I've been thinking about the nature of storytelling, lately, or more specifically, its roots as an oral practice. Also, as I teacher, I find myself thinking a lot about how to best teach my students that we don't write the way we talk, just like we don't talk the way we write.
And yet there's something about good writing & storytelling that is undeniably oral. Good fiction sounds right, and not just in dialogue. It's the difference between a 2-dimensional circle and a 3-dimensional sphere - that third dimension, in writing, that texture that fills the mouth and head while we read, has to be its aurality, how we hear (feel...) the words replayed inside our own heads.
And by sound and hearing, I mean it in its transparent, ghost-form. The sound is in our heads, silent and undetectable to ears unless our mouths are opened to speak, yet it's there, that sound, while we read. The text has a rhythm and a cadence, which is itself influenced by the thousand small and invisible choices made by its author, such as the particular mixing of consonants and vowels, repetition, length of sentences, pauses through punctuation, etc. In this way, sound informs mood and influences tone, and contributes to the meaning (feeling...) of the piece as a whole.
This brings me to another question: how much of good writing/storytelling is determined by the writer's ability to have the readers "hear" the story as he or she intended, and how much is determined by the words' ability to be "heard" in a multiplicity of ways?
I ask this because of something someone said to me once at one of my readings. This person had previously read a passage of the exact story I'd chosen to read to them and the others in the small, blue-lit bar, and during my reading of it, hadn't recognized it as the same story ("Was that the same story you sent me last week? ... Really?), and (stunned) I wondered, what made the story unrecognizable from its written to its oral form? Was it inattentiveness in the reader? Or was it some quality in my writing that I hadn't quite yet mastered, that I could make people hear or listen to if I read it aloud, but that on its own, wasn't translatable. Should the thing sound the same read aloud as it does inside one's own head, and if it doesn't, is that a strength or a weakness of the piece?
Two writers come to mind:
The first, Junot Diaz. whose prose is so loud and distinctive, it pounds inside your ears, and you have to run keep up with it. Diaz has you speaking Spanish in your head, and suddenly you're thinking English in a Dominican accent. This immersion into Dominican-American culture cannot be done with an immersion into its language.
The second, Mary Gaitskill, whose prose is so tightly-wound up, so manicured, so polished, with its clean-cut, WASPY, Ralph Lauren Polo sentences, that her thematic of secret lives, and lives unseen, beats underneath and creates the tension that her stories need to find meaning.
Diaz is easy to love. Gaitskill, for me, is more difficult. I respect her skill, but what I hear inside of my head when I read her, it's incongruous with how I like to think and to write - I feel uncomfortable. But maybe that is the point, and what is so fascinating about reading - that these different voices, some so strange and unfamiliar to us, can come to inhabit the insides of our "eyes/mouths" and minds.
So then in this age in which so many of us are fighting for diversity and the propagation of a multiplicity of voices, good writing & storytelling must come from that distinctiveness of voice that manifests itself as an "aural" apparition inside the reader's head. Bad writing & storytelling then is not unlike another important concern specific to students (teenagers, in particular), which is falsehoods and "fakeness". A writer that finds their voice, has found honesty, but also, and perhaps just as importantly, a way to communicate itself easily, seamlessly, to the reader; a way to be heard.