Who are you? by James Secor

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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.

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20 thoughts on “Who are you? by James Secor

  1. Kenneth Weene

    Should the writer’s language push the reader, force the reader to learn and to think, or should it be simple and experiential? James Secor, you have challenged us, and I think that a good thing. Language must not be reduced to the simplicity of “yeah,” “fuck,” “yeah,” “fuck,” as it so often is in modern discourse and writing. On the other hand, it should also convey grace and flow as does any good art form. The great thing about language for me is that I can at once experience the sound and movement of the words and give heed to the intellect and ideas behind them.

  2. Clayton Bye Post author

    Who is James Secor?

    His complicated answer might not answer that question to your satisfaction. And, in my opinion, that is largely the point of this blog post. Dr. James Secor spent his career working in the era of guerrilla theatre, something that doesn’t exist anywhere anymore. No, today we hold fringe festivals and applaud the different. And he, I am sure, would be allright with that. What Dr. Secor is not okay with is the deterioration of our language, of the erosion of the rules that actually allow one a usefull pllatform on which to experiment.

    Don’t get him started on the trend to spoon feed the reader or the theatre goer or the movie watcher. To him language is a beautiful, deep pool full of symbolism and metaphor. Anything written should have varying levels of meaning that reflect this. And I understand his frustration and anger that these things are not only not appreciated by the general crowd, but they are not understood. I wrote a book some years ago. It was billed as a fantasy. Young adults and adults alike loved the story. But never did I hear mention of the underlying story, the second story that was, in fact, more important than the first. Only some of the better reviewers caught it, and then they raved about what I was going for. They understood.

    And this is what James is trying to say when he says “Who am I.” He wants to be understood on his own terms, yet he knows this probably won’t happen. So, he says to heck with it and writes a personal essay explaining exactly who he is–on his terms, and to hell with the spoon.

    I enjoyed the piece immensely.

    Clayton Bye
    Author, Editor, Publisher

  3. Trish Jackson

    James Secor, thank you for taking us on a journey into your world, which is certainly very different from the world most of us have experienced. It must give you an amazing feeling of power to have so much control over your words.

  4. Martha Love

    Aloha James,

    I enjoyed your excursion into using language for active inner expression, as well as having the ability to speak of your multi-universes simultaneously (that’s a joke, but maybe you really can!).

    You have touched on something very important about learning and using languages. There is probably no better way to expand one’s use of language than to live outside of one’s native country for a spell and learn to speak other languages, even dream in them. Some new to us language we learn expresses concepts that our native language can not even handle, as in some Japanese expressions you must well know that can not be translated as there is just not an “other” concept for them in English. Knowing and living multiple languages opens our perspection, as you have so beautifully pointed out.

    Simple language and words can be profound. I love wit and Sherlock Holmes and certainly Shakespearian stage drama, but I also love simple language that is embodied. So with that, I thank you for your inspiring piece, as I certainly enjoyed reading it and learning more about you. And I say goodbye with an Hawaiian word we all know that is simple and has one meaning yet is used to say both hello and goodbye.


  5. Micki Peluso

    James, Thank you for such an in-depth discourse on language. I agree we would all benefit and increase intelligence by learning several languages. I was amazed to read that our English language contains thousands more words that most other languages, many of them ambiguous in meaning and tone. Almost every word we use, in speech or writing, can have as many as six or more meanings, which depending upon how it’s phrased, can change the whole structure and meaning; nuance, if you will, of a sentence. As a writer, I teethed on journalism. My newspaper was a rare award winning small press that understood reporting, rather than editorializing as all papers do today. I choose commentary and essay writing because I wanted to inform, yet make my readers think about my subjects. I took no sides, yet through the diversity of language was often able to sway them to my way of thinking, or at least aid in seeing things in a different manner.

    I hate watching the bastardization of our beautiful, powerful lauguage and fear our children will never learn or appreciate know to use it in expressing ideas and thoughts. The internet and similar technology has already destroyed and shortened language to that of a five year old. Soon we will be writing in symbols and signs. And the beautiful lilting, provacative, power of language will no longer be music to our souls.

  6. Yves Johnson

    What a wonderful article. I loved how everything smoothly integrated. I felt as though I was in a wonderful seminar and received a great education. I studied Italian for three years (I lived there for 6) and Spanish for 1 1/2 while I was in Central America. I definitely understand your points. Thanks!

  7. Stuart Carruthers

    An interesting piece about language affects the way we read and how as writers we connect with an audience. There isn’t a one size fits all prescription for writing engaging prose. As writers if we write how we want to write we’ll surely find an audience.

  8. James L. Secor

    Well…it’s not easy getting to this point of tight expressive language that involves the audience. I bust my brains, luckily my cat is not interested in ground pork. It took some time, though, to get past the academics to the using of the concepts–including the wrong-headedness of linguists seeing language as discursive, as if this is the end product, and…I just lost it. The image blitzed into my mind and then right back out again. I think, though, what broke me through was teaching literature using Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition”–and, perhaps more to the point, those moments when a student “gets it” and teaches me something. All of the study, though, just gave me a basis, solid ground from which to explain the house I built. How brilliant was Poe? Read his satires and essays.
    I still use phrases here and there–or their translation–from Japanese or Chinese (French has, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside). No. I’m not multilingual; I had a difficult time. But I could get around well, explain myself and–most important of all–make puns, bilingual puns. Note the use of “ne.” Japanese. You probably understood it, possibly by “feeling.”
    But we don’t really have to go abroad: have you read newpaper articles from the 20s, 30s and 40s?Lord!–today to write a paragraph longer than 3-4 lines in a news article is ludicrous! And…let’s get sexist about it: have you (esp you man-types) read the women who wrote during these eras? (There are more than the “name” brand few.)
    I find it difficult to write about myself. I feel as if I’m a 1950s used car salesman. I’ve used Minna to do it for me before (my therapist does not know of her–however, she does know of my blue hair, which I call a mid-life crisis–at 66–but she calls a paradigm shift).
    Okay, Secor. Stop talking.

