Thursday, January 21, 2010

On Language

Sometimes--until you begin writing dialogue--you take language for granted, accepting it for the almost incredible medium by which members of the same and differing species communicate, not even questioning your ability to use it to inform the communication between you and the characters you create. In some lofty moments of spontaneity, you watch the screen in a state of being greatly impressed with yourself for having caught so much meaning in so few words.


You, who used to despair that you would ever achieve a metaphor or simile of any worth, who were openly envious of Raymond Chandler for the way these figures of speech seemed to appear as though from the reflex of need, now watch your own metaphor much as a tenement housewife would watch the clothing she put out on the clothesline, fearful of the neighbor's reactions to the very items of laundry and to any real or imagined defects in the way she did her laundry.

Language allows us to discover, to inform, to leave messages, to make choices, to warn. It reveals as much about us as we hope to convey to others, at once betraying our status in a relationship, our pretensions, our defensiveness, our social ranking, our attitudes, our agendas.

The more you think about language, the more it takes on a shape and purpose of its own, as though it were a leviathan whose size and function is incomprehensible to us. Language makes you realize how difficult it is at times to set your feelings down with a satisfying degree of accuracy. Language is the space in between "I had a good time" and "The world suddenly seemed to open with a dazzle of opportunity and learning." Language is a dazzle of opportunities, the trail of crumbs set in the forrest by the witch for Hansel and Gretel.

As you do on occasion by replaying in your mind some favored music, some theme from Ravel, some Gershwin invention that speaks out to you as though you'd been lifelong friends, you replay a line of dialogue, a phrase or sentence leading a story deeper into the forrest or incrementally out of it, you stop in mid stream, stunned by the implication of using language. You are near breathless because of the enormity of choice to be made, because of the hush that surrounds you as language waits for you to make up your mind, to choose a word.

Two of the geniuses of music you have discovered, Mozart and Beethoven, worked in wildly differing ways, Beethoven's notes seeming to come more slowly and deliberately, Mozart's with the ease of turning on a spigot which would allow melody and idea to flow forth. Each made uncounted choices, each has left a legacy of work that seems to proceed from one note to the only possible next note.

When language is working well for you, you don't have to go back and remove things, qualifiers, hesitations, defenses. When it is significantly working well for you, you are able to come back to it and read it with a kind of shiver of wonderment, the wonderment being Who wrote this? I am impressed.

From time to time you find yourself becoming evangelical when you tell your students (and yourself) the best practice is to write the way you think and think the way you write. And do each without hesitation.

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