I felt like Pavarotti and I probably did everything he did, short of wearing a silk scarf around my neck. I had agreed to read the audio version of my book for Audible.com, a subsidiary of Amazon, but I began to lose my voice a few days before I was scheduled to arrive at the studio. So I got a prescription for five Z-Pak tablets, which cleared up my laryngitis. Then I spoke as little as possible for five days. Meanwhile, I loaded up on Biotene Dry Mouth chewing gum, slippery elm lozenges, Ricola cough drops, an herbal, alcohol-free moisturizer called Singer's Throat Spray, and a transparent plastic bear filled with honey that, during the most trying moments of the sessions, I sucked directly out of the hole in the little yellow cap on the bear's head. The day before, I didn't talk at all. The following morning, armed with every vocal cord emollient I could find, I carried two bottles of water, my memoir's 245-page manuscript, and a plastic bag filled with my battalion of throat protectors into the recording studio. Andrew, the sound engineer, a tall, thin, red headed guy who smoked every moment he wasn't chained to the church-organ-sized control panel, led me into the small room I would live and talk in, relentlessly, for four days.
To prep, I had read my book three times, softly, mumbling every sentence as I tried out different inflections, pauses, and changes of pitch and pace. The first mistake a reader makes is reading too fast. I had to speak, I learned, 50% more slowly than I usually spoke. Also, I couldn't speak in a monotone. And I had to enunciate all 75,000 words perfectly.
The room's walls were covered with acoustic panels, the floor was carpeted, the armchair's upholstery tattered. Once I was seated, Andrew swung a black microphone shielded by thin black mesh toward me and placed it three inches from my mouth. My manuscript pages were propped up on a music stand 12 inches from my nose, and illuminated by a lamp fitted with a small, bright halogen bulb. Then Andrew left and closed the door behind him so no air moved inside my room. Through the padded headphones he'd clapped over my ears I heard him say, "Rolling whenever you're ready." I took a deep breath and began to read. Five seconds later he said, "Slow it down. You're reading a litttttttttle fast." I spoke more slowly. Ten seconds later: "You're getting a littttttttle froggy in there. Take a sip of water to clear your throat." Next, my T-shirt sleeved rubbed against the chair's upholstery. "I'm hearing a litttttttle fabric rustling." I pushed up my T-shirt's sleeve until only bare flesh touched the padded armchair. Then I took a breath, started, and my stomach gurgled. "Let's take it from the top," Andrew said. I did. A moment later he said, "I'm hearing some lip smacking. Wipe your lips." We started again. I read page one, then turned to page two. "Pause when you turn a page." There had to be complete silence. So, I had to keep my throat moist, my lips dry, my stomach silent, my eyes trained on pages I had to turn without making a sound, and do it all without moving for several hours straight. Finally, I began to read without being interrupted.
I found the cadence of my sentences quickly, but it took 10 minutes for my throat to warm up and my breathing to fall into a consistent tempo. Still, every 20 minutes or so I'd need to pause, chew moisturizing gum, swallow honey, suck on a lozenge, or cauterize my throat with herbal vocal cord spray. By the end of the first day, my throat felt like it had been scrubbed with a wire brush. I had to lie down with an ice pack pressed against each closed eyelid to numb my eyes, which I'd strained while trying to see every word clearly.I was exhausted, yet I hadn't moved a muscle other than the ones in my throat all day. I'd read 45 pages and had 200 to go.
I began to worry that I wouldn't be able to finish reading them and the project would collapse. Frustrated and anxious, the next day's taping went like this: "I saw him walk across stage wearing his wooden — fuck! I saw him walk across stage wearing his woolen blazer." Next, I'd reach the end of a long sentence and mispronounce its final word. "God dammit!" Then I'd misread a line. "Shit!" Of the 24 hours of raw material the studio in New York City received — I recorded the book in Santa Fe — my guess is that approximately one-quarter of it consists of me spouting profanities.
But, oddly, on the third day I fell into a groove. I knew when to stop and lube my throat. I turned the pages in complete silence. I read flawlessly and sailed through 90 pages. I'd adjusted to the cramped space, the light's glare, and the isolation and entered my own world. It was the text and me, nothing else, other than the fly that flew in through the open door during a break and had to be hunted down and chased out. "Only 30 pages left," Andrew said. "Want to go for it?" meaning, finish reading the book that day. I passed. I wanted enough energy to read the end cleanly and with appropriate force and emotion. I was tapped out. The next day, however, I returned, warmed up, bathed my vocal cords with honey, chewed gum, sipped water, and finished recording the final pages in a few hours. "Your book is done, man," Andrew shouted as I removed the headphones. Whipped, I was more relieved than exhilarated. As Andrew played passages of it, I stood beside his console and listened. The voice sounded like mine and, at the same time, it didn't. I'd become disembodied in that small room. All that had existed and now all that remained were the recorded words, spoken as if by a ghost. After the typing, printing, editing, copyediting, and proofreading, I'd changed the finished book, as if by magic, into air. And once I'm dead, I wonder which will seem more "real" to someone who happens upon the book — the words that he or she imagines the sound of or the voice I've left behind.
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Tom Grimes is the author of five novels, a play, and a memoir. He edited The Workshop: Seven Decades from the Iowa Writers Workshop, the creative writing program from which he graduated. He now directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University.
Books mentioned in this post
Tom Grimes is the author of Mentor: A Memoir