Literature Without Writing at Lit Hub

November 13, 2017


Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt


Before writing, there is speech. When words are just sound, the highest artistic achievement of language is music. Then Gilgamesh gets carved into tablets and our words becomes visual art. These symbols are not dependent upon the way a larynx can hum, but on the way the forefinger and thumb hold a stylus. Through text, writers often try to evoke sound—what we call voice—but of course, that it is an auditory illusion. The great fiction. Still, we like the illusion and it doesn’t get ever tiresome. And perhaps, in literature, the best illusion we can get is the oral history. Just pure, transcribed voice.


The Witches, Roald Dahl


My mom loved books, and when I was little she would read them aloud to me every night, doing voices for the characters, riding the wave of the story with the dynamic of her voice. On car rides, she’d give me ongoing updates of the books she was reading, usually by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham. I couldn’t read them yet, but I could hear them, filtered through her warm, raspy voice. Having someone you love tell you a story is one of the great pleasures in life. But I also like a good recap from anyone. I listen to recap-podcasts of books I’ve never read. All the effortful writing is wiped away, and the essence of the book is delivered in easy, natural talk.


The Trial of Socrates, Plato


The basic form of language is dialogue. Before the poem or the novel, we have daily conversation. Communicating—not monologuing—is why we start speaking in the first place, so humans implicitly understand the structure. It has no pretense, and despite the hundreds of manuals on “the art of conversation” it needs no explaining. We all know it has to go back and forth, like a rocking boat. Otherwise, it isn’t really dialogue. Most of us don’t get tired of it for very long, since it’s nearly as essential to human life as food, sleep, excretion, and movement. If you want it to, conversation can express the whole range of human experience: the joke, the seduction, the argument, the breakup, the murder, yin and yang. It’s all there.


The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes


Some people believe in a time when humans had another voice in our head. Our brain, as we now know it, was divided into two halves, and each half could speak to the other. We called the front voice “I” and the voice at the back of the head, “god.” So, the story goes, when people heard the voice of god, they were hearing another part of their brain. When they channeled texts, they were transcribing it. Thinking was dialogue. Schizophrenics may still be able to tap into this, but then again, so can all of us, to some degree: the devil on your left shoulder, the angel on the right. People talk about their inner monologue, the single stream of consciousness—but my experience of myself is and always has been dialogic.


Was this Man a Genius? Talks with Andy Kaufman, Julie Hecht


We exchange words all the time, sometimes effortlessly, sometimes with great difficulty. A few of us have the gift of gab, and can produce literature without writing—the most egalitarian kind of prose there is. Even the illiterate can join in. A good gabber can express their whole personality through speech. Every little chat can be part of the great performance of yourself.


The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, David Huffed


In our society, the interview is the way to truth. The police interrogation, the legal deposition, the therapy session—these are the tools we use to decide what is real, just, and sane. Anthropological studies use it for fieldwork, to understand who we are, and why we do what we do. When someone experiences something we cannot understand, we simply ask them a few questions. When, say, a Newfoundlander experiences something without rational explanation, something the scientific community calls “sleep paralysis,” we interview them about it. They don’t call it sleep paralysis. They tell us the “old hag” visited last night. “I got hagged,” they say, and we write it down for posterity.


The Sound of the One Hand, Yoel Hoffman


Religion loves discourse. The Catholic confession is an interview. Scientological auditing session is a questionnaire. The Bhagavad Gita is a debate on a battlefield. Recently, Eckhart Tolle’s mega-popular spiritual text, The Power of Now was written as a kind of interview with its reader. Clearly, we recognize dialogue as the source of our knowledge—it’s the way we have all learned since childhood—so of course, our source texts are filled with it. It’s what we use to make sense of the world. For the philosophers—Plato, Diderot, Buber, Krishnamurti—it’s a sharp tool for logic. For Zen masters, it’s a lesson in anti-logic. To answer a question is to get it exactly wrong. What face did you have before your parents were born? Mu!


Oprah, Kitty Kelly


In pop culture, the interviewer holds some of the highest positions in society: Barbara Walters, Larry King, Ellen, Charlie Rose, Diane Sawyer, Letterman. These people commune with royalty, world leaders, religious figureheads, and the gods of our time: celebrities. The master of the interview can be a billionaire. She can be a catalyst for a new kind of religious thought that sweeps through the western world. She can transform thousands of lives daily. We give her the key. She opens the door.


The Real Work, Gary Snyder


For the two branches of literature—spoken and written—each has its own vocabulary, syntax, rhythm, style, affectations, patterns, pacing, punctuation, and canon. I always loved spoken literature. A good interview gave me as much pleasure as a well-written short story. So, from a young age, I learned how to write by transcribing what people said. I learned language by hearing it. Anything said by anyone could make it into my little notebook. Then I began writing what I said aloud, and I began to realize that if a writer took ownership of their words and published them alongside their poems and essays, they had a book, as valid as any other. This book could even be among their greatest works.


