• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Thought That I Heard You Sing

The other day I read a quote in the NYT that stopped me. It was from William Zinsser, who wrote the classic “On Writing Well.” He’s nearly blind at 90 and still coaches students, who read their work aloud to him. “People read with their ears, whether they know it or not,” Mr. Zinsser says. I totally get that. I mean I hear everything I read. Am I being too literal? I think it’s a profound observation about reading. And, by the way, still having the interest and stamina to help writers at 90. That’s just crazy for loco. God bless you, Mr. Zinsser.

What do you read with?

53 Responses

  1. I hear everything I read. Absolutely.

  2. I read with Zinsser’s On Writing Well at hand. But that’s not what you asked. Copy editor/actor, I definitely hear what I read. Authors have said they like my dialog suggestions.

  3. What do I read with?

    I read with an air of distracted irreverence frequently blaspheming under my breath.

    Occasionally, I will read with a cat upon me.

  4. I don’t believe most people don’t read with their ears. In my experience, most writers don’t even read with their ears.
    The best things I write, I send out to my wonderful critique group in advance, they read, critique, come along to our meeting ready to tell me it wasn’t very good, and needs lots of work, then when I read it out loud — as we always do at our meetings — they change their minds and think it’s great.
    They don’t hear it until they hear it.
    If everyone read with their ears, I’d become rich, famous, happy, fulfilled. Or at least feel like I’ve been heard.
    But Mr Zinsser sounds awesome… I would love to know that guy.

  5. Someone interviewed me this week about why I continue to read to my adolescent students, as if we lose our love of being read to once we can read for ourselves. I told her that something magical happens when I read to my middle school students, that they tap into my own love of the text (why would I bother to read anything I don’t LOVE) and are comforted by being read to, and I can highlight the magic of polysyndeton and asyndeton and chiasmus and epistrophe and anaphora and all those high-falutin’ rhetorical terms that simply describe how words have power beyond their meaning. How Dickens transports us to a marsh in the middle of the night, riding on Joe’s back, in search of a convict who might eat our liver. How Poe renders us insane while we sit atop a dead body with a beating heart. How the House of Usher, cleaved by its own insanity and incestuousness, has no other fate but to disintegrate and fall into the black tarn.

    Well, that, and because it’s magic.

    • For a couple of months, our youngest child—who at two years-old used to walk up to any spare adult, whack them with a book and yell, “READ IT!”—wouldn’t admit she’d learned to read, because she thought we would stop reading to her.

      The penny didn’t drop until we found several “Super Reader” certificates crumpled in the bottom of her backpack and her teacher confirmed that she was one of the strongest independent readers in the class—unless she could con someone into reading out loud to her.

      We reassured her that we would read with her as long as she would let us. So far, she’s let us read to her a fair bit, though she’s now keeping a stern eye on quality control.

    • Some of my best memories are reading to a baby in my arms. My girls are 11 and 12 and still love to be read to. The only difference now is I hand the book over to one or the other and listen too. I love they have diaries and notebooks where they develop characters and plots, and books piled on their nightstands.

  6. I guess I do “hear” things I read in my head; however, that’s when reading to myself. I have trouble comprehending when people read aloud to me…I have to have the text right in front of me to follow along. And I don’t really like reading aloud to people either. I prefer reading to myself always.

    • And from experience, people in general do not hear as they read. If they did, proofreading would be a much more productive exercise.

      • And that’s why I REQUIRE that my students read every piece of writing out loud before they hand it in. I’m not their damn copy editor.

      • Haha! Exactly – and it’s a proven fact that teacher made edits do not benefit or teach students anything. My students do a peer editing exercise that pairs them and makes Student A read Student B’s work aloud so that student B can hear how it sounds without their own minds making edits as they read…and then they switch.

  7. I read everything out loud, my stuff and the books I read in my spare time. I have to hear the phrasing to enjoy the story. If the writing is good the words sound like music.

  8. I write like I play the piano, by ear. Every word I write, from a one line comment on FB to my columns, I read out loud. When it reads like music it’s magical. Meaning is everything but the actual sound of the words and the way they are pronounced creates a rhythm which helps the reader understand the intent of the writer’s tone.

    I can’t imagine writing and sending anything out I haven’t read to my dog. Doesn’t matter what I write he likes all of it, especially if I use the words ‘milkbone’ or ‘Frisbee’.

  9. Yes, you hear the flow, the voice, the cadence in your head. I’ve often said that writing well is like being a musician that has an ear for music–many people can learn the rules and techniques–the craft–but not everyone can hear it. I also think, unlike craft, you either hear it or you don’t. This is sometimes referred to as the Talent Factor.

  10. Okay, so I’ve become one of those people who moves her lips and whispers when she reads. And at home, in my little workspace, I speak aloud as I type. I’m getting crazier by the minute. Or maybe just more impatient. I want to compose and read my work in one step instead of two.

    Mr. Zinsser sounds like a hero to me. (I just read that as I typed it. I liked the sound of it.)

    • I’m that crazy lady too. My kids confirmed I move my lips and whisper to myself when I write. I wonder if I read that way too? Coming from a family of (medically certified) crazies who have entire conversations with themselves it freaks me out and I hope I haven’t done it in public.

