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Essay on the experience of narrating one's own book

Last summer, Audible contacted my agent about making a recording of my memoir-critique, No Right to Remain Silent: What We’ve Learned from the Tragedy at Virginia Tech. Previously, two of my novels had been made into audio books, and though I was grateful the productions had been made, I always regretted not being able to narrate them myself.

When I was young I trained as an actor and as a reader of poetry, particularly metered verse. I’m accustomed to delivering keynotes and making other kinds of presentations. I also have experience as a singer — I was in a reggae band in Britain when I was young, though perhaps this isn’t the best testament to my abilities. As soon as I left the band had two top-20 hits in a row.

I felt passionate about narrating this book because it is not only an analysis of such things as the vulnerability of the education system and the easy accessibility of guns, it is also a deeply personal account of my experience before, during, and after the rampage attack on the campus. Though I reported the English department’s concerns about Seung-Hui Cho to many units on campus, and though he did eventually seek help from campus counseling, at his hands, we still experienced the worst college shooting in history. I wrote the book because it seemed inevitable that other attacks would occur, especially if we as a nation didn’t learn from the errors and missteps of the past.

It was my responsibility to utter the words I had written. Honest, open communication is the only meaningful gift we have to give to those who lost loved ones in the attack. At the end of the book I apologize to the victims' families for not being able to prevent this horror. How could someone say these words on my behalf? It’s not the kind of responsibility you can delegate.

It wasn’t until it was confirmed I could narrate the book that I realized I didn’t know if I could do it. Although I had read excerpts from it during readings and keynotes, reading the book aloud all the way through was a different matter altogether. What would I do when I reached the part about how I learned the perpetrator was an English major with whom I had worked? How would I get through the chapter "A Boy Named Loser," ("Loser" was Cho’s own name for himself) — a chapter in which I describe Cho’s agonized, menacing silence as he sat in my office, wearing his reflective sunglasses indoors?

But there was no point in focusing on what ifs. Best take the bull by the horns, my late mother would have said, her remembered voice always a source of consolation. We would be recording for six hours a day for about a week. In readiness, I bought honey-and-lemon throat lozenges and made a strong flask of mint tea. To warm up my voice on the 10-minute drive to the studio, I sang songs from The Sound of Music: "Edelweiss," "My Favorite Things" and "I Have Confidence in Me" — which I didn’t. Nevertheless, I sang with gusto, trusting in the power of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the fact that my car was soundproof.

I must have looked more eccentric than usual as I drove along Blacksburg’s winding country roads doing an impersonation of Fraulein Maria. But it made the process less daunting — as if I were still the homely-looking Anglo-Jamaican girl who used to belt out songs like "Singin’ in the Rain" as she trudged through a downpour on the way home from convent school; as if I were still the person I was before tragedy almost felled me like a tree, and, for a time at least, robbed me of the ability to sing at all.

Originally, I was supposed to travel to Maryland or DC to do the recording — a four-and-a-half hour drive from Blacksburg. It would mean staying in a hotel far from the comforts of home. I didn’t look forward to it. But Bruce Kitovich, the producer Audible assigned me, went out of his way to find a studio here in Blacksburg. It was a thoughtful thing to do, and it allowed me to meet Earl Norris, musician, owner, and operator of Four Loud Barks studio. As it turned out, Earl’s wife and my husband knew each other from way back. As soon as I entered Earl’s studio I felt at ease.

Apparently, according to Bruce, it’s not as unusual as it used to be to have authors read their own work. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is especially true for memoir. If the recording is straightforward — and it often is for nonfiction — Audible’s in-house team checks the finished recording for quality control and decides which sentences need to be re-recorded. It’s a relatively speedy and efficient process that takes a matter of weeks.

