Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Sunday, October 9, 2011

‘As If:’ A Mantra For Mining the Subtext

“I make it sound as if I had no choice.”
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

“They put on thick white robes and sit side by side on chaise longues as if they are, in fact, on board a ship.”
I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck

It’s arguable that the words we think and speak are representations of abstract things. Once consciously formed and ordered syntactically, these abstractions appear before us, suddenly reified (that is, concrete, imbued with meaning). And yet, as we reflexively conjure more words, as we hear others’ words, our very engagement with these processes mediates language: concrete turns mushily transitory; meaning becomes what I meant, though not exactly, really.
Despite our inability to access the concrete from abstract, (Is there any word whose meaning all six billion of us can categorically agree to) we humans seem bent on trying: we deploy words and re-order our syntax in a Sisyphean-like effort to unpack and define ourselves, our nature, our existence.
Words, then, represent us to ourselves and others: who we are, how we feel, albeit vaguely, imprecisely, impossibly. (Duh! Any wonder words constantly fail us?)
During our endless sojourn through saying what we can’t possibly mean (or is it the reverse?) we humans have come to deploy an arsenal of linguistic tools - simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, etc. - to help us unpack, comprehend, make sense (impossibly) of our experience. Is it any wonder then, that an author’s words - replete with his particularized jargon, syntactic twists, linguistic black holes and potholes and whose meaning narrators are somehow supposed to magically transmit with their voice - are sometimes so confounding that they defy interpretation!
All to say, for a community of storytellers whose professional success is dependent on the ability to interpret words, as a director, I certainly feel narrators' pain. Trying to get a handle on what the author’s words really mean, what they’re actually purporting to say, can be a serious bitch!

If an author’s narrative – from the sublime to one whose vocabulary finds us questioning whether she (in the case of the Kardashian sisters, they) ever graduated elementary school – is merely the culmination of her foolishly intrepid peek, via language’s inherent limitations, into the human experience, how in the world does the humble audio book narrator psych herself up to decode 100,000 abstractions for their listener?
I’d argue: by committing herself, audaciously - not to the words, but what oscillates hotly beneath them, begging her to be taken. Or, As If  her professional life depended on her audacious commitment to subtext.
As a performer, a narrator’s As If challenge is – metaphorically – to grasp the listener’s hand, jump with him through the author’s syntax, burrow into the subtext, and emotionally connect him to the narrative’s journey.
Of course it’s imperative for the storyteller to understand the author’s intellectual intent. But remember, you can’t act intellectual understanding: from a performance perspective that’s the low hanging fruit. As a narrator, you’ll never wow the listener because you, like, really grasp the meaning or because you, like, totally understand romance or history or whatever your favorite genre happens to be.  
           As a performance mantra, As If  addresses the narrator’s fundamental acting challenge: mining the subtext. As If directs the performer to focus – not on what the words mean, but what they feel like – then to audaciously commit her performance to actualizing that feeling.
When As If dictates the performance, emotional connection between listener and narrator occurs. The outcome: organic storytelling.
Importantly, As If admonishes the narrator: Rather than importing vocal technique - whose sole purpose is to layer variety over the syntax, as if it were frosting on the cake - redirect your focus to the subtext, to your commitment to the words’ bubbling emotional core. Dig that subtext as if the life of those words depends on it. Because it does.
Referring to the fiction quotes above - both from books I recorded this year - note each one’s use of as if. I’d argue: As If  does to the narrative, what As If  does to the narrator.
         “I make it sound as if I had no choice.”  I couldn’t guess what as if contributes to the narrative, intellectually. But as if compels me to feel that something is up, emotionally: there’s more at stake than if the sentence read: “I had no choice.” 
As If - conjured with audacious abandon – is a narrator’s conscious commitment to prioritizing the narrative’s subtext. As If is a guidance mantra storytellers can point their intuitive creativity towards as they tremble their way through the impossibility of decoding the author’s words. As If is a results-oriented performance tool. (Close your eyes, Aunt Mary. Please don’t try this at home. Besides, remember your last harangue: “Subtext, shmubtext - all this subtext stuff gives me such a migraine-with my beauty-full voice, who needs it!”)
If I could, I’d request that publishers require their narrators to write As If on each book page. The suggestion: In each word there’s something at stake. So tell the story as if each word were imbued – not with meaning, but feeling - as if, when you completed the book, you’d willingly plead guilty to intent to commit emotional connection by audaciously digging into the subtext.

This past September I was privileged to conduct a workshop with LA narrators (some very experienced), most of whom record with an engineer or home alone. While working with these dedicated performers, it became apparent to me that as narrators employed ‘actable’ performance tools for the purpose of digging through the low hanging fruit (text) into the narrative’s marrow (subtext), their emotional commitment to the story soared commensurately, along with their creative satisfaction. When they discovered the subtext - relentlessly, audaciously - they empowered their storyteller’s intuition, zapped the listener with that creative energy, as if the pleasure listeners derived from their performance depended on it.

Finally, and not indirectly related to As If, a best friend of mine, whom I’ve known from our college days in South Dakota, recently visited us from that state, where he still lives. An avid audio book listener he mentioned, unsolicited: I listen to anything George Guidall reads; I lose myself in the way he tells a story.
I am aware that other narrators equally inspire that sort of listener devotion. For me, the meaningful takeaway from my friend’s remark is that it congratulates not the text, but rather, the storyteller’s devotion to the subtext. As my friend listens, he and George are connected, as if both were discovering, not the words, but what inhabits them, together.
This past month I had the pleasure of working with narrators Thérèse Plummer and Barbara Caruso.


  1. Paul, you always seem to manage to write about what I'm thinking about. This week I start prepping a book that is in translation, and I've been wondering how much of the author's voice has been lost, and how I can connect with his original voice, a language I do not speak and cannot read, to narrate as if I were him, not his words, or his translator.

    Thanks again.


  2. Edoardo's point is so apt for us all! - Even when we're narrating a piece in our OWN language, there's ambiguity; definitions of terms are so often assumed to be universally understood. The "I get it" factor that comes from the feel, the sense of these words, is what makes them fly and sometimes even soar to a greater, deeper human understanding.
    Paul, your brain makes mine so happy.