Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Voice in My Head

When you're reading a novel what sort of voice do you hear inside your head?  Is it your voice?  Is it a voice you recognize?  Do you invent a voice for each character?  For the narrator?  Is it different if you read a non-fiction book?
Matt and I had a lovely discussion on this theme recently, prompted by the passage below from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.
“Laboriously I spelled out the words.  They seemed different when they were on the page: not flowing and sonorous, as I had recited them in my head, but flatter, drier.  Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song.”
I adore that last bit--the idea that reading is when we feel the words as if they were music inside us.  The words and phrases--the ideas--flow together.  They fit.  They fill us up.  They rise and fall--the story rises and falls--as if it were a melody.  Inexplicably, the song may contain beauty and hope and despair and loss all in the same piece.  Like magic.

Of course, it stands to reason that this metaphor strikes me so, seeing how much I love both reading and music.  They have a similar sort of magic to them, to use that word again, so the notion sits well in my mind.
Personally, I create the voice of the story in my mind as I go along, amalgamating the various relevant voices from my mental catalog so the characters have appropriate tone, gender, personality, and accent.  It isn't my voice, but it isn't one borrowed directly from elsewhere.  It is a completely unique instrument that I create.  It is a sort of internal personal improv.

When I read aloud for other folks--a fairly rare occurrence these days--it is just my regular Beth voice though.  I am not a talented enough voice actor to make the voices I hear inside my brain come out of my mouth.  That is cool to realize in and of itself.  I can hear an Indian accent with my mind's ear, but I cannot produce it with my lips.
Matt said his internal reading style runs fairly parallel to mine.  That is, by and large, how the books read inside his head, too.  His narrator is a combination of  generic narrator and radio voices.  His Tom Sawyer is his combination of southern voices he's heard.  And so on.  Though we both use the same strategy I still have to wonder how different the same story might be in my head versus Matt's.  There is no way to ever know, but it must be akin to hearing someone else cover one of your favorite songs--like Johnny Cash's version of Hurt instead of Nine Inch Nails' original.  The song is both the same and different because of the change in voice. 

(For the record, that is not one of my favorite songs, but a tremendous example of contrasting versions of the same tune.  I prefer Johnny Cash's, but I can remember my friend, Val, hating it because it didn't sound right to her.  There have been a handful of audiobooks I couldn't get into because the voice was all wrong, so I guess I understand.)
Matt was the one to raise the issue of non-fiction books--not memoirs or biographies, but books like In Defense of Food or Why We Dream or Packing For Mars and how the internal voice differs when reading those versus a novel.  This was especially interesting given that we immediately realized that non-fiction quite often comes across in our own voices.  Even that isn't 100% though.  For example, since I know what Michael Pollan sounds like, from interviews and video clips, I hear his books in his voice inside my head.  Or at least my version of how I remember Michael Pollan's timbre.
Photos from October 2019 - Early Snow and Fab Fall Colors.
Reading is an astonishing and baffling power.  I am humbled just to think about it!  The ability to take a bunch of deliberately shaped marks on a page and turn it into something that moves people's spirit!  That moves people hundreds of years later--that transcends death!  Reading broadens our personal experience.  Reading connect us.  Reading transcends us.  It is amazing.  Improbable.  Remarkable.  What a gift!


  1. I definitely create the voices...many years ago...when I used to read aloud to Our Airman's class...I created voices using my voice as well...haha...and you're right reading is amazing...
    ~Have a lovely day!

  2. Look at that snow! Anyway, I have never thought about this subject, and I'll have to pay attention now.


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