December 12th, 2008

Language, Open and Shut

Writing is the only art form that mainly strives to be not itself. Any serious writer dwells in the beauty of language, the elegance of phrasing, sound and rhythm, but over the long-term, the longer-than-a-sentence term, good writing strives to make you stop seeing it, stop seeing the words on the page and start seeing the images and characters those words create. As a writer, I want readers to feel my stories as people and events, not in ink on paper.

To achieve this, of course, the writer is reliant on language, the very thing she wants to make you not see. To achieve an image that transcends ink and paper, you need language like a stone polished so brilliant that we see only the reflection of the world, and not the stone’s surface at all. The rightest word must be the most precise and specific, penetrating and resilient, in order to engage the reader in creating the image in his or her mind. If you just say “tree” the reader might see a budding maple from outside the window of her third-grade classroom, or she might see dying yellowed pinetree on the shoulder of an Alaska highway, but more than likely, the reader will just see the Times New Roman letters t-r-e-e, and nothing more.

A writer seeks to corner an image, an emotion, a sensation–to make it stay put for a minute so a reader can get a sort of fleeting, slantwise glimpse of what the writer sees in *her* head when she thinks about trunks and branches and leaves. You can never do it completely, and some writers are ok with more gaps in the fence than others. The task allottment might differ from writer to writer, or text to text, but the project of creating meaning in a story, novel or poem is always a joint one between writer and reader.

In conversation–well, in good conversation–statements are like story-writing. When I describe my day, date or dinner to you, I’m trying to give you enough information that you can recreate it in your own head. Same as a story. But dialogue is a much more delicate dynamic than text, and we not ever *just* offering information–in conversation we ask for information in return. And there is a very different linguistic necessity in asking questions, or even opening topics, than there is in making statements/telling stories.

I’ve had considerable sensitivity training, in the formal sense (there are many life experiences that qualify as sensitivity training, I know) and one of the things I’ve been taught is to open language as wide as possible, to leave space in a question for *every possible answer*.

You’d think that’d be easy–by the very fact of asking a question, we admit we don’t know the answer. But quite often, the words we use to ask can imply that we believe we know the range of the answer. When I point at a woman’s wedding band, and say, “How long have you and your husband been married?” that’s (say it together, grad school kids) heteronormative. When I suggest that an acquaintance buy a certain item, I suggest I know she can afford it. When I make an idle joke about a colleague being “off her meds,” I imply that I know she’s never taken mood-stabilizers.

And, as we’ve so often established her at Rose-coloured, what do I know?

Most people are tough enough to weather such slights, and generous enough to forgive them. But it’s alienating, absolutely, to misapprised (literally, mis-seen) again and again. And if one is going through a particularly vulnerable time, maybe you aren’t that tough. Around this time of year, there’s a lot of seemingly inoccuous queries about family that could be truly upsetting if your family is dead/abusive/too distant to afford plane fare. Never even mind that we aren’t all celebrating the same holidays–even as a Jew who enjoys Christmas, I don’t find it so unreasonable that *everybody* stick to saying “Season’s Greeting” to those whose denomination is unknown.

That my version of “open” language comes from sensitivity training leaves me open to a little bit of mockery, sometimes, and other times is just confusing. I am so well programmed (I actually eventually taught the class) that I really fear hurting someone by asking loaded questions like, “How was your Mother’s Day?” “Why don’t you buy a new one?” “Are you going to talk that over with a friend?”

So I’m a little over-delicate–I don’t ask a lot of questions if I can’t make them very neutral. Because I am actually passionately curious (read: nosy); I want to know everything about your life you feel like telling me. But there’s the thing, I want to know *anything*–and if I slant the question so that it sounds like I already know, or expect to know, why would you speak at all?

When I tell a story, on the page or in conversation, I want to give you the gift of what I know, more or less elaborately done up with paper and bow. When I ask a question, I want to give you clean a clean and empty box, with the flaps folded back, to make it easier for you to give me anything at all.

Can I put this lightly?

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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