Monthly Archives: November 2014

If No One Reads a Book, What Does It Say?

children readingTake the word “shoe”. What does that word mean? A shoe goes on the foot and protects it. Unless we’re talking about a cast for a broken foot. That goes on the foot and protects it, but that’s not a shoe. Is a flipflop a shoe? Would you say “shoe” in that case? Or a house slipper, is that a shoe? And what if the shoe comes halfway up the calf, so that we say “boot”, is a boot also a shoe?

Someone is going to say that a house slipper is a shoe, and someone else is going to insist that it’s obviously not, and now, damn them, they’re disagreeing over a plain simple word.

Then let’s take a complete sentence: “As it began to grow dark, she walked across the meadow by the trees.” A reader who has spent a lot of time in nature, seeing the stars come out as it gets dark, may see this sentence as a lovely evocation of tranquility in nature. A different reader who is afraid of the dark, or who has had a frightening experience outside at that time of day, may read the sentence as ominously foreshadowing something bad.

The same sentence, with extremely different meanings, depending on who is reading.

These two examples help to illustrate the fact that there is nothing you read that you don’t help to create. We can show this by going back to a more basic level, starting with the alphabet. Most American readers cannot read the Russian word “ждать”. Reading begins literally with knowing the symbols of the writing system, such as the English alphabet, and—in our minds as we read—we put the symbols together to represent words, then put the words together to make sentences.

Without the reader’s knowledge, the writer can do nothing, as if a text were Russian to an English reader, ничего не будешь понимать. Just a bunch of lines with no meaning. And if there’s an English word we don’t know, say “avuncular”, knowing the the alphabet isn’t enough. From the very beginning—knowing the writing system, knowing the language, knowing the meaning of words—the knowledge of the reader is critical.

So consider a book in English lying on a table. What does the book say? As long as the book is lying there, it says nothing. It’s merely a stack of paper with ink marks, and literally nothing more. In reality, the writing says nothing until a knowledgeable reader interprets the symbols into words and sentences. The meaning happens only in the mind of the reader.

This leads us to a second, rather compelling point from the examples I started with, of people disagreeing over the meaning of a word, or getting completely different ideas from a sentence. What two people have you known in your entire life that you could point to and say “The minds of these two people are absolutely the same on every point?”

None, of course, so we move on. And since the meaning of writing happens only inside the mind of a reader, and since every reader is different—maybe we need to sit down to think about this—then every piece of writing must be at least somewhat different for every person who reads it, and maybe a lot different.

But now wait. So no two people read a paragraph in a novel exactly the same, but what about important things? Does that include the U.S. Constitution? Does it include…the Bible? The Koran? The Torah? How can we use documents as the foundation of society if all people read them differently? It’s a problem, frankly, which we deal with by having judges and religious leaders and sometimes by pretending that we don’t all have different interpretations (even though we really do).

As fiction writers, the same truth applies, that no matter what we do, the text depends on the reader to bring his or her knowledge into the reading. What the writer is thinking about when writing something is certainly not what every reader is thinking about when reading it. This is not a happy fact for a writer, because there is nothing we can do about it, and we have less control than we want. But that’s how it is. With every text, from the label on a soup can to the U.S. Constitution to a novel, every reader is creating part of the meaning.

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Like a Preacher at Work

steam trainIt’s remarkable how many things people do as poetry. I’ve regularly attended readings here in the city at three different venues, and they’re like the difference between jazz, bluegrass, and a string quartet, and that still doesn’t include any long epics over a feast of roasted mutton after pillaging Troy. Poetry can go from Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” to T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (that is, from coherent to not quite so). I think poetry is alive and well, in spite of the efforts of some poets and academics to seal it off from common people.

Being one of the common people, during my lunch hour at work I occasionally scribble about on poems. I like having something creative to play with, as it gives the day a greater interest. Lately the style of poetry I’m working with has moved toward deliberately fantastic imagery, without any clear intention to tell a coherent story. In the poem below, there is no secret meaning behind the lines, and it can mean what you make of it. Think of a character from the movie “Casablanca” dancing across the screen, winking mysteriously at the camera, making us think “What was that about?” That’s this poem.

Someone by the Sea

Like a train come down from Heaven
blowing smoke along the line,
like the curls of God’s black beard,
rolling, roiling, out in billows,
the train stopped at Roscoe Station
and stood there hard and tall.

