[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote over a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]
Oh, Lordy, here I dredged the rusty bottom of my brain for something that could pass for wisdom in last month’s column, and everyone who emails wants to know about the beautiful young thing and the owls. How embarrassing. Not because the wisdom was specious, but because – choke – I never hooked up with the fair maiden, and even the owls have abandoned me. Details about the owls later, but no film at eleven. First I need to pick up the threads I spun last time about a writer’s philosophy of language.
You may recall that I described isolating the use of three aspects of life in writing: 1) emotions, 2) things & events and 3) ideas. I chose those aspects for no better reason than I can see where they weigh into fiction and in what proportions. Each one is a distinct bias that tends to shape a story by genre. If you want to go back to the details, here’s a direct link to that column – http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/08/01/thomas-sullivan-spiders-and-spuds/#respond . I also promised to relate those aspects of life to categories of writing at the end of this series of columns. That’s an association that can help you understand who you are as a writer and where to aim your fiction. So now, if you will, allow me to make the case for the first aspect or language: THE LANGUAGE OF EMOTIONS.
This is the only language that is completely natural and so universal that it may even be pre-natal. Think about it. We spend nine months in the womb celebrating a Utopia where we don’t have to breathe, eat, drink or change our diapers. We have perfect shock absorbers, sound control, temperature control, and then suddenly – plop!
We are born.
We are born wet and naked into a room full of strangers. Strangers who are dressed. Strangers who are wearing masks. We are turning purple and gasping for breath, but one of them jerks us up by the heels and parades our privates to oohs and aahs. Sexual exploitation is soon followed by violence, as we are blindsided by a slap to a very personal place.
Welcome to planet Earth!
Very negative experience. Some people never get over it. They become . . . literary critics. And if the slap upside the derrière is merely humiliating, the next act is downright dangerous, because another of the masked felons ties a knot in our lifeline to the mother ship and…and CUTS IT OFF! Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to speak. So we do. We give it our first word…
Now where did that come from? Who told us to make a vocal noise? Was there a loquacious twin in the womb? Who taught the twin? No one. Spontaneous verbal communication. Language. Pure emotion. It’s in our basic wiring.
And it never really changes. Language proceeds emotionally for a while: the feed-me cry, the TLC cry, the there’s-a-pin-in-my-fanny cry. In these more specific outcries there are the hints of a more specific language to come, but it is still our personal statement of being. Our feelings say that we exist as entities, as individuals. It is a life-long need to declare emotions per se. Oh, we will get sophisticated about it, learning to couch feelings behind all kinds of verbal rants and rationalizations that address complex and intricate circumstances, but the purpose is the same: to vent emotions. Waaa-a!
So whatever else more formal languages (English, Italian, Chinese et al) do, they must answer the fundamental mandate of emotions. In addition to communicating facts and sophisticated thoughts, we need our languages to simply tell each other how we feel. Good writing does that, directly and indirectly. Apart from writing, one gender expresses emotions better than the other. They are called female. Not surprising then, that the most lopsided female literary audience favors writing that deals strongly and overtly with emotions. Males, schooled in the need to never flinch before the tiger, are more reticent in real life. Their emotions must often be inferred and tend to show up expressed as actions. Here’s a gross generality that has a little truth to it: women feel; men think. I hasten to add that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. We’re talking tendencies here, gender reflex. And if you let me get away with that, here’s another, even worse: women talk; men act. Can you see why women universally shun me? Again, I hasten to point out that this is just a predilection toward one strategy for problem-solving over another. Men incline toward physical resolutions, each a kind of triumph of physical resources over resistance; women incline toward persuasion or psychological manipulation or emotional resolution, thus causing change in the obstacle. Hoo boy, which way to the exit? Anyway, if you’ll buy into just a 51% to 49% trend along those gender lines, then grant me a similar nod in the way this gets expressed in fiction, by genre, and in reading tastes. I don’t mean simply with the gender of the characters here, but rather in the way the author exploits the characters, the handling of the conflict, and what she/he tends to emphasize – emotions or actions? Do you start to get an idea where I’m going with this?
It is not neatly divided, however. Languages of the type I’m describing – arbitrarily dividing, really – do not exist in a vacuum. When I cover this in a speech, I can usually play off an audience for examples and direction that make the interplay abundantly clear. There are ardent devotees of language types just as there are ardent devotees of fictional categories. Think of your own stages in life and what you were consumed with at a given point and how language cued into that. Think Junior High. Think college. Think personal life. Think career. And if you are old enough, think where you ended up when all those stages finished pounding you into a conglomerate pulp.
You are still being pounded. If art is a mirror of life, then maybe your fiction is a mirror of where you’re at. Duh. The stage is now set for the second language: the language of things and events. But that’s the next column.
