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Orality Hunger (for David Shields)


Since I began writing nonfiction more than two decades ago, I’ve ranged from book to long-form journalism, criticism, essay, memoir, and, of late, video essay. Form changes and so, too, does focus; I adapt to the different style and voice. Each time the tone shifts as well—the critic’s bark, the memoirist’s grandiosity, the essayist’s guile. Moving among these voices, I find I love the challenge and the change. How far might I push myself?

With each book, I’ve added a wrinkle. I want the books to sound, to ring, in the culture, in and beyond the written realm. I want my books and their texts to be oral, to take a parallel journey in the speech arts—dialogue, lecture, and multimedia. Put more simply, I’m a fidgeter; I have to move between book and presentation, the written and the oral, during and after composition. I’ll explain by describing each of my books.

I designed The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, my first book, to teach (and to sell to) the hundreds of memoir classes and workshops I’ve held since 2006 and, for the last five years, as an instructor in the MFA program at Ashland University.

That book originated and caught fire during the four years I worked with two small groups of memoirists. We met twice a month for three hours; each time four writers read their material aloud. Our discussion provoked reactions as much based on the text as on our hearing the writers read. One gift of memoir, I concluded, was to write, read, and be heard, as opposed to write in silence and isolation and, maybe, to publish. Group members who voiced their stories—sparking tears, joy, self-discovery, confusion—grew to be better writers and shrewder thinkers.

My second book, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” was intended, in part, to showcase the composition’s aural history. Post-publication, I built a live program using film and video clips

of various appropriations of the music (notably, the movie Platoon). A book about a piece of music, especially one so chronically embedded in the media consciousness of our culture, needs a hearing since text alone cannot embody how listeners feel the music. Music has to be felt whether it’s described or not. One reason I wrote the book was to have a platform from which I could speak of the “Adagio” while an audience listens to its sorrowful melody. I was lucky to do some 25 dates with the multimedia program, four times with string quartets, and twice with symphony orchestras.

My new book, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, dramatizes my three heart attacks in five years. This book picks up the oral insistence of my previous books. In 2014, I’m giving workshops on “Writing about Illness” and doing a multimedia presentation that mixes music, image, and video with my reading of brief passages from the memoir. My hope is to make the book sound new via performance much like the songwriter renews an old tune via a live rendering.

“The Sanctuary of Illness” Book Trailer from Thomas Larson on Vimeo.

So: Why this desire to make my writing heard and seen in addition to, I hope, being read? Why this orality hunger?

The main reason is that I enjoy re-inhabiting my early career as a musician and composer. A guitarist in my twenties, I would hear what I played, arranged, or wrote while I was composing or performing it or, later, when my fellow musicians played my work in music school. Music’s essence is its live, immediate, relational exchange between player and listener. That live part is much like speech. What’s more, in the video age, text merely read or recited feels naked, single-sensory, as silent movies a century ago must have appeared, actors exaggerating the drama via facial casts and body movements. I want my work to exist in actual time, be extra-textual, mix sound, video, and image, in short, become performative. I want my books to be counterpointed with the myriad dimensions of the acoustic realm. Their book-ness is only the beginning of their communicative potential.



That said, I’d like to underscore a few things I’ve learned from my orality hunger as my pre- and post-literary mind writes and companions with sound, image, and video. First, the allure of words read aloud and the adaptation of words to music.

As poets know, lines intoned are different from lines silently read. What’s uttered must be owned by the speaker and make sounding sense. For prose stylists, the page-led narrative-descriptive-expository accumulation, which we often ply and pile to excess, is harder to follow when heard. When the ear reigns, the eye cannot look back and see where the text is in space. Time needs space in which to organize itself. A complex cumulative sentence, think Marcel Proust, can be ungatherable when read aloud. That trailing quality of the unloosened clause is one reason why, by contrast, the periodic, direct prose of Twain, Hemingway, and Cormac McCarthy retain much of their spoken identity when read.

When a composer sets a line of text to music, the sound transforms the emotion of the text, fixing the words with that emotion, seemingly for good. Print gives up its interpretable independence to a musical setting as lines in a play give up their independence, their flatness on the page, to an actor. (It’s curious that plays and screenplays require speech while modern poetry and most prose do not.) By independence, I mean words on the page avoid the animation of voice. The printed realm is a pre- or post-voiced realm, where words possess a strangely engendering lifelessness so long as they are not said or sung. (Here, E. L. Doctorow’s line is apt: “The entire enterprise of literature is writing in silence and reading in silence.” Not a sentiment I adhere to.)

But when words are set and sung . . . listen to Aaron Copland’s setting of these opening lines from Emily Dickinson’s great grief poem (#47): “Heart! We will forget him! / You and I—tonight!”