Standing on the platform
holding her worn blue hat,
Belinda Rose smelled smoke and coughed,
and thought of Jesus on the cross.
Beside her was her luggage
as tall as Jesus stood.
She looked at those bags on the platform,
then turned and climbed into the train.

The engine hummed like a jazz crescendo,
quivered like a preacher at work,
vibrating off and on like quarks
that exist, now they don’t, now they do.
Belinda Rose took a velvet seat,
removed her shoes,
and dreamed of sleep.

The steward came slowly down the aisle
selling laughter and weeping and sighs,
and with baskets of bright, subtle roses.
Every fifteen minutes,
or sixteen whenever he smiled,
he paused to double his prices,
calling “Now is the time to buy!”

Belinda Rose bought a single blue rose
in memory of her name,
then she took the name off,
became “Someone”
and tossed her name out in the snow.

Someone looked out the window.
Someone looked pensive as well.
She thought of the town she had come from
where the houses were always on fire,
where children were taught to walk with one foot,
a town where time would flow backwards,
then stop and flow forward again.

When morning came, in the early light
Someone saw trees decorated
with glitter and beads and gold balls,
and the fondest desires of the heart
wrapped in petite paisley bows.
The train rolled by an ocean
as green as emerald eyes,
where the fish sang songs about water.
The clouds sailed by like songbooks,
and the air was like jasmin tea.
Until they arrived at the place where they were,
and they stopped in that spot by the sea.

Then Someone climbed down from train,
took off her hat and released it.Blue hat

And Someone,
softly,
walked away.

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Me, Me, Me, All About Me. And Did I Mention Me?

Time to speak

Time to speak

Do you know how many new books come out each year? I looked on the internet for totally accurate information, and it turns out to be eleventy bogillion. Real scientists have shown that the chances of selling “a bunch” of novels are less than the chance of being struck by lightning while driving to the 7-11 to buy a lottery ticket.

So suppose you write a book, yet you’re merely one of the anonymous mass of dust babies in the world, and even God has trouble remembering your name. How would you get people to pay attention to what you’ve done?

I’ve written a bit in this blog about trying to promote the novel The Illusion of Being Here, such as the trip I made to Charleston to force bookstore owners to accept a copy out of my hands. I had to wrestle one guy down to the floor, but he gave up and took it. Ha! the writer wins again.

I’m sure you’re a smart and sophisticated person of the world, so you’ll already know that the rather cool professional phrase “promote a novel” is a euphemism for “beg beg beg for readers”. Lately I’ve been thinking of a broader—and possibly more realistic—strategy. When eleventy bogillion books a year are published, and no one knows you from block of wood, what will induce them to buy your book? In considering a new strategy, I’ve been influenced by an article from Publishers Weekly, which talked about going beyond a single book and selling the writer as a “brand”.

I hate that terminology, and I’m not exactly in love with the idea either. It means talking about yourself, promoting yourself. When I lived in Pennsylvania a few years ago, I attended the Quaker Meeting, and one of the things they do at each meeting is invite newcomers to stand and introduce themselves. Never in three years did I stand and speak, and I still cannot imagine doing that. I couldn’t abide the idea of suddenly being the center of so much attention.

But if you’re not willing to present yourself to people, don’t be an artist. While I don’t enjoy this promotion stuff, I write for people to read it, and I will do whatever on this earth will move in that direction. I believe it makes sense to think of a long-term strategy, and on both an intellectual and emotional level, I compare doing this to my experience looking for the job I have now as a medical editor. From the time when I first considered working with medical texts, when I was getting up at 6:00 a.m. (seriously) to read a chemistry textbook, to begin educating myself in the field, it took ten years to get here. I know how to persevere.

As I’ve described the process to a friend, you go to enormous effort, and almost everything you do has no effect. An entire year can go by with almost nothing. Once in a while some small thing works. So you take that small thing, you try to build on it as best you can, and once more you go to enormous effort. Again, almost everything you do will have no effect, as you wait for a second small bit of good luck.

