Pathologically Disconnected, or, Why I Write Novels

“Here.” I handed my college buddy a small magazine clipping with a photograph of some place with trees and water. I’d just had a very nice visit there, in fact. Then I ripped out the page I was looking at and cut the place out.

“What is it?”

I was excited to explain the birthday gift. “It’s a. . .it’s a ‘place-to-be’. You look at it and you can picture yourself in the picture, anywhere in the picture you want. . .Like I did. When I looked at it; it was a really cool picture that way.”

This was all falling apart really fast; I could see he didn’t get it. And I couldn’t say it any more clearly than that. Here I was, a writing major, and I couldn’t find the words to express something this important–and stupid me, I just assumed he would understand what I meant and finish the thought, complete the gesture. I just assumed it happened to everyone: a certain photograph in a magazine ad or travel book just hits you the right way, and you’re transported. In a virtual, euphoric trance your mind takes you right into that picture, to the exclusion of the present; you are–if “you” can be taken as your consciousness rather than your body–quite literally suddenly someplace else.

Well, I tried, and it sure didn’t come across as the tremendous gift I had intended it to be; my buddy just saw a little slip of paper. And since I failed scissors in the third grade it wasn’t even a perfectly square picture.

Why don’t you get it?!

I tried again with other friends but in the end only this first buddy was ever nice enough to see it meant something to me, and for a few years when we wrote back and forth after college I still sent occasional clippings. But I had no illusions anymore; these trances were mine and mine alone. Wow. What did photographs even exist for, if not to blow your mind and give you a waking dream, a whole new mood, a new atmosphere to exist in for some time?

I’ve written already about my TLE seizures, but knowing what’s happening to me, while a relief on one level, doesn’t really solve the underlying problem: Geschwind Syndrome sees to it that your very personality and being are affected by a scar on the temporal lobe, and you are who you are who you are. As proof, I had most of the tell-tale personality traits since earliest memory, long before the seizures appeared. My lifelong struggle to connect was now understandable but it wasn’t over.

My childhood made a lot more sense; my friends never seemed to get lost in books as completely as I did, they never understood when I said they were magical that way, I didn’t just mean it figuratively. Then came the mind-blowing discovery that I could write my own stories, my own worlds, my own friends. I was teetering at the mouth of the rabbit-hole.

And it wasn’t too long after high school that I no longer needed books or photographs; these trances started to occur of their own volition, more intense, a déjà-vu moment that wasn’t just a moment.

Still freakily abstract

“I just had one of those really good déjà-vus,” I told my grad school apartment roommate.

“What do you mean, the ‘good’ ones?”

“You know, the kind that last a long time. The good ones–the ones that feel good.”

“Déjà-vus don’t last a long time; they just hit you.”

“I know, usually they do, like a ping pong ball hits you and bounces off. But the other kind hits you like a velcro ball and sticks. You have a déjà-vu of another time you had a déjà -vu, and that was maybe about another even earlier déjà-vu. . .”

“Yeh, but a déjà-vu is just a hiccup in your brain; it can’t last more than a second, because it was an accident.”

“Okay, maybe you don’t call it a déjà-vu, then, maybe you call it something else.” I wasn’t ready to give up; she and I already got along well in so many uncanny ways, maybe this was the one friend who would get what I was trying to say. “Like looking into a mirror with a mirror behind you, a feeling of something that keeps echoing back into infinity.”

Yup, I realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, there it was: the look. She didn’t get it and she didn’t mean to but the look said I was a little off, somehow. I waffled, “Anyway, it’s a really cool feeling. That’s why I wasn’t paying attention.” . . .And then she had the look like she thought I was making it all up. And my cheeks burned and my hands tingled and my head buzzed with nervous embarrassment. And it wasn’t because of any déjà-vu that that felt so familiar.

It’s what you aren’t experiencing, obviously

“Why don’t you just shut up?” I’ve asked myself over and over. I’ve gotten so used to people not believing me when imagination takes over and my mouth starts running that I’ve become apologetic about practically everything. And I should be: long ago I learned that my words–so effective in every other area of my life–just weren’t the right language for explaining to people what it was they weren’t experiencing and I was.

Sometimes I think I’ve finally found a common point of reference–dreaming. Everyone has dreams. Remember last time you told someone you had a really cool dream, the first thing you’re asked? “What was it about?” And then you struggle to find the threads of the plot–but that’s useless. Plot’s generally not the impact of the dream; it’s the entire atmosphere taken as a whole. Something might happen in my dream: a young girl is holding a bunny with a ribbon around its neck. But that “thing” in the dream doesn’t convey the concrete “mood”; in this instance my overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding. But how was it any different than the last time I dreamt an overwhelming sense of foreboding? Well. . .just trust me.

