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This space has been a writer’s love song. To notebooks. And tape recorders. And self-created book soundtracks. And improvisation as a path to inspiration. Now, another way to find one’s way into a scene through the labyrinth of thought.

I’ve always done this technique, in a sense; collected notes scattered over pages, assemblies that contribute to the form taking shape in my head. And today, a variation. The lightning round of coerced innovation.

The laundry list.

A little background. In this scene, the main character turns the beautiful creation that he has come to love; remakes it into something dire. Vile. Fear-making. An inescapable “sticky darkness” that will be his self-defense, his weaponized wonder. The chapter—the experience of those foul creations—is written, as they all are, from the POV characters pov. A living of a bottomless dread, of the worst of a human soul.

Enter The Laundry List. And yes, readers, this is an open book examination.

Thesaurus.com is my cheat of choice: From it, I drew a list of words that described the abhorrent, the impossible, the foul, the unbearable. Already knew what the contributing categories would be…simply set myself free in word-wonderland to gather up the grandest, most horrific gems I could find. I let them fill me up inside, until my brain was afloat in them; until my thoughts foundered near drowning. A kind of total immersion method acting, with words as prompts rather than memories.

Did it work? At this moment, I think so. I’ll know with a re-reading, the perspective of distance. I’ll let you know.

Love and kindness are easier for me to write than pain and cruelty. At least, that’s what I choose to tell myself. An end-of-relationship scene in a previous book, drawn from a memory revived, laid me flat for two days. Not this time.

In this new technique, a strangely painless source of despair-memory. Something worth going back to when we need to write from the most difficult places.

Okay, the offending passage was a Facebook post, I’ll give you that. But the content had the writer grinding her teeth.

“…with their daddy’s” the poster wrote. This was a college-educated professional who posted. A person who should have known better. As should we all.

Carelessness is a bear trap, waiting to snap the ankle of the inattentive. Sometimes it’s a simple failure to go back and read what we’ve laid to the page. Sometimes it’s ignorance. I’m not sure which is worse.

Do I make those mistakes? Of course I do. Does it make me any more tolerant of them. Hell no. I’ve known way too many colleagues in the profession of communication who cannot spell, cannot write. Face it, this is like being a chef who cannot cook. I have known writers whose work has been redeemed only by the intervention of great editors and proofreaders. I’ve known overly-eager editors who’ve nitpicked work within an inch of its life, yet who, in their zeal, have missed major errors.

Insert the sound of teeth-grinding here.

These are the capital crimes of fiction….The main character describing him/herself by looking into a mirror. Exhaustive descriptions of a character’s appearance packed into a single paragraph. Adverb saturation. The habit of noting a character’s every move.

Here’s the truth of me: I am not a formalist. Far from it. I believe that unconventional uses of language bring color and tempo and challenge to the reader. I’ll admit that I, too, have self-indulgencies and errors. I make up words. I stray into cliché territory from time to time, thinking that a change-up of the trite phrase will redeem it. I over-use certain punctuation, calling it personal style. Could I do without these crutches? Probably. Do I want to? I refer you back to the above Hell no.

In my earlier days as a writer-Fascist, mine was the habit of reverse graffiti. I would carry a bottle of Wite-Out in my purse, mercilessly painting out errant apostrophes on public signs. Sometimes I asked the sign owner; most of the time I didn’t. I asked then the questions that I continue to ask today:

Is it too much to ask that we strive for a rudimentary command of our native language? If we cannot all be Shakespeare (and let’s face it, who among us can?), might we not, at least, make an effort to make right the written us that we share with the world?

Where we are today would be amusing. If it weren’t so damned sad.

One of the biggest challenges for me as a writer is knowing when a chapter is right.

Those combinations of words, rhythms, progressions, meaning: Sometimes they sing on the page. Sometimes, from the tape recorder, they sing to my ear as I play them back in the dark.) The combinations of ideas that progress from one to the next is musicianly, melodic, airtight. Not one note could be or should be different.

When it’s right, it’s right. Then it’s easy.

Sure, that sense of writerly perfect pitch becomes somewhat instinctive after a while; a result that’s not necessarily the product of something you planned (although you would love the world to think so.)

