One day, my teenage son said, “Your writing must be going well. I heard you chanting.”
Reading my work out loud is a crucial part of my writing process, most particularly in the initial start of a story, and again, when I think it’s almost done. When I’m starting a new piece, it’s a way to hear the voice more fully. The sound of it becomes part of my thinking. Since I wrote My Best Everything from my home in California, reading aloud was a way to bring the setting of the Virginia mountains close. It helped me hear the sounds of that particular place. Even better, I started thinking in the language of my teenage years.
At the end of the process, it’s a way to slow down. It allows – or forces – me to focus on individual words. Grammar matters, and it is not so easily skimmed over. I hear how individual words fit together into sentences, paragraphs and scenes, and the resulting rhythm and flow of my prose. Dialogue has to prove itself as true while spoken. I get to hear the voices of my characters as they tease, discuss, argue and fall in love.
When I first started writing, I worked on picture books. I’d read thousands of them, first as a teacher, then as a mother. Besides the warm connections made in the process of lap reading, I loved the concise stories and the way an emotional punch could be conveyed in a few short lines. Also, I loved the sound of them. Picture books are meant to be an oral performance. They are an auditory experience as much as they are visual. So of course, part of my process was to read my stories aloud.
Now that I’m writing for young adults, I feel as though the auditory component is equally important. Most teens are passionately devoted to their music. They have their headphones on, music on. They are listening to rhythms and beats, paying attention to lyrics with a white-hot intensity. And as they talk to each other, rehashing their days, recalling every detail, they are animated storytellers passing on their joys and grievances. Of course they deserve to have their literature be pleasing to the ear, even if it’s only read silently.
As a teacher, I know the power of a shared story. When teaching middle school, I started each class period with five to 10 minutes of oral reading time. These stories were not ones we were using in class. There were no quizzes or tests. It was simply a way to provide a transition from the rough hallways to the classroom. But it also built community within my classes, more than any other activity. There is a bonding that occurs when reading a story together.
When teaching creative writing, I use reading one’s work out loud as part of the instruction. Sometimes I’m the one to read. I’ve been accused of making everything sound better, but the fact is, there’s a power to having an immediate audience. There might not be a better feeling than having a room of listeners laugh at the right spot, or form a collective ahhh. Before we workshop a piece, I have the author read the opening paragraphs to the group. Besides serving as a distraction to a nervous participant, it allows us to hear his or her intent in a new manner. Even more important, it reminds us of the human heart and soul behind the words before we begin to dissect them.
That human heart is something we need to hear as we write alone at our desks. Even when it sounds like chanting.
Sarah Tomp has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. My Best Everything, her novel for young adults, was published in 2015.