Creating Language Anew

“I am constantly finding ways to create language anew, or to represent spoken tongues.” – Bernardine Evaristo, in an April 2020 interview in The Writer’s Chronicle.”

In 2019, Evaristo was the first black woman to with the Man Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. Vanity Fair wrote last December that the novel was written in “a free-flowing, prose poetry style that she’s dubbed ‘fusion fiction.'”

Many writers struggle with the linear nature of language as we commonly use it, one thing after enough, rather like the way computers have been processing coded instructions prior to the coming age of quantum computing.

In “real life,” a person might be carrying on a conversation with his neighbor while they cook steaks in the back yard about last night’s football game. Meanwhile, each person is watching the steaks, hearing what the children are doing in the background, wondering about tomorrow’s projects at work, and feeling the pain of several fire ant bites. There’s a lot going on here that’s difficult to convey to the reader if what is shown on the page is a passage of dialogue about the ball game.

One might get around this by using impressionistic techniques (variously abstract and subjective),  intruding into the dialogue with multiple snippets of information in parentheses, by displaying the dialogue in the traditional way and then following it up with omniscient narrator passages that say (essentially) what each character was thinking and aware of while appearing to be devoting his focus completely on the back and forth conversation with his neighbor.

Dan Brown (and many others) have shown simultaneous–or nearly simultaenous events–by writing in a series of short chapters and/or short scenes. This is like saying such and such happened and then adding, “meanwhile back at the ranch.”

My feeling has always been that the closer a writer gets to portraying real events in the true complexity in which they occur, the more likely it is that s/he will end up with material that most readers find unreadable. It’s odd, I think, that while we accept our knowledge of simultaneous thoughts/events/feelings in our own lives without question, we don’t know how to handle that reality when it gets to the page.

When writers, such as Evaristo find new ways of creating language anew that end up being accepted by readers and critics, I very pleased/impressed/jealous. I really don’t like seeing these new ways labelled as “experimental” (as in the Washington Post review snippet below) because that implies that the writer swept up the scanned in the remnants of partial drafts, notes, and ideas from his or her desk, shoved them between covers, and called them a novel. I believe most readers consider something labelled that way believe that the work is not ready to be published yet.

A lot of people–many who’ve never read it–say Finnegans Wake is that kind of novel. It’s one of my favorites. Creating language anew may be–from the writer’s point of view–an experiment to see whether or not a new form and structure approach “works.” When the author decides that it does work, the book leaps out of the laboratory and into commerce and ceases to be an experiment.

I’m a bit biased in favor of “something new) because I’ve always fought editors and English teachers for years about many of my sentence and format constructions. I’ve abandoned tinkering with format because–for example–Kindle cannot handle the multiple columns I saw as one way of showing multiple things happening at once. I wrote an early novel in this format and reviewers called in “experimental” and readers said they couldn’t figure it out.

I probably didn’t help my case when people asked which column they were supposed to read first, and I answered: “it doesn’t matter.” The novel is out of print. And early edition of my contemporary fantasy The Sun Singer had several brief instances of side-by-side columns. They were very short. The print version looked fine. The e-books didn’t; so I displayed the material from the columns in the same old linear way I’ve always been trying to get around in my work.

I  think artists have a better chance of creating acceptable non-linear paintings that show the true nature of reality because the viewer can see and grok the entire painting at once. That’s really not possible with a 100,000-word novel or even a 10,00-word short story. But I want readers to be able to see the scenes in the way they would if each one were a painting. I keep working on it.

As for now: good for you Bernardine.

from the Washington Post

‘Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other…is a breathtaking symphony of black women’s voices, a clear-eyed survey of contemporary challenges that’s nevertheless wonderfully life-affirming… Together, all these women present a cross-section of Britain that feels godlike in its scope and insight…just as crucial to this novel’s triumph is Evaristo’s proprietary style, a long-breath, free-verse structure that sends her phrases cascading down the page. She’s formulated a literary mode somewhere between prose and poetry that enhances the rhythms of speech and narrative. It’s that rare experimental technique that sounds like a sophisticated affectation but in her hands feels instantly accommodating, entirely natural.

