Sunday, November 02, 2008

A Secret Code

Reading is a process of decoding words and letters.

You see the words, and you translate the letters into meaning--as if translating a secret code--and your brain takes in this information, and then filters it into understanding.

From the assortment of letters and words, you make meaning.

Listening to a story, though, is a different process, which is why, perhaps, I found it difficult to listen to my iPod on a recent flight to New Jersey.

Maybe it was difficult to hear the voice because of the sound of the jet engines, but I think it had more to do with not being able to see the words.

There was no page, no way to visualize images from words.

There's some special alchemy that happens in my brain--maybe in every writer's brain--that craves the sight of words on a page, craves the feel of paper in my hands, the momentum of sentences tumbling into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, building suspense and expectation, the mystery of what might come next, which word, which image.

There's also the miracle of how words create visual images and emotional responses.

How does that happen?

You see in your mind an image created by words--boat, dock, sea, sky.

The more precise the description, the more concrete the words, the clearer the picture: row boat, weathered dock, storm-tossed sea, eggshell blue sky.

And the sight of these words creates not only images but emotions.

Listening to the iPod, I didn't have the page, just the words and the reader's voice. I had to struggle to create the sound of the words in my mind while listening to the sound in my ear.

My imagination wasn't involved in creating the sound of the voice from the page. Only the ear was necessary to translate the sound into meaning.

Anyway, I found the iPod's earbuds annoying, a much different experience than listening to someone's voice on a radio when the distance between the voice and my ear gives my imagination a little more room to work.

At times--while driving and listening to a podcast that I've downloaded from my computer to my iPod, then hooked up to my car radio--I'm grateful for the new technology.

But most of the time, once I get home, I'm eager to turn off the iPod and return to my books, to feel the weight of the pages in my hands, to touch the paper and see the words and images in my imagination again.

What about you? How do you feel about reading a story versus hearing one? And does hearing the story--rather than reading it--change the way you feel about the story? (And why does hearing someone tell a story in person differ from hearing that same story told over a radio?)

Let us know when you get a chance.


Anonymous said...

I, too, find that reading and being digitally read to are different experiences. When traveling long distances I listen to non-fiction or mysteries or some such on an ipod, texts which I hope to gain information from or to just hear what happens next. I always save literature for the visual experience of reading it on the page.

Thank you, Bruce, for all your posts. I look forward to reading wordswimmer every Sunday!

Bruce Black said...

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and taking the time to post them. (And for your kind words about Wordswimmer.)

Anonymous said...

Great post! It totally resonates with me. I can't get into audio books either because it feels disconnected. It's like the sounds just drift out into the ethers and get lost. I can't find an anchor, there's nothing to grab on to. I never knew why this was the case, just that I preferred to hold the book and see the words on the page.

I know I am a visual person, so your explanation makes total sense to me now. Thanks for the wonderful insight.

Which makes me wonder...when I'm writing and having trouble getting an experience on to the page, I bet I can help the process by writing about the visuals to ground me before I get too much into the feelings. Just a thought!

Bruce Black said...

Sometimes I find it helpful, as I wade into a story, to put my pen down, close my eyes, and let images come (instead of words).

Not only does this take the pressure off of finding the right word, it helps me focus on the details that I tend to overlook if I'm too intent on hunting for the words.

It's a little like watching a movie on the screen of your imagination. But you have to be willing to let go of the words, and that's not always easy.

Sounds like you've found the perfect solution. Thanks for sharing... and for taking the time to stop by.

Anonymous said...

Bruce, I like the idea of letting the images come instead of searching for the right words. I'll try that too. Thanks again.