I was in a bad mood the other day.
I was feeling pretty low on energy, meaning running, jumping, climbing mountains and battling flying warlocks was way off the schedule.* I thought listening to a podcast instead would be a chill experience.
More fool me. It was a dumb idea from the start.
I realise that chilling out to podcasts doesn’t sound like a dumb thing to do. Especially because I love podcasts.** I fantasise about playing them on a gramophone in my dusty study as I ponderously swirl whisky.
However those fantasies don’t usually have me listening to my own voice, and yet my reality on that low energy afternoon was me listening to a podcast I’d previously recorded with the gang from WordSpace Radio (which you can listen to on the SoundCloud).
During recording I had somehow, foolishly, let the dark being possess my voice. Upon hearing it back I clutched my head, crashing to the floor. Whiskey and glass went everywhere. My too high, too ugly, monotonous voice battered the insides of my skull. The last thing I heard was demented laughter.
Or if you’re boring (some people use the word rational) you could choose to believe that I simply didn’t like it and while trapped in a phase of low self-esteem I’m being generally overly critical. Either way, it wasn’t the wisest time to listen to my own voice. It’s horrible. It’s like a demonic chipmunk’s cruel mimicry.
Why did I listen to my podcast then?
If that acidic feeling of anxiety was bubbling up as I pressed play. When I had already set myself up for disaster. Maybe I only listened because the thought of ticking something off my to-do list helped how I was feeling.
I obviously knew it wasn’t a ‘good’ idea. Yet we’re well enough acquainted with the irrationality of humanity to realise we don’t always act because we think something is a ‘good’ idea.
And when you’re in a rut of low self-esteem, you don’t always think clearly. I had been putting off the podcast for a long time because I would have to listen to myself. Also I like to know what I’m talking about before I post anything online.***
The readings of my stories, to be honest, were not bad. Mostly it was the anxiety that floored me. The horror of anticipation.
It appears I have actually built up a tolerance to my own voice. Life has not always been like that. It was a much different story when I was younger.
It wasn’t the first time I heard my voice but it’s haunted me. GCSE French. We had to record a practice run for an oral exam. We went, one by one, behind The Curtain of Shame and spoke into a battered tape recorder. Then, we pushed down the rewind button to let the evil it had captured escape.
I thought I was going to be sick from embarrassment. “Do I talk that shrilly?”
What was reassuring then, was that I wasn’t alone in my nausea. Everyone came from behind the curtain equally horrified. Some even apologised: “Oh my god is that my voice! I’m so sorry you have to hear that!”
You might now be thinking; “Why do it if it causes so much bother?” or, “Well there’s a simple solution to that: don’t put yourself through it!” It’s possible to practice performing your work without having to hear yourself. The only counter-argument I have so far is: What about when you get asked someday to do the audiobook for your awesome best seller?
Why do I still listen to myself?
I record my performances for a few reasons. My stand up gigs in case I improvise something ace, but to also see how jokes are received, and review how I word things. I record performances of short stories for a similar reason: to see if I’ve worded something differently. And to see if there are better ways of delivering the tale. It’s almost become part of my drafting process.
And I guess there’s a similar attention needed when it comes to learning French. You should listen back to hear if you’ve pronounced words correctly.
I’m not going to profess it is essential for every writer. I have no evidence that it ‘works’. In fact I can’t even remember why I started doing it.
And it still isn’t easy. I still find it uncomfortable and I do constantly procrastinate listening back to things. I definitely don’t intensely listen and take notes. I may listen once or twice. And get a few ideas.
I’m not going to argue that you MUST listen back to your own stuff if you write. At least, not here. But if you do already, or are considering it and want a bit of relief, here are a few tips.
Listening Back to Recordings – A Couple of Tips
I’m not an expert in voice artistry but I am well experienced in managing my own gremlin of self-hatred and criticism.
- As I said I’ve grown to tolerate my own voice. I’ve endured recordings of it over the years so I guess you get better at a thing from practice overexposure, a sort of Stockholm syndrome if you will. So press record then play. Keep doing it. You’ll get better acquainted with your voice, maybe like a colleague or relative you have little in common with but you talk about general things like the weather or something to avoid those awful existential-dread-inciting silences.
- I’ve been able to distract myself sometimes from my ‘actual voice’ by concentrating on the content, or how things are said or focusing on a certain aspect of reading. In French we had to listen back to check pronunciation. This may not help if it is ‘how’ you say something that puts you off. So try focusing on another thing instead. E.g. You hate you have a little lisp, then try listen out to your pitch and melody. Maybe you vary it a little bit which makes your story a little more exciting.
- Have a little think about why you dislike hearing your own voice. Don’t go too intense! (Or do if you think it will help.) Maybe it is because you are crippled by others’ perception of you. This is a little philosophical but you have to remind yourself that how you see yourself is not how others see you. Like how you see your own face in the mirror is not how others see your own face. It’s the same with a recording. Also that it is a recording. People don’t exactly hear your voice in the same way a recording will carry it. It might be accurate but remember that sound has been turned into magically-electrical-energy. It isn’t the same sound that will go in a person’s ears. An extreme level of this is probably why guitars sound ace when they are acoustic and why people go ‘Oh it doesn’t sound like you!’ when you’re on the phone.
I’d love to hear what other writers, performers, and podcasters think.
Do you endure your voice? Do you like it? Why should we listen to recordings?
I’m writing a mini-series of blogs on this topic. Thanks for reading.
And I implore you to take your lovely ears to the WordSpace Radio Podcast. It’s a delight.
*I’m always fighting dastardly warlocks. If I miss an event or birthday party it’s probably because a fight’s been drawn out for longer than necessary. It’s the most common evil that warlocks commit: inconveniencing others. Second to peeling band stickers off teenagers’ planners.
** If you’re interested here’s a few I’m binging on at the moment: HarmonTown (by Rick & Morty co-creator Dan Harmon), My Dad Wrote a Porno (new series has just come out), This Feels Terrible (a sweet and funny podcast about relationships), The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry (science topics covered briefly and brilliantly), The Hilarious World of Depression (talking to comedians about mental illness). Just as I write this I’ve started listening to Welcome to Night Vale, which is perfect for anyone into Twin Peaks or The League Of Gentlemen or anything about small towns being weird and creepy. It’s my new obsession.
*** I have found this a good habit to keep. This way I avoid contributing to the mass of fake news and spouting passionate shit about topics I don’t actually know anything about. But I also know that I suffer from bouts of techno-laziness. So not yet totally perfect…