I thought I’d give a few details on the current state of branding (that language makes me feel like a cow, and I do feel a little bit like mooing, actually): (1) I attend poetry readings and open mics, which I’ve mentioned before, but I’m starting to look at them in a different way, as a chance to stand in front of people and say “Look at me, look at me, look at me” (I used to be a college professor, so I know all about that); (2) I go sometimes to story telling events to tell a story, and same thing; (3) I’m trying to do a book review for the local website Arts Atlanta. The editor has agreed to my doing a review, though it has been more complicated than I expected to agree on which book to review, but I think it will work out; (4) I sent a list of wonderful ideas for articles to the website The Bitter Southerner, to ask which one I should begin working on—they ignored me entirely; (5) this may seem silly, but last week I had a serendipitous opportunity to get a free photo shoot with a professional photographer, so I jumped on that chance and we met at the park—when you’re trying to promote yourself, you do need things like that.

There’s more, but that’s enough to talk about. It’s not that this isn’t discouraging sometimes. When most of what you do doesn’t seem to go anywhere, there will be discouragement, and no doubt I will get tired of it and take breaks, but I won’t stop. I also recognize that, in fact, it may not work at all.

Nothing is guaranteed. But if you don’t try, then you do have a guarantee—you get nothing.

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It’s Babyspeak, Mama

Madonna and childWhen babies learn to speak, they’re actually learning a foreign language. There is often a great interest in what the first word will be. So what is the first word a baby surrounded by English might learn? Some extremely common word, we could assume, like “TV” or “beer”.

Yet I’ve never heard of parents cooing over a baby, “Awww, she said beer. Go get her one.” It’s common to claim that a baby’s first word is “mama” or something like it, and if you lean over the crib for hours mouthing “mama mama mama” like a car that won’t start, then maybe that will be the word.

Apparently, human beings think the first sounds a baby makes ought to be about the mother (of course, who is there when it happens to report that first word?). There are good reasons why the first word might actually be “mama”. Here is a version of “mama” in a few other languages: Arabic—mama, Lithuanian—mama, Bengali—maa, Korean—eomma, Tibetan—amma.

With your lips together, that is to say, doing nothing at all really with your mouth, vibrate your vocal chords (hum). What sound do you have? Some kind of “m” noise. Now while you make that noise, open your mouth. Chances are you just made the sound “ma”. It’s almost an automatic sound, with no effort to do it.

But let’s pause to consider what it means to “know” a word. Consider the Russian word “ptitsa”, which means bird. Now that you see the word and have the meaning, do you “know” it? Perhaps an hour from now you won’t remember it, or even if you do, you may not be sure how it’s pronounced. As a different example, take an English word, “incorrigible”. For some people, this is a word they might know if they see it or hear it, but they would never think to use it in a sentence. When it comes to language, there are different kinds of knowing, and understanding a word when we hear it is possible without being able to think of it or pronounce it.

If we define “knowing” a word as any kind of conscious connection between sound and meaning, maybe a baby’s first word is “hungry” or “Janie” (if she happens to be named Janie). But of course the little darlings can’t pronounce complicated words like that with their baby mouths. I’ve forgotten what my own first word was (I’m pretty sure it might have been “incorrigible”), but I’ve thought a lot about this idea.

I think the baby lives for months in a world filled with meaningless noises, as when the adults are talking on Charlie Brown cartoons. Wah wah wah wah. Then suddenly, knowledge like the Holy Spirit comes down, and the realization hits that some of those noises have meaning. Wah wah hungry wah wah. Food is coming!

It’s possible that a baby’s first word comes as a kind of stunning epiphany, a moment that suddenly rushes the baby ahead toward full humanity. Does this amazing moment flip a switch? Does a part of the brain that was quiet until that moment go into overdrive, does the baby become more alert, begin paying closer attention to sounds? Like most things, this process probably varies from person to person. From that first amazing word, the incredible miracle of language enters our lives.

It’s probably just as well that babies don’t come into the world with language, or else they might all be born looking around shouting, “Holy shit! What is all this?” Or I don’t know, maybe not, maybe they’d say, “Wow, like a cool giant kaleidoscope!” Of course if they had language and could also see the future, when they were born they’d be saying, “Oh no, this is gonna be a problem.”

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I’m Just One of You Folks

rocking chairsAnother national election is upon us, and the hysterical rhetoric is spreading faster than an African virus. At its most basic, politics is about having power over people. No one runs for office in order to rule the forest. Political rhetoric, however, tries to talk about things other than power, as we’ll see below.