Doomed to fail

So maybe I’m doomed never to know if others can bring to the experience I want to share the same sensory and perceptual dysfunction that keeps me living on another plane of existence. It’s lonely without the words I need to make a connection with other people. Gradually I realized that it wasn’t my inability to express or lack of will that kept me apart; it was the failure of the English language, whose words I loved so much I would surely have found the correct ones when I tried.

There aren’t enough words for all the subtly different kinds of overwhelming, palpable moods in a dream, and it’s the exact same way with my little transports. When I describe them they sound intangible, ephemeral. . .but if there just existed enough words you would see they’re anything but. “Mood” isn’t even the right word; I’m fumbling again.

Obviously the rest of the world sees no need to have verbal markers for all the kinds of mental transports that define my life. Alone again. I spend ten paragraphs explaining a meaningful and quantifiable mood that should have required only a couple words–I don’t know, a color combined with a place and a season, a shorthand to convey it all in an instant.

A Vulcan mind-meld might just do it, though

So I suppose this is where art comes in. It’s so patently true it’s a cliché: art can indirectly convey a thought more accurately and more concisely than direct prose. But unless you’re Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra*, I can’t go around spouting to you my everyday feelings in poetic allegory.

I go through life, then, feeling disconnected, but hope I never reach the despair of someone like Van Gogh, furiously painting flowers and fields and potato farmers, internally crying out, “Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it?”

In Cyber-Space, Everyone Can Hear You Scream

But is there an alternative to the intense social and spiritual need to connect to other people? I can revel in my solitary condition but gradually the avoidance of despair takes on the appearance of cynicism–one could stave off the existential angst with wry irony. Isn’t there something more in-between for the self-aware idiosyncratic?

I don’t know about you, but as soon as I asked that question in print a little voice deep inside answered gleefully, “There is! There’s the internet!”

“What? The internet is the answer for disconnected artistic-types everywhere?”

“We all come to cyber-space already an artificial construct.”

“It levels the playing field, you mean.”

“You can rule at last.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

I won’t go that far

Like most of us who were the freaks and geeks and wall-flowers in high school I’ve reaped a bit of cathartic revenge ripping apart the willfully ignorant and narrow-minded on various forums on a variety of topics. Fun for awhile. Wearying of that, I turned my powers to good instead of evil and sought companionship among those with similar interests, those to learn from and those to support. But that’s just life writ, well, in writing.

So I’ve come full-circle and returned to the escapism I once thought was dangerous and abnormal: writing novels. Big novels, full-blown worlds filled with fictitious characters and fake-fake-fake-fake-fake.

No, art! Artifice’s more socially-acceptable twin sibling. And if online writing communities had existed back when I was a teenager, well, I might very well “rule” by now.

I’m very curious just how different a path younger writers have had for this reason. Why do you write, and do you still have people in your life who think it’s an unhealthy escape?

 

*Star Trek: the Next Generation’s episode “Darmok”, oft-mocked for its abstruse subject matter, is a beloved favorite of poets and literary types, celebrating as it does the centrality of myth to our world-view.

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Taming the’Saurus–Dangerous in the Wrong Hands

or, Etymology Won’t Teach You About Beetles

“Its very variety, subtlety, and utterly irrational, idiomatic complexity makes it possible to say things in English which simply cannot be said in any other language.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

It’s apparently the thing to make fun of English on Facebook: memes abound. Today I saw a quote (attributed to David Burge): “Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.” My buddy sent me a set of proper English teacher mugs with helpful reminders like, “They’re there for their afternoon tea” and “I’m going to add two sugars, too.”
(Along about second grade I prided myself on coming up with the grammatically correct “That ‘that’ that that girl used was incorrect.” Four ‘that’s! Count them. WHOA! I just did one better: “I always said that that ‘that’ that that girl used was incorrect”. Guess that’s why I went to grad school for English, huh? Top that.)
Then everyone on FB will always comment something about English having no rules and English being the hardest language to learn as a result. . .Ha, ha, I laugh along with them, but part of me wants to proclaim, “NO! EVERYTHING IN ENGLISH HAPPENS FOR A REASON, AND IT’S FASCINATING!”
Whoa, sorry I shouted just there; that’s about three decades of pent-up enthusiasm for one of my favorite of all subjects: the History of the English Language. No other language in the world developed quite like ours, with a unique political history allowing a variety of languages in a variety of time periods each to dump a whole new vocabulary into the mix. And though for most this results in laughable pronunciations and spellings, the far more important and brilliant fact about English gets lost: we have more word choices than any other language!

He went up the stairs.
He mounted the stairs.
He ascended the stairs.

. . .And we have three different guys who need to get up the stairs, right? The first is a plumber, the second is a cheap romance-novel hero, the third is a bishop or something.

