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Monday, January 18, 2010

New words

Tamie and I teach a creative writing class at the county jail every Wednesday afternoon. In the last two classes, we discussed clichés, vague writing, and how we can challenge the standard stories we tell about ourselves. This all has to do with thinking carefully about the language we use.

If we use cliché language, then the reader is not going to be moved by our writing. Clichés are tired, overused words and phrases that become somewhat trite. Not only are clichés uninspiring to the reader, they can also create a cliché life for the writer. In other words, if our language is cliché than our lives can become cliché as well. It’s hard to avoid clichés, though. It can be damned difficult sometimes.

Vague writing is similar. Rather than being specific with our writing and language, we can just kind of generalize things. Too much generalization leaves the reader wanting more. Of course, vague writing can be very powerful when used properly. It can leave the reader with many diverse thoughts. It can put interpretation in the hands of the reader. It can create mystery. But it can also be an escape, a means of non-engagement. It’s hard to be specific in writing. Sometimes it’s damned hard.

In our last class we talked specifically about telling a different story about ourselves. We all have a personal narrative: a story about ourselves that describes me. This may not be one narrative, it can be as simple as a phrase or a few sentences that make sense of who we are, our identity. For example, many of our students in the jail write about their lives (particularly about the behavior that led to their incarceration) with language like this: “I made poor personal choices because I am a bad/broken person.” In our recent class, we tried to challenge our students. Is this the story you want to tell about yourself? In a paper I read recently, one of the students said that as soon as something good happened in his/her life, s/he did something to screw it up. That’s a story s/he is telling. It defines. It creates identity. What about the story a doctor tells himself: My father and grandfather were doctors and that’s what I was born to be. What about the little voice inside, deep down, that wanted something different?

What I said about clichés and vague writing, I say again about re-telling our stories: It’s hard. Damned hard. Most of us, regardless of class/status/gender/education/etc. don’t perceive that the story we tell ourselves about our lives is just a story. Most of us think of our story as fact. It isn’t a story. It’s just the way things are. Every time things are going good in my life, I do something to screw it up. We live with our stories, and they shape us. Our stories form us into their image.

On just about any dimension you can think of, humans tend to clump together. Go farther and farther away from the center and you see fewer and fewer people. It’s hard not to see evidence of some sort of force at work, pulling everybody toward the center. Maybe the force emanates from a particular point in the world, like gravity, pulling people in. Maybe it’s a force that’s embedded within individuals, impelling them to move toward each other. (John Doyle's novel The Stations)

What forces us into clichés? What is it that makes us pass over our vague notions and not explore things in greater depth? What fossilizes our stories, hardening them into “fact”? Over time, it can squeeze the life out of us, but knowing how this process occurs is almost an impossible task. This isn’t just about writing, per se—the act of scratching out words on paper or typing in letters on a keyboard. This is a commentary on life.

In our culture, marketing advertising has created a homogenous culture while convincing everyone that they are special and unique: you’re not just one of the millions who listen to an ipod, you “customized” yours by choosing a green one and by putting all of your favorite tunes onto it. Mass media contributes to our inability to get beyond cliché. We all listen and watch the same things. Mass production is creating a world in which we all buy the same products. The same Ikea tables in the same box houses in the same suburban neighborhood plan. These are strong forces, and yet there is more to this whole process of differentiation, more than just social and culture conditioning, as important as that is.

We are born, we grow, we learn, we adapt. We take on a received language, a received culture. We trust that our parents are telling us the truth. We trust that they love us. This naïveté is very human. We’ve got to start somewhere. So we work with what we have. But we can’t stop there. We can’t just let our lives be dictated to us, not without some resistance.

But how?

How to escape? How do we break out of clichés, vague descriptions, and

No easy answers. We have to use new language. It takes creativity, imagination, hard work, persistence, hope, joy, sacrifice, love, encouragement from others, community, and a good deal of faith. By “faith,” I simply mean that mysterious opening, the point at which we step out into the unknown. Sometimes something breaks in from the outside. Sometimes we break out, with a sheer force of the will.

Ultimately, this is a task that is beyond us, and yet for the survival of our souls, it’s a process we must engage with all of our hearts and minds. It is the pilgrimage for new language.


evan said...

I've never made the connection--but it's so simple! Writing is subversive. Journaling, reflecting, creating a memoir or writing a new story is taking a stand against all those entities out there already bludgeoning you with their version of your story/identity.

I believe I will go find a pen.

tamie said...

Evan, did you find the pen? What will you write?

tamie said...

You know....I think that *ambiguous* language can often be used well, but rarely can vague language be very useful. Just a thought!

I obviously loved this post, as I linked to it here and there.