We began recording the book on Sunday January 13, a mere three weeks after the heartbreaking attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Early the next morning, my husband’s mother died. Mama Edna was a lovely woman — the kind of mother-in-law you hope you will be blessed with. I was even more concerned I wouldn’t be able to get through the recording without becoming emotional. Surprisingly, however, the process was one of the most calming experiences I have ever had.

Something strange happens when you record your own book. The relationship you have to your own words shifts and alters. You deliver a sentence in a particular way, stumble, then reread it with a completely different emphasis, one that can catch you by surprise. You hadn’t realized that was what you meant when you wrote the sentence, but it’s suddenly clear that of course that’s what you were trying to say. You are speaker and auditor, author and interpreter. You hear words anew.

I sat alone in Earl’s room-sized studio, a ribbon microphone a few inches from my mouth. I had been experiencing severe back pain for several weeks, so I sat in a chair with my elbows propped up by fat green pillows. This brought the book closer to me and meant I didn’t have to bear its physical weight while I read. Through the headphones my voice came back to me as not quite mine, as if someone else — a close relative, my mother, perhaps?— was speaking. It’s a strange sensation. Having done many radio interviews, I was accustomed to the aural intimacy of exceptionally sensitive headphones, but it was different this time. I was able to read the book out loud all the way through because it was a disembodied voice doing the reading — a projection and personification of sorts.

It occurs to me now that this process is much like the writing process we engage in as poets and novelists. When we teach creative writing, we talk about finding our voices, not simply because we want to assert our own identities, but because the voice is the guide leading us to the next place. It finds us when we’re lost and puts us back on the path towards revelation. Or at least we hope it does. Though I was in the Four Loud Barks studio on the other side of Earl’s garage while Earl was in the basement of his house several rooms away, I wasn’t alone. Not only did I have my own voice to keep me company, I had Earl’s voice, too, coming through the headphones. He listened intently to what I read and made sure it sounded O.K.

Today -- April 16, 2013 -- marks the six-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings. In interviews I am often asked whether or not I have been able to move on from what happened. I try to explain that you don’t move on completely from calamities like this. What you can do with the help of friends and loved ones, however, is find a way to reconcile yourself to what has happened — or maybe, if you’re lucky, a way back to laughter again. In my case, I had to find a path toward forgiveness not only of the perpetrator but also of myself for not being able to prevent such a terrible tragedy from occurring in my beloved community. It is a long arduous journey — one I have to admit I am still on. I am grateful for the voices that accompany us, grateful that they serve to remind us of the world’s steadfast, indestructible beauty.

Poet and novelist Lucinda Roy is an Alumni Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. Her most recent book is No Right to Remain Silent: What We’ve Learned from the Tragedy at Virginia Tech.

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Historian and Poet Win Pulitzer Prizes

Fredrik Logevall, a Cornell University historian, and Sharon Olds, a professor of poetry at New York University, were among the recipients Monday of Pulitzer Prizes for their written works.

Logevall, John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and Professor of History at Cornell and director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, won one of the coveted awards for Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam (Random House), his study of how U.S. leaders enmeshed the country in a fateful war. Olds, who teaches in the graduate creative writing program at New York University, received her Pulitzer for Stag's Leap, (Alfred A. Knopf), which her citation describes as a "book of unflinching poems on the author’s divorce that examine love, sorrow and the limits of self-knowledge."

The two authors each receive $10,000.

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New book explores professors' politics and the debates about those politics

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Author discusses analysis that may frustrate some on the left and on the right in his new book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?

Making our writing matter (essay)

Whether we're slaving over a scholarly article or a textbook, or knocking off streams of memos and e-mails, virtually all of us write constantly -- and we can do it better and more meaningfully, Mike Rose argues.

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review of 'Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style & the 1960s'

"Mad Men" returns to cable television this coming Sunday, continuing its saga of mutable identities and creative branding at a New York advertising firm during the 1960s. Or at least one assumes it will still be set in the ‘60s. How much narrative time lapses between seasons varies unpredictably. Like everything else about the show, it remains the network’s closely guarded secret. Critics given an early look at the program must agree to an embargo on anything they publish about it. This makes perfect sense in the context of the social world of "Mad Men" itself: the network is, after all, selling the audience’s curiosity to advertisers.

