Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Falling in Love and Other Resolutions for a Storyteller’s New Year

While any time is the right time to commit to becoming a more compelling audiobook narrator, the new year may be an especially appropriate occasion to do so. After all, the stroke of January 1 represents a recycling of sacred time that momentarily frees us from guilt over the past year’s failings, presents an unfettered opportunity to wipe our unfulfilled promises from the slate, and reimagine a renewed dedication to practices that we somehow couldn’t sustain, despite our implacable resolve to do so exactly one year ago.

Along with self-correction, year’s end also pauses time for introspection and reflection. In that palliating spirit, before itemizing resolutions that I regard as transformative—meaning storytelling notions that, when consistently practiced by talented actors, can elevate their performance from mundane (and worse) to sublime (and award-winning)—perhaps it’s worth briefly asking: Why should a narrator resolve to enhance their storytelling prowess in the first place? I’d suggest at least three reasons:

First, we humans identify with our occupations. The work we do is a significant indicator of who we are. We existentially conflate identification of the self (worthy, valued, etc.) with feelings about our professional endeavor (worthwhile, valuable, etc.). Wherever our identity is located—within our soul, or maybe science will someday discover the who we are gene—if it’s fair to argue that what we do is intrinsically indicative of who we are, it may be equally acceptable to rhetorically and forcefully assert: Why the hell wouldn’t we wish to do what we do well!

Second, and more prosaically, audiobooks are increasing in popularity, while at the same time being taken more seriously by mainstream media, including venerated publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Additionally, audiobook publishers appear to be increasing their lists and I can attest, albeit anecdotally, to an expanding pool of emerging and established narrators seeking coaching from me—all of which suggests more competition among more narrators.

Third, there’s a reason why publishers and producers audition narrators and listen to demos: They’re seeking to hire those on the desirable side of the talent bell curve.

So, maybe there really is no time like this New Year’s Eve (or sooner) for narrators to value consistent engagement of a process that places them in confident possession of the storytelling tools necessary to be considered a hirable, desirable and distinguished storyteller.

Clearly, there are numerous performance resolutions that narrators may rightly care to prioritize this coming year. But if there is a first among equals, it would be to fall in love with the process of being a great storyteller.

There are at least ten additional storytelling principles that warrant serious consideration from experienced professionals and aspirants. As a director and coach, and faithful trumpeter of the belief that the human voice remains the most powerful communicating instrument of all, I hope that at the stroke of 2014, narrators will resolutely resolve: I am committed to falling in love with:

1.    Acting. Storytelling is an acting proposition and I am a storyteller. Therefore, I am an actor. Therefore, I’m wedded to acting—not reading, not narrating, not emphasizing, and not my fabulous voice—only acting.
2.    The subtext. Henceforth, I say to the text’s words, feh! You mean nothing to me. To the author, yes. Words, listen up! I promise to pronounce every one of you as intended. But, since you aren’t actable, move along while I immerse myself in the storyteller’s preeminent calling: your emotional import.
3.     Feelings. I am a feeling conduit, primed to locate and then connect each word’s emotional consequence to the listener. I feel, therefore, I am a storyteller.
4.    Point of view. Every word’s feeling emanates from someone’s or something’s point of view and when I engage that point of view, so does the listener. I point of view.
5.    Here and now. I narrate in the present because the storyteller’s world has no past, no future. What occurs in the author’s story is happening right vavoom now!
6.    The stakes. I’m already salivating in anticipation of confidently embracing what’s oscillating beneath the emotional skin of my fictional narrative’s characters, and expressing that emotion exactly as they would! And I cannot wait to seize my non-fiction author’s need to tell his or her incredible story! Seriously, if my narration’s intensity isn’t commensurate with the emotions of my novel’s characters, or doesn’t match my non-fiction author’s demeanor, well, I’m just not in love. 
7.    Discovery. Introspectively speaking, suppose I knew what was going to occur in advance of every event. Other than becoming incredibly wealthy and the paparazzi’s most prized photo op, really? Seriously? No surprises in life because I already know what’s going to happen? How boring is that! I wonder how a consumer would respond while listening to me read fiction in a way that sounds as if the characters aren’t surprised by events and people they interact with. How boring is that, they might say. So, if I don’t discover, how will my characters!
8.    Less. Meaning, less voice and often, less voice than I think. Less, less, less. Why? Because I remember that in dramatic fiction, volume tends to negate intimacy, especially when the dramatic stakes are elevated, and an intimate storyteller is crucial to the scene’s believability. If I remember one thing this year, it will be: volume is dramatic fiction’s nemesis.
9.    More. Meaning, when narrating comedy—which demands I take my characters seriously, just in a big, presentational kind of way—I will up the volume, literally louder, and exaggerate the characters’ heightened sense of urgency, seriously.
10. Exorcising Aunt Mary. I realize that Aunt Mary is an agglomeration of emotionally disconnecting vocal habits. AM lives in me and in all narrators and thrives on non-organic affect. She is an emboldened manufacturer of indicated feeling whose devilish ways bamboozle me into modulating, into vocally pushing the words (as if they require help), and into forgetting that my wonderful voice adds nothing (as in zilch) to the listener’s enjoyment of the author’s story. Fie on you, AM! You may have snookered me in the past, but not this year. Not in 2014. Because I am no longer in love with you, you devotee of artificial inflection! I’m outa here. You’re yesterday’s kisses, get me, AM. I am in love with a process, one that promises to make me a great storyteller.


I’d previously written, “Next post: Non-fiction.” This time, I mean it.

This past month I had the pleasure of directing NICOLA BARBER (and will again in January), and FRED BERMAN; also RICK ADAMSON, who narrated, “The Underdog,” a short story of mine that will be published this January in Pennsylvania English /35.

I’m happy to announce that Audiofile Magazine will be sponsoring and coordinating my future Narrator’s Workshops. Upcoming will be in Seattle on March 16, 17. Details forthcoming.

This week I’ll be conducting an audiobook directing workshop with several participants,  including Juliana Rueda Gutierrez, who is in New York from Barcelona, Spain, where she directs bestselling audiobooks for major Spanish publishers.

Finally, I’m building a list of experienced and Earphone and/or Audie award-winning narrators who’ve discussed a master class workshop with me and I'm considering format as well. Interested narrators please let me know ( and I’ll pass your name to Audiofile, who will arrange dates and provide further information.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post Paul - I've bookmarked the 10 resolutions and will turn to them I am sure more than once while in the booth today. Looking forward to seeing you on native soil in March!