Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Language Imprisoned

If you want to write, if you have an idea, let it build up inside you. Put nothing on paper; let it sit and simmer and reshape itself a hundred times in your head. A vague, wispy notion will be only as thin as the paper that holds it, but an idea full-grown, ripe to overripe, will fall into words with a ruddy glow, bursting with restrained energy. When you are ready to explode with the force of the unfulfilled idea, when its rounded corpus is too heavy to remain in immaterial thought, let language come, black type on white, painting a newborn world that emerges fully-formed, oozing with life.

So a writer once told me.

There is no denying the wisdom of this concept. Yet time and again I find I cannot follow this advice. My ideas arrive so fleeting that I feel I must immediately grasp hold and pull down with all my might to keep them from drifting away. A diaphanous thought on paper exists, at least, but a weak thought conceived and never born miscarries, and is as if it never was. So I toil at endless shards, beginning after beginning, piece after piece, little completed, nothing robust.

‘How can it be so difficult?’ you ask. Don’t scribble furiously in the notebook, don’t open the blank document and let your fingers fly. Simply refrain.

But are words so easy to muzzle? The secret you had resolved to keep utterly private, the unkind thing you were determined never to say aloud—these things fly from our tongues like bats disturbed in caves. Keeping silent when you want to speak, not expressing the things you wish so much to share—it is a supremely grueling task. The suppression of language is no mean feat. It is not merely a choice to remain passive—it is an active decision, one that often requires superhuman strength. Words tumble about in your head, rearranging themselves endlessly, beating against the sides of their cage, begging, crying to be freed. Only with intensity of purpose, with undiluted focus, can the words be kept inside.

Words of every medium yearn to be liberated, to live unfettered and dance in the space they exist to fill. But sometimes they must be quashed. It is a task often performed with a tear—but always with a greater goal in mind.


Erachet said...

Weird...I was always taught the opposite.

Scraps said...

I was also taught the opposite, to get ideas down on paper as soon as possible so as not to lose them.

Sometimes it takes a supreme act of will to refrain from saying something one wishes to say. But it is most often worth it.

Anonymous said...

We’re taught to put our words everywhere we can fit them and the thinking is that through this overindulgence in expression we’ll come to find the truth. Are words so valueless? The marksman is the man who fires one well-planned bullet and hits the target, not the man who fires thousands of bullets in the target’s general direction, relying on odds, not skill. So, too, I think, with the writer. Claudius: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Still, thoughts without words—where do they go? This is the balance. (That first paragraph, so well written—my mind humming, “exactly, exactly,”—did that flow from your fingers, the result of productive restraint?)

Your words, your thoughts, wherever they are, they do not forsake their post (this I know). Sometimes the call of the writer, like that of the soldier, is silence.

SJ said...

Erachet and Scraps - I have also, on other occasions, been taught the opposite - but I believe that, as in Torah matters, the fact that there are contradictory positions does not mean that one cannot learn from both sides.

Anon – It flowed from my fingers, yes, but not as the result of the kind of restraint I described. The writer who taught the lesson expressed in that first paragraph had a way of making things deeply clear to me. I have found that often when I set out to express things that I genuinely understand or feel internally, the words come immediately, naturally, even though I have not previously contemplated the specific terms or structure in which I plan to concretize them. When attempting to construct a receptacle of thought rather than one of fiction, my most productive efforts have been the result of a preconceived beginning or ending—or both—in which lies an idea I have pondered or a feeling I have experienced intensely. In such a case, the middle of the piece—that is, how I will get from the beginning to the ending—often writes itself.

Northern Light said...

I think when expressing feelings or writing fiction, you might let thoughts percolate. But for me, writing non-fiction, I fear being judged, and so procrastinate--and therefore, should just plunge ahead. Better to take the risk and create something than rationalize creating nothing.

Erachet said...

I find that when writing, it's not that I sit there spewing words until I find one that sounds good by chance. It's more that when you plan too much before you write, you end up backing yourself into corners. You get stuck and caught up in what you decided you must say, rather than giving your writing room to live. Writing is not like sharp-shooting at all. It is not always a specific target you are trying to hit, but a path you are trying to blaze. Writing is not an adventure if you're afraid to journey along with it.

SJ said...

Erachet, for my part I have to agree with Anon on this one. The idea of writing as trailblazing is nice, in theory, but few of us are blessed with enough divine inspiration to simply sit down in front of a blank document (with little conception of what we’d like to say) and produce a work of literary genius. This approach might yield something eventually, but it is likely to yield a lot of utter rubbish first. The idea that my writing will sweep me up on a fabulous journey of its own creation is romantic and thrilling—but I’m afraid it is not realistic. More likely I’ll end up spending a lot of time producing a lot of words that ultimately mean far less than I’d like them to. Language is precious and must be treated with respect. This does not mean that each individual word must be premeditated, but that (ideally) every thought should be.