Copland slows these simple words down so they crawl forward. In his setting, the first line rises, then falls, the second line, rises and falls in a higher, different key, then, on another tone, shifts into a slightly higher key, occupies it briefly then fades. Each vowel is lathered in longing. In the “get” of forget, in “him,” in “I,” and in the “night” of tonight, vowels are lingered on and dramatized. In a sense, Copland is re-scoring Dickinson’s exclamation points by de-exclaiming them and transferring their emotion almost to the sentimental. Copland’s interpretation, to my ear, counters the text’s urgency and hurry, fixing poem and speaker with an ultra-neediness.

The musical technique is called syllabic where each vowel equals a tone. Recall a hymn: one note for each word or syllable. But with Dickinson, and to accentuate the ache—the irony of the narrator’s partnering with the heart to forget him, which is, obviously, not the result: he’s being remembered—Copland extends most of the vowels, lets the singer hold and fill them with the vibratory yearning of her voice. How much grief there is in her words seems to take a musical rendering to activate, though poets might say that’s the job of the reader.

Another result: Copland’s setting of the line is how I “read” the poem now. In other words, Dickinson’s poem (as well as the others he set in “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson,” published in 1950) is Copland’s setting of them. I cannot un-hear his transformation of her taut, compendious verse in music.



This oral embodiment of written text or lines of poetry produces something astounding: text given voice is no longer mere text. The result is a new species: chant, recitation, speech, oratory, drama, and song. Each expressive form makes the words its own via vocal artistry and rhetorical turn. This may seem superfluous until we remember how relatively new such musical settings are. The ancients, of course, sang their verses; they, or the tool-makers among them, had not invented the written poem, which composers would, eventually, animate.

In fact, only since the Renaissance have the largely separated arts cohabited. This is one of the chief themes of Walter Pater, the nineteenth-century English scholar and essayist. Pater writes that Renaissance artists experimented with loosening their medium so as each art might “pass into the condition of some other art.” Shared media launched perspective in painting, via geometry, and united drama and music to create opera. The idea—its origin is German—he terms Anders-streben, “striving toward otherness.” The arts, Pater writes, seek “reciprocally to lend each other new forces.” They lend. They share. They strive. They aspire. Just as we do.

Seeking otherness, the arts become “alienated” from their limitations. This alienation of each art from itself redefines the art, extends its influence, and retrieves some of its original essence, mainly, that of a live performance. This is what’s behind the writer’s hunger nowadays to return to a speaking or a heard presence with her work. Such multimedial collaboration mirrors our technological sensibilities and that of our pre-literate, pre-print ancestors.



With the recent advent of film and video, now a companionable tool for writing, we authors are exploring how sound, image, and text might “pass into one another.” I don’t mean plot-driven movies with characters, dialogue, and scenes. I mean documentary production (music and sound may figure in), which uses speech or read text, the classic voiceover, in which the language of film works with and against the language of text. Such text-focused cinema is theme- or idea-driven, and its forms and practitioners are numerous: the book trailer (there are thousands, mostly sales ploys), the polemical documentary (Errol Morris, Michael Moore), the video essay (John Breslund, Kristen Radtke), and the essay film (Chris Marker, Ross McElwee). I want to discuss the latter form, that is, a narrator who essays with film.


Ross McElwee’s documentary, Sherman’s March, is a filmmaker’s memoir, which is consumed not by the original subject McElwee had planned (Sherman’s destructive march through the South at the end of Civil War) but by a subject that McElwee discovered as he filmed—his attempts to find the right woman to partner with or marry as he diverges from a movie about Sherman and, just as unexpected, stumbles on the issue of nuclear proliferation in the early 1980s. The subtitle nails it: “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South during an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.”

In an excerpt, “This Is Pat,”

we watch McElwee, the cameraman, become bewitched by Pat with her magnetic looks, plummy alto, and fragile independence. Each, in fact, bewitches the other: the filmmaker cannot take his eye off her, in part, because the camera animates her, lends her its force. She’s a filmable young woman who is available, romantically welcoming, full of fantasy, but at the same time is unattached and seeking her own otherness. Of course, the attraction to Pat that’s commanding McElwee is commanding us viewers as well.

McElwee’s brilliance is to let his human subjects (Pat and her family, McElwee’s sister, another couple love interests, old friends, and others) direct his film. The documentary seems to create the cars and wheels by which it stays “on track” while McElwee is present (for a 2-and-½-hour film, he shot 25 hours) to witness his discovery, be charmed by it, record it, and then, with a voiceover narration, give it a through-line as he meditates on love and loss in his own slow-speaking North Carolina drawl.

