fourth talk: creating a world from language


Language is a funny thing. Did you notice what I just did there? I reduced the most complicated and subtle system of meaning and interaction known to man to two words: “funny” and “thing.” I’m betting that you didn’t suck air sharply and drop your coffee, though. You may have thought, What the hell is he talking about? You may have thought, Intriguing – tell me more. You may have thought, I’m not going to enjoy this lecture very much. But you probably didn’t think, What the hell is he trying to do stuffing such a huge system into such a small package? Is he insane? That’s like pouring the ocean into a cup of water. This man should be locked up. He’s dangerous.

I know you probably didn’t think that because that’s what language does: it packages, it reduces, it transforms. One thing it doesn’t do very well, I’ll assert, is describe. If you doubt me, buy fifteen red apples and then describe the one you want your wife to eat without referring to its position on the table or pointing to it. And don’t tell me they all look the same because they don’t. Every apple is an individual just like every person.

I believe that one of the first things a writer has to do if she wants to get anywhere is admit that language doesn’t do a very good job of describing the world. Can you write a book about Disneyland, for example, that would make possible an exact duplicate of Disneyland? Without photographs, would you even be able to get close? Language is not a subtle tool for description, and it’s easy enough to prove. James Joyce famously said that they could reconstruct Dublin from his books, but James Joyce was full of shit: they couldn’t even reconstruct a doorknob from one of his books.

If language doesn’t describe the world very well, it has other advantages: it creates the world probably better than any other tool that we possess. In fact, I think an argument can be made that language is what creates the world. In other words, if a culture existed and no one could make sentences about it, would it really exist? The answer, of course, is “what culture? There is no culture without language.” Try on the idea that when you write a sentence, any sentence, you are creating a world. Not describing one, CREATING one. The Long Island of The Great Gatsby doesn’t exist anywhere but in the pages of that book and in the mind of every reader of that book. Furthermore, The United States that is described by the US Census Report doesn’t exist anywhere else either. If you don’t believe me, try to find a family that has 2.3 children. Or, show me what 200 million people looks like. Draw me a picture of an average female while you’re at it.

The responsibility of the fiction writer, therefore, is to create. With the cooperation of the reader it is, of course, possible to pretend we’re telling a story that takes place in Anaheim, California, but that doesn’t mean that’s the truth.

How does one create a world?

1.With specific images and details. “An orange and a pineapple and a kiwi” beats “some fruit.” “A road map and a W-2 form and a subpoena” beats “some papers on the desk.”

2.With characters who want something and are willing to overcome obstacles to get that something. I don’t know why, but for some reason, characters who don’t want anything are hardly ever vivid. Finding the core of your character is probably more important for the reader’s image of him/her than describing clothes or hair color or almost anything else. What a character wants, Aristotle says, is who a character is.

3.By giving strong details rather than exhaustive detail. The great fiction writer and playwright Anton Chekhov remarked that a character who is described with a few details is much easier to see than a character described with many details. Again, I’m not quite sure why this is, but you can try it yourself. Please forgive me, Anton, while I horribly paraphrase you. “A blonde man wearing glasses sitting on a hill” is much easier to see than “a dirty blond-haired man with boxy green tortoise shell glasses too small for his face sitting on a grassy hill that slopes gently …” Okay, you get the picture. Or, actually, you probably DON’T get the picture.

The mind of man is completely undefended against images, as I have said, but they have to be the kind of images that the mind can comprehend. And they are usually, I’ll assert, simpler than the way the images occur inside our heads. That is, you get a lot of bang for your buck. “The rew wheelbarrow” goes a lot further in the imagination than you would imagine a simple noun and a simple adjective would have a right to. Therefore, “the green light at the end of the dock” works pretty well, even though it’s a description that a twelve-year-old could write. Which reminds me of what my pal Jim used to say about poplular music: “Anyone can play a great three chord rock song, Dan, but it takes a genius to write one.”

Ultimately, I believe the whole conversation about details in fiction is a conversation about control, and the best fiction writers get used to the idea that they don’t have much control. They set off explosions in other people’s minds, but they cannot precisely calibrate what those explosions will look like. The point is to create an explosion, though, not to control it. Or, in other words, just be happy that your reader has a picture of an apple in her head. Be respectful of what a miracle that is – about the biggest miracle in the world, the miracle of communication – and don’t sweat the fact that it’s not the exact apple that you wanted it to be. “A green light” is a about as simple as the English language gets, but how many of us will remember the powerful vision at the end of The Great Gatsby?

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