But (and this from a writer whose past works had to pried from her fingers to prevent her from making more changes to the galleys) knowing where you’ve fallen short in the pages and passages that don’t fall gently to the ear: How do you figure out what the problem is? How do you know where you’re going—or how to get there?

I’m dealing with exactly that issue now; a chapter that has all the elements, but none of the oomph. This early section  is not what I’ve coined a “landing chapter” in which a plot point is finalized with a big “ta-dahhhhhhhh”…rather it’s a transitional chapter that introduces some new ideas, reinforces others, and propels us to where we need to be. And that, in its way, is trickier.

First place to look for the problem: The progression of information. Are the paragraphs leading from one idea to the next in a way that creates maximum impetus and impact by the end of the passage? What order of information tells the story best? What progression withholds knowledge…and which reveals it in a way that raises the “ahhhh” factor at the end? (The solution for the chapter in question actually came to me whole, an outline in the middle of the night.  I’ve yet to test it on the page, but it feels right so far.)

Another landmark in the inner critique: a close examination of the words themselves. Words placed under a microscope. One word is not the same as another, any more than red is the same as green. That’s the beauty of it. And the fun. Is the problem not in what you’ve said, exactly, but in the way you’ve said it? Sometimes, just jiggering with the style of a passage can untangle a seemingly impossible knot.

Another mental check: Am I just trying to do too much? Having everything and the kitchen sink in the chapter doesn’t just delay the gratification—it smothers it. Sometimes a sentence-ectomy is the only fix. Identifying and throwing away bits you like—even if they’ve seemed right through fifteen readings—is often the only remedy. The fact is, those bits are not necessarily as clever or unusual as you’d like to believe…sometimes they’re just self-indulgent. The good news here is that an interesting turn of phrase is sometimes good enough to save for later, an approach that uncorks some fascinating ideas down the road.

Here’s a good one: leaving it until the morning. Or the next morning. Or two mornings. Amazing what can come clear in the light of day.

And the most drastic measure: Oddly enough, it’s the one that’s most obvious. Abandon it altogether for now. If you know basically where you need to be but not how to get there, come back to it. You might find yourself less lost when you’ve walked around your own roadblocks.

Finding the way to the music. Tough. Sweat-making. Sometimes, downright frustrating. And, once the answer is discovered, the best gift ever to a good night’s sleep.

Who owns language? Who may fiddle with it? Who may re-make it in his/her own image?

A friend of mine says that he’s a Language Constable; a stickler for by-the-book grammar, syntax, punctuation. This is where I smilingly draw the line. Lace ’em up, oh language fascists—we’re goin’ a coupla rounds.

With an affectionate nod to my friend, I am—and shall continue to be—a proponent of what I am from here on going to call “Owned Language”: That is to say, language owned by the writer. And by the reader. Not by the grammarians.

There turns of phrase, word combinations, sentence fragments or even punctuations innovated by the writer…are they valid modes of expression?

Were they for James Joyce? You tell me.

Owned Language possesses the “ahahhhh” factor: that mysterious, eye-opening ability to evoke a previously unknown combination of sounds or rhythms or ideas. It alters the pace of the reader’s eye, an entity notoriously accustomed to the easy, effortless approach to language that soon becomes wallpaper.

Does the reader have to work harder, sometimes, to get it? Perhaps. Are writers necessarily here to make things easy on them. No, not necessarily.

Do I believe in this principle without reservation? Here’s where I punk out. Owned Language takes a certain amount of skill. It is not sloppy. Or self-indulgent. Or an excuse for writing without thinking. The classic brain dump doesn’t count as owned language. Nor do disgusting rants. Or unfathomably obtuse ramblings. If the “ahahhhh” or the “yessss” is missing, perhaps we as writers are obliged to work a bit harder.

Owned Language. You’ll notice that I am not including examples here. That’s deliberate. Much more interesting for you if you have your eye out for those wondrous oddities without my help, yes?

Interesting story on NPR this morning, about the origins of language, and the role of language in making us who we are as humans.

I’ve talked often in this space about the music in the words. But what I wasn’t aware of until this morning was that the brain processes music and language in the same way.

One school of thought–whose acolytes included Charles Darwin–supports the idea that language was sung before it was spoken. It is a predisposition that exists in us today…in the pitches and rhythms we use in speaking to infants and animals.

It is not a far reach to surmise (and we see evidence of this in indigenous societies today) that ancient storytelling cultures used music as the original medium for transmitting tribal tales and histories.

