Who are you? Where did you come from? Not: Where are you coming from?
I began my adult writing career as a playwright, in the heady days of the alternative theatre of the late 60s-early 70s. Guerrilla theatre is provocative. Language is contentious and in your face, not the least subtle. At the same time, I wrote and acted in a touring children’s puppet company. Though subtle language was, again, not a top priority, puns were appreciated –if bad and pointed enough. But highly imagistic and evocative language was important. As I played the villains, I had great gobs of opportunity for putting language to use, especially with the florid improvisation as found in commedia dell’arte: certain bits of business and words and phrases were set; whatever happened in between was up to us. Actually, it was up to the audience; their response to what we did dictated how the play moved and developed. All along the way, like roadside kudzu or aloe vera, I wrote social satires. All were absurdist. Here, puns and double entendres and outré or extended metaphors are the norm; but they depend on the situation, the context. Social satire is intended to upset or arouse the audience.
Language and style–context–and attention to audience stayed with me during my doctoral years. No one much appreciated this. While I was concerned with audience, the school was concerned with PC performance.
I specialized in Japanese theatre. Japanese theatre is alternative theatre because it is not mainstream American theatre. Along with my five years in Japan, my use and expressability of language grew because of Kabuki, Noh and Kyōgen. This, along with my deep affair with Tanka, made its way into my work, my linguistic bag of tricks. Kabuki and Kyōgen are audience-oriented, Kabuki allowing for a bravura show-off by the star: improvisation. Japanese language rhythms and the tight construction of Tanka bled into my language use as well, so my voice also became other-hued, depending on context. That is, depending on what is being said and to whom.
With the expansiveness and broadness of summer vaudeville, the bigness of language, the subtlety and punning that I had long played with, and improvisation was kept alive. The improvisation as actor tipped over into my writing. Improvisation is difficult for most actors. It involves not only knowing the tenor and tone of the play and your character, but keeping track of where you began to take off and where you must end up. In the midst of this, watch yourself as the actor, watch yourself as the character, be able to react (adjust) to the other actors on stage and you must watch and respond to the audience.
So, here again, the two-lane highway continued on: language and attention to audience.
It was via Suzanne Langer and Ernst Cassirer that my love affair with language truly began. Because everything revolves around metaphor, my voice began to change. We can’t say anything without metaphor. Metaphor isn’t simply a part of speech; it is speech. It is also art. With further linguistic studies, the multidimensionality of language use blossomed and I was able to manipulate words in new ways. Along with Humberto Maturana and a slew of other linguists, this intellectualization fed my voice though it took some time and practice to make it serviceable.
Why multidimensionality? Because I can make words and sentences that say many more things than at first seems apparent. I can expand my voice and never bore my audience (except when I write something like this). To have a larger array of spices in your larder allows you more freedom and possibility for cooking but also altering of any recipe. Add a sprinkle of ground allspice to your pork chops.
While writing, my words will comment upon the story or upon the character or upon the author’s viewpoint or direct the reader in slant. Unless you’re open to the aliveness of language–which is waning, as Toni Morrison says—you’ll miss this. Yet this is voice. It is my voice. My voice changes with each story and within the boundaries set for that story’s form. I guess you could say I’ve a storeyed voice. Rumi uses multiple voices in his poetry, sometimes—most notably in his Mathnawi—up to seven voices in one poem, each voice a point of view, a different facet of the subject. It’s difficult to tell each of these voices from the overall voice, for they are seamlessly knit together and all turned to the same end. I’m not so brilliant. But I will change narrative voice for each character until the entire cast is drawn together when a neo-voice befitting the situation (context) is born.
Because of my theatre experience, the story is always directed outward. The only narrative in theater is in the dialogue; and then the dialogue with the audience.
The language and audience train. Track 29. May I help you with your bag, sir? Be careful, it’s kind of tricky. Oh!—it moves about! Yes, it does twist and shout, ne?
