Tag Archives: metaphor

Links, nonfic: Writers beyond the pale

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This essay sorta exhausted me, in its exhortations to write all the time. As someone who’s somewhat obsessive in his thinking anyway, I don’t need to hear the command to pay yet more attention to my writing and my thinking. But as I read this, and also looked at this essay about writers’ spaces (and how it’s all too easy to romanticize and even worship a writer’s physical things, when we would be understanding an author much more, it seems to me, when we actually do what they did and sit down and write), these two posts got me thinking about where the words come from. I’ve written about this before, but it’s so fascinating to think about how writing fits into one’s life, how in a way, writing is more of a way or mode of living than it is a hobby. I’m also reminded of the Annie Dillard quote: “Society places the writer so far beyond the pale that society does not regard the writer at all.”

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing down on my pocket notes some of the funny, strange, or otherwise unique things my students say in class. (I’d post an example but I’m afraid that actually sharing these things publicly might make my students too self-conscious.) My students seemed to think it weird at first that I’d record what they say, but today, some students seemed pleased to have their words recorded. I’ve turned their unpremeditated utterances into long-lasting symbols on paper, and now their recorded words can be read back to them (or to third parties) at my whim. (There’s also the issue that I may not have heard their words perfectly, but how I write them is how the statements get recorded.)

I’m not recording dialogue for any particular purpose (as if it were research) — there’s just something fascinating for me both in the recording of real-life speech, in the easily taken-for-granted turning of sound into symbol, and also I really enjoy some of the funny things kids say, the particular ways they use language. It seems really simple to write down things people say, and yet, maybe it does put me beyond the pale. These aren’t the words of interview subjects who want to present themselves in certain ways, although of course we all want our speech to make us appear witty, charming, etc. The statements I write down are just glimpses, with minimal context, of the behavior of real people — and yet, somehow, some little aspect of this behavior has become more substantial — how fleeting, how unreal, is most of our experience unless and until it is written.

Our experience, of course, remains fleeting; what we write down of our experience is less a reflection of reality or of real experience, and more a record of what words and ideas about real experience came through my mind, my mind-voice, and got onto the paper. I don’t narrate my life — well, I seldom tell myself what is going on at the moment — I know what’s going on, I know what I think is happening now and what I think I should do next. But I do tend to think — a lot — during my conscious hours, and this thinking takes place mostly as words. There are images and feelings as well, but it’s a wordstream that would appear if there were some way to transcribe my … what’s even a good term for this? It’s all metaphors of course — the stage of my mind’s attention? “Interior monologue” is often used but it already implies language. The mind’s TV of words and images?  It’s funny how hard it is to describe what it’s like to be conscious, to have a mind, to communicate how that mind feels and works.

How when I’m actively doing things, I forget I have some locus directing my actions (many of which may be “muscle memories” and thus not arising to conscious thought at all). When I’m feeling a certain mood, these don’t seem to be controllable, though, like the weather, they’re frequently changing. My thinking that arises to the level of self-awareness that I am thinking (and becoming aware of my own thinking, that’s something I think I’ve gotten better at, through the practice of writing, of taking notes when a discrete idea forms) often comes when I’m driving or showering or otherwise doing things that don’t really engage the conscious mind in a way that teaching, conversing, or reading do.

This is a mess of words here, perhaps not conveying much, perhaps giving rise to some sense of identification in some readers. Perhaps not. But this post has been an attempt to describe what it’s like to be a writer. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to not live as a writer. I don’t even know why I live as a writer — perhaps being a writer has made me a more thoughtful person towards others, or perhaps my thinking separates me from others socially. Perhaps I have shaped, through repetition, my mind to become that of a writer’s; perhaps my biology and my upbringing conditioned me at least part of the way to becoming who I am.

In a way, this aspect of being a writer — the Daily Being a Writer — is certainly not about getting published, and it’s not even mainly about connecting with others (with this rambling post as Exhibit A), or maybe it is about that, a little. And I don’t think this Daily Being a Writer is what we admire or appreciate about our favorite authors, so many of whom were jerks to be around. But Daily Being a Writer — maybe let’s call it, A Writer’s Being? — is not even what the friends and family of Hemingway and Kerouac would have known. Only the writer him/herself can know this. This Writer’s Being is natural to me, and it is obviously one way to be a human alive on this planet, and it is obviously not the only or even necessarily best way of living a human life. This way of living, this Writer’s Being, just seems so fundamental that questions of “am I a real writer?” or questions about how to create more suspense in a novel don’t even make sense in this context. I am, so I write. I exist, and how I exist is by thinking and writing. It’s not even noble or praiseworthy or pitiable or describable by any adjective. It just sorta is. And for some reason, putting words on paper feels good.

