Friday, April 4, 2014


This is a reposting of an entry recently appearing on the Plum Tree Books page on Facebook.

Each time I’m ready to begin recording a new chapter of an audiobook, I sit down in my recording studio and go through a ritualized sequence of technical preparations. And then, I begin to read aloud -- TO ABSOLUTELY NO ONE. Nobody is EVER there!

How weird is that? It certainly FEELS weird – especially the first few times I did it. And honestly, I still occasionally pause in wonder at the strangeness of the act of reading to people who are not there – who are instead off in some unseeable and untouchable future. This visceral experience is part of what anthropologist Michael Wesch and his students term "context collapse". In their studies of YouTube culture, they not only observed, but also experienced for themselves how strange and awkward it is to sit alone in front of a webcam and say, "I'm talking to you, but … I don't know who you are." (To get a better sense of what "context collapse" is to Wesch and his students, click here to watch a minute or two of their video.)

The fact is that I will never meet and will never know most of the people who ultimately listen to my audio and video productions. But I’m actually fine with that aspect of context collapse, perhaps due to my decades of previous experience performing and speaking before LIVE audiences.

Instead, my occasional stumbling blocks come from another major component of context collapse: my own spontaneous judgment of my own performance, as I am performing. This instant self-critique can be helpful when I catch myself accidentally deviating from the way I had originally planned to read a passage. In some of these cases, it is wholly appropriate to stop dead in my tracks and go back to re-record a section to correct an obvious mistake. But there are times when an unexpected and unplanned deviation is NOT a mistake, but is instead a moment of creative serendipity. The challenge in such cases is to allow myself to keep going, to overrule the voice in my head that might be screaming "STOP," to permit the spontaneous creation of something OTHER than what I had (sometimes rigorously) originally planned for.

The best example of "extended serendipity" that I can offer from my collected works is my recording of THE TELL-TALE HEART by Edgar Allan Poe:

I knew that this reading required a special approach, since it consists of the first-person ravings of a psychopathic murderer. While I carefully studied the narrative beforehand to intimately refamiliarize myself with the arch of the story, I determined that it would not pay to plan my performance with the same level of detail that I usually do. Most importantly, I made the complete recording in two long takes, not stopping for ANYTHING (also very unusual for me). The end result is a recording that captures one serendipitous moment after another, because very little of what you hear was planned out in advance. (Be advised that this material may not be appropriate for small children -- it is, after all, the murderous ravings of a lunatic.)

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