Malcolm

 

Getting comfortable in your writing shoes

Comfortable doesn’t mean complacent. If you hike or climb mountains, you know that new shoes often hurt and need to be broken in before a major trek. The wrong kind of shoes and the wrong size shoes are often worse because the shoes have to match what you’re doing. The same thing is true of writers, figuratively speaking, because while genres and styles have a lot of things in common, each requires an approach you need to be comfortable with.

oldshoesDepending on which survey you look at, romance, action/adventure, science fiction and fantasy usually sell the most books. Unfortunately, some of the sub-genres in those groupings aren’t carried on the coattails of the most popular books.

For me, that means magical realism–which is what I write–is down at the 2% or 3% range of sales. Obviously, the the size of a writer’s audience will skew the figures for individual books, though J. K. Rowling discovered that as Snape said to Harry Potter, “fame isn’t everything” affects authors asd well as wizards. (Her fans hated “A Casual Vacancy.)

For me, “comfortable writing shoes” work best with magical realism. They work as poorly for other genres as wearing flip flops or high heels in the world series. To some extent, finding comfortable shoes is part of the journey to being comfortable with oneself. I’ve always wished I could be fluent in multiple language, play a Bach toccata and fugue on a massive pipe organ, water ski all the way across the bay and back without falling off, and knowing how to repair my own cars. After many years of discord about these things, I had to accept that they weren’t me.

I love writing and reading magical realism, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t wished I could turn out a great romance or spy novel from time to time to support my magical realism habit. But I can’t do it even though I have enjoyed many spy and FBI-related novels over the years just as I’ve enjoyed a lot of recordings of Bach over the years. But liking something doesn’t always translate into being good at it–though, it’s a nice start.

The hints and signs about our authentic selves are available for us to see early on, but we either don’t recognize them or actively deny them. Growing up, I spent most of my time out doors or reading about magic. These interests are closely linked in most magical realism. I learned more from nature than I did from school, especially my literature and other English classes. I was a fish out of water in those classes because the approach to writing and the great classics of the written word seemed counterproductive and false to me. I was the worst student in English classes and the most likely to openly defy the teachers.

I had one wonderful writing teacher. He didn’t give us theories, he asked us to write, and then we talked about what worked. This is how most of us learn most of what we know. We try things out. We experiment. Some things fail either because we don’t really like them or aren’t skillful in those areas or are just incompatible with them. Other things work. Finding out why they work is a Nirvana-like experience. You want to shout YES!!!!!!!!!!!!. Learning in this teacher’s class was about the only worthwhile course I had in my English minor in college. In that class, we focused on pure storytelling rather than on an approach better suited to a doctoral dissertation in literary or communications theory.

Like many others, I spent time trying to fit in because when you’re the only one in the class who disagrees with the teacher’s approach, it’s hard not to cave in to the pressure of the rest of the students and the system itself.

Now that I’m not in school–or teaching in one–I don’t have to answer to those who support the system. I can write what I want to write and wear the kinds of shoes and attitudes that fit my chosen genre. I’m comfortable with this now, though I certainly wasn’t comfortable with it in high school and college because I was a rebel when it came to the course syllabus and (as they call them) the expected “learning outcomes.”

I guess it comes down to the fact that I’d rather be happy than rich and I’d rather be comfortable as myself and as a writer than being part of the crowd making the scene at popular parties, bars like the fictional “Cheers,” or being the guy all the girls want to dance with. Life would have been so much easier if I’d figured all this out 40 years ago. So would my writing.

If you’re a writer, you probably know what you love to write even if nobody wants to buy it or Oprah doesn’t call or MGM doesn’t option your novels for movies. If you love writing fiction that catches on with huge numbers of readers, then that’s a mixed blessing. Financially, you’ll be secure, but as Snape said, “fame isn’t everything.” Fame tends to get in a person’s way and keep them from wearing their most comfortable shoes.

–Malcolm

ewkindlecoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” a folk magic story set in the Florida Panhandle in the 1950s. 

Speaking of shoes, Campbell still wears the climbing boots he bought in the 1960s even though his knees really complain if he tries to climb anything higher than an ant hill.