Comforting thoughts, those. Especially to a writer like yours truly whose entire writerly voice is based upon the shapes and meters, the timbres and beats of words. I am vindicated. Music is built into my ancient brain. I sing. Because I must.

A driving idea for me—and one I find myself coming back to again and again—is the music in words. It may be, for me, a by-product of being dyslexic, with all the auditory-learning baggage that comes with it, but the sound, rhythm and meaning of words are all inextricably tied together.

A recent post on John Adams’ excellent blog, Earbox, considers Flaubert’s tireless pursuit of le mot juste; describes the writer’s (often)  day-long quests for single, perfect words. Did that pursuit include sound and tempo as prerequisites?

For me, the beauty (and happily-torturous challenge) of writing is that, yep, there is one word more right for the expression of an idea than any other. And, for me, that includes its heft in the ear, its quickness or languor, its hiss or hum or voluptuous feel. Finding that combination is a breathtakingly wonderful treasure hunt. Discovering it is what joy is made of.

The right amalgam of the three characteristics becomes the assassin or the deliverer of the idea. In my work, I am convinced that you can see it, feel it, on the page. It helps my chapters pass “the read aloud test.” And I imagine I can see that quality in others.

Take David Byrne, for example. A peerless rhythmist–in lyric, in delivery, in body language. If ever one were tempted to wonder whether he’s truly a writer in his heart (and one look at the journalizing in his amazing blog, davidbyrne.com will answer that question in about a microsecond), just listen to the man talk.

He is halting at some times. Eloquent at others. If you’ve ever looked over a writer’s shoulder as he or she wrote using a word-processing program, you’ll immediately hear the precision word-searcher in the man. He stops. He backtracks. He stumbles. He edits. He wipes out whole hunks of sentences and re-casts. And he does it on the fly, his formulations a paragraph ahead of his voice. This is a writer’s brain at work, no mistake. What comes out on the written page is not as style-bound as might be found in others’ music-in-words. But the process is there. And it’s a joy to hear.

Thank you, David. Thank you, John. Rock the word!

Back when I was in my twenties, the man with whom I was in a relationship (now and for years a literary figure of some repute) told me that those who say they are writing for themselves are just–how shall I say this?–gratifying themselves.

In subsequent years, I have discovered that his statement is true. And not true.

Many of us who write have two careers at writing: the one that feeds the undeniable demands of our souls, and the other that stands between us and the wolf at the door. For me, that second career is actually the one that takes the most of my time.

I’ve written since I was seven. I wrote my first “book” at nine. My brain, from birth it seems, was tuned by nature to two things only…the music of music and the music of words. Words were then as they are now, the expression and definition of myself. The world I create. The world that’s realer than real.

When I was 18, the other world inserted itself. I stumbled into advertising, via a summer job in the mailroom of one of the (then) largest ad agencies in the world. I hated it. After two years, I fled for my life, vowing never to return. So much for vows.

Writing for advertising and writing for life have many similarities and many profound differences. To see the shape of an idea, to find the most compelling way to color in that shape: Those things are common to both worlds. There the similarities end.

Advertising (and this will come as no-news to anyone who has ever worked anywhere near it) is dependent upon clients. 100% of those clients had, at least, high school English. And 99% of them believe that their experience makes them experts at the language.

Writers in this field are regularly told what words to use, what punctuation, what sentence structure. We are told these things in no uncertain terms, often without recourse or the ability to reply. They know their products and their brands; you know how to give them voice. That ought to be the basis for a fine and satisfying relationship for all parties. Ya think?

Advertising is not art, although it may wear some of art’s clothing at times. Advertising is commerce. And, make no mistake, fiction-writing…that’s commerce, too. If you’re smart, you’ll listen to your editors, your publishers, your agents–the folks who have more perspective than you do. The other side of that is a certain amount of self-determination. A yes-no-yes-no debate often falls in your favor. Soaring language is permitted to discover for itself how high it can fly.

Fiction writing soothes and strokes–and yes, torments–as nothing else can. Fiction writing saves souls. Fiction-writing giveth, advertising taketh away. Fiction-writing is life. Advertising…well, that’s something else. Entirely.

If one could only learn to live on words and air, I would be the happiest person alive.

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