What’s fascinating (and seemed untried in 1986 when the film premiered) is McElwee’s commenting on how the serendipity of the film is the film, as though he is surprised by the images as much as we are, surprises which arrive during the filming and are emphasized during the editing. At one point, he confesses to the camera directly about his search for love. He says he has to be quiet because his father, whom he’s visiting in Charlotte, North Carolina, is asleep upstairs: he has already wondered why his son, Ross, is filming family conversations without much apparent purpose. Before Ross launches a four-minute soliloquy

about the enigmatic character of General Sherman, he says that he’d like to stay longer in his parents’ home so he could film Claudia, an adolescent love with whom he’s reconnected. “I like Claudia,” he says. “I’m infatuated with Pat, and I guess in many ways I’m still in love with Ann, the woman up in New York,” the woman who spurned him and sent him on this journey, part grief, part rebirth, to the South. “It’s all very confusing to me,” he notes. “I don’t know what to do right now.”

With McElwee, the film becomes the script so that the voiceover sounds extemporized, in a sense, updating and directing the putative rambles of what he’s shot. He doesn’t film a script. He uses the film he has shot to compose a narrative. This reversal—the filmmaker composing and, perhaps feeling, the film’s search for meaning—requires the director to participate, here, with his voiced reactions, a kind of heavy-handedness that counters the cinema vérité of Frederick Wiseman, for instance, who uses only the images themselves to tell the story. Ultimately, McElwee’s films testify to the character change in himself each documentary that features himself and others has brought on them.



What I glean from McElwee is that once text is paired with video (oddly, purposefully, there’s no music in Sherman’s March), text, become oral, has to be essentialized—and reduced. When music and video are added to one’s writing—layering or counterpointing the text—music or video dominate while the words, whether used from a live interview or as voice-over, must be, as someone once described a good poem, emphatic, intense, and soon over.

Why? The sensorium, the whole of a person’s perception, can absorb only so much. There must be levels, dynamics, and silence. Here’s the conundrum: Print brought about a deep visual pool in which the writer typically overstuffs the page with narrative, image, analysis, metaphor, fact—sometimes, in Virginia Woolf, all in the same paragraph. But text and voice in multimedia is subsumed by video and sound because the latter two saturate us, often annoyingly, and overload our senses. I can’t help but see multimedia as protean expression with authoritarian overtones. That’s one argument why sound and text have, over time, been decoupled, though I’m sure neither Orpheus nor Bob Dylan would agree.

My reading and making multimedia from the books I’ve written and performed live means the book is greatly summarized and vastly reduced by its oral cast. Not long ago I noticed that if I got my book’s core message across in 45 vividly entertaining and sensation-packed multimedial minutes, audience members clapped, got in their Hyundai’s, and drove home. They didn’t need to buy the book—I’d given it to them in one passive sitting. Oh fuck, I thought. I’ve succeeded in making my own lapidary, nuanced prose irrelevant.

Still, I write books with an ear toward other media, imagining how each will play from a speaker as well as in a reader. I’m reminded that a text doesn’t need this live relational exchange just as music needs no verbal explanation. Its beauty resides in its limitation. A book manifests itself in the unspoken language of a reader’s interior. So, I’m curious, why do I need to access such unspokenness in the reader? The obvious reason is that my/our familiarity with and dependence on multimedia demands it. Nowadays, a reader’s or a viewer’s sensorium expects to be colonized—may desire it, masochistically—by the technology available to artist and audience. Why read the novel when you can watch the film? Who, in high school, clamors to read Shelby Foote’s narratives after seeing Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War?

Yet another turn is that the live multimedia performance of a text opens up multiple personas for me as a writer. Who I am becomes many, begins shape-shifting the self, with technology. I’m the author—I wrote the book. I’m the narrator—I’m telling the story in the book or reading portions of it live. I’m a character—I’m he, to some extent imagined and romanticized, in the memoir I’ve written. With multimedia, I’m a performer—who relives or reanimates what I wrote as I mix and match the person I wrote about from the past and the person performing now. I’m not exactly an actor but I’m surely more than a mere reciter of his tale. Finally, I am a participant in the multimedia choir I’ve embodied—I share in the music and image as I listen to the music and watch the image during a live performance, feeling as an audience feels. Again, all those sockets of the sensorium are plugged in and charged by my creating this multiplying me.

This chain of being is significant because it activates a multidimensional persona for the writer who with print was never called on to work in or work through so many vocal interactions. The only label that might describe this new condition for the other-seeking writer is a composer-performer. I think of Bach or Handel or Mozart as composer/performers whose creative and community duties defined them—a composer of the music, a setter of the text, a copier of the parts, a teacher of the roles, a director of the rehearsals, an advertiser of the premiere, and a conductor of the performance.



