The way people speak. Even if your words are passing directly from your internal world on to the page, you'll still have heard them in your head first.Read More
A talented student of mine sent me this wonderful poem. It’s a response to the weekly Writing Prompt, that mentioned the following quote from the Tomas Tranströmer poem ‘From March '79’ ‘Words but no language…language but no words’
In The Mouth
First it was like a mustard grain in the mouth
Then the size of pea rolling about in the mouth
Lost your words in the mouth
And found new ones in the mouth
Rattles on her teeth in the mouth
And soaks up her spit in the mouth
Their stories in the mouth
It’s the boulder in the mouth
As big as Dog Tor in the mouth
It’s grey and old in the mouth
Dressed in lichen and moss in the mouth
Spitting out a collective noun in the mouth
For language in the mouth
Val’s subject has really resonated with me, as last week I completely lost my voice for two days. I’d been struggling to express myself around a personal issue, when, quite suddenly, it dried up.
It was as if my body was saying ‘I’ve had enough of trying to make myself heard here, so I’m going to stop trying’. As someone who is usually able to mould and craft speech with ease, it was an interesting experience to be voiceless. Initially, there was a sense of peace in not needing to try and influence those around me via the spoken word. Then, my hands took over and conversed with gestures. We human beings are creative in finding routes to self-expression.
I found the silence restful- for the first day, that is. But then I started having to cancel meetings. My computer provided an outlet for my growing frustration as I stamped each word hard into my keyboard. I was suddenly struck, as if I’d never realised it before, by the immense value of being able to write. That ability to express on the page released a sense of relief akin to a mute given a blackboard and chalk (please forgive the stereotype).
Now my voice is back, I’m trying not to forget what the words mean to me.
The Weekly Prompt
Our bodies speak in so many more ways that just via our mouths vocalising. Write about a time when your body, or a certain part of your body, communicated to you- for example through pain, absence of pain, movement, stiffness etc… What was it trying to say? You might also find it interesting to write a monologue from the point of view of a part of your body. You might be surprised at what it communicates.
This article was first published on 21st May 2013
Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.
Being ‘a writer’ is a funny concept. I am certainly a communicator, an expresser, a wordsmith, a purveyor of poetry…
but putting pen to paper, (or fingers to keypad), is most definitely an afterthought, a documentation, of my process, rather than the process itself.
Words emerge in my brain, they linger there and tangle themselves up, repeating. Usually on walks, when there is a rhythm to meter-by and a safe-space for mental foraging.
Partly, I think it’s a bad-habit; one that comes from a need to be distracted from presence or engagement in the moment; an absenting, that keeps me meditatively consumed with the puzzle of listing rhyme possibilities… But it’s also a tool for healing and processing, allowing new conclusions and perspectives to emerge, just by having an openness to which words arise and fit. I have often surprised myself with revelations of awareness, just for the sake of a punchline, the right metaphor or simply the right sound.
For me, it’s a game something like intellectual Lego.
I will get interested in some accidental phrase I overhear; “oh look, that’s been randomly abandoned” “it’s spread over various areas”; and that is all I need to set off… it’s something about my auditory tendancy, my capacity for memorising, and a love of playing with sounds and meaning; each phrase a conundrum of how to place the most pleasing phonics in pursuit of the underlying conveyance. And whaddya know, when I shared them, people seemed to like it! It was never intentional.
If you gave me a desk and an empty page I really wouldn’t know where to begin. Or, if I consciously wanted to work through an issue via poetry, my efforts would most likely be scratchy and unfinished cliché; doomed to get eternally-filed with other tedious and well-intended homeworks. My poems happen to me, like a hiccup. Before I can devise or command them. In this way they are like the mythical lightning-bolt of inspiration, and I envy those writers who have the craft at their own behest, able to produce in alignment with purpose or demand. I have had many a moment of inadequacy in my own workshops, when the work that comes to me under the pressure and limitations of exercises I myself have set, is so blatantly not representative of the public-face of my work...
