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Voice

Learning to speak.

Illustration of several birds on a telegraph wire.

Birds on a telegraph wire, 1890

I was early to the studio to record some new NPR pieces, so I waited outside on 2nd Avenue. My last reading had gone poorly—I ended up out of breath, gasping through the lines, and we had to kill one of the three pieces I was recording. I went home that night feeling wretched. I'd worked hard on my pieces, edited them up until the last minute, but the only moment that truly matters for radio is when your mouth is right by the microphone, and I'd blown that moment. So I made a 2000-word, annotated list of all the things I'd done wrong: I'd eaten dairy products, drank coffee, slept too little, leaned instead of sitting properly during, breathed from my chest rather than my diaphraghm, and so on.

Now I was due for a 12:30 session. The night before, I re-read my list of sins, and followed my own advice. I slept, woke up at a reasonable hour, and read over my pieces carefully, practicing different intonations. I wore a loose brown shirt and a pair of jeans. The shirt had passed the swish-test, which an engineer had demonstrated: you stand straight and pump your arms back and forth, listening for rubbing fabric.

I left early, and arrived with 30 minutes to kill. I walked down the block, and back, leaning against a mailbox, looking down the street to the United Nations. What I wanted to do was to rehearse, to warm up my voice. So I pulled out my copies from my bag and read to 2nd Avenue.

As I read, people looked at me, then looked away quickly. I was eyed by a middle-aged man in a suit, a tourist in sneakers, an African diplomat, a woman in a scarf who crossed the street to go into Pfizer's headquarers—the regular day traffic of that part of town. A delivery truck pulled up, and a man in the passenger seat stared at me, then the truck pulled further down the block. I flipped manuscript pages back and forth, trying to get the dialogue right. I am a nervous and wooden actor, and should know better, but I'd given myself two lines to read as my girlfriend, and one as a cranky cavewoman.

I've seen other people do this sort of thing: a drummer pounding a pad on the subway, women mumbling over scripts as they walked down a street, singers growling out their exercises outside of a stage door, writers editing furiously in the park. In communication with themselves, trying to get the work done. It felt good to be one of them, a babbler willing to risk some suspicious glances in order to do a good job.

After reading for 20 minutes, I closed the rehearsal, went up to the studio and checked in. I leafed through the guestbook. “The other day, P. Diddy was here,” said the young man at the reception desk. “But he didn't sign.” I'd never signed the book before, but this time I wrote my name: Paul Ford, right below Steven Berlin Johnson.

In the studio, I drank a glass of water, elevated my chair—essential, as most people are small and light compared to me, and if I sit in chairs that they find comfortable, I am hunched up like a sumo wrestler when he stomps his legs. During the read, I felt the familiar tension coming—a desire to please so great that I forget to breathe, rushing the lines, and end up choking—but I pushed that out of mind, breathing from the diaphragm, focusing on the words, giving them credence, making them more important than anything or anyone else. Thus I didn't end up, as I had before, kneeling in front of a microphone, stripped to a T-shirt, hurrying my sentence in order to get to the next breath, but instead remained fully clothed and comfortable.

It would be great to say I rocked it, delivered something so witty and profound that a flock of angels descended to give me a Most Valuable Commentator award. But, rather, I did okay. Sure, I have miles to go before I attain anything like excellence. But I ended up with all of my breath, and I took my breath with me down to the street, and onto the bus, onto the train.

I've been at this for a year, now, and have a year or two to go before I can crawl inside a piece and establish exactly how to deliver it out loud, finding that balance between writing, acting, and talking. You're never done, but the goal, I think, is to give the reader that sense of being inside someone else's mind, to take them outside of themselves for a few minutes. You ask their permission to do this in the first few sentences, and leave them standing somewhere slightly different when the last graf ends. Not purely craft, not purely art—more alchemical, trying to turn type into air. Although the alchemists had it all wrong; all that time they tried to turn lead into gold, the printers kept casting type and publishing books, glad that lead was so pliable, and cheap. Lead is not as malleable as gold, but words are far more so.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

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