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What to Make of Words by Stefan Kiesbye

By March 1, 2021October 22nd, 2021No Comments

“For what is reading but the animating of a writer’s words on the silent film strip in our minds?”

                                                                                    — Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book


I’ve always believed that reading texts out loud — to your children, to your partner, to an audience of strangers — should make them better. Adding an instrument, your voice, to words on a page should add a new dimension to a story. This is not a universal truth (truth being one of the most useless categories in writing, the arts, and life in general) but something I’ve been striving for in my own writing. Whatever I’ve written, mostly novels and short stories, I’ve imagined to be read, to be performed, in front of willing listeners. As a boy I read for guidance, didn’t want to get swept away, needed proof that rules in life existed for good reason. In the end, I found that each thought is canceled out by its exact opposite, both true. Therefore, I’m equally convinced that reading has to be more than making a film in your own head in order to be called reading. Writing has to be more than putting together a text that is easily transferable to a stage or screen. But that’s another story.

“Reading until then had been for pleasure.”

I trained as a stage actor in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in Berlin, Germany. My friends and I were grouchy children of the Cold War, knowing that if Russians and Americans decided to go to war against each other, they would do so in Middle Europe. We were self-indulgent, disdainful of the times we were living in and taking for granted that the world would soon come to a violent end. Sex we gave freely, as if handing out tissues to mourning friends. Reading until then had been for pleasure — mostly crime and horror novels — and working my way through plays wasn’t much fun at first. Pages and pages of dialogue robbed me of the illusion of stalking characters, watching their lives unfold while I, the reader, stayed undetected in the shadows, hidden by some scraggly bushes. Stage directions were brief moments of relief, the author taking time to write a paragraph or two of exposition. I believed that the prose passages were meant to help actors immerse themselves in the scene, get a feeling for the atmosphere, get directions for the ways in which to inhabit the characters and the stage. I read the text as a typical reader of prose and kept clutching at straws. But I found that none of the stage directions prepared me for improvisations, rehearsals, and the creation of a scene, and soon I learned to detest such directions. Poor plays attempted to make their dialogue more meaningful by repeatedly telling actors where to look, when to raise their voices, how to say their lines. They tried to control actors rather than providing them with the necessary tools inside the dialogue.

“…characters are free to move on their own, create the world around them without interference.”

I had shied away from Shakespeare since my high school days. I hated Shakespeare, I hated the well-bred characters and their never-ending sentences, and I especially hated working on Shakespeare with one of the first teachers I had, a kind old actress who only listened to my intonation and made me repeat voice-training lines again and again to get rid of the faint traces of my northern German accent. Bad acting, the performances I’d seen on stage and my very own, spoiled the music of rich and very exact language.

A few years later, I rediscovered Shakespeare and was made to see how meter gives you a line-by-line rundown of the characters’ emotions and likely actions, how it renders stage directions superfluous. To me, this was a miracle. Richard III no longer took the rather predictable path of a bloodthirsty murderer towards doom, nor was Romeo and Juliet a play about the abandon and grief of teenage love. Read meticulously, the texts reinterpreted themselves, showed depth and ambiguity where unsuccessful stagings had driven out all second thoughts and meanings. Shakespeare saw no need to provide us with the details of how a scene might look like, where characters stand on stage, or when they turn to one another. His plays give readers and actors an emotional structure; after that, characters are free to move on their own, create the world around them without interference.

“…the text should never be vague.”

When I started to write short stories, I did so as an actor. It’s true, we don’t speak in Iambic pentameter anymore, nor does it sound natural to our ears. And yet, even while I was writing modern dialogue and trying my hardest to make it sound unobtrusive and what many call erroneously ‘natural,’ I attempted to be as exact as a good playwright. I aspired to fill the lines with clear directions for the readers yet without talking down to them, without providing running commentary on how the reader should feel about actions and characters. This way, the ambiguities are richer, the individual movies readers are piecing together diverse and divergent. The reader becomes a more active player, more active interpreter of the lines. Yet the text should never be vague. I detest vagueness. Ambiguity results from decisive action — your lover cuts off their finger and hands it to you; a mother keeps her son hostage for twenty years, telling him, “I love you;” a man rebuilds the house he’s lost to arson and sets it on fire. Ambiguity makes us feel alive. Vagueness is merely mental fog.