The writer’s return to the oral realm is steamrolling its way into our culture via devices of every self-gratifying electronic hookup imaginable. All this digitizing seems to confirm, yet again, the tenets of Marshall McLuhan’s media-view. I think about what the Single E-y-e of print fostered in its 500-year quieting of our vocal sensibility, reflected in the following statement from an essay, “Reading McLuhan,” by Jim Andrews:

The shift from the word as event and living, as uttered and heard, to the word as seen, as thing, as having an existence apart from a person uttering it, as having a life independent of whatever anyone may say about it, brings into the world a distance, an objectivity to thought and language that is unheard of in oral cultures.

Perhaps the reign of print is, despite its transcendence, a way station in the word’s reunification with the living needs of language. Perhaps the book’s evolving design and system of delivery reflects certain behavioral changes in our species as much as the tools we develop to enhance or harness those behaviors for various ends: commerce, consumption, efficiency. One reason the nineteenth-century novel grew its epic grandiosity, which continued in the twentieth, was to create a private, intimate space where the out-loud culture would quiet. The novel flowered in the nineteenth century when industry and its noise, whether of urban or rural machinery, overtook the workaday world. A novel offered an escape, sustained and renewable, from the racket, via the serialized stories in a weekly paper, stories that were cheap to produce and with a talent like Dickens’ easy to lengthen. The novel let readers commune individually with an author’s voice and the reader’s internal animation of that voice away from the cramped social spaces of home and work.

It’s not that we don’t need the novel anymore or the novel won’t function as a haven from the nattering nabobs of cable TV. It’s not about needing the novel per se. It’s about the forms that the culture and the economy develop to sustain themselves, to which literature will follow. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2013 half of Americans read more than five books, half read less than five. A median (midpoint) of five books hardly reflects a reading public, and it says that the majority do not read novels, stories, and poems in any consistent way. Contrast this with the 89 million Americans who listen to radio every month or the 34 hours Americans spend imbibing TV each week.

How often have we heard that the novel, the short story, and the poem are necessary to our culture? Necessary in what sense? Usually to our edification, as though we cannot be the enlightened species we think we are without literature to bespeak our humanness.

Speaking of enlightenment, I find it remarkable that few believe radio and TV can edify and go as deeply as some claim literature can. Isn’t it true that our cultural and economic interaction with literary forms are bound to class and education levels? And yet the high culture of opera and classical music, ballet, art exhibitions, modernist lit, and so on, is just as dependent for its exposure and livelihood on the economy as is any other part of culture, low or high. The economy and its barons care little for the material forms the traditional or contemporary arts take. Sales are what most people care about. The digitization of the Bible, which I’ve written about at Guernica, in my series on “The Social Author,” exemplifies this colonization. If the culture and the economy deem an oral literature is what we need, what is most efficacious to the demands of media connectivity and virtual living, then that’s where authors will go.

What will a return to a predominantly oral literature entail? On the upside, a continuing collectivizing of the human sensory matrix as the primary artistic media of artists: in other words, the arts will become increasingly multimedial. On the downside, an oversaturation that comes when all voices speak at once—intriguingly, terrifyingly, noisily greater than anything in the time of Karl Marx. In brief, a world that must be tuned in and tuned out. I say all voices, not texts. Voices. That’s what we’ll eventually drown in: not in reading, not in writing, but in voices.



Is it defeatist for me to recognize that oral culture (theater, radio, TV, film, video, speech arts, rock and roll, YouTube, and more) has already dealt a body blow to book culture and that our writing per se, even though trimmed and intensified and hyperlinked, is rarely culturally relevant, which it seemed to have had in abundance just a generation ago? Isn’t one mark of this change the necessity that to be read nowadays—in a nation where one million books (the majority self-published) appear each year and blogs number 31 million, half a million posts a day—we need to find new ways to be seen and heard in a marketplace of exponentially proliferating voices?

As orality returns, we traditional, single-sensory authors may give in to this hunger that the book do more than it’s doing, we may re-inhabit acoustic space from which written text has exiled us, and we may unharness ourselves from the silent world of text in which we have thrived for much of our lives. I know I have thrived there. I also know I’m waking up to something radically old and new. I’m just not sure—this essay is part of that uncertainty—how wide awake I want to be.

Of course, we need the book. But I think increasingly we need the author, the socially and multimedially connected author, more than we need the book. This is why I sense that a book which does not occupy acoustic space may feel to me, because of its magnanimous inwardness, still unborn.


  1. Rick Posner on

    This is quite a provocative essay! As is usually the case with Mr. Larson, this piece is erudite and down-to-earth at the same time.

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