Literature is a non-discursive medium. Nevertheless, in today’s world it seems to me that language use tends toward the discursive; it is not part of the telling, it is not part of the story; it is outside looking in and used without discrimination. This is not to say non-discursive language is totally absent. But for some godawful reason, the “journalistic” writing of Hemingway—considerably less human than Faulkner’s or Gellhorn’s—was touted as the best in writing. This journalistic approach, because it is discursive language at base, lends itself to definition and instruction. How-to books are popular and so this ideal of journalistic writing is still pushed today, though reporting—there are decidedly few newspapermen who are journalists—is discursive and fractured, often to the point of a loss of coherence. Lots of he said-she said and authority-speak and damned little story. Lots of declarative sentences: it is this way.
Language is not heard any more and that is the problem with voice. Voice is the sound of language. But today it seems language is no more than ink in recognizable shapes on paper. Any more, it’s on the Internet—and who the hell knows where that is! Any more, it seems to me, writers give everything to the reader, a discursive trick; there is no play for imagination; there is no involvement of the reader. Narrative should be part of the story, it should maintain theme and context. Without the reader, we writers are nothing. The point is to involve the reader, as if making the reader part of the making of the story.
Did you know that there is no description of Sherlock Holmes until the third edition of stories (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes)? Not only does everything not need to be given, some things are not important enough to be given.
During our run of Internet PR for The Speed of Dark, Clayton asked those of us who volunteered to be targets for the slings and arrows of audience feedback to write a little blurb on a story. I chose to write about The Tangled Net of Ruin, yet offered up another story (not known) utilizing metaphor and symbolism in storytelling and a tight structure that called upon the writer’s imagination. Here is what I gave him and put up at my wordpress blog:
Wherever did Tangled in the Net of Ruin come from? In Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s double suicide plays (shijūmono) the conflict is between ninjō (“passion”) and giri (“duties” or “obligations” to family and society). But, like everything that flows from our pens, there is basis in “real life.” But in building the story, I used my knowledge and practice of writing Tanka, a highly metaphoric poetic form requiring precision and implied meanings and connections between apparently unrelated things–the bread and butter of symbolism. We cannot escape symbolizing.
Thus, the language I used in Tangled is highly symbolic and suggestive. I did not need or want didactic or discursive explanations that took away not only the beauty of the language but the readers’ imagination. There is no need to say everything anyway, despite the popular trend of handing everything on a silver platter to a passive reader, much like TV and movies. The translator of this second tier symbolizing is the reader. Suzanne Langer notes that writers are nothing without readers. So, I included the reader in the story via imagination instead of keeping her outside and looking in. (My favorite story in the anthology did the same thing but in a very different way: Plastic People, Leigh M. Lane.
Stravinsky said: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit. . .the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.”
Does all of this messing around with language, this constraining and multidimensionality boggle and confuse? No. Because it’s all about voice and voice does not exist without audience. Language is alive. It moves and breathes. It joins together with other words to create a different life. Words do not stand by themselves, isolated items, parts of a machine. In our highly Enlightenment-influenced literate culture, words are words and ever more shall be so. B-I-N-G-O.
Language. And reader. Alive! Alive-o!
The more tricks in my bag, the more choices I have, the richer my writing.
This is who I am.
Me can be found at Linkedin: James Secor. But it’s pretty dry.
Under my pseudonym, Minna vander Pfaltz–necessary to a certain voice–I can be found at: http://labelleotero.wordpress.com She even has a society page!
Several essays can be found at: www.counterpunch.com. Along with some satire.
Clatyon and I are working on publishing a buy one get one free pairing. For me, this is the first seven cases of one Lt. Detective Anthony Lupée and his sidekick Sgt. Cassandra Dumqik–”Please call me Sgt. D.” The title is Det. Lupée: The Impossible Cases. Both books involve finding the key to life and how it works and how to keep it from not working well at the hands of others.