Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shorthand


A gesture is shorthand for an emotion.  The gesture may be overt in its physicality.  Few fail to understand the meaning and emotion behind the extended middle finger.  Fewer still would fail to grasp the equivalency between the extended middle finger being thrust forth with vigor and an exclamation point.

The physicality of gestures may be more nuanced and multifarious, incorporating more than one action, say a well-expressed demonstration of appreciation or forgiveness.  Such gestures are often described as handsome or generous.

When you were more or less of grammar school age, your sister showed you what was then called a stenographer’s pad. A spiral bound rectangular notebook with the binding at the top.  Such notebooks were in common use among secretaries, who took dictation, which is to say their employer verbally composed a letter which the secretary transcribed, using one of two shorthand languages, the Gregg or Pittman. 

Your sister thought to master the Gregg short form language, thinking this would allow her to make a complete set of notes for the classes she planned to enroll in when the time for college came about.

Technology has obliterated the need for those particular types of notebooks or their accompanying chart of brief forms, which were useful hints for secretaries.  Curious to a point, you undertook to learn the Gregg brief forms and, for a time, saw the purpose of the charts printed on the secretarial notebooks.  As such things go, you were once able to read Hebrew and were able to slough along up to a point in Greek. 

The shorthand forms have fled your memory like customers from a brothel during a police raid.  Looking at Hebrew now, you are amazed to have had the degree of proficiency you had.  You are still able to make out an occasional word in Greek but that ability rests on a precarious foundation to the point where once, at your favorite Greek restaurant in Los Angeles, you once asked the owner for a translation of two words, only to be told “No substitutions.”

Life, as portrayed in stage, film, and printed/digital fiction, is given significant color by the use of gesture, a reminder how filled with emotion and response story is and how the better writers in our midst seem to have somewhere tucked away the equivalent of those brief forms from the secretarial notebook of earlier days.

You are drawn to individuals with a rich toolkit of emotion-laden words and phrases, persons who seem able with no thought to convey the emotions behind their enthusiasms, disappointments, and surprises.  These individuals are rarely forced to rely on such tropes as very or oodles or millions, rather they use their entire body to support words that seem to have dipped in the cocktail sauce of expressive feeling.

Some writers, in early stages of their development, see the need for exclamation points, and supportive adverbs.  When they do find their way to gestures, they will use such groaners as “She dropped her eyes.” Making you wonder, did they break?  And of course, “He threw up his hands.”

Only today, in this morning’s workshop, the question came forth about the use of italics to denote interior monologue, causing you to feel so pleased when someone spoke to the matter of the text in roman carrying the responsibility of informing the reader that you used the gesture of pantomiming applause.

Story is metaphor for orchestrated emotion, a definition that comes close to making story sound operatic.  Opera is dramatic.  Take away the music and you still have story.  Many remarkable motion pictures pick up an extra layer of emotional currency from a score, where the balance is even more nuanced than opera.  Some writers—James Lee Burke, Annie Proulx, and Lorrie Moore come to mind—have prose styles suggestive of a sound track in the background, the inner cadences of their sentences suggesting themes and sounds as well as feelings.

You could say sentences are shorthand for feelings; scenes are so with great certainty.  If a scene does not suggest and bring an awareness of feeling to the reader, the scene has not done its work in a positive sense, then goes on to provide some negative work with the evocation of a heaviness and leaden quality emblematic of the one unacceptable emotion in story—boredom.

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