More boring than silence: A runny-nose manifesto

Coming back from eating pizza at Subway tonight, I turned off my car radio. What we were hearing was “more boring than silence,” my wife said. It’s a good line. It prompted me to think about myself (as so many things do) and my writing and whether any particular post I’d write here would be more or, perhaps, less boring than silence, than not writing. I’ve been telling myself for the last couple hours that I wanted to write something today, but since I’ve also been battling a cold the last several days, I’m not sure I’m quite thinking clearly today. Maybe this is an experimental trial — some people have written while drunk, high, or, as Mark Leyner proposed, while having to go to the bathroom, so why not try to write while having a cold?

So, anyway, here is a link to a story I saw earlier about how slang lights up the brain — I don’t know so much about brain scans, but I know that it’s fun for me to play with words: make up new lyrics to songs, invert consonant sounds of adjoining words to make  spoonerisms, etc., so yeah, it seems these language things can be brain-engaging. Also, there’s this story about a theory of how the brain creates meaning from language, of which article I’ve not read the entirety, but I read enough to want to link to it and read it later. Maybe that’s something having a cold does for my brain — it seems to make it OK (less guilt-inducing) for me not to have to fully explain why I found an article relate-worthy.

But also, I tend to have this belief that the specific idea of a piece of writing doesn’t necessarily matter so much as that the text exists as a communique from one conscious mind. I tend to be interested in the raw text, as contrasted to the stylized, formalized, familiar text. While I feel hospitable to Kerouac’s idea of spontaneous prose being valuable, I don’t know that I’d assert the merit of the spontaneously written prose text over the structured, revised text. But I like the rawness, the sense that with a text that has not been overly edited, that is the author’s voice pouring, more-or-less uninhibitedly, onto paper (or screen). These texts can sometimes reveal more than the author even knows he/she means to say. But all meaning can be so … boring. (Note to self: easy on the generalizations).  I guess I mean to say that whatever we mean to say, we still say words.  Our meanings may be different tomorrow — tomorrow I may disagree with what I wrote today, but I still did say it today. I am alive now, at least.

Not that my mere being alive is in itself interesting to others who are also alive. But I guess that if I were to propose a manifesto (and it’s such lovely fun to do so), I’d say I’m interested in finding writing, in doing writing, that isn’t written with an outcome, a final shape, in mind. I’m interested in finding words — on signs, boring old words, and playing with them. I’m interested lately in writing down the things I hear — in turning everyday speech into words-on-paper, which somehow makes them seem more note-worthy, more significant, than speech. This preserves speech — and I’m not sure why that’s a good thing. But I guess I’m less interested in the writing project of a novel, of setting out to write a novel, or of setting out to write any particular thing that is defined before one even starts writing. Why not allow yourself as a writer to be smarter than you are?  Why try to control what you say?  Why try to structure it?  Haven’t we already seen the same stories over and over?

I guess what I’m saying is this: the frontier of new ideas is wide open. We — it is all too easy for our (or any) culture to live in a world it has defined, a mental world on top of/separate from the physical world. This mental world we have partly inherited from generations and cultures before us — for two small, simplified examples, Plato’s theory of Forms (ideas ) as existing separately from, independently of, physical/sense-able reality, and Aristotle’s urge to classify.

And so I’m saying that it’s all too easy for us — OK, for me — to think that what we think is real, matters. That our perceptions and theories are somehow … let’s give an example I use when I talk about philosophy and argument in my philosophy classes. I’ll ask kids if atoms are real, and someone says they are, giving the definition that they are the “smallest amount of indivisible matter.” But, of course, they aren’t — the science story continues beyond the atom, to say that they are divisible into electrons, protons, neutrons, and these last two are further divisible into quarks, and … so, no one really knows what is the smallest piece of matter. Sure, maybe there are vibrating “strings” below that, whatever that metaphorical explanation means. But, so, here’s the thing: nobody knows. There are explanations and theories that accord with known evidence, but these are basically stories, and when I taught science, I felt that all too often, I wasn’t teaching actual inquiry, but a story of science.

