I have been riding around with lonely cowboys, energetic flirts, and cynical Brits. I live in Los Angeles now, and so there is always another opportunity to get in your car. Thankfully, there is also a rich mix of radio stations. If I tire of the straightforward reporting and in-depth interviews of National Public Radio, I can find country and hip-hop, ranchero and indie rock, folk and the blues just by hitting a button marked “seek.” If only other searches in life were so easy!
How does this relate to writing history? I am a sucker for a good story – lyrics that paint the sky, that hold a surprise, that build tension about an answering machine or a bridge washed out. Those are the songs I listen to all the way through. A good song is a small work of fiction (or, occasionally, nonfiction). It evokes a person, an emotion, a place. In short, it has all the pieces of a good work of history can have, plus a good beat and some clever rhymes.
The strength of singing history has been reinforced for me this past month as I listened to my Mac’s automated Text-to-Speech voice read me my page proofs. I know everyone is supposed to read their work out loud to find mistakes, to judge pauses, to find repetitions, and I had done so in earlier versions—and often still overlooked a missing word. When the computer reads, it does not skip a line, it does not think it knows what should be there. It reads, haltingly, unsure of how to parse long sentences. Its intonation is all wrong, and some of its mispronunciations – they can’t get it to say “English” correctly? – are quite amusing. But it was a quite effective way to hear my words in a new way, to find those last small changes, and, thankfully, to stand in awe of a great sentence or two I labored to create.
Now the book is in production, and I am back on the roads, listening to other people’s histories again. But letting the computer sing my history was a valuable new way to make the same words new again.