything, maybe, or because my voice, when recorded and played back, usually sounds like that of a stoned adolescent. This ever-more frequent reading aloud, though, is shaping that voice into something more confident and steady.

Moreover, the little oddities of a voice, yours or mine, are part of what lend to the experience of reading aloud its pleasure and profundity. The differences in our voices reflect the difference in experience each reader has with a poem or story, the fact that no two people ever read exactly the same piece. As Ruth Ozeki, author of the brilliant novel A Tale for the Time Being, says in her Poets & Writers article “A Crucial Collaboration: Reader-Writer-Character-Book,”

“There are as many books as there are readers. . . . There is only the exchange, the meaning that you and I, in any given moment, make together, as your eyes scan these words and your mind makes sense of them.”

Ruth Ozeki Author Photo
Photo of Ruth Ozeki by Laura Trippi

Reading this piece aloud now, trying to find the stumbling blocks and figure out how to succinctly wrap up everything I want to say, I can imagine you now, reading this in a different place and time with a different voice—maybe more beautiful or measured, maybe even somehow a bit more awkward—and I think that’s the point.

No piece of writing exists in a total vacuum, but most do float in a sort of void, a gulf between the reader and writer that allows but never guarantees any form of intimacy. Reading aloud is one way, I’ve found, of reaching that intimacy. And, besides, I need the practice.

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.

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