When my students and I talk philosophy, I say things like, “scientists would say that the university began at the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, when an infinitesimally small piece of matter and energy expanded to create the universe.” And this doesn’t seem really any more satisfactory of an explanation than giving the Biblical account of creation. But do we need either one? Do we really need to have an account of the origin of everything, which account would be necessarily speculatively fictional at some point?

In fact, why even do we make the distinction between real and not-real?  This is the distinction I present to my students and I lead them through a discussion of the definition of real, and how we’d decide what’s real and what’s not-real, and then we apply this definition to some particular, like numbers or ghosts or optical illusions. I want to show them how unsettled these biggest of questions truly are — which, by extension, (and I’m not sure how many kids do extend their thinking), shows how flimsy are most systems of belief (of any flavor of religion or philosophy or ideology), requiring as they do acceptance of some ultimately unprovable premises and definitions.

OK, this feels a tad sophomoric here, and of course I want to seem not that — I want to seem Worldly and Intelligent and so on … and of course, as soon as I start making generalized statements from a relativist position (“There is no truth,” he said, speaking relatively), arguments fall apart. But I guess I say this as background to justify/rationalize my feelings of disinterest in Perfectly Constructed Stories or Insightful Essays. I want to see people who are aware of the openness, the possibility, of being alive, of being conscious, right now, or, since right now is always moving on, passing away, people who are at least not bullsh!tting themselves into thinking that there are answers. That last part seems harsh, but I guess I sense that there’s urgency to this quest, this feels important, more important to me than writing some story or essay that peels off from this target and gets occupied in some little side-cave, when the main cave still is unexplored. I’m not sure the cave metaphor is a good one, either. Metaphors too are wonderful bullsh!t, the flocked wallpaper on the sentences of life (whatever that means — ha!).

I’d better quit before my brain shuts down anymore. But I guess this description is as good as any I’ve done before in trying to explain (to myself, even) my sense of urgency, of importance, of my mission — which mission is …?? I don’t even know it’s a cave. I usually console myself with the idea that there is no place we’re trying to get to, so I’m already there, so I don’t need to push on. That, if there are no particular answers (and why would there be? I’d only recognize a meaning of life if it came in the form of words, in the form of an idea, or a feeling, or something — so that if the purpose of life is merely to procreate more life, that seems unsatisfying, somehow, to my intellectual consciousness — perhaps my consciousness, since it feels like it was born new to each moment, it finds itself alive in this moment, cannot be satisfied with any mere answers to the question of the meaning of life, or of any other enduring, basic questions) —

That, if there are no particular answers, then satisfaction is to be found in the process, in the act of expressing, in the act of thinking, in the acts of being engaged in thinking and writing — and maybe this is as good an explanation as any as to why I’m more interested in the act of the person talking, the writer writing, than in what are the messages of the talker or the writer. Lately I’ve noticed some of my students saying things to me that are true only for them — “it’s hot in here,” or “this song reminds me of when I was 8 and  …” — and I think, “OK, I don’t feel hot,” and “this song reminds me of something totally different,” but in some sense, it doesn’t matter what they say. That they say it, that they can express some perception or some association their consciousnesses made, is beautiful.  Parenthetically, I don’t always think these are beautiful — sometimes I have wondered why they are saying these things aloud. But as I wrote this tonight, I recognized the beauty of their speaking, and now I’m glad I did this writing and learned from it. And (here comes the titlular tie-in), this learning is why writing and speaking aren’t more boring than silence.

What we are to do with the insights/new ideas/epiphanies that come to us while writing, I don’t know either. Again, I don’t want to say that these things are valuable as independent ideas that should be printed in some Tome of Wisdom someplace — but perhaps having these insights, learning from ourselves, is how we shape our consciousnesses as these arrive in each new moment of consciousness.

Nonfic: Metaphors to explain invisible science

[31 Jan 2012: This is a thought from when I was teaching high school science.]

Everything we can’t experience directly is/must be a metaphor! That is, it must be explained in terms of things we DO experience or can picture at our macro, real world level. Thus electron “orbits,” or electron “clouds” — this is what we must do to make sense for ourselves of indirect data.

— Mh, 26 Sept. 2002