A few weeks ago, I woke up very early and sat down in a nearly empty coffee shop. It was the beginning of a day I intended to devote entirely to writing, and to working on a few tricky passages that I had been avoiding. I desperately needed to concentrate. Desperately! A woman came in, ordered a cappuccino, and seated herself next to me. I stared at my screen, scribbled, typed, deleted, typed again. She opened her newspaper. And then she began to read. Out loud.
Look, I’m a nice person. Sort of. I wave to other runners when I’m running. I help elderly passengers with their overhead luggage. I tip. But when I’m writing – or, heck, even thinking about writing – I’m kind of a jerk. At that coffee shop, where I had gone seeking some quiet, some caffeine, some productivity, I looked up, turned my head, and I glared at that woman. She did not notice. I cleared my throat, furrowed my brows, glared a little harder. She kept reading. I ALL BUT GROWLED AT HER. She soldiered on.
The complication? I love reading. I love, particularly, being read to. I associate the act of reading aloud with the sensation of feeling loved. When I was very small, I would run upstairs after my bath, and scramble under my covers because I knew that the more quickly I was in bed, the more quickly my father would climb the stairs, choose a book, and read to me until I fell asleep. It was the best part of my day. It was the best part of my life. Stories were love, and reading stories aloud was the way we communicated love. But of course, one day I grew up, and I outgrew being read to.
When you read a story, you are distracted from your own life. But when someone reads aloud to you, you are more than merely distracted. You give up control. You hand over the reins: their speed is your speed, their emotion is your emotion; their voice is the voice in your head. It is a surrender, I suppose, but not a pathetic or desperate sort of surrender. It is a willful giving over of every intellectual weapon we usually use to either defend ourselves from the world or to attack it. Depending on our positions of the field, I guess.
No one reads to me, anymore. I’m thirty years old. I teach; I read aloud to my students. I compensate, albeit in a technological way. I listen to audiobooks on long car rides. I download podcasts for the airport. I attend readings and lectures. Sometimes I can even goad someone into reading aloud to me, even if it is just a paragraph or two. It’s a very small tragedy, that you outgrow the privilege of hearing a story told for you, only you. When the woman in the coffee shop begins to read aloud, you fidget, you glare, you sigh in impatience.
I wrote a story a while back, a fairly dark story set in a dystopian future. It was a sad and violent story, and as I revised it I knew that it was too violent, too dark. And the thing that could use to assuage the sadness and the violence – maybe not all of it, but some of it – was to allow the whole story to be someone speaking aloud, telling us a story. I revised it, sent it to Hayden’s Ferry, and they took a chance on it. That story, “The Union Made,” is in Issue 52.
I learned, when I was a child, that reading stories was a way to communicate love. One day, I outgrew the girl, the one to whom people read stories. So now, I write those stories, for others to read, and read aloud.
Zana Previti was born and raised in New England, but now collects MFA degrees on the West Coast. You can find her most recent story, “The Union Made,” in HFR #52. She lives in Northern California, and is hurrying to finish up her first novel.