So yes, come walking… share with me your most-satisfying juxtapositions of syllables…
but when I start glazing over and mumbling to myself, just don’t expect me to maintain a coherent conversation. Im probably thinking about ‘hoover manoeuvres’ or ‘runaway onions’ and apparently, that’s an artist at work.
As a writer, I’ve often asked myself: how can I get the maximum aliveness into a product that sits flat on the page? It’s not an easy task. (Here’s a poem about my sometime frustration in this respect.)
Stories are alive. They are ever-evolving creatures. In my experience, they often resist being reduced to a ‘definitive version’. At a certain point, we usually just have to make a deal with our subject matter that it’s time to part ways. Then we take courage in both hands, and let go of the re-writing.
I’d long suspected the value of looking at how words are used in language, and stage performance, and then find ways to transfer that power on to the page. So, I watched a range of spoken-word stage performances, as well as listening to conversations in the street, with that lens in mind.
Now I understand much more about how writers can learn from spoken word poets and oral storytellers, and vice versa. And how invaluable that learning can be.
Certainly, there are fundamental differences between language and writing. They are different creatures, rather than (as used to be assumed) one just being the descendent of the other. When we speak to someone, there’s a limit to how much information they can process in any one instant. If they’re reading a text we’ve written, there isn’t the same problem. They can take time to unpack and digest. Language therefore, tends to come in bite-sized fragments, with the written word in general being more elaborate, embedded, and closely packed.
Who is better at what?
Spoken-word sometimes lacks durability, complexity, subtlety, and beauty of form. I’ve found that spoken-word artists on the Wild Words courses revel in taking the range of tools and techniques that writers have, and applying them to the creation of a spoken-word-baby-to-be. They enjoy mining the written words alone, to get maximum impact into them, before the extraordinary power of performance is added. They record, on paper, their spoken word gems for posterity.
Those who work only with the written word, can sometimes struggle to unleash spontaneity and aliveness on the page. Writers easily lose touch with their embodied experience, without which, in my opinion no story can flourish. The utilisation of body-awareness and physicality, is something that performance poets often excel at.
Writers learning from performers
Over time, writing has become increasingly distanced from its roots in oral storytelling.
For example, when first introduced, the hierarchy of punctuation marks on the page seems to have been thought of as representing pauses of different lengths, that is, as reflecting purely phonetic facts.
It was recording what master storytellers did in front of their audiences, to raise tension, and set up patterns of tension and release. They paused their speech at key moments in a story, or use a drum roll of other musical instrument, clap their hands, stamp their feet, or changing position on stage.
Writing, gradually, over time, honed its invaluable ability to display the logical structure of a passage, independently of how it might be read aloud.
Remembering it’s roots, it seems to me an interesting experiment to do as a writer, to take a step back into the history of writing, and think about how we might rediscover how to create pauses, and therefore raise tension in a story, through punctuation.
And punctuation isn’t the only way to do it. When we use language on stage, or in everyday life, it is always accompanied by gestures, mannerisms, movement and changes in facial expression. So, when we write a piece of dialogue, and want to create a dramatic pause, describing physicality is often the best way to go.
A major aspect of spoken language that there is no satisfactory way to put on to the page, is intonation, or pitch. The intonation in someone’s voice contains vital information about the mood, and intention of the speaker. The best we’ve managed to come up with on the page, is the of use punctuation to partially convey those things. When, in linguistics, the speaker’s voice rises,
a question mark (?), or exclamation mark (!) is the equivalent on the page. When a speaker’s voice falls, the equivalent in writing is quite often a full stop (.)
On Wild Words courses I have an ‘experiment’ I like to suggest to writers. Us writers can be a timid, body-static lot, but I’ve often suspected that inside most writers, is a frustrated performer trying to get out. So, with the upmost respect for your love of sitting quietly in your room and imaginative space, how about trying the following, just to see what happens?
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Connected to this fascinating subject (and I’m rubbing my hands in anticipation), is a discussion on the links between embodiment, music, the sung word, and the written word. But that’s for another blog…