The Brutality of Fact, David Sylvester


Eventually, I discovered that many interviews were bundled together in books, which made me feel more legitimate about my interest in conversation. The interview could sit beside novels and dictionaries. The interview could be a leather-bound masterpiece. It could tell the story of a life as well as any biography or memoir. It could be created by anyone—writers, people who hate to write, children, paraplegics, drunken painters. Is it wrong to say that, in some cases, I’d rather read an artist speak about their work than to experience the work itself?


The Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father, Louise Bourgeois


Some of my greatest mentors have been interviewees. As a teenager, Aldous Huxley taught me to think in old radio interviews I played through my car stereo. I read the The Paris Review’s Art of Fiction—Hemingway, Leibowitz, Hempel, Cooper—and I knew: this is how writers speak. I read the library of collected interviews with directors—Lynch on Lynch, Bresson on Bresson—and I learned about cinema. I read Melville House’s The Last Interview series—Arendt, Baldwin, Borges—and I experienced great minds approaching death. By answering questions, Bourgeois taught me how to feel, Duchamp taught me how to be lazy, and Cage taught me how to be free.


It Chooses You, Miranda July


Thankfully, conversation can also be perverse. It can exist for no reason at all. You can use it to unearth useless information, empty of utility. It could be art. Pick a fight. Play the devil’s advocate. Have a conversation with yourself. Strike up a conversation with a stranger who bores you. Discover something that interests you about them and then talk about it. What words do they repeat? Which ones do they emphasize? What does it say about them?


Chilly Scenes of Winter, Anne Beattie


Thousands of years after dialogue, we get the novel, which often includes passages of people speaking. The problem for me was: nobody talks like that. When I started reading, I couldn’t get over all that stylized conversation. I could believe in phantasmagorical beings and dystopias, but not in false talk—so clever and terse and artful. You could see it being crafted. Then, after much reading, I figured it out: Oh, it’s wink-wink talk. Like in the golden age of Hollywood. The way we wished we all could speak. Then I found the dirty realists.


My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Amos Tutuola


English as a second language is a beautiful thing. Conrad and Nabokov produced seemingly impossible English sentences. Beckett wrote in French and translated it into English to achieve a certain freshness to his words. Awkward and poetic simultaneously.  Natural speech is scrubbed away. Transcribe that sweet nectar. Get down every curious phrasal flip.


The Ambassadors, Henry James


Is dictation writing? Can a person write like they speak? Can they speak like they write? Can they speak like nobody writes and then transcribe that language and call it writing?


Jakob Von Gunten, Robert Walser


Journal writing is how we speak to ourselves—the page talking to the mind—so I often find diary novels as rich sources of voice. I like to keep a few voice-rich books on my desk and look at them as I write. I open a book and start reading at random until I feel something. Then I’ll transfer that feeling to my own writing. In an interview, George Saunders once described all art as a transference of energy.


Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling


When I listen to a book on tape, I let its flow of language synch up with the pace of my brain. Its words become my words, its land is my land. I leave the room, come back and the language continues to fill the space like gas. My attention drifts in and out, but the story is still going. I’m cleaning the house, writing, eating, using the bathroom. All the while, I’m in the book.


How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti 


Sometimes, I burn out on the novel. That’s when I turn to raw transcription: what is said, no fuss, including stutters, hesitancies, half-words, modifiers, and pillow words. We all like a nice pillow word in a phrase. “Uh” is a sonic comma in the onslaught of meaning-packed words. “Kinda” softens the blow of otherwise abrasively direct statement. “Um” used right, is like a purring little respite. “Like” is a grace note. When we use these utterances just right, they can be as artful as any legitimate word.


Miles, Miles Davis


What about the curse? How many meanings can muthafucker have? How many meanings can Bb have in a trumpet solo? Like music, literature doesn’t have to be about what is said, but how it’s said.


Three Screenplays, Woody Allen  


Don’t read the written script. Read the speech itself, with all the artifacts of the human throat. This is performed language. You can hear Diane Keaton in every verbal tic.


A, Andy Warhol


Unadulterated reality can be uncomfortable. Raw transcription can be ugly. Andy Warhol liked to show us this, and Kenny Goldsmith, too: Art that seeks to represent a pure idea is just ideology.


The Book of Formation, Ross Simonini


I recently learned the meaning of my last name is “one who listens and communicates.” Before I knew that, I conducted and edited interviews for over a decade. After a while, the volley of dialogue became more natural for me to read and write than the monologue. And when I began to write a long work of fiction, it came out as dialogue. I read it aloud, dictated it, and reread it more than any other book I read. I explored an oral lineage of literature, a kind of writing that understands speaking as an equal art. Eventually, I amassed a library of these books. Later, I taught them in a class at Columbia University called “Literature without Writing.” Students did not write. Instead, they spoke into a recorder and listened to the words as they came out of their mouths. Then they listened back, transcribed what they said and, if they wanted to, edited themselves. Sometimes I asked them to read their transcripts aloud to the class and listen. Slowly, we all became more sensitive to the literature we were already making.


Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload