We're delighted to present a new essay by Fallen author Lia Mills entitled Passionate Midnights, Perfect Jars (Writing Matters), taken from Beyond The Centre (published by New Island), a splendid new anthology edited by Declan Meade celebrating 25 years of the Irish Writers Centre.
‘Depend on it, somewhere a poet is wasting
his sweet uncluttered metres on the obvious
‘emblem instead of the real thing.
Instead of sulpha we shall have hyssop dipped
in the wild blood of the unblemished lamb,
so every day the language gets less
‘for the task and we are less with the language.’
- Eavan Boland, ‘The Journey’ (The Journey and other Poems)
The language gets less for the task. We are less with the language.
i. The Task
‘The Journey’ was published thirty years ago. The world has changed but language is still in trouble. Not because of hyssop dipped in the wild blood of the unblemished lamb – we should be so lucky – but because words themselves are under threat.
Anyone in possession of a mobile phone knows the temptations (and, let’s face it, the joys) of SMS/textese, the abbreviations that lead us to compress words or drop them altogether, to import emoji in the interests of speed. What harm? you ask. Here’s another crank, resisting the natural evolution of language, a dinosaur who wants to keep us all on guard against the split infinitive or the wanton deployment of the spliced comma. It’s true that I am an apostrophe nerd, that I’m fond of the semicolon and have been known to flirt with subordinate and conditional clauses but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to word play, experiment or change. Language is alive; like the rest of us it must evolve or die. People use emoji as shorthand, punctuation, visual puns and private code and in that sense they are as effective a form of communication as any. Shorthand has its place, and yes, of course it’s useful, even efficient, to key in a quick c u l8r (imo). But I’m talking about something more basic, more sinister.
The landscape and travel writer Robert Macfarlane is one of several writers, including Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion, who wrote a collective letter to the Oxford University Press protesting deletions from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. In ‘A Word to the Wild’, an article written for the National Trust Magazine (Autumn 2015), Macfarlane tells us that the deletions included:
‘acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, crocus, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, horse chestnut, ivy, kingfisher, lark, minnow, newt, otter, pasture, poppy, starling, sycamore, wren and willow. Among the words taking their places in the new edition were attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, compulsory, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.’
Words relating to the outdoors and the natural are being replaced by the indoor and the virtual as ‘blackberry’, he points out, gives way to ‘Blackberry’. When challenged, OUP explained that they made the changes to reflect the ‘consensus-experience of modern-day childhood.’
Whatever this suggests about changes in the lived experience of childhood, which is alarming enough, it is at least equally worrying that tomorrow’s adults stand to lose words, images and referents because they don’t conform to experiences that today’s urban children have access to or preference for.
Such word substitutions have the capacity to impoverish not only language but our ability to think for ourselves. It’s not possible to conceive a thought, let alone develop or extend it, without the vocabulary to contain and express it. Words lead to and join forces with other words in grammatical patterns that add meaning. We can form mental images of concrete artefacts and reproduce them visually but they can only be explained – as abstract concepts can only be communicated – in language. Many of the words in Macfarlane’s list of OJD deletions are alive with echoes of other words. They reach radicles, tendrils, rootlets towards images, ideas and associations that enrich our understanding. Think of the colour kingfisher blue; think of the mighty oak that grows from acorns; or what it means to be a minnow in the pond of life. Without the cowslip’s bell, where is Ariel supposed to lie? Go back to that list and read the endangered words aloud. Say crocus. Say willow. Savour their taste and texture in your mouth, the note they strike on your inner ear. Broadband and chatroom are blunt instruments by comparison. As Macfarlane has pointed out elsewhere, we don’t care for (or about?) what we don’t know, and on the whole we don’t know what we can’t name. The implications for ecology and the environment are stark. If we don’t know or care about a thing, it’s that much easier to lose or destroy – a principle that applies to language as much as to nature or anything – or anyone – else.
Language must evolve, it has to be relevant. But it needs specificity as well as plurality, a specificity that we stand to lose through laziness or indifference or through simply being too busy to key in a whole word or a properly grammatical phrase. Here is one reason why good writing matters to everyone, not just writers – it’s in our interest to keep language alive and that’s what we do, every day. Language is our medium; not simply in the sense of being the material we work with, as stone or clay is to a sculptor; nor as the instrument we apply to our material/subject-matter, although it is that too. Not only matter and instrument, it is also the suggestive, oracular source of possibility and hidden meaning, of lost worlds and otherness.
A writer’s job is to keep language, not only current and meaningful but playful, evocative, suggestive: refreshed, supple, pliant, ready for use. So when you rack your brains looking for a fresh way of getting your character up the stairs or out the door, you can console yourself that you’re doing humanity a favour, that you’re in the business of preservation. For the duration of that particular, mundane struggle, you are a custodian of one of the most precious resources we have. Do you even want to consider what life would be like without language? This is not an argument for the use of polysyllabic or striking words for the sake of dazzling the reader with your own pomposity; it’s a case for freshness and clarity, for the sheer pleasure of a word as it strikes your inner ear, for its precision or its playful powers of suggestion. The function of language in writing is not to keep us on the surface but to lead us on, to take us down. We don’t want our attention to be snagged by what’s on the page, we want to be swept behind the lines into a world of imaginary forms and meaning so smoothly that we don’t notice until we’re too enthralled to leave. As the Victorians knew, seduction is harder – or at the very least takes longer – when copious layers of fabric and ranks of fiddly buttons and hooks get in the way.
When the demons of mediocrity cluster around the keyboard whispering sweet banalities, offering trite-size bites of obviousness, a committed writer fights them. Here’s George Orwell:
‘Ready-made phrases are the prefabricated strips of words that come crowding in when you do not want to take the trouble to think through what you are saying. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.’
‘Ready-made phrases’ is another way of saying cliché or stereotype. Writers, clichés and stereotypes are natural enemies. The first option given for the latter in Roget’s Thesaurus is the verb, to make uniform. Follow this path and you will find these synonyms (among others): homogenize, abolish differentials, regiment, institutionalize, standardize, mass produce, put into uniform, make conform. It’s only fair to include terms such as equalize and assimilate, which don’t have such negative connotations, but you get my drift. The ability to think for ourselves relies on staying awake at the wheel of language.
Like everything worth preserving, language has its dark powers too and can be turned, corrupted and put to use as propaganda, lies, incitements to hatred. All the more reason to work against those trends and to do our best to resist the obvious, to keep the borders open between language and meaning. There is something meditative and revelatory about the way that good writing invites us to think about, to be with, to feel with, to consider propositions, ideas and worlds other than our own, i.e. to be compassionate as well as empathetic. It constructs worlds and invites readers to enter and explore them.
ii. the call
The classic quest narrative begins when the kingdom is in trouble and the hero is offered a chance to ride out in search of whatever saving thing his or her world needs. So it is with writing. The work starts with an initiating idea. It could be character or conundrum, a place, atmosphere, or question – all stories and writers have different starting points. The idea stands up in the recesses of your mind and waves an invitation: do you want to come with me and do this thing? Whether and how you respond is up to you, but if you do it, everything hinges on the quality of attention you bring to the task and whether you can stay with it.
You are in a relationship with that idea until you’ve finished exploring it in writing. As with any relationship, beginnings are a thrill. While you’re still fresh, it sparks flashes of possibility, flares of delight, shocks of revelation. You’re wide open to it, as it is to you. At that point you’ll make time for it, you’ll drop everything and run when it beckons. The trouble starts when the daily grind, the continued presence and demands you make on each other begin to pall. It can be hard to stay focused and alert, to be fully present with this cranky stubborn fossil – it’s only a lump of rock after all, it will never yield its secrets, you don’t know what you were thinking, what you ever saw in it. Things can turn ugly, violent. There’ll be days when you loathe each other. Other ideas will try to come between you. They’re younger and brighter. Ditch that old yoke and come with me, they’ll say. That’s when you need faith in what you can realise together – if you stick it out.
If you don’t commit yourself to the long haul, if your attention strays, if you hold back or hide from the deeper implications of what you’re doing, neither of you will be satisfied. If you lie, cheat, evade – you’re going nowhere, fast. You need to attend to your idea in every sense: care for it, nurture it, bring it what it needs, feed it, wait for it but above all give it your very best attention. There’s nothing like the rush that comes when the work suddenly ignites and you’re there – ready – and let yourself go with the sheer intensity and power of it.
iii. being-with language (the labyrinth)
Naming an experience, calling it for what it truly is, offers an anchor for the self when experience threatens to overwhelm us. Writing it as it happens is a way of standing up inside it, looking it in the eye, engaging with it. Writing it says: I know you.
I came to understand my own primal need to write while undergoing treatment for a serious illness ten years ago. Oh, here we go, you’ll think. Another ‘cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me’ merchant but that’s not what I mean at all. It’s not what happens to us that matters but how we get through it. My threatened self became a single, powerful organ of apprehension. In roughly equal measure I was both terrified and hell-bent on experiencing everything to the full, even though the experiences I faced were not likely to be pleasant. The best way for my self to be in, to apprehend, test and engage with the experience, was to find a way to express it.
Writing – in a proliferating pile of notebooks that recorded everything and later grew into a book (In Your Face) – was the thread that both anchored me and guided me through the labyrinth of the experience of diagnosis and treatment. It steadied and reassured me; it was my way of engaging with everything that happened on my own terms. I had never tried so hard, never concentrated as intently, never been so focused and so open, both at once. And I found something in that contradictory stillness, a key. Summoning words to the task of witness felt like the most important work I’d ever done, urgent and necessary; it would only work if I stayed with it, held nothing back.
Anyone can pick up a pencil and make shapes with words. Those shapes may or may not have meaning for a reader other than yourself, but that’s where you start. The more you do it, the more easily words will come. You may have three readers in mind or three million. You may not ever want to look for a reader other than your own most private self. The potential value of what you write depends on what you have to say and the skills you develop through practice.
Some working writers shudder at notions such as ‘writing is for everyone’. When writing-as-therapy appears on the horizon we turn and flee. This isn’t the place to air the arguments between art and popular culture, or between literature and commercial fiction, or between either of those and writing for self-expression or self-help. Our interest here is in the doing of the thing, not in ambition or conditions of production, reception, or evaluation.
In an essay on the value of teaching creative writing, the American poet Richard Hugo says of the student who is ‘not good’, or who is not likely to write much, who may never even want to get into print, that writing a single story or poem that exceeds whatever hopes the student had for it matters.
“It may be of no importance to the world of high culture but it may be very important to the student. It is a small thing, but it is also small and wrong to forget or ignore lives that can use a single microscopic moment of personal triumph. Just once the kid with bad eyes hit a home run in an obscure sandlot game. You may ridicule the affectionate way he takes that day through a life drab enough to need it, but please stay the hell away from me.” (The Triggering Town (64))
Hugo’s is a valuable reminder that writing is not all gloom and doom, that language, being alive, celebrates life. It is a container for what happens to us, a place to hold it while we assimilate and question it, from all possible sides and angles. Articulation establishes presence and is an assertion, even a preservation, of self – but who’s to say that the process of discovery is not its own treasure, its own source of knowledge, its own power?
iv. what is found there
The quest storyline – a journey to an unfamiliar world, an encounter with a figure who possesses mysterious knowledge and/or power and the transfer of that knowledge or power to the hero, who overcomes obstacles, finds a treasure and returns to enrich the community with its transformative capability – sounds uncannily like a description of reading. It’s even more suggestive of the process of writing. The writer might start out on familiar ground but the task is to bring your attention somewhere else, somewhere new and deep, lit by curiosity. That attention is simultaneously open and fixed; the surface world of pen and page or keyboard and screen, cervix-like, undergo a process of stretching, thinning, opening and effacement, the questing mind slips through, unspools threads of language and follows them in and down. The quality of what we find depends as much on the quality of attention we are able to bring to the task as the angle of incidence of the light we shine on it.
It has to be acknowledged that the quest structure has its origins in oral cultures and traditions later displaced by script and print but that’s all the more reason to be on our guard now, to be aware of what we stand to lose as new technologies and practices change the patterns of our reading. Screen life, networking, the prevalence of social media – all compete for our attention, calling our eyes this way and that with running heads, sidebars, moving images, split-screen viewing and infographics, directed advertising and prompts that use our own names, as though the machine itself is calling us. Where eyes go, mind follows. Concentration cracks and thought leaks out, formless, like a fracking of our attention that spills our thoughts across the screen of whatever device we are using before they’re fully formed. In a proliferation of font types, sizes, colours, formats the eye is drawn up and down and side to side as it scans for information; it hops and skitters as one screen fades and is replaced by another – this bears little resemblance to the calm and orderly progress of a reading eye across and down a page in whatever pattern your culture happens to favour. Left to right or right to left, top to bottom or the inverse, there is a pattern to follow, a logic to the cultural codes you adhere to. That is why text is comprehensible – and subvertible. The reading eye knows what to do and how to do it. Left to its own devices it connects text to mind to text, reader to idea, argument or fictional world, reading mind to writing mind.
As reading pathways change there are likely to be corresponding changes in the human brain. Yes, this could be an inevitable process of evolution but it’s alarming to think that our ability to stay with a sentence from beginning to end, to develop a thought or work an idea through to the point of articulation is under attack. If you add that proposal to a general contraction of language and the substitution of cutesy symbols, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the ability to think for ourselves may be edging towards extinction. Pulled by a flash of colour here or a moving image there, our attention fractured, there is nowhere for an idea or a story to take root. Meaning slides away. Pour water on a glassy convex surface, watch it spill, see what I mean. How vulnerable this makes us – to governmental controls; to power shortages; to commercial interests and lobbyists; to casual temptation and the ease (and dissociation) of consumerism. We need to be able to stay with a thought, an idea, a sentence. We need the ability to focus and to know what we are doing while we are doing it. In other words, we need to be conscious. Is consciousness itself under threat if traditional reading declines?
Psychologists are already suggesting that we retain less of what we read onscreen than from a printed page. If our ability to memorise complicated stories and epic poems was compromised when oral traditions gave way to print, memory could be about to undergo another seismic shift as we outsource it to hard drives, digital passports, the cloud. The question then becomes: who controls the cloud and the systems that store that memory? How might it be abused and to what end?
Here’s a question to ask yourself as you approach a piece of writing: if this was to be the last thing you do, would you be satisfied?
It’s an invitation to derision to say such a thing. It sounds grandiose, laughable, more than a little needy. Of course the question doesn’t apply to Twitter or a Facebook post or even an email (or does it?). And of course the Beckettian principle of ‘Ever tried. Ever failed’ applies – no one is ever more aware of the flaws and limitations of a piece of writing than the writer; see above about the stages of loathing and disillusionment that follow the initial spark of attraction. When it’s over, it’s over. It may be years before you can bear to look at it again and then you’ll often find it’s neither as brilliant as you’d hoped nor as bad as you imagined. It’s just itself. The question is not a claim for brilliance or even talent, it’s about intention and honest effort. It’s about the wild, stubborn, life-enhancing belief that being a writer is a lifelong apprenticeship, that everything you write teaches you something, that you can learn from every mistake. It’s about the urgency of your questions, about staying wide awake and being fully alive in the work while you’re doing it rather than sleepwalking through it. It’s about not sticking to the broad highway but taking detours through the Dark Woods.
What kind of writer are you, passive or active? Engaged or disengaged and with or from what? What we choose to write about, who we choose to read, all matter. Writing matters because reading matters. Reading matters because writing does and so on. They feed each other. If a book is a door, the page is a lit window between one mind and another, one world and another – so is a screen, but there in particular we have reason to be wary of what might lurk behind it.
Writing opens borders in our minds and admits us to the alternative universe that literature is, already thronged with characters and fabulous creatures going about their business as though they don’t need us at all. But language is the key, the life-supporting element, the earthy, unearthly flesh and bones in which those characters appear. If it withers, so will our ability to reconstruct their mysterious world and bring them back. Let’s not forget that character refers not only to a representation of – or an actual – person but also to a graphic symbol. The characters we write, both figurative persons and the tools we use to evoke them, are bound at the root.
But how do you do it? people ask. You start with words. The world, life the universe and everything is happening all around you – loud and busy, infinitely multiple. It’s happening all at once but it can only be told one word at a time. Choose your word, choose it carefully. Choose another. Go where your sentences take you.
… Now come
the passionate midnights in the museum basement
when out of that random rubble you’ll invent
the dusty market smelling of sheep and spices,
streets, palmy gardens, courtyards set with wells
to which, in the blue of evening, one by one
come strong veiled women, bearing their perfect jars.
Katha Pollitt, ‘Archaeology’ (Antarctic Traveller)