For many of my undiagnosed PTSD years my brother and I lived together on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. During some of that time I dabbled in playwriting. When my first play went into production I learned pretty quickly that what we put on the page sounds different on the stage.
As I rewrote and reworked the script, I added to the revision process by reading the characters’ lines out loud. This disturbed Bret. He’d come home from work and hear a few different voices speaking in my room, and then, when he stuck his head into say hello there would just be me sitting at my desk, pencil and script in hand, looking up at him as if he’d just interrupted a deeply fascinating conversation.
The first time this happened Bret carefully looked around the room and then back at me.
“Who are you talking to?” he asked cautiously.
He looked worried. I was, although we didn’t know it at the time, deep into PTSD, so he was used to me being a little off and needing some looking after, but having whole conversations with myself was something new.
“There’s no one here,” he said.
“But I heard voices.”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m revising.”
What I had discovered during rehearsals was that two things were happening: actors’ verbal interpretations of my writing gave different inflection and meaning to my words, and also: sometimes the words that sounded so right in my head sounded really awful when put together on the tongue.
I am not the Magellan of revision – for centuries poets, playwrights and other writers and orators have been revising their work by reading it out loud. For us writing our trauma scripts there are some great advantages to reading it aloud before we speak it to anyone else:
[For those of you who are already speaking with great ease, you are not exempt from today’s exercise! We all hold back. We all keep some details, images, or instances secret for ourselves. Sometimes it’s because we just can’t bear relating them, other times it’s because we don’t know how. Now is the time to figure out how to say what still haunts you.]
1 – You get used to hearing the story yourself. We can’t help it, we get emotional at the thought – much less the act – of relating what happened to us. If we don’t practice what it sounds like before we speak to someone else then we’re hearing it all for the first time at the same time we have an audience. This is not necessarily a recipe for success. We’re dealing with our own emotions about the past at the same time we’re feeling very emotional and vulnerable in the present. Not the best way to go.
2 – You get to hear how the words sound. When we’re writing, we can tend to overdo it a bit. Big fancy words and long explanations sound wonderful when we’re speaking to ourselves, but you’ll lose your audience this way. Likewise, if the phrasing is ambiguous and lacking detail the audience won’t get the whole picture which, in this case, is extremely important. By rehearsing out loud you can decide if there are better words to express what you mean, more succinct ways of telling it or more facts that should be conveyed.
3 – You get to practice the feeling of speaking and remembering at the same time.
We deal with enough unwanted flood of emotion without bringing it on ourselves. Let’s not take the positive step of beginning to tell the story and sabotage it by not being prepared for how it feels to hear it and feel it at the same time.
4 – You get used to how it sounds when the ideas, memories and emotions exit your head and enter the world. In our heads memories can loom so much larger than life we can’t imagine shrinking them down to world-sized pieces. But we can. When we put them on the page they shrink a little. When we speak them out loud we get to see that they are only memories, after all. They are not happening in the moment and, though we may be a little psychologically skewed, we are still strong enough to pull it all together and share the burden with someone else.
I could go on; this is just a starter list for the benefits of speaking. These items only relate to where you are in the process today of writing it out and getting it ready for public consumption, which is a topic we’ll tackle next week.
For today, to continue the BRIDGE THE GAP healing workshop your goal is to begin reading out loud the script you wrote a few days ago. Find a quiet place where you are isolated and alone. Block out at least 30 minutes when you can read your script out loud, revise it, and read it through again.
Look for phrases you stumble over, words that just don’t fit, ideas that don’t really get the point across when you hear them out loud, and gaps in the narrative that need to be fleshed out.
Trust your instincts. When something doesn’t sound right you’ll know. Stop, revise, start over again from the beginning. The goal is to be able to read through the entire script without feeling the need to revise anything.
Play with your voice. Experiment with how high or low, strong or weak, full or thin it is. Find a register that feels comfortable. Don’t fake it. Be real.
Control your breath. Read slowly. Do not be in a rush to get out the story. Take your time. Breathe. Speak slowly and clearly. This will help your audience take in and understand what you’re saying, and it will also help ground you. The breath is an extremely strong source of calm to the body. Use it to your advantage.