  11. If it’s good writing I read with all of my senses, inhaling the smells of characters, seeing new landscapes, hearing their voices, tasting their last meal and touching the world they inhabit.

  12. Some pig.

    I often read my own work out loud to check pacing and rhythm. And I still read to my two children most nights – why do we grow out of that? Or maybe we don’t – people flock to author readings.

  13. I write with my ears so I hope readers will read with their ears. I expect them to hear the commas.

  14. Generous, insightful characters like Zinsser probably get to live such long lives because they keep at it, sharing their insights and brilliance with love. Not loco. I bet you’ll be like that, Betsy.

  15. more and more i listen to books. i like it better if the book is good, because a lot of thought has gone into to the auditory effect of the work. best if the author reads it, though i just listened to Round House and the reader immensely added to the experience.

  16. It’s weird (to me, anyway) how I’ll write what I think is the best damn sentence, paragraph, page I’ve ever done, and then? I read it out loud and none of it sounds worth keeping.

    When I began working with my editor, she said, “read everything out loud before you send it to me.” So, I do and that’s probably why it takes me twice as long now to send her pieces. My only consolation is I’ve heard others read their work and realize we all sound awkward reading our own shit. But, on the flip side, I don’t know that I’ve ever read another author’s work and felt the same way.. I always think their work is brilliant..

  17. Eyes to ears to eyes, by way of imagination.

    Hey Bonnie! Congratulations!

  18. I’m not sure how to answer this question . . . I’d say that I read with my mind’s ear, but that doesn’t really encompass the full-sensory experience of diving headfirst into a good story or poem.

    Maybe through the telepathy of shared human experience?

  19. I definitely hear when I read – and see and smell and feel and taste, if the writing is good – and I hear my words as they come to me, before I put them down. However, when writing, sometimes I forget to listen. Something I need to work on.

  20. My husband calls me The Bloodhound because I’m always saying, Don’t you hear that? Do you smell that? And if I told you how many times I’ve listened to Toni Morrison read Beloved on audio you’d start to worry about me.

    Here’s to being read, and read to.

  21. Hi, Betsy. It’s been a long time since our days at HMCo. Saw your blog post. I happen to read the article in the Times as well. Having just recorded the audiobook edition of my self-published novella, knew immediately what Zinsser was saying. I learned that lesson while directing the actor in the recording session. Having someone read my own work to me was a learning experience.

  22. Funny, I was just thinking about Salinger, and how his ear for dialogue pierced me. It’s why I write.

  23. “What do you read with?”

    total self. in der welt sein.

  24. If he’d lost his hearing, we’d be talking about fonts.

  25. Yes, with my ears…AND imagination. My imagination breaks loose when I read. It glides over the words like a plane on a runway, when the writing is good. I’m going, going, going, then lifting off, taking flight into the writer’s world….standing in a fully formed place, watching the people, all of my senses engaged. I’m feeling at home before I find myself back on the page, again, taking up the writer’s words where I left off.

  26. I’ve been thinking about this question all week. I write with my ears; I absolutely write with my ears. I create a rhythm and a cadence, and it’s almost compulsive in its origin. I didn’t think I read with my ears, though; I was fairly certain I read with all of my senses, except that of hearing, because I was also pretty sure that I was trying so hard to understand what the author was evoking, that I ignored the pace and instead focused on the image that was being described and the feelings that the character must have felt and the light and the smells– and the sounds, too; yes, the sounds but not the sound of the sentences themselves. I was challenged, however, to recognize whether all people truly do read with their ears, “whether they know it or not,” as Mr. Zinsser said, and so just now, as I was reading a paragraph by Simone de Beauvoir, in which she is describing an experience in a Harlem church, I caught myself pausing carefully at the commas and the semi-colons and the periods, and I understood: it’s an internal tapping of the foot, just as a musician keeps time, and it’s done subconsciously and it’s a way of ingesting the ideas and it’s the exact reverse of what I do when I write, like a song played backwards or a scene rewound or a gasp sucking air into the throat again.

  27. What do I read with?
    I read with a sad heart the breaking news this weekend of Harper Lee’s copyright scandal with her agents at McIntosh & Otis. Who would do this to an frail, aging writer? Who can you trust anymore?

    • Shameful. A pox upon them.

    • It wasn’t McIntosh & Otis, actually; it was a company created by Samuel Pinkus, the son-in-law of the original literary agent, who was indeed at McIntosh & Otis, but had fallen ill, which is why Pinkus took over and apparently started his own, separate LLC, diverting some of McIntosh & Otis’s clients to his company. One of those clients was Harper Lee.

  28. Huh. I seem to be in a minority, because I don’t hear the words as I read. That would slow me down and get in the way of the immediacy of the experience. I don’t notice the words at all, unless they’re clunky and get in the way. If the writing is good and the story is engaging, I’m just – boom!- in that other world. I read with my… soul? My self? I don’t know.

    If I want to notice anything about the words themselves, I have to read it a second time, or even a third one if my imagination manages to seduce my logical mind away from the words again.

  29. Hahaha what a funny post title and image!

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