In any case, a stringent imagination strikes me as no imagination at all, and to get rid of the contradictions in my thoughts would also mean losing the darker spots in my mind and work where broom and wet cloth can’t reach and make life possible. Do we not need unobserved spaces, spaces where we can be victim and perpetrator at the same time, dictator and prey, strong and vulnerable in equal measure?

“The more the author tries to restrict the meaning of a passage or a whole book, the more pedantic and boring the proceedings will become.”

Such an aesthetic isn’t satisfying to all readers. I’ve had my share of irked reviews, of readers complaining about a lack of emotion, a certain coldness, callousness even (and of plotting like the Kardashians). Indeed, it might be a curious thing to write novels as though you were writing plays, but I delight in the freedom such prose allows and it’s not just the dialogue I focus on. Every paragraph should be richly suggestive without insisting on the author’s intentions for it. In certain kinds of movies, all of them bad, the dreamy music sets in when we are supposed to feel just how much the main characters love each other; the ominous music precedes any ominous events on screen, just to make sure the audience gets the hint. This practice exists in writing too. Instead of adding music, the writer’s prose goes all dreamy (her hazel eyes met his steely-blue gaze) or ominous (a deep voice emanated from the inky shadows), signaling to the readers what they ought to feel.

In order to be exact and yet ambiguous enough to allow readers to develop a unique movie in their heads, the story, novel, or essay, can’t feel over-determined. (And once a story or novel has been published, it’s supremely unhelpful to ask the author about the meaning of the work. If the work is any good, it should hold a plethora of meanings, many more than the author intended. For the reading or interpretation of a text, the author is the least interesting and least helpful entity. The more the author tries to restrict the meaning of a passage or a whole book, the more pedantic and boring the proceedings will become. The text will read like a Hallmark Sympathy card.)

Without pulling Hemingway’s iceberg into these lines, the prose I’m after needs to be of the kind that lets the performer (on stage or in her head) inhabit the lines instead of merely reciting them. I’ve often found that poor texts of a certain kind perform much better than high-brow novels. I’ll read aloud any Dan Brown before I start on Henry James. And no, I don’t aspire to be Dan Brown, and still, a certain well-earned simplicity makes for good performances. Hemingway’s stories, Paul Auster’s novels, or Agota Kristof’s work, ask to be performed, because their structures — from sentence to paragraph to chapter — allow enough space to squeeze your own mind into the pages. They offer transparency of language and story arc and provide readers with enough material to be highly specific while still leaving enough space for improvisation. Listening to Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion or Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho will unlock the complexities of the texts, will make you see how vocal interpretation further enhances what is already a multi-layered reading experience.

“…each thought is canceled out by its exact opposite.”

What I feel is in my stories, coded in movements and postures, in half-open eyes and spread fingers. Some people believe my writing to be flat, that my range is limited. I contend that they don’t look hard enough. Just follow the sentences like you follow the lines of a prayer and you’ll be overcome. You’ll be drawn into a maze that is as complex as anything you’re able to grasp. This is what I’m telling myself. This is what I have to tell myself to continue my work.

Very recently, my novel Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone received a 20-word review from a reader who specializes in such 20-word reviews. She writes, “Yet another story proving humans are awful. Nasty, grim read, but in an entertaining way. Would make a fantastic movie.” Yes, I agree (of course!!!), but if we believe in the reader’s ability to animate a writer’s words, she’s already made her own.

Read Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

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Stefan Kiesbye is the author of several novels including Berlingeles, which is available from Revelore Press. He teaches creative writing at Sonoma State University.

If you enjoyed this article check out What is the Future of Book Readings?


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