Although my novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, is set in the silent film era—it begins in 1915, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a a Jewish family that makes one and two reel (silent) films is making a new film on a frozen lake—its origins may lie in the spoken word. When friends ask how and why I came to write a novel about the silent film era, the first answer that comes to mind is that the novel is inspired not by my love of film, but by my childhood love of listening to stories on the radio.
During my years in high school, in Brooklyn in the early fifties, the New York City Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, regularly broadcast radio programs into elementary, junior high, and high school classrooms. And during those years I was a child/teenage actor at the radio station. I played some wonderful parts—Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Willie the Whale, young Abe Lincoln, et al—and what the director of the station, Marjorie Knudsen, taught me on my first day there has stayed with me throughout my life. The most important element an actor has at his or her command for creating character, she said, were not words, but silence. The way you pause before a word, or between sentences, or after a particular phrase, or in the middle of a word—this, she said, is what makes listeners pay attention so that they can, in their imaginations, transform what they hear—and do not hear—into credible characters and scenes. The mystery of character—and the essence of what made listeners want to know what-happens-next, lay in those moments when there was no sound.
Here, then, from the first page of The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey Levine, a boy who plays both male and female parts in his family’s movies, and who conjures up the stories that his family turns into movies:
I could make a story out of anything back then—a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall—and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about—one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures.
What Joey is doing, I now realize (I didn’t see or understand this when I was writing the novel, which is told in his voice), is trying to conjure up the seen from the unseen—just as, when listening to the radio as a boy, I conjured up live human beings I could see in my mind’s eye, and to some degree like viewers of silent movies, who had to infer the unseen—the mysteries and complexities of character—from the seen. Viewers, that is, had to infer thoughts and feelings, not from words characters spoke (though there were often titles between scenes where snatches of dialogue were projected onto the screen), but from expressions and gestures the characters made—from closeups of eyes, for example—that told of those silent, inner worlds that were un-seen. In both radio dramas, and silent films, the greatest source of mystery and power—of our attachment and interest in fictional characters—resided in ways to make us sense what we could not see, whether what we saw came to us in images or in sound. Continue reading
In my last post, I described the technical difficulties that occurred when I appeared on Talk of the Nation earlier this month. Instead of the regular broadcasting configuration — a single interviewee responding to the questions of a single interviewer — I was forced to contend with a welter of voices and noises created by wonky technology, all while trying to sound poised, normal, and more or less intelligent.
When the problem first occurred, I experienced a very familiar and unpleasant sensation: anxiety. My muscles tightened, my heart sped up, my brow started to sweat, and I felt a growing constriction in my chest muscles. Worse, because it threatened the proceedings, my thoughts began to race, first and briefly with questions about my sanity (“Where is all this noise coming from!?”) and then with questions about my abilities to handle the situation (“I’m going to lose it on air! I’m never going to get through this”).
But then another feeling took over, also familiar but this time much more comforting: focus. Once the host started to ask his questions — he was unaware that I could scarcely hear him through the din — all my worries burned off in the heat of what needed to be done. I was here. I was speaking live on national radio. I had no choice but to go forward.
I have a job to do, dammit!
This is a reaction for which I have become, throughout the years, very, very grateful. Not all anxiety sufferers do well under pressure. Does that sound like an odd formulation, given that anxiety is generally thought to be all about being bad under pressure? Well, it isn’t. Anxiety is more often about being bad with the consideration of pressure. Anxiety feeds off of uncertainty, contingency, and doubt. But high-pressured situations don’t necessarily contain these elements. As often as not, high-pressured situations wipe uncertainty, contingency, and doubt right off the table. And what is left in place of these things is … necessity. Purpose. The need for action. In short, the present moment and nothing but the present moment.
It is for these reasons that in my adult life I have often yearned for a more publicly performative job than writing. Writing is not only solitary, it is a deferment of performance. At the writing desk, one can always look back at what was already written and forward to what has not yet been written. This is a sure formula for anxiety. Performers, people who work on stage in front of live audiences, don’t have the luxury of this looking around. They are forced by conditions of immediacy to deal only with what is in front of them: this line, this reaction, this emotion, this idea.
Oh, to have that pressure more frequently! I’m in Los Angeles at the moment, talking about my book and seeing some friends. Maybe it’s time to go on a few auditions.
I know a little something about hearing voices. My first book, Muses, Madmen, and Prophets, was about auditory hallucinations — specifically, about how the experience transformed, over the course of centuries, from something that had spiritual and religious connotations to something that suggested madness and nothing more.
During the time of Moses, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, St. Augustine, St. Teresa, right on up to the Enlightenment, hearing voices meant that you could, conceivably, be receiving messages from a divine source. People still might spit on you, humiliate you, exile you, or burn you at the stake. But there was a chance that they wouldn’t, and that you would be honored for your abilities. Then, sometime around the early nineteenth century, the medical establishment grabbed hold of hallucinations and hearing voices entered the realm of pathology. This was a shame not because people who hear voices are never mentally ill but because not everyone who hears voices is mentally ill. It’s the syllogism — if you hear voices, then you are psychotic — that’s incorrect and unfair. Many more people hear voices than need psychiatric help.
I mention all this because when I started to hear voices, a couple of weeks ago, I should have realized at once that I wasn’t going crazy.
My second book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, had just been published and I was in a Manhattan studio about to be interviewed for the Washington, D.C.-based NPR show Talk of the Nation. The setup was already disorienting: for someone who’s not used to it, having to talk to someone you can’t see but can only hear through a set of enormous headphones — through which you can also hear, amplified several times over, your own voice — is very strange indeed. But the whole setup became more disorienting by far when I realized that I could hear not only my interviewer — the journalist John Donvan — but several other voices besides. At first I had no idea what was going on, and I became frightened. I have never heard voices before in my life, but my father heard voices, and so did his father. So far as I know, both began to hear voices early on, in childhood. I’m in my thirties; I figured I was safe, that the trait had skipped my generation. Could I have been wrong? Could I be experiencing a flourishing of hallucinations right at the start of an appearance on a nationally syndicated interview show?
Luckily, the problem wasn’t psychiatric but technical. Somewhere, somehow, wires had gotten crossed. For a half hour, I had to struggle to pick out John Donvan’s questions from a welter of other noises: crackles, static, another interview piped in from another show, and whatever conversations were going on in the sound booth in the adjacent room. It wasn’t insanity, and it wasn’t genetic destiny. It was just radio.