A different economy of attention operates in Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style & the 1960s, a collection of 18 essays on the program just published by Duke University Press. It’s not just a matter of the editors and contributors all being academics, hence presumably a different sort of cultural consumer from that of the average viewer. On the contrary, I think that is exactly wrong. Serialized narrative has to generate in its audience the desire for an answer to a single, crucial question: “And then what happens?” (Think of all the readers gathered at the docks in New York to get the latest installment of a Dickens novel coming from London.)

Of course, the contributors to Mad Men, Mad World write with a host of more complex questions in mind, but I don’t doubt for a second that many of the papers were initially inspired by weekend-long diegetic binge sessions, fueled by the same desire driving other viewers. At the same time, there’s every reason to think that the wider public is just as interested in the complex questions raised by the show as any of the professors writing about it. For they are questions are about race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, money, happiness, misery, and lifestyle – and about how much any configuration of these things can change, or fail to change, over time.   

Many of the essays serve as replies to a backlash against "Mad Men" that began in the third or fourth season, circa 2009, as it was beginning to draw a much larger audience than it had until that point. The complaint was that the show, despite its fanatical attention to the style, dress, and décor of the period, was simple-mindedly 21st century in its attitude toward the characters. It showed a world in which blunt expressions of racism, misogyny, and homophobia were normal, and sexual harassment in the workplace was an executive perk. Men wore hats and women stayed home.  Everyone smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish, often at the same time. Child abuse was casual. So was littering.

And because all of it was presented in tones by turn ironic and horrified, viewers were implicitly invited to congratulate themselves on how enlightened they were now. Another criticism held that "Mad Men" only seemed to criticize the oppressive arrangements it portrayed, while in reality allowing the viewer to enjoy them vicariously. These complaints sound contradictory: the show either moralistically condemns its characters or inspires the audience to wallow in political incorrectness. But they aren’t mutually exclusive by any means. What E.P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity” tends to be a default setting with Americans, alternating with periods of maudlin nostalgia. There’s no reason the audience couldn’t feel both about the "Mad Men" vision of the past.

See also a comment by the late Christopher Lasch, some 20 years ago: “Nostalgia is superficially loving in its re-creation of the past, but it invokes the past only to bury it alive. It shares with the belief in progress, to which it is only superficially opposed, an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history’s hold on the present.”

At the risk of conflating too many arguments under too narrow a heading, I’d say that the contributors to Mad Men, Mad World agree with Lasch’s assessment of progress and nostalgia while also demonstrating how little it applies to the program as a whole.

Caroline Levine’s essay “The Shock of the Banal: Mad Men's Progressive Realism” provides an especially apt description of how the show works to create a distinct relationship between past and present that’s neither simply nostalgic nor a celebration of how far we’ve come. The dynamic of "Mad Men" is, in her terms, “the play of familiarity in strangeness” that comes from seeing “our everyday assumptions just far enough removed from us to feel distant.” (Levine is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.)

The infamous Draper family picnic in season two is a case in point. After a pleasant afternoon with the kids in a bucolic setting, the parents pack up their gear, shake all the garbage off their picnic blanket, and drive off. The scene is funny, in the way appalling behavior can sometimes be, but it’s also disturbing. The actions are so natural and careless – so thoughtless, all across the board – that you recognize them immediately as habit. Today’s viewers might congratulate themselves for at least feeling guilty when they litter. But that’s not the only possible response, because the scene creates an uneasy awareness that once-familiar, “normal” ideas and actions came to be completely unacceptable – within, in fact, a relatively short time. It eventually became the butt of jokes, but the famous “Keep America Beautiful” ad from about 1970 -- the one with the crying Indian -- probably had a lot to do with it. (Such is the power of advertising.)

