Distilling experience into text: The writer as interpreter of reality

“The cat’s just upside down, enjoyin’ the world.”

My wife said aloud this description of our pet cat yesterday morning, and I wrote it down. I don’t think she meant for me to write it down, but I also don’t think she’d be surprised that I did — I’ve been quoting her for years.

I quote my wife, my mom, my in-laws, my friends, my colleagues, and especially I like to quote strangers who say things — things that strike me as funny, strange, or wonderful — that I hear in public (I’m not into espionage; I just record on paper the things that come to my ears.).

I’ve published several of these quotes at this blog, under the category “Transcribed from life.” I post these quoted statements because (I think this is why) they are themselves interesting and/or funny, but I do think part of what makes them interesting and/or funny is that they REALLY WERE said. Were these things dialogues that I had imagined and fabricated (fictioned, if you will), they wouldn’t be as interesting and/or funny, and frankly, wouldn’t be as valuable.

A poem or a fiction is valuable in itself for how clever, insightful, or touching, etc., it is. (If the work is by a famous author, the monetary value, and even maybe the aesthetic value, is increased.) But any text that is claimed to be nonfiction is also valuable because it really happened.

Of course, what “it really happened” means is itself an idea that needs to be considered. Whenever I write on paper something I just heard, I am aware that there are several issues at play already: Did I hear the words accurately? Is my memory (in which I hold the words before writing them down) accurate? What was the context? Was the speaker being sarcastic or otherwise nonverbally asserting meaning that would affect the literal meaning?

I will admit that every time I write down a quote, I am interpreting an experience I had. I am writing down what I think I heard, what I understood it to mean, and how I remembered it. Now, I am being as honest as I can be, but that doesn’t mean I’m a perfect transcriber.

The perfect way to transcribe from life might be to have a recording device on my person at all times, recording all the audio and visual which comes within range of my sense perception (like Google Glass, perhaps. One person who tried this experiment had these results.).

But this doesn’t solve the problem of recording and interpreting particular moments from my life. First, there are the technical problems that such a recording device would have: battery life, recording capacity, breakdowns, etc. Even if these weren’t problems, there’d be the issue of watching and editing each day’s recordings, skipping vast amounts of video just to get to the few seconds that already caught my interest (of course, by viewing such video, I might find additional interesting quotes).

Then there’s the deepest issue yet: What was actually said, and what was actually meant? Technology can’t solve this one. What if, for example, a car honk blocked out a couple words of someone’s speech? That can’t be fixed. And still there’s the problem of interpreting meaning: What, exactly, was she referring to when she said “it”?

So, really, what I’m recording when I write down what I hear people say is my interpretation of what they said — and maybe that’s OK.  And maybe this is why some people don’t like to have their words recorded: what’s being recorded is not their words directly, but someone else’s experience of those words. For example, as I began to write something a friend had recently said to her husband, she asked me, “What are we quoting there?”(But my quoting others’ speech also draws attention to that speech; for every person who’s been wary of me quoting them, several seem pleased that I would find their statement worth quoting.)

And my real point here, in calling this post “distilling experience,” is that my interpretation of others’ words includes my direct reporting of their words, and it also includes the context I give those words, and any comment I might make about them, as to why I found them interesting or funny. For example, from yesterday’s post, I have taken this quote:

One man said, referring to his pregnant wife, “We got another one to fire out August 9th,” as if a child were an intercontinental ballistic missile.

So I provide the context (“referring to his pregnant wife”), and my simile (“as if a child were an intercontinental ballistic missile”) draws attention to the comic (to me) use of the words “fire out” to describe childbirth. I don’t remember anyone laughing when the man said his statement, but the statement appealed to my sense of humor, and so when I wrote this up and published it, I got to explain why the quote amused me. This quote might now amuse readers who would not have been amused had they been there to hear the statement originally made.

My thought, then, is that by taking notes on what I hear people say, daily conversations take on a textual, entertaining quality for me, and then I get to publish these quotes with my interpretations. In other words, a direct audio-and-video recording of these statements might not be as interesting or as entertaining as these statements are once they’ve gone through my mind.

In other words, real life — real things really happening — is fascinating, but maybe not until it’s gone through the mind of someone who can find his/her experiences fascinating. Maybe this is why the particular sensibility/mindset and the particular voice of a writer matter so much to our enjoyment of a particular text. It’s reminding me of advice I got back in college, when an older student said to choose a college class for the professor who teaches it: a bad professor can make a great subject boring, but a good professor can make anything interesting.

P.S.: I’m not sure I explained why I like the word “distilling” to explain the process of describing one’s experiences into words. I’m not sure just now that I do have a good explanation, except to say that, of course, I cannot share directly what I experience. But maybe it IS worthwhile for me to distill — limit down — into words, into the most useful words, what exactly I have experienced. And to remark that, though words are themselves limited and problematic, they allow us to share interior (mental) experiences in a way that other technologies still cannot accomplish.

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