[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.]
I am not – strictly speaking – writing a column. I am avoiding writing a novel. This is a switch, because for days now I have been avoiding writing a column by writing a novel. But the deadline is upon me, so it’s time to face the question that’s been mired in my thoughts like a spider in the mashed potatoes.
But do I want to attempt a single column on a subject that used to take me an hour in front of an audience to cover? When I get talking a hundred words a minute (gusts up to two hundred) for an hour, that’s a lot of potential column. I think you can relax – me too – because the answer is “no.” Small servings, that’s the way to do it. A dollop of mashed potatoes here, a spider there. Yum, yum. And besides, the subject I am writing about divides itself naturally into three parts.
The three parts add up to a philosophy of language. Every writer should have one. I’m not talking about vocabulary here, but rather what language represents in ways we humans look at the world. The ways I chose to sum up the world are: Emotions; Things & Events; and Ideas. I chose those because I could see where they weighed into the writing of literature, and in what proportions. The areas I’ve chosen are arbitrary, and maybe you could do better in making divisions, but these worked for me when I first saw the need to get a handle on writing many years ago. So, I’m going to do them in several columns, because this stuff travels a bit, and in order to say everything I want to say, and to relate it back to specific fiction, I need some room. Otherwise, it would come out too many spiders and too little mashed potatoes.
Now, there is nothing holy about my particular method, just as there is nothing holy about language. Language is a bunch of grunts and scribbles that people agree upon. That makes it a social contract. If you and I agree that the term “scudburgers” are paddies of pre-masticated dead cow, incinerated and laid to rest on biers of stale bread served at the Porcelain Rooms (White Castles), then “scudburgers” it is. No one can tell us we’re wrong. That’s an example from real life, BTW. Ex-Frogman (now called Seals) named Harry Hauck (pronounced “Hawk”) christened them, and he and I lived off them in the Caribbean for a time back in another millennium. The point being that the social contract of language is whatever people say it is. It isn’t ordained by God with every falling in and out of usage and it does not come to us on tablets of stone. It changes when enough people have misused something enough times, or coined a usage long enough, for it to enter the common culture through media of every form and in every day communication. Sometimes a famous quote can make it in one scream, as with Howard Dean (though no one has yet figured out what he meant), or in the lyrics of a hit song (which also are not figured out). Meaning is shifty. And change is resisted by some, as in India where 300 dialects may be spoken in relatively small regions and bloody language riots ensue. Often language changes are a corruption, a shortcut, or something jangly and colorful, like “ripped off” or “stonewalled.” I have personally made up tons of words. So far no one else has used them. They are called “grammatical mistakes.”
But my philosophy of language is not meant to pioneer new directions, only to identify existing ones. Grammar books try to do that, and they are always out-of-date. English teachers die with them clutched in their cold, dead hands, but they are still out-of-date (both the Warriner’s and the English teachers) — passé, dinosaurs, last week’s lunch. I wanted to create divisions that would not become dinosaurs. So I based my divisions on the purposes of languages. And I did this with an ear toward the different categories of writing. More on that in the final column of this series. So that’s where all of this is going: a way of understanding what types of writing go where in the marketplace. Because, if you once get that, then you will be able to analyze your own writing and readership and understand what makes it what it is at the root level of wordsmythery.
Check that. Indulge me while I qualify a bit of semantics here. “Understand” is a bad word in my method. “Understand” implies that you can learn creativity as if it were a set of principles. Learning what can be learned that way might qualify you to be a critic (yuk), but it certainly won’t give you two main assets of any creative person: insight and imagination. Insight and imagination are native abilities that allow a person to take a little information or experience all the way to the horizon. They are probably a limited resource, different in amounts for each of us, but they can be sharpened and maxed out in any person. “Learning” them, “understanding” them, is too often packaged and sold along with snake oil to hopeful writers as if the magic beans, the SECRETS (shhhh!), are available to all if you just memorize the quality of “insight” on page 269 of the text they are selling. Can’t be done. If you don’t have your own secrets, your own magic beans, and your own potentially successful voice already inside you, you need to get out and live a little until you awaken and develop those qualities. For sure no one is going to graft them onto you. You can’t lead by following; and writing is an attempt to be original, unique. So a word that comes closer than “understanding” to what I’m trying to convey here is “recognize.” I’m hoping (betting) that you will recognize some things you already know but maybe haven’t ever consciously sorted out, if only I can get this little language perspective I’ve outlined down in a couple of columns.
If you wait for fully formed stories to put on a lampshade and dance for you, creativity will slip right out the back door. You have to make something out of whatever is at hand. The universe is in a grain of sand, and if you’re a good enough artist, that’s all you’ll need. That ringing phone that is annoying you, distracting you, keeping you from thinking that great thought hovering just out of reach, has an entire world on the other end of the line. Pick the damn thing up! Use your imagination. Get interested in life. Go out to meet it with your eyes and ears open, and it will give you something every time.
Hmmm. Full moon out as I write this. Gibbous anyway. And the air is the temperature of life tonight. Can’t tell you what a longing that puts in me. You know what? I’m gonna practice what I preach. Time for a little research, time to fill the well, find some impromptu inspiration. Tomorrow when I wake up, I’ll have a whole new set of associations to fire my imagination. This night will not end without an adventure. Met someone blading yesterday and showed her an owl sitting on a nest with two fuzzy “chicks” the size of watermelons. She was entranced – with the owls, drat. But maybe a little with our conversation, too, because she wanted to exchange email addresses. Said she was a compulsive person. Said she hoped we’d see each other again. Whatya think? Too quick to email? Of course. Am I not gonna email now anyway? Nay. An hour or so hence, with or without her, I’ll be canoeing on the lake behind my house past swans on black glass, looking for owls. With a little luck I/we won’t find any. But I/we will find the moon….
In the coming months, my writer’s philosophy of language: emotions…things & events…ideas. A column for each. Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome, your attention valued.
Thomas “Sully” Sullivan
You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com
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posted by Sully at 3:25 AM
David Niall Wilson said…
Though I have reams of email dealing with many of these concepts…I never get tired of “hearing” you write/talk about them. Good luck with the moon, and the owls, but maybe the owl IS wiser…all snuggled in with a pair of cute chicks while you paddle about?
Alas, you had to point that out. The owl was much less a bird-brain than I was. Nevertheless, it was an adventure…
I can’t reconcile this as an image in my mind…
an owl sitting on a nest with two fuzzy “chicks” the size of watermelons.
Well, if u read abt and author found dead at the base of a tree in Minnesota with a tape measure in his hand, you’ll know what happened. From the ground they look like tawny feather dusters, or if you like, bigger than a football, smaller than a duffel bag. The mother (or father, as I’m told they share housekeeping) looks like something out of a Japanese horror film – horns inclusive. For all that, he/she takes wing about half the time I stopped to gawk, electing to watch from a more remote perch. The chicks seem fearless, “watermelons.” But what do you expect from a guy who thought Audobon was a German Expressway?
Janet Berliner said…
“…a guy who thought Audobon was a German expressway?”
A brilliant writer and a comedian, too. How does he do it?
Wish I could live up to your praise, Janet. But I’ll tell you, being in touch with quality people is much the best part of this biz.