And the final column in this series will try to put it all into balance in a way that lends some direction to self-analysis of the writer (and the reader, really). He said.
Okay, back to the owls. If you didn’t catch the last column, I am referring to an owls nest and a chance meeting with a comely young thing training in a nearby nature preserve. The owls went one at a time – like the von Trapp Family Singers fading out of the spotlight at a Nazi rally. First the sexually ambiguous parent disappeared. Actually, that makes sense. Abandonment was probably a subtle cue aimed at telling the owlet chilluns to get out of the nest and find a job. But then the nest itself disappeared. Don’t ask me how or why. The two “watermelon-size” chicks were still there, jammed more or less into the crotch of a tree, scowling down at me like juvenile judges at a felon’s trial. Hey, I’m not a house burglar, and if I was, I wouldn’t steal a house any more than a cat burglar steals a cat. Watermelon #1 was gone the next day. And Watermelon #2 hit the airways the day after that, I guess.
So I’ve been left to my lonesome, clop-clopping up the trails where women occasionally flash me America’s most famous digital gesture but little else. I am a pariah, destined to die unloved in the wilderness. But, hey, I’m a writer, I will make something of this. Writers suffer, right? Must suffer. So far I’m doing great. If you don’t feel life in its excruciating extremes, you can’t write about it. This is where you find the people for your books. This is where you internalize the psychology that will bring your characters to life. Take today.
Out there blading when my radar pulls in a leggy blip in pink shorts on the horizon. I turn on the after-burners and in a couple of hills I’m closing in on a delightful mirage, moving like a racing blader. The pink shorts contrast a gorgeous tan, one of those I-hang-out-at-the-beach-with-buff-bronze-guys tans. I’m more the Casper the Friendly Ghost type. But hey, albinos can be buff too.
Another hill, and it’s confirmed: female, exemplary specimen. Add competitive. Because now she sees me and begins to pour it on. She is no doubt one of the femmes training for the Tri who I run into every day on the trails or in the pool. I’m out here for the “Try” myself, so we’re sorta compatible already. The first curve (not counting hers) reveals the 5-wheel skates of a serious athlete. I am wearing Fischer-Price Tonka PlaySkool 4-wheel jobbies with little yellow duckies on the side.
Now, the number one rule for these spontaneous races is that you must never show effort. She is showing no effort. Long, easy strokes, one hand working the turns, glide, glide, glide. I am going clip-clop, clip-clop, stagger, stumble, stutter step, pant, pant. I give up trying to breathe through my nose. If I swallow one more species of insect, I will have ingested one sample of all the entomological varieties available in the park. I am a veritable Noah’s Ark in Nikes! Mere mortals on bikes veer out of our way, as do family gaggles and terrified infants. Mile after mile (that’s two miles) we yo-yo uphill, downhill. Finally she slumps into a long glide, exhausted. I’m thrilled to see it’s hurting her, ‘cause it’s killing me. When she goes left at a juncture in the trail, I go right, happy to be able to slow down and too whipped to pursue conversation. Gorgeous tan goes one way, the Friendly Ghost the other.
Back at the car I discover the carton of HeartSmart that fell out of a grocery bag yesterday. Keep Refrigerated, it says on the label. I’m out a couple of bucks. Stuff makes good suntan oil, though, and “tomorrow is another day.”
Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome and your attention valued.
posted by Sully at 12:10 AM
David Niall Wilson said…
Hah…if the ladies don’t string you up, you’ll be remembered for these words. I thoroughly enjoyed this, particularly the part where the girl in pink shorts gave you a run for your money, and your watermelon chicks hit the highway…now I’ll have to watch the trees for them.
Near home we now have a nesting pair of American Bald Eagles…truly majestic, and very startling if you happen to catch them out of the corner of your eye while driving…unexpectedly catch them out of the corner of your eye, I should say.
We’ll be getting the columns and interviews linked to the side soon.
A fine line between strung along and strung up, but I’m always game for the game.
Eagles are common fare around here, too. Actually see one land in my yard some times, and I chase them down the twilit shore nightly when canoeing (me canoeing, not the eagles).
Janet Berliner said…
Thans for the chuckles which, as always, hid many kernels of good sense and arguable logic. [g] I wonder if The Lady in Pink knows The Lady in Red? –Janet
Oh, I live dangerously, don’t I? Romance Writers of America once dressed me in a $700 tux for fun at their national convention and let me do my thing as far as irreverence. When I think back on those three days, I feel like I walked a high wire across the Grand Canyon during tornado season. Must find safer ways to get my kicks…
Mark Rainey said…
Ah, women. Gotta love ’em, right? (My wife certainly thinks so!) 😉
Entertaining stuff, Sully. Many thanks.
Vive la femmes. Thanks, Mark.
Thomas “Sully” Sullivan
You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com
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