  9. Bryan Murphy

    Hey, James!

    Cerea, ne? [That’s a standard greeting in Piedmontese.]

    I think everyone who visits this forum is likely to agree with you about the value of using all the resources of a language – which was a definition I once heard of poetry. Wittgenstein said “Everything that can be said can be said clearly”, and for me clear language is a wonderful thing. So I’m happy that newspaper reporters are becoming clearer in their reporting. I wish that bureaucrats and other purveyors of institutional, managerial and commercial language would follow their example.
    James, have you read “Embassytown” by China Miéville? It depicts a species for whom language is the supreme value. Yet they cannot handle metaphor, and that failure almost leads to their extinction. Now that would be a challenge to put on stage!
    Thanks for a very stimulating article.

  10. James L. Secor

    I can’t understand how you can have language without metaphor, since it is a metaphor to begin with; however, a language that had developed solely discursively would find it difficult to talk about…things, the things of life that are not evident: the future, love, sadness, the past, wishes, intentions, feelings…. Confucius’ “Rectification of Terms” might be like this Embassytown language: every word clear, one definition, no possibility of misunderstanding. Totally impossible. Legalese, I think, tries to do this–and then runs into the letter of the law vs the intent of the law.
    In some places in China, the greeting is, “Have you eaten yet?” [chi guo la?] I heard (!) that in 17-18th c Osaka, the greeting was, “Made any money yet?”
    Untranslatables are full of culture but for us’s that have had the oppty to live abroad, what’s important to our writing is the rhythm and, in some cases, the structure: the feel of the language. Asians learning English completely miss the fact that English is so very understated, euphemistic and that sometimes we’ll go around the block in order to say something (esp if it might be upsetting or painful or downright rude).

  11. Diane Piron-Gelman


    I’m currently in Week 5 of a six-week, one-play study (for performance!) of Shakespeare’s KING JOHN, and your essay brought to mind the most useful question about language that I’ve ever been asked, or asked myself, as an actor and a writer: “Why these words now?”

    My amazing teachers in this course came up with that one as a way to help actors access the full meaning of Shakespeare’s words and make them playable as if people truly talk like that. I find it applies to novel writing as well.

    1. James L. Secor

      Well, Diane, what’s most important in the language of Shakespeare–not matter how much beauty literature profs give it–is that is is spoken to someone, the person next to them, as it were, and in some kind of context. Though I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know! And then…soliloquy (sp?)–we don’t do this any more on stage. If we do it too much in public the men in white coats will come and take us away to the Happy Farm. Which play are you doing?

  12. Linda hales

    Even sadder times are coming Micki. When writers can no longer write, readers will no longer be able to read—English, that is. Perhaps this is the full circle effect that will take us back to heiroglyphics. And, will that be a bad thing?

  13. Mary Firmin

    Dear James, I hardly feel qualified to respond to your post. I agree wholeheartedly about the bastardization of the language. When I wrote my book, my goal was for the reader to absorb the story and not let the words interfere with the experience. I wanted them to laugh, feel, enjoy the scenery without any obstruction. But then I have little experience with the scope of language of which you speak. I admire your knowledge, Sir, and my hat is off to you. All the best, Mary Firmin

  14. Harmlessjoyce (Joyce Elferdink)

    Yes, writers are nothing without readers and readers are nothing without writers. That leaves the rest of the world–who aren’t either writers or readers–to be something. But the non-readers and non-writers stand to gain from the inspiration and logic within stories narrated by people who’ve thought deeply and/or experienced life profusely.

    It’s through words, those spicy little bits of freedom with the potential to alter perceptions, that we can change our nothingness into something more. As Joseph Conrad said, “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see.” (From Lord Jim)

    But beware: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” ― George Orwell, 1984

    Thank you for making the recipe’s ingredients spicier, Jim!

  15. Anne Sweazy-Kulju

    You have really investigated yourself as an author–I find that most authors have never put into words who they are, where they came from, how they arrived there, and perhaps most important… where they are going. You clearly know who you are, Jim, and I’m betting your novels are amazing–I’m going to search GoodReads and put you on my “to read” shelf.

    I especially loved this part of your essay: “The only narrative in theater is in the dialogue; and then the dialogue with the audience.” It reminded me of something I believe Frank Sinatra said, about narrative in theatre. He said, “if you want me to stand on stage and read narrative, you had better have two elephants f’ing behind me so the audience has something to look at.”

    I really enjoyed this piece, Jim. Thanks! Anne

  16. Rosemary "Mamie" Adkins

    Well Mr. Secor, I feel I need to salute such a man. We have come accustomed to filler words in our language and your writing was a post I won’t soon forget-but that was the point-yes?

    In many ways it felt as though I was reading your post from outside my own mind as hearing or especially reading the language so articulate in nature was quite an adventure. Thank you for this post. Your post was most refreshing.


  17. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    A challenging piece indeed. Thank you for reminding us of the traps lying along our writing path. We tend to look upon language as a tool, which probably debases other, nobler functions. James Joyce put it beautifully in a conversation with Arthur Power: “The important thing is not what we write but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously.”


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