The plumber reached the second floor through English’s original origins as a Germanic language (to go, to wend). Dirk Kirkwood benefited from the French influence on the language following the Norman Conquest. His Eminence’s usual mode of transportation derives from the Latin influences our writers in English actively imported during the Renaissance in order to “beautify” our language for better-sounding poetry.

Three different sentences (which would usually translate into only the same sentence in another language) which technically do mean the exact same thing in English as well–and yet, they don’t. In English-teacher speak, the three sentences have the same DENOTATION but they don’t have the same CONNOTATION.

And we writers are always all about connotation: we’re always seeking to say things in a new way, yet we still want it to be the correct way, and we really really want to achieve that subtlety of expression that Heinlein celebrates and which “word-inventors” or word-importers like Shakespeare worked so hard to make possible. It’s so much easier to express ourselves with so many words to pick from–and that’s before you even employ colorful idioms and cultural allusions. Thank St. Francis de Sales for the Thesaurus.

Hold your jets.

The Saurus-Trap

All right, I admit it, while my vocabulary is astoundingly prodigious, I AM on the wrong side of 50 and more often than not these days I’m too slow to come up with the question on Jeopardy! –even though I know that I know it, I just can’t think of the word. So on my laptop, where I do most of my writing, the Firefox homepage is a thesaurus.

A thesaurus is wonderful for people like me who already know the words, who already understand the exquisitely subtle connotations of a given word, we just need reminding. The same tool in the hands of a beginning writer becomes as laughable as the English language is to an internet memester.

“If Facebook has taught us anything, it’s that a lot of you, are not quite ready for a Spelling Bee.” –OH, NO THEY DIDN’T! Someone actually made a meme that complained about spelling at the exact same time s/he made the egregious grammatical error of separating the subject from the verb with a glaring comma. Hah!

So, yes, imagine the creative writing results someone like this would produce if you handed him/her a thesaurus. I could always spot the student who had gone out and bought a Roget paperback a mile off:

“We need to be fastidious not to under-estimate the perilous effects of global warming.” –Fine, I’ll be sure to bring along my hand sanitizer and St. George.

So where’s the good news? First, anyone reading an obscure blog like mine purporting to address “matters of peripheral interest to writers” isn’t the kind of person to fall into the leaf-covered Saurus-trap. You’re aware that denotation is not connotation.

Second, back up to where I (and also some famous writers, you can look them up) proclaimed English the best language on the planet for exquisite precision of expression. I’d like to add another assertion, the implications of which are even far more glorious: those of you who have grown up with a love of words and have grown up with English have had your very brains shaped by vocabulary to perceive reality with exacting complexity. Well, potentially. One always hopes.

It’s like the old paradigm presented in the saying that Eskimos have 50 different words for snow (which, incidentally, is not an urban myth… 2013 update). If your mind can comprehend fifty different kinds of snow and ice condition, then you literally do see your environment differently than someone who only has a couple words at play during winter.

Etymology will teach you about beetles and scarabs and coleopterans. . .

One of the best ways to tap into your English-speaking cultural advantage is to have a good look at the history of that language, how and when the words evolved, which in turn will give you greater understanding of why those various connotations exist. It’s true that most people wouldn’t tell you their plumber ascended the stairs while at the same time describing the Pope on TV going up some steps for his inauguration ceremony. Writers, however, can give a lot more depth as well as precision to their writing by studying word origins.

Navigating the requirements of graduate school can be treacherous.
Negotiating the requisites of graduate school can be tricky.

…This one’s easy to explore without having to consult your American Heritage dictionary. (Which is, btw, the best dictionary for Americans interested in etymology; I won mine in a 5th grade spelling bee and the rest is history.)

“Treacherous” has connotations of betrayal, with its origin meaning “to cheat”, whereas the word navigation brings to mind a sailor managing unexpected obstacles on the sea. Both have the implications that a graduate student is met with much that is out of her control.

“Negotiating” instead sounds like a person who is at least on equal footing with the task at hand, with its implicit meaning “to conduct business” and a further overtone of something that is actively worked at, not passively achieved. Combine with that the seeming-synonym for treacherous of “tricky” and we have an additional sense that the student is empowered to act upon grad school just as well as grad school springs surprises on the student.

Two sentences, but only in the second does the student seem more powerful. I might add that a “requirement” is something issued by one entity to another, whereas a “requisite” is a static or neutral condition of need–but I’m probably just over-thinking it now.

The next time you find yourself torn between two “big” words, have a look at their etymologies–and you might just be surprised. Usually that alone is enough for you to decide. But along the way you’ll find yourself exploring the origin of another word, and yet another. . .Soon you’ll be reading and writing untold layers of meaning in every new choice of words.

Saurus
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