The show's handling of race and gender can be intriguing and frustrating. All the powerful people in it are straight white guys in ties, sublimely oblivious to even the possibility that their word might not be law. "Mad Space" by Dianne Harris, a professor of architecture and art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a useful cognitive map of the show's world -- highlighting how the advertising firm's offices are organized to demonstrate and reinforce the power of the executives over access to the female employees' labor (and, often enough, bodies), while the staid home that Don Draper and his family occupy in the suburbs is tightly linked to the upper-middle-class WASP identity he is trying to create for himself by concealing and obliterating his rural, "white trash" origins. A handful of African-American characters appear on the margins of various storylines -- and one, the Drapers' housekeeper Carla, occupies the especially complex and fraught position best summed up in the phrase "almost part of the family." But we never see the private lives of any nonwhite character.

In "Representing the Mad Margins of the Early 1960s: Northern Civil Rights and the Blues Idiom," Clarence Lang, an associate professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas, writes that "Mad Men" "indulges in a selective forgetfulness" by "presuming a black Northern quietude that did not exist" (in contrast to the show's occasional references to the civil rights movement below the Mason-Dixon line). Lang's judgment here is valid -- up to a point. As it happens, all of the essays in the collection were written before the start of the fifth season, in which black activists demonstrate outside the firm's building to protest the lack of job opportunities. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hires its first African-American employee, a secretary named Dawn. I think a compelling reading of "Mad Men" would recognize that the pace and extent of the appearance of nonwhite characters on screen is a matter not of the creators' refusal to portray them, but of their slow arrival on the scene of an incredibly exclusionary social world being transformed (gradually and never thoroughly) by the times in which "Mad Men" is set.   

There is much else in the book that I found interesting and useful in thinking about "Mad Men," and I think it will be stimulating to readers outside the ranks of aca fandom. I’ll return to it in a few weeks, with an eye to connecting some of the essays to new developments at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. (Presumably the firm will have changed its name in the new season, given the tragic aftermath of Lane Pryce’s venture in creative bookkeeping.)

When things left off, it was the summer of 1967. I have no better idea than any one else when or how the narrative will pick up, but really hope that Don Draper creates the ad campaign for Richard Nixon.

 

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Mellen Press continues its legal maneuvers against critics

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Edwin Mellen Press, under fire for a now-dropped lawsuit against a university and librarian, threatens more legal action after a website wrote about the case.

CourseSmart Grows, Looks to Analytics

CourseSmart, a company that provides online course materials, said it has now partnered with 100 campus learning management systems and campus portals to provide content to students.

That, officials at the six-year-old company said, makes it the industry leader in this space. The company offers 40,000 electronic textbooks from more than 50 publishers, including Pearson and McGraw-Hill Education. Cindy Clarke, the senior vice president of marketing at CourseSmart, said the company’s online offering plugs right into different learning portals, including Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Pearson LearningStudio, Moodle and custom software created by some universities. By integrating its offerings with such portals, the company can give students at the different institutions immediate access to the course materials it sells alongside other class materials posted by instructors and used by students.

Now, the company is beta testing an analytics package, Clarke said. The goal is to produce a program to track how and if students are using materials to let educators see how engaged students are.

Simba, which analyzes publishing trends, predicts the overall market for digital course materials will account for 14 percent of the textbook market by 2014, CourseSmart said.

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Winners of Bancroft Prize Announced

Columbia University on Monday announced two winners of the Bancroft Prize for books about history. The winners are:

  • W. Jeffrey Bolster, associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, for The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012).
  • John Fabian Witt, Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale University, for Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, 2012).

 

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Company to help institutions embrace open educational resources

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Open education advocates launch Lumen Learning, which aims to help institutions replace expensive textbooks with open-source solutions.

Anthropology journal will convert to open access format

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American Anthropological Association announces that one of its journals will be converted to open access.

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