Don’t Write Alone Narrating My Audiobook Felt Like Doing an Impression of Myself
Even the most authentic voice on the page is a translation, a refraction, an altered version of the author’s actual speaking voice.
This is The Sound of My Voice , a series on the process, craft, and stakes of recording audiobooks.
When the opportunity arose to produce an audiobook of my memoir, Negative Space , I was adamant that I wanted to narrate it myself—even though the prospect was daunting. I knew it would be grueling work, and I wasn’t sure I could do it without losing my voice or needing excessive breaks. The process itself was not appealing at all, frankly. And I knew there were experienced professional audiobook narrators out there for whom the task wouldn’t be an endurance test . . . But they aren’t me.
I found the thought of someone else narrating my story intolerable. Hiring a professional narrator makes sense to me for fiction, or even straight topic-driven nonfiction, where the author’s whole being isn’t as inextricable from the text as it is in memoir. But Negative Space is the story of my father’s death, of my parents’ marriage and heroin addictions, of me finding my voice as a creative person and building a life that leaves space for grief but isn’t defined by it. The idea of someone else telling this story—my story—made me feel uneasy, and territorial.
But it wasn’t possible to secure a guarantee as part of the audio rights deal that I’d get to narrate—I’d have to audition once the deal was in place. This uncertainty made me nervous but also determined. I listened to excerpts of a dozen different memoir audiobooks, taking notes on what I liked and didn’t like. I rehearsed with the help of an actor friend who had done voice work, and I recorded multiple takes of my audition until it was just right. I was relieved when I got the green light—and then immediately intimidated by the job I’d just fought for.
While writing the book, I spent a lot of time thinking about voice—as all writers do. I wanted the narrator on the page to sound as much like me as possible—to be authentic, to capture my East Village former-street-punk-turned-dive-bar-bartender self, rather than flattening into a generic “literary” voice. I wanted it to have some bite, some directness, some punch. But I also wanted it to be subtle, not a caricature of any of these elements of my character. I wanted the voice to have a calm, steady resonance appropriate to the subject matter, a little bit of wistfulness in some spots, but never veering into the saccharine or sentimental. It was a fine line to walk.
And of course, as much as I was trying to write in my authentic voice, to sound like myself on the page, I wasn’t actually writing in the exact words or cadence that I would use in everyday speech. One of the benefits of writing a memoir as opposed to just telling your story in person to anyone who will listen is the chance to hone and refine, to go over the same sentence a hundred times until it says exactly what you mean. So even the most authentic voice on the page is a translation, a refraction, an altered version of the author’s actual speaking voice. Finding the right balance of refining the voice without losing its character took me years—polishing a sentence until it gleamed and then tweaking it just enough to make it feel real again. Swearing just enough that I still sounded like myself, but not so much that it would be distracting.
The idea of someone else telling this story—my story—made me feel uneasy.
And then, as I prepared to read the whole book aloud, I was faced with the fresh challenge of trying to accurately reflect my written voice in my speaking voice—like doing an impression of a friend doing an impression of me, or feeding a phrase into Google translate and then translating the results back into English. When I sat in the darkened booth, cleared my throat, and began, I was reading not in my actual voice, but in an approximation of my written voice, which was itself an approximation of my speaking voice. The more steps to the translation, the murkier the idea of authenticity became.
If I thought too hard about all of this while reading, I started tripping over words, trailing off, losing my place. If I thought too hard about maintaining the New York vibes of the voice, I felt myself start to slip into an accent. I don’t have a New York accent in everyday life, but I’ve been told I pick up a slight one when I’m drunk or angry—and especially when I’m drunk and angry. Or, like so many people who straddle different worlds, when I’m shootin’ the shit with some neighborhood guys and relax into a certain version of myself. But while recording, I found that once I slipped into the accent, I had a hard time getting back out of it without taking a break and walking away. The accent would have been okay if it had been consistent—I wouldn’t have minded if the whole audiobook had a little bit of whatchagonnadoaboutit flavor—but I knew an audiobook that slipped in and out of an accent would be distracting and strange for the listener.
So instead of thinking too much about voice while reading, I thought about it nearly constantly in the days between recording sessions, speaking awkwardly to my friends and my husband as I paid too-close attention to the sound of my own voice. I’d then put it out of my mind while reading, hoping I would naturally circle through the written approximation back to something like my actual voice, even though the question of what my “actual voice” sounds like had become a more complex and fraught one than I ever thought possible.
It was very similar to the process by which I learned new combinations in ballet classes as a teen—I studied and analyzed and practiced each individual step and transition, marking my movement across the room, accounting for the placement of each limb . . . and then let my mind go blank when it was time to put it all together, trusting muscle memory to carry me. Despite all of my thinking and worrying about what “voice” means and how to make mine feel authentic, once I sat down and put the headphones on, all I could do was trust that I had written the words to sound like myself—that, as I was so sure of when I lobbied for a chance to audition in the first place, my own speaking voice was the best one in which to animate my words.
In the end, I was right that recording would be grueling work. I left the studio each day exhausted and hoarse. But now there’s an audiobook out there of my story, in my voice. More than one close friend has texted to say they listened to the audiobook and loved it, because it felt like I was sitting next to them, telling them a story. So I guess I did manage to sound like myself—whatever that means.