Years ago here in Georgia we had a Senator named Sam Nunn, a very popular conservative Democrat. In the toxic smog of our current politics, however, conservative Democrats no longer seem to exist. Here’s what is even stranger. Conservative Republicans also seem not to exist. In the 1950s and 60s Republicans were a party of caution (i.e. conservative), with intellectuals advocating thoughtful policies that were publicly discussed. I’m sure conservative Republicans have to be out there, but they are cowed and in hiding.

What happened? At some point Republicans began to turn on one another, and even in the conservative National Review, 20 years ago there were articles in which the authors were willing to blowtorch anyone who disagreed with them. And that was the intellectuals. What was going to happen when such intolerance made its was down to the pickup truck voters? What happened was jihadist frenzy, i.e. the Tea Party, screaming about purity of thought like a Spanish priest during the Inquisition.

I live in a conservative state, Georgia, and in the current election, Republican David Perdue, the rich cousin of the last governor, is running for Senator against the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat Michelle Nunn. So both candidates fit into the American love of political dynasty families. Let’s step back from the petulant scowling now required in Congress and look at some of the calmer rhetoric used by these two candidates, at how they describe themselves. From the website of each, I’ve taken a short bit from the top of the page that talks about the candidate.

David Perdue
“David Perdue is a successful business leader with 40 years of real world business experience who helped grow some of America’s most recognizable companies including Sara Lee, Haggar, and Reebok. As a Fortune 500 CEO, David led the impressive expansion of Dollar General, creating thousands of quality jobs and adding billions to the value of the company. While working his way to the top of the business world, he gained a firsthand understanding of the global economy and the impact government policies have on businesses. David has lived and worked in Europe, Asia and throughout the United States, but he always relied on the values he learned from his Middle Georgia upbringing.”

Probably the most important point Perdue’s campaign has wanted to make is to emphasize his experience as a businessman. That experience is illustrated with a quick summary in the passage, referred to in three ways: (1) with time—40 years, (2) with space—“Europe, Asia, and throughout the United States”, and (3) with specific experience—Sara Lee, Haggar, Reebok, Fortune 500 CEO, Dollar General. Reading this paragraph, it’s clear that there is one point the reader should get: this guy has a lot of business experience.

For that point to work rhetorically, it depends on a motif that has been common in the U.S. for a long time, that running a company directly translates into being an effective politician. It is a common motif, but a very false one, in my opinion (politicians can’t just fire the people who won’t go along with the plan, and the purpose of government is not to make money). Much of the paragraph on Perdue is meant to connect with this motif, beginning with the phrase “successful business leader”—not just a businessman, but a business leader, and what do you know, a politician is also a leader.

Michelle Nunn
“Michelle Nunn is a ninth-generation Georgian who has spent her life working to empower individuals and communities to make a difference by bringing people together in a collaborative way to solve problems and enact change. The daughter of Sam and Colleen Nunn, Michelle was born in 1966 in Macon near her grandparents’ farm in Perry, Georgia. Engagement in public service has been a hallmark of Michelle’s family, from her grandfather serving as Perry’s mayor to her father’s distinguished tenure in the United States Senate.”

The paragraph begins by trying to emphasize a connection with voters, with the opening reference to living in Georgia apparently since the time of George III. The first mention of Nunn’s father is fairly subtle, in a sentence with her mother and grandparents, so that the paragraph does not seem to be saying “Oh, and you know she’s the DAUGHTER of Sam Nunn,” which is, in reality, an extremely important fact for Nunn’s chances of winning. The paragraph does end with Sam Nunn, however, without mentioning his name again, leaving the reader with that reminder.

The paragraph is also carefully worded to support another major point the Nunn campaign wants to make. All voters in America are sick of the gridlock in Washington, so working together at least sounds good, and because Georgia is such a Republican state, if Nunn is to have a chance she has to show that she gets along with Republicans. Thus in the paragraph we see the phrases “bringing people together” and “in a collaborative way” to portray the idea that Nunn can work with lots of people, i.e. with Republicans.

In these two paragraphs, both Nunn and Perdue sound conservative in the down-home sitting-on-the-porch sense. Most of us here in Georgia may not have porches any longer, but we want to believe we could sit on that imaginary porch with Michelle and David and have a glass of iced tea and talk about what needs to be done. Good political rhetoric should make it seem like they would be the kind of people you could do that with. And still run a country.

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