About a month after I finished Typing The Great Gatsby, I decided to embark on another “endurance” challenge. Something that would help me get granular with a piece of work, much like what Typing The Great Gatsby did.
While typing a whole novel (on camera) was a speed challenge, my next project should encourage me to go deeper, seek precision, and feel the flow of the words on the page. Then it dawned on me, I should narrate an audiobook.
Narrating an audiobook is more than reading a book aloud, it’s storytelling. It’s a presentation. It’s about the tone, mood, and pacing of the words. It’s not only pronouncing the words properly, it’s about dramatizing the text on the page in an engaging way.
I knew Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka would be the perfect source material for this project. It’s a story localized to one setting, with a small cast of characters, and a manageable length (in this version translated by Ian Johnston) just north of 20,000 words. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it was doable. Thinking something is doable is all it takes to start.
I recorded the first word on January 3, 2021 and the last word on April 22, 2021. From the moment you start listening to my version to the last, nearly five months have passed. I see it as a form of time travelling.
There were moments where I felt like quitting. Staying up an extra 30-45 minutes on a weeknight to record 3 minutes of usable audio is as tiring as it sounds. Yet, once I got over the hump, I knew I had to finish. Like going to the gym consistently, I noticed results in a few areas.
When we’re speaking to a friend, a family member, or a co-worked in a casual conversation, we slur our words, we mumble, and rarely do we enunciate every syllable. You think you speak clearly until you turn a microphone on yourself and hit record. The importance of being heard and understood for an audiobook is critical and therefore, it was a muscle I focused on exercising. Working on this project gave me an avenue to practice articulating my words, without having a conversation with anyone.
Understanding the Words:
When we’re writing, we can pause, research a word, find synonyms, and generally sound smarter. When we talk, we can’t do that. We’re limited to the words in our vocabulary. And if you’re like me, you really only use the same hundred or so words. However, when we read out loud someone else’s writing, we gain access not only to the words they know, but probably words they took the effort in researching as well. There were at least ten words in The Metamorphosis that I had never used before. One example is the word “amelioration.” I’ve never heard of that word, let alone said it out loud. I don’t know if I’ll ever use it again in daily life, (I’d probably sound pretentious if I do) but hey, I clearly remember it, because I’m writing about it now. How can I put a price on that?
Feeling the Flow of the Sentences:
In this translation of The Metamorphosis, Ian Johnston used a lot of long, complex sentences, many over 50 words long with multiple commas, clauses, and oh boy! Grammar grammar! Now, if you were just reading word for word, it doesn’t matter how the sentences flow together (think Stephen Hawking’s robot voice), but an audiobook isn’t just saying one word after the next, it’s presenting the sentences as though they were thoughts from your brain. A few takes are necessary to get the right flow of the sentence, in terms of knowing which words to accentuate, where to take a breath, and which tone of voice matches the scene.
100% of the words recorded in this audiobook were said by me after 9pm, as I’m fighting the exhaustion of the day. Sometimes, in that fugue state, I end up messing up over and over again. Or… I thought I was messing up, but it was a perfectly usable take. Nevertheless, I would try again and mess up some more. A paragraph that should’ve taken three minutes to record ended up taking twenty.
Learning to direct yourself is an underrated skill. It involved learning how to be gentle with yourself, learning how to manage expectations, learning how to break a large chunk into smaller sections, and most importantly, learning when good enough is good enough. This project took me six months to complete. It could’ve taken less time and it could’ve taken more time. Either way, I’m glad I’m done.
Hearing My Own Voice:
I never thought that I had a radio voice or a Morgan Freeman voice where anything I say would be buttery smooth to my listener’s ears. No, you won’t listen to my voice for the pleasure of my voice alone. Then again, it’s the only voice I have and I want it to try new things. Like a body should exercise and travel, a voice should be challenged as well. You want it to be strong so when the time is right, you have the confidence to speak. I hope to one day record the Audible version for my own book. One day.
Narrating The Metamorphosis was a challenge and a fulfilling way to pass some time during these pandemic months. Only time will tell how much I really got out of it, but truthfully, it was so much fun to do that I’m looking forward to the next audiobook I’ll narrate. I have a few in mind… Stay tuned.
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