Sunday, March 18, 2012

a handful of words

{For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.}—Jhumpa Lahiri, New York Times, “My Life’s Sentences”.

This little opinion piece in the Sunday Times by Jhumpa Lahiri, resonated with me, and reminded me of these two old posts:

1) The Sentence in the Soil

Editing your own writing is hard. When I am writing I often become attached to sentences, even if there are too many commas or too few periods.

And I have learned that good writing comes from wanting to say something, not just from wanting to write anything.

But I find that one often knows when things are not quite right yet in writing, that more adjustments have to be made, even if it is a difficult truth to face.

It is easy to think that the soil of words is tilled perfectly and you are ready to plant your seed which will grow roots in this very spot. But sometimes you have to go and get a sturdy shovel and be honest with yourself and plunge it into the ground and turn the soil over a few more times until you see the nutrient rich sentences rise to the top.

And sometimes it will turn up. The sentence to end all sentences. The one that can only exist after several failed attempts have gone, the one that splits your heart into two with its razorlike clarity and then melts the two halves with the warm hearth of humility.

The kind of sentence that when someone else reads it they will think to themselves, “Wow, that is really great I wish I had written that.” And you will know that they could
not have and not only because they didnt, but because you did.

2) Slow Wri-ter.

I wrote something truly terrible today. So astoundingly bad, that I had to write about it. Because I have a thing, with words. I have a little superficial stylistic, aesthetic respect for them and their placement and sound and interaction and oh yes, meaning. I want each sentence to be a tiny whirring machine that stirs. However, this is not always possible, or necessary.

I have a student who always stays after class to catch up. She has talked to me at length about how her lecture professor goes too fast with the powerpoint slides, and she is unable to keep up. I let her see my slides and we talk about the material. The other day, I noticed that her handwriting was insanely neat. She is probably 40 and looks like she may have another job, and a child, or two, or something. I watched her painstakingly copy the information from my slides into her notebook. Each letter was perfectly spaced from the next and unbelievably rounded. Her penmanship showed the kind of meticulous detail that is abandoned shortly after you learn to write in script, on thinly lined paper, with a pen. Its the kind of conscientiousness that is just not conducive to well, writing. I wondered if this was actually her problem. But then I wondered about the connection between speed of comprehension and speed of handwriting. Is there one? I dont know, but I wondered.

Which brings me to today. I was writing an exam myself. Because I am still at the hypocrisy inducing stage of graduate school where I teach, enforce rules on others, tell them how to improve, wonder what is holding them back, think like a professor, play dress up and then turn around and screw up royally in my own classes wearing sneakers with holes in them. Its almost ridiculous and certainly humbling. I began writing my exam very neatly today, although I was very nervous, so little, uncharacteristic flourishes emerged from my freshly shaky hand. I was not writing particularly physically slow. but. I. kept. stopping. to go back and read what I had written. I did not only want to convey uninspired lists of information about these astounding creatures. I wanted to convey how much I respect and understand the concepts and words that encircle them. This, incidentally, was not possible. I left out one whole question because I ran out of time. Twenty points, gone. And I had planned on using the word gestalt in my essay somewhere, but that never happened either.

And I must admit on this blog I go back incessantly and edit and re-edit and re-re-edit. It would be too embarrassing for you to know how often I actually do that. Because its also narcissism in this case, but thats kind of a good word too.

P.S. This was also an interesting piece in today’s Times on what parts of your brain light up from reading particular words, or handfuls of words: Your Brain on Fiction.